Putting the soul back on the dancefloor
Welcome to DMCWORLD. A pleasure to have you on board. Most little girls for their ninth birthday get a new bike or maybe some new Barbies. Not you, your parents bought you turntables! You spent your allowance buying as much vinyl as you could afford - you readily admit you had an early love of Afro, Latin and Caribbean sounds alongside American influences including jazz, soul, hip-hop and house - who were the artists you were buying and loving back then that set you on this dance music path?
"When I moved to the US, it was all early hip hop, soul and pop - Michael Jackson, Prince, Afrika Bambaata, The Police, Blondie, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, The Clash, MC Lyte, Eric B + Rakim, Public Enemy. I was also big into new wave and the London sound - Yazz, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Violent Femmes, The Smiths, Morrissey, Berlin. On the guitar tip, I loved Led Zeppelin, The Stones, David Bowie, The Beatles, The Pixies, early U2. Jazz came a little later with age and curiosity - Donald Byrd, Don Blackman, Lou Donaldson, Miles, Coltrane, Nina."
You lived in Colombia until the age of eight - what are your memories from back then. With so much life, energy and colour around you, it must have infused your creativity?
"Cartagena, my hometown in Colombia, hosted an annual music festival with artists from the Caribbean and Africa, so all year, we would hear music from the artists featured at this festival. It was a mix of salsa, compas, high life, plus all of the local genres - mapale, cumbia, champeta, vallenato, made for a colorful palate."
What is the best thing your parents taught you?
"I can do anything I set my mind to."
Before settling in Los Angeles, you moved to New York City after college. What were your first musical encounters in this incredible city?
"Music brought me to NYC but specifically the variety of live shows you could see on any given week. I knew I wanted to work in music in some capacity so I was promoting parties, I worked for a label for a little while, was even the staff photographer for Giant Step. I loved that I could see, capture and feel that moment of creation and magic that happens during a concert. I soon stepped back into DJ'ing in NY after my stint on the college station on DC's WVAU."
What were the early clubs and DJs you were soaked up in…
"Body & Soul at Vinyl, Save the Robots in the LES, Twilo, Giant Step parties, the Roxy, Limelight, Palladium, Speed, Baktun - there were so many good spots back then!"
You are quickly making a massive stamp on America. Your sound has a very soulful sound. How as a DJ do you try and bring your influences to the dancefloor? Most DJs who love your vibe feel like they are banging their heads against a wall most of the time!
"Thank you! I'm a dancer at heart and from my background, you can tell I like variety, so for me, it's all about making the dance floor sweat with hands up in the air and the pure moment of release that happens when you hear the bass, the drums and a beautiful melody. Again, it's magic - communication at its purest, creating a memorable moment for everyone to enjoy."
What was your first break into the music industry?
"There's a few 'breaks' - getting a radio show my freshman year in college, pursuing photography of live shows which exposed me to new artists, being able to open up for bigger DJs and ultimately getting a nod from Gilles Peterson."
How did that hook up happen?
"I met him years ago through Giant Step but as a photographer. In 2006 I gave his assistant my latest mix along with a proper info package and the next day, they called me as they were listening to it. That sparked it and then whenever he would play in NYC, I would open for him + as well as at WMC for a few of years. Then I became the resident for his NY monthly Brownswood Sessions with Jose James + Giant Step. We booked, promoted and performed at the night for over a year."
What is the current top 10 you are spinning?
"I'll give you some artists that I'm digging right now - Owiny Sigoma, Prommer + Barck, Mark de Clive Lowe, Burial, Makossa + Megablast, Quantic, Nickodemus, SBTRKT, Jamie XX, Jose James, Photek."
Who's voice could you listen to forever?
"Joe Arroyo - sentimental reasons from my childhood."
You must have been asked this question a million times before, but I sense you are strong enough stick two fingers up anyway. Has being a lady in what is a male orientated DJ world presented any problems over the years?
"It hasn't presented 'problems' but I do find that as a woman if you want to play, you MUST start your own night. It's the only way to gain respect and make a name for yourself. You'll also get to play longer sets and mold your sound. I was lucky that I was asked to play with an all female crew called Ubiquita. We just celebrated 12 years of doing parties + playing together at Brooklyn Museum in March, 2012. It's a perfect way to support each other as female DJs and build strength in numbers."
Outside of the music industry, your career in photography and TV production has blossomed. Your work with filmmaker Mike Vargas on Friends We Love was superb…
"Thank you! I've just directed my first music video series which is the marriage of my two worlds. It features Wicked Evolution's (Jada Pinkett Smith on vocals) new material and some bits from the live recording."
Friends We Love spawned a CD and tour of Japan - how did the Japanese take to your sounds…?
"Japan is a country that is always onto the next - open minded, musically curious and devouring anything new that comes their way. One of my best gigs was in a small club in Nagoya - Le Jazz Modal. The spot was sweaty, packed and I played EVERYTHING and somehow, the crowd would go nuts and know most of the songs I was playing - obscure old boogie, new Brooklyn artists, you name it. They even knew some of the Latin tunes I played that night. It was sureal and absolutely beautiful."
DMC are the proud owners of the Back To Mine series. So if we came round to yours for a Sunday shuffle, what is the Moni Vargas Back To Mine selection going to look like?
"Probably a shuffle of my top 10 above with a little jazz and latin thrown in."
Who are your DJ heroes today?
"I will always hold Gilles Peterson as a hero. He's on it and always inspires me in one way or another. I'm also loving the hustle of these huge stadium DJs - not musically necessarily, but I love their use of lights, dancers, visuals to create a full performance."
How has New York club and music life changed over the years?
"Giulliani and bottle service killed the NY club scene."
You earned your degree in International Relations and was thinking of working at the UN or World Banking - you then realised it wasn't for you and once famously said, "are more corrupt than real governments". Still stick to those words?
"Absolutely - except it's worse now that governments collude with them and hand over trillions in public funds."
What is the most treasured album in your collection?
"Joe Arroyo, Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaata (all sentimental)."
What DJ wise are you looking forward to this summer?
"Playing outdoors in the sunshine."
Who is your best friend in the world?
And finally, you have shared billing with artists such as Paul McCartney, Maceo Parker and our beloved Amy Winehouse. What were some of the highlights from shows like that, perhaps others stand out…?
"I had a gig as the opening DJ for this new, hot live music venue in NYC - The Highline Ballroom. This led to AMAZING gigs and experiences I'll never forget. The one that tops it is getting a call on my cell phone from Sir Paul McCartney the afternoon of the gig asking me what I was planning to play that night! WHAT!! Paul, from my beloved White Album? From the BEATLES? Amy was another one that floored me. Her album had been on repeat for a couple of months and then I got word that I would play at her 2 debut shows in NYC!"