The Sly Life: Music-Biz Escapee Matt Robinson Finds Happiness as DJ Mattnifique
Matt Robinson, a.k.a. DJ Mattnifique, is fluent in a lingo all his own. It’s Philly street slang, colored with old-school hip-hop and a dash of New Age yoga speak, all strung together in a bright but lazy grammatical train wreck that, coming from him, sounds somehow right. Hang around him long enough and you’ll be tempted to loosen your own linguistic reins, to slip in some ain’ts and yos and joints, to let your participles dangle freely and rearrange your subjects and your predicates however you damn well please. To top it off, Robinson punctuates his snazzy, jazzy sentences with telling clicks and knowing clacks, plus an infinite array of dramatic facial expressions that add to his already-expressive, up-the-ass style of delivery.
We met for juice at Nature Well in Silver Lake to discuss his trajectory. After a couple minutes of requisite flirty banter, he blurts: “Yo, so what you wanna axe me, yo?”
Just like that, we’re off and running. Robinson, whose father was the original Gordon on Sesame Street, came to Malibu by way of Philly in ’74, back when the Beverly Center was an amusement park and Topanga Beach was dotted with rickety lean-tos, shacks and longboarders. He surfed his way through his SoCal adolescence with high hopes of being the world’s first black professional surfer. But a glandular condition ravaged his young, cold, saltwater-soaked scrotum, and he was forced to retire his board and take to the shore.
Luckily, Sly and the Family Stone came to the rescue and took our young hero even higher than he’d imagined.
“Sly did it,” Robinson says of the moment that music swept in and stole his soul. “They offered up a whole new concept of arrangement, talking ’bout love, peace, motivation — you can make it if you try — black and white, boys and girls, all of it,” he says, bouncing to a funk classic playing in his memory. “It was just the best shit ever.”
He tells me this only a week after celebrating Sly’s birthday with the legend himself at Zanzibar, where he performed a sampling of classic hits.
“Were you flipping the fuck out?” I ask.
“No, I was pretty much in a coma — couldn’t believe what the fuck was going on.”
His love for the Family Stone led him to the bass. He and Chad McQueen (Steve’s son) started a band when they were in high school, but Robinson got the boot when his amp wasn’t big enough. After school, he formed a new-wave power trio called the Barking Spiders (“I was rockin’ the purple Mohawk,” he boasts) that got the attention of a slew of record companies, but Robinson chucked rock stardom for an education, and headed back east for NYU.
“I rolled into New York right at the birth of hip-hop,” he gushed. “It was at its purest point, not that radio bullshit you hear today.”
Soon enough, Robinson was spinning. He started underground and, soon after, opened up his own spot, Funky Reggae, with Sean MacPherson, in the mid-’80s. It blew up fast and attracted the coolest cats on the scene — Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Stevie Wonder. It wasn’t long before the record companies snatched him up.
“I wound up going with Chris Blackwell because he was just the coolest,” Robinson says, after explaining all the backstabbing and trash-talking that went on among the record folk courting him. “He talked supreme game and he discovered Bob Marley. That was pretty much all I needed.”
And so he “rolled with Chris” at Island Records, signed a bunch of kickin’ bands and burned out on the whole industry fairly quickly, even before he took one last job as vice president of A&R at Capitol Records.
“It was pretty much the worst gig ever,” he says. “Too much corporate bullshit. It didn’t have much to do with music at all.”
It was between “trying to find some new shit to do” and “searchin’ for the happiness” that he found his records again. He got in with some young DJs, started “diggin’ through old gold,” spinning a few parties, and found his happy. Still, he was far from killin’ it.
“I cleared the dance floor a bunch of times,” he admits. “I totally sucked.”
When he figured out that his old-school hip-hop wasn’t cutting it, Robinson started sniffing around the sound scene, discovered Brazilian music and Afro Beat and, all of a sudden, he says, “it started to get good to me.” As Robinson started to make a name for himself, again on the DJ circuit, “those broke-ass actors I used to hang with back in the day” heard about him and tracked him down. Next thing he knew, he was deejaying for Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Randy Gerber swooped him up to spin at his Stone Rose Lounge, and the rest is history.
Watching Robinson DJ is an event unto itself. He sings and dances while he spins, acting out the lyrics, miming various instruments with un-self-conscious abandon. No one plays air anything — guitar, drums, keys, horns — like Robinson. He takes the stance, he fingers the notes and rocks every piece of every arrangement like he wrote the chords himself.
When Robinson found his way to Ashtanga yoga a few years back, he says, “that’s when it got really vibrant.” During his two-hour, six-day-a-week morning practice, he met yoga teacher Joan Hyman: “Wicked practice, body out of control ... I was always staring at her, fucking up my drishti [gaze].”
Hyman asked him to put together some tracks for the Vinyasa Flow classes she teaches at Center for Yoga. The music amped up her classes big time and it wasn’t long before they decided to put it all together. These days, Robinson deejays her Friday-afternoon classes — he sits in lotus, turntables on the floor and mixes up “really inner-soul sound music” — smooth funk, samba, soul, Indian grooves, Neil Young, the occasional dollop of Radiohead.
“And then it got supernice,” Robinson says. “... and now I do it every Friday. It’s my favorite DJ gig ever.”
He still spins at Stone Rose, and at the Circle Bar in Venice, but his heart is in the yoga, the only gig that doesn’t pay him in dollars, but feeds his soul for real.
“And at the end, the students all clap for me — polite applause,” he tells me, happy, humble, proud. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m so adult now ...’”
We burst out laughing in the same moment.
Robinson DJs Saturday nights at the Stone Rose Lounge at Sofitel L.A., 8555 Beverly Blvd., L.A., and Tuesday nights at the Circle Bar, 2926 Main St., Venice. Friday afternoons at 4:30 p.m. he’s at Joan Hyman’s Vinyasa Flow class at the YogaWorks Center for Yoga, 230 N. Larchmont Blvd., L.A.
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