The first thing I noticed when the call connected was the sound of birds chirping in the background.
Picture this: I’m cooped up in my baseme- studio, my home studio. The crazy back-and-forth weather in New York City has me congested and nasally. I’m furiously praying that nothing goes wrong. Technology always tends to go crazy when I need to do something important. My mixer and laptop are taunting me, almost. They can be so temperamental.
I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t nervous for this call. I had been following DJ Puffy since the beginning. I’ve watched his entry video from Barbados dozens of times. I even tuned into the world championships – just to see his set – in the middle of exams week from my phone in my dorm room. This was the closest I’d ever been to the DJ legends, all thanks to a shot-in-the-dark Facebook message.
I’m frantically checking my mic and making sure the Skype call is recording. First impressions matter, and I’m about to bomb mine.
The call connects and I’m instantly taken across the world. The birds chirping bring back vivid memories of Barbados, and the last time I had visited. I can instantly picture the celebrity on the other end of the line, chilling out on a veranda with a laptop in front of him. It almost reminds me of the days when my parents used to Skype with family back home in Trinidad. It’s like…Wait, he answered! Crap! This is happening! I-
“H-hello?” I stammer.
“Bro! What’s good?”
Whoa. Wasn’t expecting that.
Andre Parris, better known as DJ Puffy, is the 2016 Red Bull Thre3style world champion. He was crowned this past December in Chile. Thre3style is the love child of the two most important facets of the art of DJing: technical skills, like scratching and mixing; and party rocking. The judges – some of the most famous DJs in history, often perform at the world championships. They share the decks with the competitors themselves, sourced from around the world via YouTube. Puffy’s written his name in the same book as these legends, the likes of whom include Jazzy Jeff, Eskei83, Skratch Bastid, and Qbert.
Just making it to the world finals has its perks. The DJs there get to play on top-of-the-line equipment. This year, Pioneer supplied their DJM S9 mixer and PLX 1000 turntables. While great equipment doesn’t necessarily make great DJs, it can definitely unlock new, creative possibilities. Puffy is fundamentally skilled, his scratches show that. But, he won’t deny the impact new equipment has made. “I invested in the S9 [in May of 2016]…when I made the decision that I wanted to enter Thre3style this year, and honestly, it made a huge difference.”
I guess you can say that my biggest surprise is that Puffy hadn’t entered Thre3style earlier. He told me, “I met DJ Trayze …in 2014. He was on vacation and he reached out to me… We kinda hung a bit, and after seeing me spin he was like ‘You should enter Thre3style,’ and I was like ‘yeah, right,’ but it was always in the back of my head.” And look at him now!
We ran through the standard interview fare rather quickly. Andre is a full time DJ, and has been since he finished studying at the University of the West Indies. At only 25 years old, his International Business degree has already proven its worth: he had been touring across Europe and the Americas – accompanied by his photographer James – when he found out he was selected to compete at the Thre3style finals. What surprised me most, was how quickly Puffy was able to put together his set. Some DJs wait in excess of a year to even enter the competition; they want to have the finals set polished first. Puffy “didn’t have as much time as the other [finalists], to be honest…we found out in August, or July. I was on tour, and I didn’t really start preparing until September.”
His set was electrifying. While Thre3style sets have to span at least three genres of music, Puffy took his a step further. He went from hip hop, top 40, and soca, to Motown, to EDM bangers, and everywhere in between. When he mashed up The Temptations’ “My Girl” with the Super Mario Bros. theme song, my jaw hit the floor. And I told him that. It was my ultimate “superfan” moment, and, I’ll be honest, my cheeks turned redder when I told him, than when I pointed out the birds in the background. (Conversation isn’t exactly my strong suit).
The thing is, it worked. It flowed, and it was harmonious, and my head bobbing hadn’t missed a beat. “Everything has to make sense,” Puffy told me. “We tell a story with our music in the Caribbean. Here, we’re big on MCing, hyping up the crowd. Obviously, you can’t MC in Thre3style, so I had to show and tell people who I am, not only as an artist, but as a person.”
A Barbados native, Puffy is no stranger to party culture. The West Indies islands have always been known for their laid-back-by-day, loud-by-night lifestyle. Barbados alone has generated its fair share of musical legends, including Rihanna, Rupee, and Grandmaster Flash. Trinidad, where my family is from, is the birthplace of Nicki Minaj, the steel drum and soca music, a genre combining island vibes with powerful storytelling.
Puffy happily admitted to using the Thre3style stage as a platform for his story. “My complete message was, I can come here and create history on the sole fact that I was the first person from this part of the world to compete. It had nothing to do with me winning at all. I just wanted…to come, and rock the hell out of my region and have a good time.” Well, he definitely did the Grandmaster proud. As if his set wasn’t poetic in its own right, consider Puffy’s crate-digging process: “I’m influenced by everything and everyone, positive or negative…I’m a sensitive being. How a track makes me feel, the tone used, the lyrical structure [all matter to me]. Does it fit my playing style?” He’s a living embodiment of my favorite quote:
A painter paints pictures on canvas. But, musicians paint their pictures on silence.
Life After Thre3style
Touring life has definitely taken its toll on Puffy. “Bro, I have no time to myself. I barely have time to eat properly…but, it’s gotten me eating healthier, drinking less, running more, so that’s good.” He’s been chronicling his adventures online, from bouncing around the islands on photo shoots for Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren, to honing his skills whenever he can, to showcasing fan art on Instagram.
It’s funny to see how someone like Puffy, thrust into worldwide fame, would react to joining the DJ elite. He still looks up to them, with the same awe we do, like the demigods we’ve built them to be. “I’ve been a huge fan of Eskei83, so meeting him was like meeting a hero,” he said. And for Jazzy Jeff? “Jeff is Jeff, b!” I couldn’t have said it better myself. And for A-trak, if you’re reading this, Puffy is dying to meet you too.
What I found most striking, was what Puffy thought of himself following the win. “It’s definitely made me more creative. I’m more open to expressing myself musically. I’m not afraid to put myself out there, if anything. Now, I can post to my YouTube and Soundcloud without freaking out so much. I’m more confident in my abilities.” I was honestly taken aback. That is definitely one of the most humanizing things I’ve heard from a celebrity. But, then again, it fits right in with the mental image I had formulated during our interview. Puffy fits into a certain class of people: what you see, is what you get. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’s genuine, and authentic, and truly sees himself and his idols the same way he sees his fans – as people.
This commitment to authenticity isn’t just for show. Where many superstar artists and celebrities have a clear persona or ego, Puffy is as Puffy does.
My Weekend with Puffy
Puffy reached out to me this past week. He was on his way from Ontario to New York, and wanted to get together. I was floored with anxiety and nervous energy, but I also wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity. We agreed to meet up at the Scratch DJ Academy in the East Village, and see where things went from there.
Scratch is a place like no other. Even Puffy himself calls it the Promised Land. Scratch records and hip-hop memorabilia line the walls from floor to ceiling. A glass case houses a pair of Adidas Superstars signed by Jam Master Jay himself. The receptionist’s desk is very out of the way, as the “classroom” dominates the space. Turntables and DJ controllers form a U along the back wall, opposed by a single set-up for the instructor. This place was the real deal.
When he came through the door, the first thing I noticed was the distraught in his eyes. He had been having an unlucky day – feeling unwell, lost phones, a forgotten laptop, and I could see he was sincerely apologetic. He hit everyone in the room with a low-key high five, and we all shot the breeze for an hour or so. There was no persona, no ego, no celebrity complex. The two of us left for the local bar.We kept the conversation small while he answered fan mail, and I could see he was actively reading and responding. He looked up from his phone, and sort of stared me down. “Bro, there’s absolutely no need to be so professional.” I told him, “It’s kinda hard, man. I mean, do you know who you are?”
“Yeah, I’m me, and you’re you, and we’re two guys getting a drink! Relax!”
He pointed out a girl in the bar. “Look at her. She’s taken the same selfie 7 times. I counted. Why? Is she trying to perfect this image of herself having a good time? That’s not me. If someone hacks my social media accounts and wipes me off the face of the Earth, I’ll be a distant memory. There’s no reason to obsess and build an image like that. What’s the point? I’m just gonna be me! Why rush the brush, if it’ll ruin the coat?”
Puffy himself met me outside the club on Saturday night. We were escorted into the building by security and taken backstage immediately. People reached out to him here and there en route, and he stopped for quick handshakes and words of gratitude to his fans. I followed at his heels, in awe of the appreciation people had for him. While I do idolize him as a DJ and artist, being in his position- almost literally- was beyond surreal.
I offered to buy Puffy a drink after his set, but without missing a beat he patted me on the shoulder, and said “We don’t buy drinks, b.”
It was then that I realized: Puffy knows exactly who he is. He’s the world’s biggest DJ, and he’s already made his mark. But he doesn’t do it for the perks or the benefits. There really isn’t a superiority or celebrity complex. The fame hasn’t gotten to his head. There was no pompousness in the way he spoke to anyone, from promoters to fans to interviewers and beyond. It cemented the idea that was becoming clearer and clearer over the course of our interactions: this guy is the real deal. As I watched him take the stage, I couldn’t help but think back to the previous night in the bar, when I asked him the simplest question: Why?
It’s the music, b. Music has the power to affect people. It causes them to forget their problems, to forget what’s going on in the world and just live. When I’m sad, I put on music. When I’m mad, I put on different music. If I can give to someone else, what music gives to me, I’m going to do that, and I love it.
To me, Andre Parris fits one of my favorite quotes: Darryl McDaniels of RUN DMC once told me, “DJs make the world go ’round.” Puffy represents the DJ that we strive to be – he can rock the house from sunup to sundown, remixing and MCing on the fly. He’s a jack of all trades. Like all DJs, his personality is big, but not ostentatiously so. Beyond the booth, he is the same person; he treats his fans and fellow DJs with the same respect reserved for his family. He openly shows support for the people who helped him get where he was. His upset in the Thre3style championships motivated DJs everywhere to shoot for the impossible. And, when he does step into the booth, he’s got a damn fresh set of cuts up his sleeve.
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