Party Starter

  • DJ Jon and tools of the trade at Brick South, Thompson's Point in Portland.

DJ Jon gets everyone out on the dance floor.

Your sister just married the love of her life. You cried through the ceremony, and smiled through your father’s toast. You hugged a hundred relatives—even the ones you had never met before. Then the lights go down, and a thumping beat overtakes the chatter of the crowd. Your toe starts to tap, and soon you are shimmying your way to the dance floor—along with all the others, young and old, who have gathered to mark the big day. “Music is the one thing that hits people on an emotional level first. It cuts through everything else,” says DJ Jon (aka Jon Hawkins), a sound-mixing artist who has been part of the Maine music scene for more than two decades. “I’ve found if you go into a room and you play something funny or interesting or both, that’s how you can change the whole course of how the evening is going to go.”

DJ Jon had an early interest in music. “I was one of those kids that if I heard something on the radio, I could play it on the piano. Just
by listening to it,” he says. Originally from Tokyo, DJ Jon moved to Washington, D.C., in 1980 so that his parents could pursue teaching careers. At the tender age of 11, he became intrigued by newly emerging genres. “I saw break dancing and I saw hip-hop,” he says. “I saw people spinning on their heads. I was a little kid so it was the perfect age for that to captivate me.”

Soon after, DJ Jon acquired some rudimentary equipment and began mixing sounds. “My uncle bought me a horrible mixer and I stole my sister’s turntable that had the cassette and the radio in the front. It skipped if you looked at it, so I had to figure out how to do stuff with that and a couple of cassette decks,” he says. “When I got actual real gear, I felt like Superman.”

DJ Jon graduated from high school in 1989 and moved to Maine five years later to attend the University of Southern Maine in Portland. He settled in the city and continued to gain practical experience by working in his field. At the time, there were few educational programs in this area. “I used the mixing skills that I learned with hip-hop to play other genres of music,” says DJ Jon. “A lot of the stuff is about blending, about finding interesting transitions, paying attention to key.”

Although institutions like Berklee College of Music in Boston now teach courses in “The Art of Mixing,” and “Mixing and Mastering for the Electronic Musician,” having a good ear can be just as important as studying for a relevant degree. “I’ve been approached a lot about teaching DJ classes,” says DJ Jon, who has worked as a sound engineer at The Studio on Casco Street in Portland. “I could teach some things, but some things you can’t teach, like taste. You’re kind of on your own. Some people just have a knack for the songs that are going to get through to people. I don’t know how.” DJ Jon says that his own favorite DJs are the ones who can help him experience a song in a new way. “Mickey” by Toni Basil is one example. “The drums in that are so crazy,” he says. “If you just think of it like a cheer record, it’s just like yeah, yeah whatever. But if you just listen to how good the drums sound, that song’s incredible.”

With more than 50,000 songs in his repertoire, DJ Jon spins the tunes for “Retro Night with DJ Jon” every Thursday at Aura in Portland. He says that this type of “club residence” is a good way to test new material on different types of audiences. “You don’t have to be tied to one genre,” he says. “I’ll throw Elvis Presley in and then mix it with Taylor Swift. It brings everybody together.” On Friday nights, he takes to the radio airwaves for Hot 104.7 FM. “Our throwbacks are the Kanye West and Jay Z songs,” he says. “It’s a younger demographic. So, that keeps me sharp on what’s happening there.”

The founder of Event Mix DJ, he enjoys offering his unique brand of artistry at special occasions like weddings. “I definitely am there to rock the house,” says DJ Jon. “People are there for the party, you know? They’ll dance to whatever.” He likes the challenge of creating playlists that will cause people to feel like celebrating—and maybe broaden their horizons in the process. “The whole thing is about getting your grandma to dance to Big Sean,” he says. “That’s my goal.” Watching DJ Jon perform in front of an audience, one can still see shadows of the kid who fell in love with hip-hop in the 1980s. Sadly, he no longer break dances. “I got a bad hip,” he says. “If I tried doing it now, I would hurt myself.”

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