There are a lot of DJs in the club scene who get off on controlling a crowd. They're in the booth keeping dance music lovers enthralled with club bangers, but ego sometimes gets in the way of personal enjoyment. For Melbourne, Australia, transplant Ean Sugarman, the approach to the craft is much more mellow. He's less focused on making sure that he's in command at all times and more interested in letting good energy take over the dance floor.
"Every great DJ has a style — it's what comes from within," says Sugarman, who lives in Hollywood. "For me it's about sending out positive vibes that allow people to let loose."
His music is a solid mixture of upbeat drums, smooth production, and high-energy electro, designed to keep listeners feeling jovial and light on their feet. It's the opposite of the tribal-house that's more consistent with clubs in New York and South Beach, which promote a darker ambience. And it's a big part of the distinctive DJing/production style that keeps Sugarman booked in many of the area's hottest clubs, like Suite, Nikki Marina, and Gryphon, where he spins regularly.
On a recent weekend night, Gryphon Nightclub is swarming with diversely fashionable types, and it's Sugarman's beats that are bringing them in. The vibe he's able to create is part sex, part cheer. Tall blonds dance for their sugar-daddies, while strangers hug one another with plastic smiles. Two girls (one dressed in a lace top) are noticeably making out with each other and seem to be intertwined with the music. Despite the madness in front of him on the dance floor, inside of the DJ booth, Sugarman is cool. When the song skips accidentally as he shifts between tracks, he's calm, and the crowd dances on without missing a beat.
"I'm switching from audio CDs to computer, so I'm still getting used to it." Sugarman says. "Many DJs are switching to computers and mp3 files because they are a lot easier to carry around when you're traveling, and the software gives you the same control as CD players."
Sugarman knows a lot about the advances in DJ technology. He's been mastering his craft for about 20 years, and peers often look up to him as an industry veteran. Though his turntable prowess is what often leads fans to him, his craftiness as a producer is probably more impressive.
While spending time with him in his Hollywood home, Sugarman blasts his latest mix of Santa Esmeralda's 1977 cover of Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." He remixed it along with DJ/producer friend Larry Granite, and they renamed the song, "Good Intentions," taken from the lyric, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good." Their version just came out this month and, with its surging rhythms and cosmic handclap melody, it's the type of track that sneaks up on you in the middle of a dance floor and smacks you in the face. Sugarman and Granite don't just rework it or start building where Simone, and then Esmeralda, left off. They seem to grab hold of the song the way Aretha Franklin took Otis Redding's "Respect" and make it their own.
"That song's tearing up the dance floor," says fellow DJ Mark Ivan of the track. "Ean played it last weekend at Suite, and people were really feeling it."
Sugarman's got a number of self-produced tracks that he can throw into his own sets. He's given a house/electro edge to a ton of pop tracks in recent years for everyone from Missy Elliott's "Teary Eyed" to Nelly Furtado's "Man Eater"; sometimes his versions sell more records than the original.
In his home studio, platinum and gold plaques for his remix of Mariah Carey's "Say Something" hang between LCD computer screens, soundboards, and mixing equipment. Regardless of what pop critics say about Carey's waning status as a hit-maker, Sugarman still respects her lingering star quality.
"It's not an easy road, but Mariah and a small group of other artists have embraced their roles and become major music icons," he says.
This is right after he takes us out for a stroll around his lake, giving us a glimpse of the Down Under electro/hippie vibe that, along with his ability to anticipate dance music trends, has made him such a respected member of the music industry.
Sugarman began his career in the late '80s as a DJ in Melbourne, sort of by luck. When a DJ announced that he'd be late for a gig, a young Sugarman was thrown behind the turntables in Victoria and asked to entertain the crowd for an hour. When the DJ never showed, Sugarman got to spin all night, and the joy from that first night behind the decks piqued a sudden interest in a music career.
"Interestingly enough, if I was not a DJ, I would be a pilot for an airline," Sugarman says. "I learned to fly at the same time I started to DJ, but after a while I knew that flying for work wouldn't be as much fun as flying for pleasure."
He gained recognition after attaining residencies at big name Australian clubs like JOOCE and the Underground. He eventually set up his own production company, then co-founded the Melbourne Metropolitan Disc Jockey Association, a collective of the country's top DJs. Sugarman is credited with discovering Australian dance/pop group Euphoria in the '90s, which helped build up interest in electronic music throughout the country. Euphoria's self-titled album went gold, and the group, kind of like Australia's version of Technotronic (think: "Pump up the Jam," or Corona's "Rhythm of the Night,"), is lastingly popular in its home country.
Sugarman knew he wanted to keep climbing, figuring that moving out of Australia was key. He thought briefly about heading to the U.K., since both of his parents are British, but instead headed to Toronto in 1997, and to New York in 1999. That's when the chaos started. He initially scored a major gig DJing at the Greatest Bar on Earth/Windows on the World party on the top floor of the World Trade Center in 2001. It seemed like a dream come true. By early September, of course, his dream (and investment) went up in smoke. He'd emptied his savings to promote his weekly party, and he was left with nothing after the towers fell.
For Sugarman, it was a dark time.
"I'd say from 2001 until 2003, I was in total flux," he says. " I didn't know what to do with myself at all. I struggled in those days, but having come through that gave me the confidence to know I could get through anything." Tired of the cold weather, Sugarman decided it was time to move again. He didn't have many contacts in South Florida, but when it was time for Winter Music Conference 2003 to kick off, he packed up his belongings and relocated.
Since moving here, his energy level and self-confidence have done a 180, he says. Now that he's established himself on the South Florida music scene, he continues to work with major record labels, who ask him to remix tracks alongside his production partners, Granite and Vincent di Pasquale. He's just finished reworking tracks for Enrique Iglesias and Cato K, among others. When he looks back on the events of the past few years, he says, life in South Florida is the best thing that's happened to him.
"This place has been a breath of fresh air," he says, breathing deeply. "Since getting to Miami everything has been moving in the right direction."