Photos by Roger Dennis
Interview February 21, 2010

With a decade of DJ'ing experience under his belt, DJ Snakes has made a name for himself in the tri-cities. He is in demand for weddings and parties and is a staple at White's Bar in Saginaw.  At White's every other Wednesday evening, Heller spins his own form of art, "The Realness," a hip-hop show focusing on local performers.  Here he gives readers some insights into the talent and skill it takes to be a successful DJ.

Jeanne Lesinski: How long have you been DJ'ing, and how did you first get into it? Where were some of your first shows?

Matthew Heller: I’ve been into hip hop as far back as I can remember, but only started DJ'ing about 10 years ago. My friend Paul was also really into hip hop and had a DJ setup that I would mess around with from time to time. I eventually fell in love with the turntables and wanted to learn all the tricks. I was really into the indie rap movement of the late 90's and a lot of the music that was coming out was only available on vinyl. So I had all these records and the only place I could make a mix or listen to them was at my friend’s house. I was sick of borrowing his gear and eventually bought my own setup a few pieces at a time.

The first shows I did were house parties and all ages shows at Jamestown Hall. Only recently, within the past few years have I really stepped out of the basement and had a legitimate residency.

JL: A lot of people think of a DJ as just someone who plays cds at a wedding or a high school dance, but there's a lot more to it than that. How do you describe what you do?

MH: As a DJ, I’m the facilitator of the party or event. I work within the environment and situation I’m in and try to connect with whatever I feel that particular audience wants to hear. The DJ has to play to his audience, but at the same time add his own flavor and personality to the mix. What makes my style unique and different is that I’m blending, cutting, and re-editing songs on the fly. There are only a few DJ’s in the area who are capable of this.

JL: What kind of equipment do you use?

MH: I use Technics 1200 turntables, Rane mixer, Shure M44-7 needles, Serato, MacBook , records, and Mackie powered speakers. At one time I used all vinyl, but eventually jumped to Serato, which allows me to manipulate digital files with control records. In the age of the Internet and the scarcity of new music being pressed on vinyl, it’s very difficult for me to present the show I want to do without access to digitals files. This is especially crucial when rappers bring their music on cd. I can instantly be their DJ. I like to be able to add to a live rap performance on the spot by garnishing it with cuts and dropping instrumentals at the appropriate time.

JL: Tell us about "The Realness." What is that night all about? What made you decide to create a hip-hop night at White's Bar, which is usually known as a rock venue that features live bands.

MH: The Realness is something that has been years in the making. I always wanted to do a hip hop night where the focus was placed on the music and local talent instead of trying to play whatever the flavor of the month is. There are dozens of spots in Saginaw where people can dance to the top 40 hits. I wanted to create an alternative to that environment. I love to make people move, but I enjoy the challenge of breaking records and resurrecting old music that people might not be familiar with.

The White's Bar situation was kind of a fluke. I wanted to catch up with the bartender Tim Avram, who is a friend of mine since way back. Another friend of mine, Dennis Rogers, was the music act for the night. If I can remember correctly, Dennis was running late and didn’t have an opener. Tim offered me a slot and I did a set of soul, rock and breakbeats. The energy at White's and the reception I got that night made me feel like after all these years of floating around, I finally found a home. While there may be a few people who would question the performance aspect of DJ’ing, it is undeniably apparent that what I do on stage with the music and the performers is unquestionably just as involved as anything a band does.

JL: As part of your night at White's, you've come to know a lot about what is going on in the local hip-hop scene. Which area artists are you really excited about? What do you think about the scene as a whole?

MH: I've always been on top of the local music scene, especially when it comes to hip hop. I never imagined I would be playing the role I am now though. It's exciting for me to offer rappers that might not plug into the club scene a place and a night to do their thing. The surrounding area is budding with talent, but Saginaw seems to be boiling over right now. There are so many good and capable performers in the area that I'm literally booked through May. If I listed everyone who I think is dope, I could go on for days. I'll put it this way. If I book an artist, I do so based on the music. I don't invite artists based on how hot they are or how many people they can bring in.

JL: In addition to your regular night at White's, you've done club shows, played coffee shops and DJ'ed weddings. How are each of those things different, and how are you able to be so versatile?

MH: They are all very different venues and audiences, but I don’t approach them any differently. I use my intuition and taste to pick music that will move a particular crowd without completely compromising my own integrity. My homebase is White's and I love the creative control I have there. When I get to play whatever I want every other Wednesday, it's not hard for me to do a wedding or a club gig where I have to be Snakes light and give people a more universally accessible version of what I do. I eventually would love to be a full-time DJ and have my own business. If a DJ wants to be a professional, it is important to have versatility and the ability to be a personality and host.

JL: What kind of qualities does a good DJ need to have?

MH: In addition to what I mentioned in the last question, I think one of the key qualities a DJ needs to have is taste. A poorly skilled DJ can sound better than a turntable technician if they have the right music. I've seen some really talented DJ's fail because they don't know what to play. Like I said earlier, I think it's absolutely crucial to have a hosting presence and a personality. A good DJ interacts with the audience and performers. It's our job to create a vibe and have fun; then everything else will sell itself.

JL: Having a depth of musical knowledge seems important. Can you talk about your own interests in music? What are your favorite genres/groups/bands/etc?

MH: I'm a huge fan of music in general. While I prefer some genres to others, I've always been open to new sounds and suggestions. My taste is so wide that I find this to be a difficult question. I Definitely spin with a hip hop style, but I'm all over the place as far as what I play and what I'm into.

JL: Are you influenced by other DJs or musicians?

MH: There are so many people that have influenced me over the years. For the sake of not dropping a slew of names, I'll narrow it down to who is currently inspiring me. It goes without mention that all the MC's who come up to do The Realness have an impact on what I do, especially the rappers who have been with me forever and believed in me long before I had a regular gig. Shout out to Alphabetics, Poindexter, and Capital-C who were the first performers I had up at White's and my fam in this rap thing.

I'm also influenced by other hip hop/club promoters in the area. These guys remind me that although I'm on some other shit, I need to be just as aggressive in presenting my event. A promoter has no excuse for a fail. It doesn't matter what day, music, club, bar, hall, or event center that someone is trying to promote. Any limitations placed on a promoter need to be overcome. If I'm given a Wednesday, I'm going to make my Wednesday pop off like a Friday.

It also goes without saying that I'm influenced by all the DJ's who pioneered hip hop. This rap thing started with the DJ, and I think the rap game ultimately needs the DJ to maintain its relevance and longevity.

JL: How do you keep up on all the latest releases? 

MH: I get a lot of stuff off of the net. I frequently check blogs, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, forums, mixtapes, and music websites to hear the latest leaks and see what other people are listening to. I also occasionally turn on the radio to see what's hot on the airwaves and at the clubs. Satellite radio and the Music Choice channels are also a good source for new releases. Overall, nothing beats the most classic way to find out what's hot on the streets … Put your ear to it.