If you’re throwing a function in the Bay Area, there’s only one person to call: J. Espinosa. DJing for the past two decades, real name Joseph Espinosa is best known for his signature open format DJing, even coming out on top as the Red Bull 3Style World Champion in 2019. Previously DJing on the two most popular radio stations up North, Wild 94.9 and 106 KMEL, Espinosa is currently on 99.7NOW every Friday and Saturday night.
Born and raised in the small town of Livermore, Espinosa remembers falling in love with music thanks to his mom. But it was really the radio stations (that he ended up DJing for) that had the biggest influence on him as a DJ, and getting into music in general.
Espinosa is the true definition of a traveling DJ. He states, “I’m based in the Bay so I’m always DJing at home like San Jose, San Francisco, East Bay. I go wherever they want me to be. This weekend, I’m in Vegas. I have some gigs locally in San Jose. Next weekend, I’m playing in Asia. I’m in Singapore, Taipei. I’m all over the place.”
Hard work and humility are two principles that have guided Espinosa throughout his career, and he hopes to inspire DJs all over the world that they too can make their dreams come true through determination and staying inspired daily.
We spoke with J. virtually to discuss teaching himself how to DJ, getting on radio stations, his biggest pet peeve as a DJ, winning the Red Bull 3Style competition, and more!
How did you learn how to DJ?
I’m self-taught, watching videos. Back in the day, there was no YouTube. I started DJing in 1999. The first time I touched DJ equipment was when I was hanging with my uncle. Well it’s my aunt’s ex-husband, but I still call him my uncle. My uncle DJed a house party for my eighth grade graduation. He brought all his DJ equipment over, it was in my garage. It was just my friend’s. That was the first time I got to touch DJ equipment. And ever since that day, I knew I wanted to be a DJ. I was sold.
So you just taught yourself?
Yeah, I taught myself but it was more listening to DJs on the radio. I’d steal what they were doing. I’d copy their mixes, literally. That’s how I learned. I’d emulate what I heard on the radio, or I’d try to anyway.
What was the first gig you ever did and how much?
First gig I ever did, my mom used to work for this place called Club Sport in Pleasanton. It’s a gym. They had a little daycare center called KidFit. That’s where the parents would drop their kids off when they’d want to go workout, so I DJed there. My mom got me my first gig, and I got paid 50 bucks. That was so crazy for me that I could get paid. I was 14 years old and I got $50. That was a lot of money.
What was the trajectory to then being able to DJ on the radio stations?
So the radio DJs would DJ these teen clubs. I don’t know how me and my friends even found out there was a teen club, because I was still in high school. But we found out there are these parties. At the time, I had all my DJ equipment. I was at a teen club called Club Access. I hella remember this. Random side note, I’m DJing a gig with my homie from Club Access. My first gig I ever had, we’re doing a gig together for Halloween weekend. It’s crazy because we haven’t DJed together since back in those days.
Anyway, the radio guys would be there, shout out to my boy DJ Tasi. I’d make mixtapes and give them to the radio guys. That was basically how I got on the radio, was meeting the radio dudes that’d go to the teen clubs. Me and my homies would be there sneaking alcohol in and stuff. I was this young, drunk little kid. They’re probably looking at me hella crazy.
I gave a mixtape to this one dude, Chris The Rebel. That was the DJ name on the radio. Chris might have let Scotty Fox hear it, Scotty Fox is a KMEL dude. Those were some of my favorite DJs when I was a kid. They gave it to Jazzy Jim, who was the music director for the radio station at that time. Jazzy heard my shit, he said “Yo, I want to meet you.” He told them to tell somebody else to tell me.
I ended up finding out that he was going to be at this record store in Fremont, so I stole my mom’s car and I drove to Fremont while she was at work. She didn’t know I had her car. I met Jazzy, he told me to come to the radio station. But I didn’t know he wanted me to DJ on the radio. He said “Hey, what are you doing on Friday? You want to come hang out at the radio station?”
I said of course. He said, “Cool, bring your records.” I asked why. He’s like, “You don’t want to DJ on the radio?” I was so nervous, I didn’t really know what to say. I just said yeah. But really in my mind, I wanted to say no because I was so nervous. That’s the story in a nutshell.
What’s your setup?
I still use turntables. I prefer turntables, and I have a Pioneer S11 mixer, which is my go-to. I show up to gigs sometimes, I’m usually pretty open if they have some shit. If they can’t get what I need to use, I’ll use whatever the club has. For the most part, you gotta be able to adapt to any situation. I respect the DJs who can kill it on any equipment, whether it’s anything. If you’re a dope DJ, you can go in and rock it on any setup. Pass you the aux chord, you know?
Favorite song to drop in a set?
That’s hard to answer. Currently, probably that Drake, Sexyy Red, SZA song, “Rich Baby Daddy.” I gotta tell you what it is that got me with that song, it’s a couple things. Miami bass music, that sound is special to me. And people don’t make that music anymore, it’s very rare. I’m not gonna lie, when I opened the new Drake album, I scrolled through and was looking at the features and all that shit. The first song I clicked on was the Sexyy Red song.
I like ratchet. I’m from the Bay, it gets ratchet out here. It can. I just seen he had a Sexyy Red feature and it had SZA on it. Whoa, this sounds hella interesting. When I put it on, and it’s a fucking Miami bass beat? I didn’t even have to hear it. As soon as the beat hit, I was like [jaw drops]. Since this came out, I’ve had three gigs since that night, and I played in all three sets. It’s been going off.
Is there a song you won’t play?
I’ve never played “I’m in love with the CoCo.” [by O.T. Genasis] In my entire DJ career, because I don’t do coke. I don’t really want to promote that I’m in love with the CoCo. I can’t see myself DJing a club and dropping that song, then going “I’m in love the CoCo! Because I’m not.
Favorite Bay Area slapper?
That’s hard. There are so many, from so many different eras. My all-time favorite song from the Bay might be “Players Holiday” by T.W.D.Y. It’s more of a chill vibe, but it’s my favorite.
How’d it feel for Kamaiyah to ask you to scratch on one of her songs?
That was cool. That was something that as a DJ, I always loved listening to scratching in music. When you’re a DJ and you hear scratching in songs, oh shit. That’d be cool if I could scratch in a song. Fuck yeah, I remember literally where I was, the moment. My homie Clayton William, he’s a producer from the Bay Area. He linked me with that, because he works with Kamaiyah at Empire Records a lot. They were always in the studio. He was engineering shit for them.
I don’t know if she was saying “I’m looking for somebody to scratch on the song,” and he threw my name in there. I think that’s how it happened. We got on the phone. She told me what she wanted, a little bit of an idea. I want you to scratch with just one part. I did my own thing. And I sent it to them. It was the first take. I did it, I sent it and they loved it. That was it. It wasn’t no “Can you fix this part? Can you do this different?” I did it and they said, “Oh shit, this is great.”
Biggest pet peeve as a DJ?
If a DJ comes to the gig and they don’t have their own shit. They’re like, “Hey, I didn’t bring my headphones. Hey, I didn’t bring [whatever DJ equipment that they need]. But can I use yours? Can I use your needles?”
We don’t use needles really anymore. But back in the day, DJs would show up to their gigs when everybody was using turntables. They’d say “Hey bro, is it cool if I use your needles? Is it cool if I use your slip mats? Is it cool if I use your headphones?” That was a thing. As a DJ, I don’t even like to use anyone else’s shit. I’d rather use my own shit. I didn’t understand, how could you do that?
Wait, I got one. This is better. I hate it when DJs are DJing,and it looks like they don’t like what they’re playing. Have you ever seen a DJ that doesn’t bob his head to the music? They’re just standing there. How are you standing there playing all this music with all this energy? It looks like you don’t even like music.
Wildest show you’ve ever DJed?
Probably one of these Red Bull 3Style afterparties, in Russia or something.
What does it mean to be a Red Bull 3Style World Champion?
Red Bull 3 Style was one of the biggest DJ competitions in the world. Facts, you can’t deny it. It’s a worldwide competition, over 25 countries involved. It was a long process. You gotta win a local battle, the regional battle, the national battle, then you go to World Finals. You gotta go through Round 1 of World Finals, then the Final Finals. You have to compete against all the best DJs all over the world who’ve done the same thing in their countries.
It was a very prestigious thing to win. But the competitions are dead, it’s a wrap because covid happened. Right after covid was over, we’re supposed to have our last World Final in Moscow. I was in Moscow judging the battle, the Moscow finals. We picked all the champions because as a World Champion, you go on the World Tour the next year. The following year after you win, and now I’m judging all the battles. I’m in Africa, I’m in Asia. I’m in the UK, I’m in Italy. I’m in all these places, judging the DJ battles and performing. Red Bull 3 Style was a great thing. It was a dope community. All the people who follow it, all the DJs who competed. All the judges, everybody with Red Bull.
Did you think you were going to win?
No. You know what’s funny? My World Finals, my last set at the final final round, that wasn’t even my best set. I had some technical problems. When I first started my set, things were going really wrong. After my set was over, I’m like damn. I don’t think I’m going to win because of what happened. So World Finals, I had two sets. My first set I did, it was the best set I did at World Finals. But that was just to get me to the final final round. But I didn’t know I was going to win. The stars aligned. That night, everybody had technical problems. I won, but I could have easily not won. Let’s say that.
Advice for aspiring DJs who want to do what you do?
Study the greats. Nowadays, it’s really easy to get in touch with people you look up to. People who can give you advice, you could literally hit them up. It’s not hard to get a hold of anybody nowadays, or get information. You can’t be lazy. You have to not be scared and not get turned off. If somebody tells you no, you have to find your way around the word no. Eventually, you’ll get whatever you’re looking for.