While many credit iconic performers or mentors as their inspiration to dive into the world of DJing, for local reggae and dancehall DJ Andrés Stepwise, the final push into making music a part of his career came from his sister. It was a fateful night nineteen years ago when the two were at a house party featuring hip-hop DJ Greyboy on the decks, when Stepwise found himself consistently identifying the obscure B-sides he heard flowing from the speakers. “I kept pointing them out to my sis until finally she turned to me and said ‘Dang, you really have an ear for this! You should DJ,’ and the rest was history,” he says.
[jump] Since then, DJ Stepwise has built a following through his culturally-rich DJ sets and mixtapes, Latin American sound system Galang International Sound, and his 100 percent Spanish reggae and dancehall monthly Kulcha Latino. We caught up with Stepwise about his nickname, reggae’s place in the mainstream, and the internationally famous Galang Radio. He plays the season opener of Sazon Libre, this Sunday, at El Rio with local DJs Beset, Mr. E, and Mr. Lucky.
Describe to us your DJ sound.
Diverse! Once you've been DJing a while you kind of just start accumulating genres, or at least that's how it's been for me. Every couple years I would get into something new or old, and I think that reflects in my sound. At the base I am known as a reggae and dancehall DJ, but these days I find myself playing music from all over the globe, like lots of Latin, African, and anything else that reps cultures that move me. I can play traditional sets – like straight cumbia or salsa – or I can mix those elements with more modern sounds too. Right now what I'm also widely known for playing reggae en español, which has been a huge focus of mine for the past seven years.
How did you get the nickname of Stepwise?
I initially came up with it as a name for an old record label of mine. I used to be really big into the dancehall remix game (think dancehall acapellas over commercial hip-hop beats), and I would press up 45s on a bootleg record label I started in 2004. My original plan was to call the label Stepwise Records, but the more I sat with the name the more I began identifying with it as a good DJ name for me. So I switched. Previous to that I had spent about 8-9 years just DJing under my real name, Andrés Octavio.
You're coming up on seven years of Galang Radio, the Internet/TV/radio cast. What has been your most satisfying accomplishment with Galang Radio?
Well the main objective of the show is to educate and uplift, and after seeing the positive impact it's had on my listeners, I definitely name that as the show's biggest accomplishment. I was initially invited to start the show for one of Colombia's largest radio stations, and from there it morphed into a show that I hosted online on my own server. The show aims 100% at the Latin American audience, and I am happy to say that it has grown into one of the most well-known reggae radio shows in Latin America. The response has been amazing. I basically tried to create something unique for reggae fans down there, incorporating elements that we maybe take for granted up here in the States. For example, being able to offer listeners live interviews with artists like Damian Marley and Buju Banton, in Spanish, asking them questions relevant to their home countries in Latin America, has made me feel really great about what I do.
Since you broadcast to over twenty countries, what country has been surprisingly embracing of the program?
Just the fact that the listenership has grown to include pretty much every country in Latin America is amazing! But yeah, when I check the stats and see consistent listeners in places like Thailand and Cambodia, I'm pretty shocked. Especially considering the show is in Spanish! I also started podcasting every show about two years ago, and that's been huge too. The show gets about three-thousand downloads each week, which is amazing. You can access it via iTunes – just search “Galang Radio.”
Being from Argentina, what's something you wish you could bring from the party scene in Argentina to the Bay Area or United States, even?
A later curfew! 2 a.m. is ridiculous. Although I also gotta say that things are a bit too extreme in the opposite direction in Argentina. There you don't really go out until 2-3 a.m. and “peak time” at the club is 4 a.m., meaning that on any given weekend night you are definitely seeing the sun come up. Somewhere in the middle would be ideal!
Through you career, how have you seen reggae and dancehall make its way into mainstream music?
Mostly through artists like Sean Paul, Shaggy and the Marley kids, but you also see it in pop TV shows like The Voice these days too. Case and point: My mom hit me up the other day asking me if I had any Christopher Martin songs I could play for her, which to put in context; Chris Martin is a pretty obscure reggae artist, and my mom is 70+ years old! When I asked her how the heck she knew him, she said, “They sang one of his songs on The Voice – I loved it.” (laughs).
Tell us about your newest monthly, Kulcha Latino. What gave you the idea to start this party?
Kulcha Latino is a 100% Spanish reggae and dancehall party that happens first Fridays at Baobab in Oakland and third Fridays at Asiento in SF. I run the party with two great DJs and friends of mine, Ras Rican and Kool Kyle. The idea originally came out of a convo I had with Lance O from Kulcha Shok Music in Miami, where we both recognized that no one was really doing an all-Latin reggae party in our respective cities. We decided to start one and make it a bicoastal thing, doing both Kulcha Latino Miami and Kulcha Latino SF each month. Rican and Kyle also had the exact same idea brewing here in the Bay, so the three of us joined forces and launched the party together. We are actually the only people on the entire West Coast doing this, so it's pretty major! The party is getting recognition worldwide and we're starting to expand into other cities. Currently we got SF, Oakland and Miami happening stateside, and now Kulcha Latino El Salvador just launched a few months ago too. It feels great to see it taking off, especially because the music is a fusion of my two musical passions: reggae and musica latina.
For those of us that have never been to a Spanish reggae and dancehall party, what kind of vibes can we expect?
Well it's pretty much a reggae party where all the lyrics are in Spanish, but it's also more than that too. There's a whole culture that goes along with it, so at our parties you get a taste of that as well. In that culture lies classic Latin reggae (think Cultura Profetica), but also more upbeat Latin dancehall, which in Panama is referred to as “plena.” The roots of reggaeton actually trace back to “plena,” so at our parties you'll hear stuff that sounds almost reggaetonish, but it's not! It's the music that reggaeton came from. Some people get the two confused.
Who has been the most inspirational Latin American artist to you in your musical career?
There are several but for me personally I'd have to say that it's Alika from Argentina. Aside from being the number one female Spanish-speaking artist in the world, I've also been working with her as her official DJ since 2008, so we have a lot of history together. She's just an amazing artist who's conscious, independent and very talented. It's been an honor to DJ all over the globe with her, and also to have done programming and production work on three of her albums.
What kind of jams can we hear you dropping this Sunday at Sazon Libre?
This Sunday is gonna be dope! My boy Mr. Lucky throws that party at El Rio in SF, and this is the season opener. Expect music that meets at the intersection of Jamaica, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and beyond! The lineup is amazing with Mr. E, Beset, Mr. Lucky and myself…don't sleep!