Manuel Hernandez loves to DJ almost as much as he loves to dance. Hernandez, who goes by DJ Manu, has become an integral part of the local DJ scene, an activity he juggles with running a downtown shop, Choco Boutique, with his wife Dana.
Hernandez says the late night DJ lifestyle is difficult to maintain while running a business.
“That’s why I look like a vampire — because I’m working at night,” he said.
Hernandez took a two-year break from DJing to get the store going in 2006; when he returned to the music scene, he had to catch up with the transition from analog to digital equipment.
“I was the obsolete DJ,” joked Hernandez.
He eventually acquired some new DJ software and a new computer and now plays private parties, big bashes, bonfire raves, and restaurants and clubs. He says he can cater his music to any age group or genre, he just needs about a week to prepare a song collection.
“I feel proud about this — I can play anything you guys want. I can entertain a crowd of 50 and up with nice ’50s and ’60s rock, swing, 70s, 80s, 90s. I can do Mexican parties or Latin parties,” he said, noting that there’s a big distinction between the two.
“Mexican parties like banda, corrido, norteno, cumbia, and a little bit of Mexican. Latin parties like cumbia, salsa, merengue, bachata, and reggaeton,” he explained.
In 2010 Hernandez got in touch with REACH and the people at the Canvas and started to play their events, including the monthly poetry slam organized by Christy NaMee Eriksen. He doesn’t mind volunteering his time for a good cause.
“I love to do that because it gets me in touch with the people and keeps me playing,” he said. “If I get money out of it, well, that’s wonderful, but it isn’t my livelihood.”
MEXICO and ALASKA
Hernandez grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, which is just south of the Texas border. His grandfather on his father’s side moved from Mexico to Alaska around 1968 with his two brothers in search of opportunity, adventure and to conquer the last frontier. The brothers started the Alaska Fur Gallery and Fur Factory and Hernandez’s grandfather returned to Mexico. He eventually returned to Juneau and started the House of Eskimo Dolls & Gifts on Seward Street, which is now run by his aunt.
“I went to Juneau in the summer of 1993 at 13 years old and fell in love with the place,” Hernandez said. “It was a dream come true to come to Alaska, so I tried to return every summer.”
By 19 he was living half-time in Monterrey and half-time in Alaska, and in 2003 he and Dana moved to Southeast and called Juneau home after their first winter.
“I consider myself a local now — we are here year-round, rain or shine or snow.”
DANCER TO DJ
The transition from dancing to DJing came naturally, from the same source.
“DJ ‘Miss Kittin’ said if you can’t shake your booty than you won’t be a good DJ,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez got an early dance start, sheepishly admitting he hit the club dance scene in Mexico at the age of 15.
“I would call myself a first generation ‘raver’.”
Hernandez addressed the stereotype of ravers as drug users saying, “not all people that have the energy and want to dance are on drugs ¬— people on drugs usually aren’t dancing — they are in a corner freaking out.”
Hernandez has some advice for party-goers. “Whenever you go to parties, don’t make trouble, don’t ruin it for the rest of the people. Just do what you like, but do it right.”
While dancing, Hernandez became aware of the people playing the music and became a big time DJ groupie in Mexico.
“I would carry their bags and stuff. I liked their music but I wasn’t interested much in playing it, rather I was doing the dancing.” This changed after a while.
“I ended up doing turntables which I bought off the world-renowned DJ Astronomar,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez said he’s not alone in the local scene – others have included DJ Fess, DJ Snoop, Chris Calandra, DJ Crumbs, Adam Ward, the File Jerks, DJ Gift, DJ Judo and Stewie — and that he’s had lots of help from other locals along the way, such as Keith Giles, of Rozwick Giles music. He’s had other influences as well.
“I liked DJ Krush and his early work because he started that acid jazz hip hop scene, DJ craze. I also liked hip-hop drummer based live act turntablest, Trent Moller who has a great minimal feeling. A little bit of this a little bit of that, throw in a little ’80s and make it happen.”
While in Mexico, Hernandez went to college and studied television, communications and marketing. He learned how to run all kinds of electrical wires at a television studio and has been known to save parties by fixing blown speakers and bad connections — like last year at a huge party at Centennial Hall called “Let’s Glow” where a few things went awry.
“We were expecting 200 people and got 600, the fire alarm was pulled twice and the speakers blew.” He repaired the speakers in about 20 minutes.
Hernandez and his wife, both 31, opened the clothing and accessory store Choco Boutique in 2006. They’d been thinking about it since Dana did her final thesis on the business idea in college; she envisioned it as a clothing and music store with a bar lounge named Zoporo, but it ended up being Choco, named in part for chocolate, a food that can be traced to the Aztecs in Mexico.
“We thought it was a sweet name,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez merges his store and his music by working on creating collections for upcoming parties and familiarizing himself with music in the store while shoppers dance around.
“We play the music loud and it draws the customers in.”
JUST MAKE ‘EM HAPPY
Making crowds happy means playing music they like. At one of the Canvas street fairs he started a set with a classical piece and said people were looking at him funny.
“Well it’s 10 in the morning, I’m not going to start with Guns and Roses and blare it out,” laughed Hernandez.
With all the technology out there, pleasing people has become easier.
“When it’s a bar and there are 20 people hanging out and somebody wants to listen to CW McCall, well if you have it on your iPod or iPhone I can play it for you.” He usually has a back up computer so Dana can download new music on the spot.
“I’m really flexible,” said Hernandez. “The aim is to have a happy crowd anywhere. Just make ‘em happy.”
Hernandez says bars are the toughest venues because bar owners want customers happy and dancing, but they also want them sitting and drinking.
Hernandez says there are about 12 active DJ’s in the Juneau scene.
“We are really nice people — you know amongst ourselves, we are really chill and really mellow I don’t see any pompousness or glorified people saying ‘I’m the DJ, raise your hands and clap for me.’ I don’t think of myself as a big DJ, I just consider myself to be a guy that plays music.”
At times, this can be a tough job.
“At the end of the night it’s like, ‘thank you great job,’ and you still have to pack your stuff and drive home and it’s 4 in the morning. It sucks to be the DJ when you have to go to work the next day.”
Hernandez would like to open some more boutiques, build a bigger DJ scene and then do events for all ages — no drugs or bars — eventually incorporating all of Southeast Alaska.
“I would like to have a party — say in Sitka — where I get together a production team of go-go dancers and a couple DJs and we’d bring the party to your town. Hopefully it would do well as a business but hopefully it would unite Southeast.”
In the meantime, Hernandez is not slowing down.
“I love music and I don’t want to stop,” he said. “I don’t care if I’m old with gray hair and hanging out with crazy teens making music, that’s me.”