“Ian Denbow has had a name in the local rave scene for as long as I can remember since I moved to DC. That’s since been amplified now that Malphunktion – Ian as Daniella Downs with Andrew Prince as DJ aMp – has come to the forefront of lots of party lineups. Ian’s also done a great job at branding the Symbiotic Block Party which has gained a lot of recognition. It’s really cool to see their brand thrive in a market where funky music has taken a backseat to “bass music” genres. Ian and Symbiotic partner Andrew have really helped redevelop the popularity of house music in the Northeast rave scene.” – Chad Bozzarelli aka DJ 2rip
Symbiotic – synonymous with stupendous – has a single-minded mission: “To throw events that take you back to a time when everyone knew each other and nothing else mattered.” The driving force behind such legendary magic as their “Back to the Future” party with its time travel tunnel and hover boards, and “When in Rome” where toga-draped ravers frolicked between Forum columns – and the much-anticipated upcoming “Thunderdome” – is Alexandria’s Ian Denbow aka DJ Daniella Downs.
The indefatigable and infamously impertinent Denbow with the curious deejay name was born in Leesburg, son of a WUSA-TV Channel 9 engineer into country music and his Nature Conversancy-employed mother who loved Motown. Denbow – who still loves the funk and soul of Motown – also grew up with pop music. In high school he listened to WKYS and WHFS, enjoyed punk, ska, rude boy music and NIN, and played guitar and bass in basement bands.
Denbow lived in New York briefly and after returning to DC, went with a friend to Buzz at Capital Ballroom (Nation) in 1997. “I was like, wow, this is like stuff you see on TV! The first Buzz I really remember was Fatboy Slim, and after that I was hooked.” Ever since, Denbow has poured his skills and passion into the electronic dance music scene, his contributions including moderating the Buzzboard, reviewing music on international messageboards such as Nuskoolbreaks.com, providing critical label support for major breaks labels including Meat Katie’s LOT49, becoming an in-demand multi-genre deejay, and throwing – with Essential Breaks and Symbiotic – unforgettable rave events known for their mind-blowing decor and genuine old school vibe.
Scott Henry, legendary co-founder of Buzz and Fever, affirms: “Ian eats, breathes and sleeps THE RAVE. His excitement and enthusiasm are more than apparent in person or online – plus he’s not a bad deejay to boot.”
On Tap was excited to meet with Ian Denbow over a small mountain of sushi rolls at Sushi-Zen in Arlington.
On Tap: Why do you have a female DJ moniker?
Ian Denbow: I started out as DJ Mirage but discovered another deejay in Florida with the same name, so I told my girlfriend at the time Darcy that I wanted a slutty girl’s name because no one else would have that and that’s what she came up with. I kind of wish I hadn’t chosen that name because talking to people who don’t know anything about the rave scene they look at you like, what?
OT: Where did your tag-team moniker “Malphunktion” come from?
ID: Andrew and I played for a good while as DJ aMp vs. Daniella Downs and friends said, seriously, you need to come up with a single name that’s easier to push. Also, it relegates you to not so good placement on flyers because it’s so long. One day I thought: “dysfunction” – “malfunction” – “ph” and “k” – done! We play funky and disco house, but recently we played drum ‘n’ bass, too. We play breaks sometimes but it’s 99 per cent funky house with breaks thrown in. This year we’ve opened for Aphrodite (drum ‘n’ bass), Icey (breaks), and Feelgood (house).
OT: When did you first realize you liked edm?
ID: After high school graduation we went to Ocean City and my friend had Robert Miles’ “Dreamland” on CD. Listening to it I thought, this is not so bad, I kind of like it. Actually in ’90 or ’91 my mom and I were driving to New Jersey to see my grandmother and some early dance song by 2 Unlimited or Technotronic came on and I remember my mom saying, I don’t really like this, and I was like, me neither. Funny how life has worked out. (laughs) Robert Miles’ “Children” will always hold a special place for me – the first dance song I really heard and paid attention to.
’96-’97-’98 is my favorite dance music era. I could listen to it all night. Nothing since has done it for me as much, understandably because that’s when I started. I’m sure if I’d started in 2007 I’d love dubstep most. There was no Internet yet really so you use the tools at your disposal which then were MTV and WHFS at midnight – by the way, Zoltar is playing Legacy at the Paradox in Baltimore – that blows my mind. Anyway, after I went to Buzz on New Year’s Eve, 1999 going into 2000, I was there every week. I immersed myself fully in the scene.
OT: When did you decide to start deejaying?
ID: Around 2001, I moved in with my friend Eileen who was a house deejay. She had turntables and records. I didn’t have a job. Doing nothing all day, I thought I might as well try to figure this out. It’s funny that I play funky house now because that’s what I learned on because that’s what she played. She ended up moving and I got to keep her turntables and records. She has them back now but then I just practiced all the time. My first gig was for her ex-boyfriend in Pittsburgh but my first gig around here was for Randy McDill (DJ Proxxy), a party called Buzz Anthology at the Warehouse (Club 24) at 6 o’clock in the morning.I was nervous as hell. Took a nap, woke up, Randy picked me up at 5 a.m. There was barely anyone there but it didn’t matter because my name was on the flyer.
OT: What was the first record you ever bought?
ID: I don’t remember but the first record I was given was Cassius’s “1999” – by Eileen because she knew I really liked it. To this day she’s like my big sister.
OT: You have a reputation for being, how shall we say it – abrasive?
ID: I’ve always been a proponent of using the Internet to your advantage, even if it’s just amplifying your personality. I got on DCRaves and started talking to people, making friends. The more infamous you are on the Internet, people want to meet you. When my tag-team partner Andrew and I opened for Aphrodite we checked in with the girl at the door and she goes, you’re Ian Denbow!? It was awesome. The more unique you make yourself the more people want to know you.
OT: You get to say that you spun at Buzz – what was your best Buzz moment?
ID: I want to say opening for Lee Coombs in the main room for the first time at Buzz because he was my idol. When they opened the curtain to the main room – I was like, I’m playing the main room at Buzz! But I’d have to say taking second place in that Scion DJ Contest, because for the finals I was so completely hammered and one of the turntables wasn’t working right and magically started working the minute before I had to play. I was freaking out and later people told me the panel of judges – Scott Henry, DJ Sun and others – were like, that dude’s really good. I was cool with second place. That has to be Number 1 because when they announced it I was like, really!?
OT: What was it like working with all the major breaks labels?
ID: When I was a reviewer on the UK Nuskoolbreaks board, breaks were obscenely popular. I lived in San Francisco at the time – the breaks mecca in the late 2000’s. When breaks deejays came to town – not the headliners but the mid-lining talent – they’d stay with me because I knew them all. Hexadecimal stayed on my futon four days, never went to his hotel. After reviewing a while I approached my favorite label, Sinister, and basically asked if I could be their lackey. I did promotion for them and Dead Famous, Elite Force, U&A, Aquasky’s Passenger label – really nice guys, and other labels. The Breakspoll Awards (London) was one of the most awesome parties I’ve been to, ever. At 5 a.m. I was still like, let’s go, walking around talking to all these big breaks people – it was amazing. Once I started working for Lot49 – Mark Pember/Meat Katie’s label, they were actually paying me. I was posting on 80 messageboards. One thing I learned is if you want people to work for you, you have to make sure they feel appreciated. If they feel you appreciate them, they’ll bust their ass for you. I’ve been talking to Disco Bomb, a house label, about helping out with media work because I really like a lot of their tunes.
OT: Noticed your interview with Evan Weinstein of Steez Promo on your Facebook page – so you’ve added journalism to your resume?
ID: (laughs) I made a list of people I’m going to interview. I think Evan was sixth. Basically I’m a jackass in these interviews. I don’t think many people could get away with that, but I can. I’m purposefully interviewing people who wouldn’t take it seriously and my goal is to show that they have a sense of humor and humanize them a little because i think it's easier to like someone you can relate to.
OT: How did Symbiotic come about?
ID: About two years ago Andrew and I, Trigga Happy Chad, John of Good Vibes, Anthony and Danielle and others were throwing parties at Ground Zero in Baltimore – a bunch of people from different crews who were friends with the same people – and we needed a name to describe our situation. I think Andrew came up with Symbiotic. Before that I was throwing parties with Essential Breaks. Our first Symbiotic party was Red, White and Blown (2010) at the Ground Zero – a post-apocalyptic 4th of July party. No one has anything on Danielle on decor – she does faux finishing for a living. Our friend Josh found us the front end of a ’65 Corvette – we hung it on the wall. For “When In Rome” (2010) we faux finished paper and wrapped it around metal pipes and they looked like columns.
“Back to the Future” (2010) was a nightmare. We’d booked Cut La Roc and a week before he found out he couldn’t come over, visa problem. Then at the party some kid whose story was that he has ADHD shut off the power, so in the middle of the party the electricity in the entire Loft goes out. You know Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens? His cousin, I think his name is Matt, starts singing that Zombie Nation “Kernkraft 400” sports chant and half the party is chanting it in the dark! Two minutes later, the power comes back on and Security’s got the kid. That was great.
We decorated the main and side rooms half old school rave and half “Back to the Future.” Andrew made hover boards – painted them pink and they had little lights on the bottom. Andrew goes OUT for this stuff! We hung black drapes in the hallway all the way to the back, hung black lights from the ceiling, got yellow and orange and black reflective tape we cut into strips – it was like in “Star Wars” when they go into warp speed, so when you’re walking down the hallway it was like walking through time. Then you get to the Loft side and it’s decorated like the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance. I don’t think anyone’s decorated the Loft half as good as we did that night.
OT: Pretty cool that you got Scott Henry to play Superfunkidiculous 2 in February.
ID: The first Superfunkidiculous was at Ground Zero in 2007. We had 1000 people, which was hard to do then. Right after, I moved to San Diego and Andrew went back to school in Florida. We saw people trying to do warehouse parties so we figured the time was finally right for Superfunkidiculous 2 because we knew we could do it better than anybody else, so we did. An hour into the party we were sold out. I don’t care what party happens the rest of this year – that was the best party of 2012. I realize I’m kind of biased but in the middle of the party, Meat Katie looks at me and says, you throw the best raves in America. Thank you, Meat Katie! (laughs)
OT: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten on your parties?
ID: I’ll put it this way. Chad/DJ 2rip does this big party every year called Big Dub Candy Mountain that Malphunktion plays. This year Andrew decided for our campsite we should build a castle. I can’t even do this justice without showing it to you. (looks for photos on smart phone) It was lit up with black lights and you could walk into it. It took months. People remember our campsite because it was absolutely ridiculous. Higher than this ceiling. People were asking, is this a stage? No, this is our campsite. Our friend Jon printed out pictures of our faces and put our heads on stakes and hung them up on top. (laughs) People understand about our parties that we want the young people but we want our generation to come out, too. We know they will, if enticed enough. Vibe at parties nowadays doesn’t happen – it’s nowhere close to what it used to be. But people have told us that the vibe at our parties is awesome. It’s what we go for. When people tell us that, we’re like, excellent!
OT: Symbiotic’s stated mission is: “To throw events that take you back to a time when everyone knew each other and nothing else mattered.”
ID: Aw, yeah! It’s not like that anymore. I go to parties now, and I don’t know. Back in the day you’d just go and everyone knew each other and it was fun and there was a vibe. When we do the Symbiotic Block Parties, we get that vibe. Our areas are pretty good at getting that vibe. It’s like a house party whether at a club or outdoors. You say what’s up to everybody because you know everybody and it’s a legitimate party. That’s what we go for. I don’t think people do this well nowadays. We do. I realize I’m tooting my own horn here, but people just know when they come to our parties they’re going to have a fun time.
OT: What makes your vibe so different?
ID: I think it’s because we understand it’s essential and we go for it. Partly it’s the styles of music that we book, like I’m not going to book a rrrangh-rrangh-rrangh dubstep person because it’s not going to get me that. And I think it’s because we’re older and able to appeal to the older crowd, too. With just the young kids you’re not going to get that as much. Then there’s not the family – it’s like half the family. I think by virtue of having people from different rave generations being there, it’s more of the family vibe. The older crowd understands that whole family vibe. That’s the way it was at Buzz. The kids nowadays don’t have that. They have different parties every week. They don’t have the “Buzz is like my home, I go there every week to be with my family” feeling, so that whole concept is lost. Incorporating a good mixture of the new and the old kind of teaches them a little and by just being there, they catch on to it. It makes me feel really good.
OT: You are such a curious combination of challenging and endearing.
ID: I think in order to really succeed you have to try to do things better than everybody else. I’ve done years of work in the trenches. I’m really good at paying attention and really good at taking notes and I think I have a pretty firm grasp at this point of how things should be. Doing what we’ve been able to do is all about showing people what made us love it and teaching them how to do it. I was 30 when I realized that in my 20’s I knew nothing. But we are supposed to pass on the knowledge, mentor the new generation so they get how things are supposed to be done so when we’re done throwing parties, they’re throwing parties. We’re teaching the ones we think will be good teachers later.
OT: What drives you?
ID: Honestly? Being better than everybody else. I am so driven at being better. Really, you never really know that you are, but remember the guy in the movie “Groove” talking about “the nod”? For me it’s all about “the nod.” I remember watching the movie and going, it’s cheesy but it’s true. People will be like, that was an AMAZING party. That’s what keeps you going. That and being better than everybody else. (laughs) Couldn’t be too sentimental – had to throw in an asshole comment. I come across like an asshole on the Internet but it’s a marketing ploy, just a persona created for people to want to know you. I’m actually a nice person.
OT: There’s so much buzz for Thunderdome – what can you tell us about it?
ID: Andrew and his team are hell bent on turning the Paradox into post-apocalypse. We’re working with this legendary Baltimore dance crew called Dark Matter which used to be called the Liquid Pop Collective that brings in dancers from all over the country for workshops. Lucas (Johnson) and Jared (Hupp) are the main guys. Lucas hit me up and said, I have a proposition for you. I was at a warehouse party in February listening to Meat Katie – your party – and it was so ridiculous we want you to help us throw our afterparty. I was like, this could be different. So how it’s working out is we have two rooms of music and in the back of the Paradox we’re building the Thunderdome, which will be the Dark Matter showcase dance battle room. No one’s done anything like this before – right? What we’re about to do – half rave/half dance battle – is a first. I don’t think a lot of people get that yet. We’re already planning next year’s. We know when people walk out of that party, aside from the fact that they’ll have just been to a party with a Thunderdome in it, they’ll be like, I’ve never been to anything like that before. Our goal for every party is to have everyone walking out the door saying that, and we’re pretty sure we’re going to get that!
Hear Malphunktion (DJ Daniella Downs + DJ aMp) (drum ‘n’ bass set) at Dub FX with Flower Fairy on Wednesday, October 24, 10 p.m.; U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC; www.ustreetmusichall.com; and (funky house set) at Psychedelic Nightmare 2012 on Saturday, October 27, 7 p.m.; Echostage: 2135 Queens Chapel Rd. NE, DC; www.echostage.com. For more events and information on Ian Denbow/Daniella Downs/Malphunktion and Symbiotic events, please see these Web sites: www.facebook.com/MalphunktionBmore and www.facebook.com/SymbioticBmore.