Immigrant Songs

December 11, 2013
12 mins read

Downtown, on a Sunday morning, the sun usually rises alone, in silence. But on this Sunday morning, the exact opposite was true; its rays beamed down on a throng of people amassed on TSI’s brick patio for The Crunchay 24, which had begun at 3 a.m. and would continue full-speed for the next 16 hours.

Some were dancing, others just talking, sitting and standing around; a few looked to be falling in love. Patrons had mimosas, like a Sunday brunch, while others sipped stronger stuff, looking to maintain the buzz they’d cultivated earlier in the night, before last call. In the back, bumping the beats that brung them, stood DJ Vlad the Inhaler, who made the whole thing possible. Another day at the office …

For those in attendance, it was just a moment, a final big blowout to mark the end of summer. For Vlad, the moment was more; it was a partway point in a journey that has brought him here from the other side of the world, uprooted from the center of one historic culture and deposited in the center of one that is largely new, one that he has played a pivotal role in shaping.

Recent years have seen the global proliferation of an aesthetic centered around what its acolytes call “electronic dance music,” or EDM. It’s a diverse music with a long history and nearly as many varieties as it has practitioners. As usual, with all types of dance music, Florida has helped lead the way. It’s impossible to tell the story of EDM in this region in this era without talking about Vlad; and the reverse is true, even more so.

Before there was Vlad the Inhaler, there was just Vlad. Vladimir Yakovlevich Kulishevskiy was born in Kiev, Ukraine, on Aug. 5, 1984. That makes him a Leo — not to be confused with his older brother Leo, the violinist for local progressive hip-hop band Universal Green, who was born eight years earlier.

“People always think that I’m older,” Vlad says. “We are very different, but music is tops in [both] our lives, so it doesn’t look that different. I’ve always been a little more serious; he’s definitely an artist, through and through.”

The boys were raised in a musical environment by their father, Yakov, and mom, Natalia. Yakov was a TV personality, whom Vlad describes as “the Dick Clark of the Ukraine.” Sitting in Riverside on a sunny summer morning, Kulishevskiy wears a Beatles “Rubber Soul” T-shirt as he sips his Cool Moose coffee. From this vantage point, 1992 seems even longer ago than it really is, while Kiev seems less like half-a-world away and more like half-a-universe. Time flies when you’re having fun — and where he’s from, fun could almost be a luxury.

The Kulishevskiy boys grew up in the Ukraine, at a time of dramatic change in their country, and in the world. They were too young to have experienced the traumatic history that their elders had lived through, but they heard the stories. The Ukrainian Jewish community has existed for nearly 1,000 years, but the first half of the 20th century saw a dramatic uptick in anti-Semitic activity in the region. Pogroms directed by the Russian Empire killed thousands, and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 killed thousands more. All that paled in comparison to the barbarous “Operation Barbarossa” in 1941.

The Nazi invasion of Soviet territory was built largely around the mass murder of Jews; only the Jews of Poland endured greater atrocities than those inflicted on their Ukrainian counterparts. (When you see the unforgettable pictures of Jews being forced to dig their own mass graves before being shot, note that most of those photos were taken in the Ukraine.) The Nazis’ notorious “Einsatzgruppen” (the euphemistically named “Action Squads”) helped kill more than 3 million Ukrainians between 1941 and 1945, of whom about one-third were Jewish.

Indeed, things were so bad that the Nazis’ eventual defeat by the Soviet Red Army was widely welcomed by the population. That welcome did not last. Between the Germans and the Russians, a Ukrainian Jewish population that had numbered nearly 3 million before the war fell below 900,000 by 1960 (according to the Jewish Virtual Library and the Berdichev Revival website), and it continued to fall steadily for the next 50 years. Their numbers were barely half that by the time the Berlin Wall was knocked down in 1989 — the Jewish community would soon lose four more, when the Kulishevskiy family left.

Yakov had noted a newly rising tide of anti-Semitism at that point. Having lived through some of the darker moments of his country’s history, he was keen to ensure that his sons would never have such experiences for themselves. The final straw came from Vlad’s teachers, who were apparently grading on a curve: “My parents were really trying to protect my brain from all the hoopla. They wanted to safeguard my outlook on human beings. I didn’t really know my teachers were being that ugly toward me. … I knew I wasn’t a dumb kid, and I couldn’t understand why I was getting bad grades.”

When it came time to leave, the destination was obvious. America has more Jews than every other country in the world combined — except, of course, for Israel, the only nation with a larger Jewish population. (Some reports suggest that America’s Jewish population actually exceeds Israel’s, but estimates vary, depending on the source.) Vlad says he was “oblivious” to how big a deal the move was at the time, but that quickly changed.

“Everything looked a lot more colorful” in America. He had an aunt “embedded” in Florida, and other relatives in New York, but there was little doubt as to where the family would end up.

Florida’s Jewish population numbered about 640,000 in 2012 — third-highest among U.S. states. According to the Florida Jewish History website (among other sources), that story began in Pensacola, where Florida’s first Jews arrived in 1763 and where its first synagogue was established in 1876. By that time, a Jewish cemetery already existed in Jacksonville, and Floridians had already elected a Jew, David Levy Yulee, as its first U.S. senator back in 1845. By 1928, the state’s Jewish population was about 10,000, with most (40 percent) living in Jacksonville; Miami would not rise to that position until after 
World War II.

Locations may change, but passions do not, and Vlad was lucky to have arrived in America in 1992, just as the popular music industry was undergoing historic change.

“I was really into hip-hop,” he says. “I’ve got to give my brother a lot of credit for developing my musical tastes. He was throwing Nirvana and Portishead at me when I was 10, 11 years old; I was predestined to like them. Eventually, it was the Wu-Tang Clan. I used to call myself ‘VZA’ as a kid. I loved everything. I’m glad I skipped all the cock-rock of the late-’80s, and the Spandex.”

‘More About the Feeling’

He eventually gravitated toward the realms in which he now makes his living — namely, jam rock and electronica.
“EDM is more about the feeling of the music more than the actual notes,” says Elon Hiers, who performs as DJ Ellofunk. (His new album, “Duellofunk,” dropped in September.) “It’s unique in that it is able to be understood by anyone from any musical background. It’s got a heavy beat and a LOT of energy. My own style has evolved … it has taken on a sound that’s a staple of the South, [with] heavy low bass and syncopated percussion rhythms.”

For Vlad, EDM was like love at first listen.

“I rebelled against instruments at a young age, but that came back around when I was older,” he says. “After I was done with school and got my degree [political science/public administration at University of North Florida], I realized that I didn’t want to do anything involving my degree; I just wanted to be around music. Also, I started going to music festivals. It kind of molds your brain pretty fast; it shows you a counter-culture that’s so accessible, and at the same time so interesting that you get lost in it and keep wanting to come back to that same experience.”

The transition from audience member to artist to promoter happened so fast, he barely noticed it himself. He can’t remember the first song of his first DJ set; “It was probably a dubstep song, and it was probably Benga,” he notes, chuckling.

“Once I made money hosting a weekly, it kind of threw me back; I thought it was going to be a hobby, at best. From there, I reached back out to the festival organizers that I had befriended, and they started putting me into situations [like] Purple Hatters Ball, Bear Creek and festivals like that. Everything is kind of growing naturally, without having to knock down too many doors or ask too many favors, and it feels right. Now, after two or three years, I’ve gotten some sort of reputation where people want to deal with me. It feels great to have a reputation where people trust that you’ll take care of them when they come into town to play a show.”

From the start, he’s been out front in utilizing social media — Facebook and SoundCloud, in particular — to put his own music out there and promote events outside of traditional media outlets, which have proved consistently slow to embrace the cultural growth of this region.

As a promoter, Vlad has brought a number of national and international stars through Florida and worked closely with some of the region’s top-shelf talents. A full list would exhaust this space, but a partial list includes names like Bonobo, Chali 2na, Machinedrum, Das Racist, Sir Charles, Irene Pardo, Knotwell, Danny Brown, Starkey, Break Science, Om Unit and Chrissy Murderbot, as well as top locally based talents like Strife, NickFRESH, Dub Theorist, Team Jaguar, Robert Raimon Roy, Paten Locke, Dillon, Gizroc, Chef Rocc, Comic, Matt Caulder, Stacey Osorio, Professor Kilmure and Willie Evans Jr.

‘Kids just embrace sound’

He’s developed a special relationship with the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park and counts promoter Paul Levine as one of his biggest professional influences.

“Me going to that park for festivals allowed me to influence the kids who were coming to my parties and my shows — I wanted to push them into that park. I think since electronica has taken off, it’s more or less taken kids to the traveling circus festivals [that] come into the state, host a festival and take that money out of the state. I’m more into working with people who are hands-on hosting the festival, and when it’s done, they’re already planning the same festival for next year. The bulk of the profit stays here.

“Overall, festivals are hugely influential. I’ve seen kids just embrace sound — not verbal, just boundless sound. With jam music and electronica, there’s a parallel there. It’s a parallel of sound just driving you to move, versus cognitive thinking about words and what people are trying to convey. … For me, I fuse the electronic parts to jam festivals; I get hired to host electronic stages at jam festivals. I’m a caveat for the kids who don’t want to hear Grateful Dead covers all night.”

Vlad has performed and hosted on stages at a number of festivals, including Purple Hatters Ball, Bear Creek, Aura Music Fest, Suwannee Disc Jam and Blackwater Music Fest, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“If people are looking for the pandemonium big room sound, which kind of stems from the Miami- and European-style parties, you’re looking at Ultra Music Festival, Winter Music Conference in Miami. Also, you have the traveling festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival, Sunset — but I guess Ultra would be the granddaddy.”

“As far as promoters, Vlad has been really one of the ‘godfathers’ of the EDM scene in Jacksonville by bringing in national/international talent,” says Hiers, who also cites Mason Masters and Connor Dworschak of the Bangarang crew, as well as “Wideawake” Hope Lansing. “[They have] really brought EDM to a new level in Jacksonville, they’ve been consistently bringing in some of the biggest artists in the world.”

Hiers, 23, started out as simply a fan of the scene, but under Vlad’s tutelage, he’s become one of its more in-demand artists.
“Vlad was the person who ‘discovered’ me and gave my mix to Bangarang,” Hiers says. “He personally gave my mix to people who run Bangarang, and that is how I got my start.”

Crunchay Sunday quickly became a hub of the emergent EDM scene — which raises the question: What is EDM? The differences might not be clear to the uninitiated; indeed, even veteran scenesters find it confusing sometimes. Comedian Daniel Tosh put it best: “If you know the difference between electro-house, trance and dubstep, it’s time to check into rehab.”

‘Presenting the Music that I like’

Sub-genres within EDM are generally classified based on their beats-per-minute (bpm), though the parameters are always changing. In practice, the boundaries are ephemeral, transitory; it’s all kinda one thing, ultimately.
“There’s really no rules for why something gets made a genre,” notes Vlad, who’s worked and promoted extensively across the spectrum.
The main styles associated with the city’s EDM scene are dubstep (135-145 bpm) and drum-and-bass/jungle (175-180 bpm), which sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.

“120 to 125 is known as house. At 125 to 135, it’s garage. You can play these songs at a faster bpm, but this is how they are in their original pressing. 135 to 145 is usually called dubstep; 145 to 155 could be hardstyle or gabber; 145 to 165 is juke/footwork. At around 175 to 180, I would put drum-and-bass/jungle — but again, you can drop those down to play with the other stuff. Now that’s only one way of coining the genres.”

Near-infinite sub-genres are created by adapting certain genre-specific sounds to different bpms, or fusing elements. These sub-genres are often named after their city of origin, e.g., “Chicago house,” “Miami bass” and so on.

The equipment employed by DJs to administer these sounds varies as widely as the sounds themselves.

“Some people would probably look down on my way of doing it,” Vlad explains. “I use a MIDI controller for presenting the music. A lot of the old turntable heads don’t really see it as mixing or being a DJ, per se. … I try to massage that situation, because I definitely agree that it’s a whole lot easier, not using vinyl, and we must respect that. Bringing the equipment in — crates, 80 pounds of [turntable] decks, and having to physically pull that vinyl, instead of just scrolling down a screen.

“My way of doing it is just presenting the music that I like the most without train-wrecking the song. I’m basically beat-matching through Traktor S2; it goes right into one track on any mixer that’s already on the table. … The fact is, I do have a little bit of a cheat by not having to have a crate (of records) or beat-match solely by ear; I have a visual breakdown on the computer of what the bpm is, where the first beat is and all that, so I try to fit in more tracks to a set.”

‘You start to feel responsible’

After Vlad started Crunchay Sunday with Combustible, SethEdemik and Giz-Roc, it ran every week for three years straight, before ending on Feb. 24, 2013.

“I needed a break from the weekly grind. There was also a bit of bitterness; after three years, you kinda feel like the grampa of the movement. And natural progression: You kinda start losing some support, people get tired of the same idea. In many cases, people became promoters themselves, DJs themselves, so the kids that were my crowd took on projects themselves, they wanted to host nights, and it was harder to ask people to come support. I didn’t want to give my baby away.”

There were also issues related to the perception of EDM — namely drugs, and specifically the rise of Molly, aka MDMA. Drugs have always been a part of the EDM scene from day one, but Molly’s popularity exploded from the dance floor onto the mainstream stage, thanks to vocal advocacy from artists like Rick Ross, Lil’ Wayne and, most notably, Miley Cyrus. Nowadays, it’s more likely that the drugs draw people to the music than vice-versa, but the perception dogged Crunchay for years.

“You see people strung-out; it gets ugly sometimes,” he says. “I had to start saying things about it, and to some degree I felt like people were getting upset with me for calling them out. … Putting on these events, you start to feel responsible, and when you see these kids in bad spots, you start to feel responsible for their well-being. It started to take a toll on my psyche a little bit.”
Of course, such concerns are nothing new. EDM and synthetic drugs are linked in the minds of the general public, much like marijuana was with jazz and LSD with psychedelic rock — or whiskey with country music, for that matter. The sounds and the drugs are different, but the overall dynamic is quite similar.

“I think what the chemicals tend to do is probably streamline that climactic feeling,” Vlad says. “If you’re really cognitive listening to music, the climax will catch you by itself; you don’t need anything else. But if you’re on a chemical, the climax is constantly coming at you, so you don’t even really have to be cognizant of the music; it surrounds you.”

The end of Crunchay Sundays did nothing to curb his relentless schedule; if anything, the event’s demise gave Vlad the freedom to get busy like never before. To that end, he’s begun integrating brother Leo’s violin more into his own sets, and expanding his events to include a more diverse mix of live music and electronica.

A busy holiday season includes a new Crunchay Sunday at TSI on Dec. 15 and a New Year’s Eve gig at 1904 Music Hall. Crunchay also expanded into Tallahassee earlier this year.

“I want to keep the idealistic view of building up music in Jacksonville,” he says. “I don’t plan on going anywhere.” 

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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