Many times, on these very pages of 1200Dreams, we’ve featured DJs such as Satoshi Tomiie, Juan Atkins, the list is quite extensive really, that began their lives playing “real instruments” before making the transition to the turntable. What I realized was that I wasn’t simply bringing this otherwise small fact to the forefront because I wanted the world to take notice and respect the turntable, and thus the DJ, but that it was me who needed the convincing. A DJ that brought this lesson home to me and made me put these doubts away for good, is none other than DJ Onionz a fellow New Yorker with a rich musical past, present, and future.
Onionz, real name Andrew Venegas was conceived, born, and bred with music. His father, the late, great Victor Venegas played upright bass with Jazz and Latin legends whose name are familiar to even the most secluded basement DJs, such as Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. Of course, for the real students of music, let me drop just a few more names, names like La Lupe, Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos, Mongo Santamaria, Eddie & Charlie Palmieri, Dave Amram, Candido, Steve Berrios, Paquito DeRivera, Johnny Pacheco. The list goes on.
Throughout his illustrious career which lasted more than half a century, the elder Venegas played alongside and helped form some of the most important groups in the Jazz and Latin scene and rightfully carved a name for himself in the history books of American music. It was into this world that Andrew (one of seven born to Mr. Venegas and his beloved wife) was born.
It’s no surprise then that the young Andrew watching, copying, learning from the masters themselves, took to instruments at a very young age, a very young age. In fact, by 8 he was already good enough to play alongside these very legends, on stage no less, in front of real crowds!
Then it happened. This master percussionist, this prodigy of the timbales, discovered the turntable. Here was a young man who could make music with his hands, literally; whether on the congas or bongos he could make music that would make you move! And he fell in love, was transfixed, forever changed by the power of a record player. Yes, the power of the turntable is that strong!
Andrew quickly purchased himself a set of turntables, locked himself in his own world, and with that same dedication he poured into being the best percussionist he could be, learned the craft of DJing inside and out! He hasn’t looked back since. From the darkest, most booming clubs in the city and beyond, after 200 plus releases, remixes, and more, Andrew, now called Onionz, has made a name for himself, much like his late great father did before him, as one of the most prolific DJs on the scene.
I had the good fortune and honor of interviewing Onionz recently and this is the result! Without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff. Enjoy!
1200Dreams: You come from a very big musical family. For those who don’t know, your father Victor Venegas was a master of the upright bass and played alongside major Jazz and Latin legends, you played percussion as a kid along with other greats. How the hell did you end up falling in love with DJing?
DJ Onionz: I began playing percussion at 4 years old. By the time I was 8 I was playing full drum kits, timbales, congas, bongos and cowbells. I never learned how to read music, I was always self taught and memorized 100’s of songs’ drum and percussion parts by heart.
At 12 years old I began to Dj. I turned my back on the drums after I was awarded the scholarship to go to Performing Arts School in Manhattan NY but then they took it back. It was a shame and I was outraged and so ready to leave it all behind when I saw Jazzy J and Flash Djing. About 10 years ago (20 years later) I started practicing percussion again just for myself. It’s my saving grace.
1200Dreams: Ok, so you’re playing professionally, you’re gigging, then boom, you’re a DJ! How did that go over with your dad? Was he against it, for it, did he get what being a DJ is all about?
DJ Onionz: Before my father passed away, he came to hear me dj, loved it and was very proud of me. My mother and brother as well. They supported me with my music ALWAYS, no questions asked. I actually did an album with my father which never got released. My father was the most serious person to this day I have ever met when it came to music and he gave back so much. He had so many students who are very successful today.
1200Dreams: How has your experience as the son of a Jazz master, playing in front of large audiences from a young age, and all that comes with that, shaped you as not only a person, but as a DJ?
DJ Onionz: Being on the bandstand at 5 years old built an incredible foundation for me. Playing in front of an audience is home for me, it’s what I have always done, it just makes sense.
In the times of my career when bookings slow down, it’s almost as if your best friend stops calling you. The Latin jazz scene, playing next to people like Candido, Dave Amram, Steve Berrios, Ray Baretto was a blessing. These were some serious players who had an extremely intense focus, love and expression of music. I always felt really protected on the band stand with these guys. NOT THINKING WAS THE RULE, let your natural talent run through you as the magic is made. What it did for my djing was instill in my soul that music is my true path and that I need to follow it to the extreme, and I have.
1200Dreams: What musical lessons, or piece of knowledge did you learn from being a percussionist and performing that you have applied to your current skill set, to the music you spin and produce that is surprising or that most people might not know?
DJ Onionz: Thats an interesting question because I never think of music that way. I would have to say Freedom, I know what true freedom is and how to let go 100% in the moment. I don’t believe that every event I play wants 100% freedom. I believe that a large majority of the events want numbers and revenue before art. I know so many producers and dj’s who are so caught up in fads (retro past, too much future and technology) instead of learning how to let go in the moment with music. It’s not easy to let go of everything in front of people and allow their true talent to shine. Not thinking in the information age is almost impossible, haha.
1200Dreams: When you decided to embark on a DJ career, I would assume you had to practice, get your skills to a certain level, learn the ins and outs of the equipment, the culture, everything that encompasses this world. What was your mindset like during this time?
DJ Onionz: Holy Sh*t! you know, thank you for asking. I respected djing so much I would never play out for the first 5 years of djing. I just practiced all the time! 10 hours a day everyday.
I dropped out of school at 14 (2 years after starting to dj) to engulf my whole life into djing. When I see young dj’s demanding things like djing in clubs after a year or 2, I take a very deep dislike to it. It’s a bad look for everyone.
It’s not about just mixing 2 records together but about mixing 2 records together with your soul and spirit so deeply that people feel and listen with their bodies instead of their minds. My goal has always been to help people feel more than think when I’m djing. I believe that once the heart is pumpin’ through your soul then your thoughts can be a lot clearer. It’s what I live for, those moment of clarity.
1200Dreams: What were your biggest challenges in establishing yourself as a DJ? Did you find you had to “start over” as an artist? And when did you know you were ready?
DJ Onionz: I try to start over every day. I try to remain teachable. About 10 years ago i was hospitalized after in intense touring schedule for so many years and never finding the balance.
The biggest challenge has been coming back from that. Around that time digital became huge, a lot of young hungry kids came up and some of the musicians, dj’s, and promoters who came after me never really wanted to hook back up with me again.
I’m very grateful though, it got my fangs covered in rhythm saliva again. This year has been a huge upswing after a decade of intense work. It has been nice to finally be recognized for it by some of the greatest djs of all times. To revive, recreate, recharge myself is a beautiful, bitter sweet experience.
1200Dreams: Do you remember when you first laid eyes on the Technics 1200? What is your experience with them?
DJ Onionz: Haha yea! DJ DEAN from Bayside Queens was rockin’ em and I bugged out. I couldn’t afford them so I had to get belt drive techniques. After 5 years I got 1200’s. I have had mine for about 25 years.
1200Dreams: As one familiar with so called “real” instruments, how do the 1200’s compare? Would you consider them a musical instrument or more a tool, and ends to a mean?
DJ Onionz: I never got into all that, I just always threw down. I try to stand clear of the debates about turntables, cdjs, laptops, instruments but I do have an opinion. I find that most of the people who moan about how other people express their music are super insecure about their own skill.
I try to embrace everyone’s choices on how they go about performing music, I have always been about FUSION hence my label “Electrik Soul Recordings”. I never liked purists and felt sorry for the people who bought into that mentality of black and white. There is nothing more toxic than a person who thinks in absolutes.
1200Dreams: Tell us about the feelings you experience up there in the DJ booth? What is it about this craft that simply moves you deep inside?
DJ Onionz: Open hearts, open minds, aggressive people who want to take it out on the dance floor, who push me to serve em with everything I got. Intense people who love to rock full on but also enjoy swingin’ their asses to some deep sexy emotional music. Trust moves me too, I love it when a crowd trusts me and has no expectations.
1200Dreams: As a instrumentalist, how fulfilling is it producing Electronic music in a studio, when it’s mostly computer based? Or is it really not an issue at all?
DJ Onionz: Not an issue. I am really a believer that if there was no musical instruments and no computers i would be banging rocks and sticks together to make sound. It’s just about getting the rhythm out of me.
1200Dreams: Do you plan on working on music outside of the Electronic music realm? If you have, can you tell us more about these experiences?
DJ Onionz: I did, I did an album with my father that was all Cuban and dance music and rituals music together. The person I made it with has his head up his ass still, I’m just waiting for him to wake up so we can release it.
1200Dreams: So, over 200 releases, remixes galore, your own record label, you’ve gigged all around the world, what is next for Onionz?
DJ Onionz: I have my label that is running nicely and building. I have my eye on 3 artists that I am going to start focusing on and giving a steady release schedule along with myself on the label. I have a show that I have been working on for a few years now. I don’t want to talk about it to much but it’s really bad ass.
I would like to put out the first Electrik Soul compilation but need the right people involved. I’m on a mission. looking for the right people to work with. Its really had to find people you feel safe with in the music industry but so far I have amazing people in my world.
My brother Evan Venegas (bikelbon.com) has been so good to me my whole life and has supplied me with amazing artwork through it all.
My engineer Ruanne Emmenes has been a blessing to me, he’s taught me so much about sound, mixing and producing, he’s been such a gift. My web designer and webmaster Eric Jerome who has spent so much time helping me and getting my online stuff in order. Justin who runs my label and makes Electrik Soul happen and who I trust deeply.
I just started working with Taylor at Pipeline Music management which is going smoothly, (thanks to tom mello for hooking that up). I need 2 more areas covered and things should be moving at a very high level, I have tons of projects ready when the time is right.
I have a bunch of releases coming out on labels like Bush Records, Release Muzique, and my relationship with Carl Cox and Jon Rundel over at Intec Digital has been the highlight of the last 2 years for me. What an amazing brother to work with. I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for Carl and how he goes about doing what he does. He’s also one of the nastiest mofo’s I have ever heard hit the stage.
I know I cannot do it alone but I won’t go out on a quest with just anyone either, more to be reveled!
1200Dreams: Any words of advise, for the aspiring DJs out there? Or maybe one last tidbit of information we might not have known to ask about? Come on, make it juicy!
DJ Onionz: Oh hell yea! Few things:
1. Play from your soul through your heart without your head involved.
2. Learn helpful things about spiritual balance outside of music. Staying calm and having a clear mind will be one of your greatest assets.
3. Try to spend time with other djs who are your age, see them face to face. sit in cafes or bars and talk about music. I remember sitting in Dave Clarke’s (Soma) house in Scotland and spoke about music so deeply with Slam, Darren Emerson, and Joeski for hours til the sun came up. Since there are no more record stores today you have to go out of your way to have these convos so you still get that feeling of brotherhood.
About me? I have dedicated my whole life to music. Not married, no kids, no girlfriend, no cars, no mortgages, no nothing. just my apartment, my dog, cat, and music, family and true friends who love me. I feel great about myself and my life and want to share my most precious gift with everyone, music. I hope to see you soon.
Thank you Onionz for bringing that love, passion, and funky stuff!