Three-time DMC World Champion DJ Craze is brash, bold, and very Miami. He travels the world breaking records and reminding his peers what #RealDJing is all about, while never leaving his hometown behind. He's lived all over the city, but Sweetwater and Wynwood hold a special place in his heart. It was in the suburban hood of Sweetwater that he first touched turntables, and it's in Wynwood's exciting Arts District that he and his peers push the city's modern cultural envelope. It also happens to be where met his wife some two decades ago, so, y'know, that's kind of special. We sat down to talk to DJ Craze about the Miami neighborhoods he loves.
VICE: When did you move to Miami?
DJ Craze: I first moved to San Francisco when I was three, from Nicaragua. The Revolutionary War was poppin' off or whatever the fuck they call it. Some kind of war was happening, so my parents decided to jet. They first moved to San Francisco to Daly City. We lived there for two years, and then my mom couldn't stand the cold, so we moved to sunny Miami. That was in 1982.
What were your first impressions?
After living in a couple different areas of Miami like Little Havana and the Coral Way area, we moved to Sweetwater. We lived there for a couple of years, my middle school years. This is when I first started getting into music heavy. I was in band class, I was getting into hip-hop and all that cool stuff. My brother was getting into DJing. He's an older brother by about five years. Me and my parents moved to Kendall, but he stayed in Sweetwater, and my parents didn't want to move me from that school. I would go to school, take a bus, and go to his house every day after school and chill there until my parents could come and pick me up. That's where I would stay and practice DJing. This was closer to the '90s.
What was the musical atmosphere like at that time?
It was all about freestyle music and Miami Bass. Culture was just that. There was no hip-hop back then. It was just Miami Bass, Uncle Luke and 2Live, all that shit, and freestyle music like Connie and Stevie B and people like that. It was really Miami. It was really dance-based party music, and that was the vibe.
What were the block parties all about?
My brother and my cousin, they started this DJ thing to make money. They weren't really passionate about music or DJing. Every hood had a DJ, so they wanted to be that for Sweetwater. They bought DJ equipment. They bought speakers, and they just started getting booked to do parties around the block. I would just roll with them and check out all these parties where they would play merengue, salsa, bass, and freestyle music. It was crazy. All these Latin motherfuckers dancing to all this crazy shit, and I'm a little kid just peepin' all this shit. But I thought it was cool that my brother and my cousin were controlling the vibe and I was like, "Yo, this is kinda cool, this is what I want to do." Being a DJ was cool. Everybody was sweatin' them, and the whole bringing the turntables and setting it up, that shit just attracted me.
How has the neighborhood changed? Do you still see that culture reflected there?
It's totally different now. I'm pretty sure there's one or two DJs that get booked to do block parties, but that whole era of DJing has gone and producers have taken over. I haven't really been to Sweetwater in the last couple years, but when I drive by there, it still looks the same. It's still Sweetwater.
Do you still know the best places to grab some grub?
Hell yeah. All around Miami there's this thing called Fritanga. It's the Nicaraguan spot, and since Sweetwater is considered Little Managua, there's a bunch of them around there. There's this one spot called Fritanga Monimbo, that's the spot to go to for food. And there's this legendary dessert spot called Raspados Loly. It's been there since we moved to Miami, so it's been there forever. Loly is that person's last name, I forget who the hell started it, they have to be old as fuck now, but it's the spot for this dessert that's basically a slushie with dulce leche on top of it, and they got Entemann's butter pound cake. It's the bomb. I take everybody there every time they come to Miami. It's the spot for dessert. Everybody's been going there for years, I've been going there since I was a kid. Other than that, Sweetwater is just another hood.
Any other advice for tourists in Sweetwater?
You better know Spanish, because I don't think a lot of people speak English. Everywhere you go, you've got to order shit in Spanish, because it's Little Managua, but nothing crazy. You don't have to roll strapped up. You're good. You gotta lock your car, but that's about it.
When did you first go to Wynwood and what were your first impressions of it?
Wynwood was very hood-y and shit, but it was where, back in the '90s growing up in the hip-hop golden era, Zulu Nation had meetups. It wasn't a gang. It wasn't about violence. It wasn't about drugs. It wasn't about getting money. It was about peace, love, unity, respect, and all that good shit hip-hop used to be about. They had their meetings in Wynwood in Roberto Clemente Park. They'd talk about cool stuff, books, they would train the Shaka Zulus there which were the dudes that would go to clubs and act as security guards for all these hip-hop clubs. This was pre-Internet too, so we needed this back then. We needed somewhere to gather to talk about different things, talk about different ideas …
Also, this guy DJ Raw lived in Wynwood, and he would throw this free party called HoodStock for the kids. He would throw it at the park, and he would bring down all these dope hip-hop acts, like Smif-N-Wessun, Black Moon, Original Gun Clappaz, and he would put local acts with all these people that he would bring down. It was somewhere cool to go and experience hip-hop. Years later, he would get locked up for drug trafficking, but this dude was amazing. He was like our little El Chapo or our Pablo [Escobar]. He was doing what he had to do on the side, but he was giving money back to the community and putting on these cool hip-hop shows.
Is that how the graffiti got started in that area? Was that already happening?
From what I remember, all the graffiti started later, but Wynwood was definitely a breeding ground for the hip-hop culture. It was an inner-city place, but that's where hip-hop used to be. It was the spot where things were happening at that time. It was almost like our Bronx, where all the hip-hop started and the culture had that energy. And then it would eventually become what it is now.
When do you remember it first starting to change in the sense that it is what it is now?
I don't even know. When did all these clubs appear? Like five years ago? When did they start all that gentrification and stuff in Wynwood?
I remember it being about five years ago. I remember going there and Panther Coffee was there, and nobody was around.
I remember just going there one time and I was like "What the fuck is all this shit?" I remember going to Bardot the first time and going to Gigi's the first time and thinking "Wow, they're building shit around here now. This used to be the ghe-tto, the hood hood hood." Nobody wanted to go there, and then I remember going to (Northwest Second Avenue) and thinking "Wow, this is going to be the cool spot now. It's artsy now." But it's well needed because the Beach sucks.
Where are some of your favorite places in Wynwood?
Gramps bar, because the vibe is cool. It's very Miami-ish. There's the open-air space and the inside bar. Definitely Coyo [Taco] because the food is great and [the owner] Sven is awesome. He's always picking the right DJs and putting on dope nights. The Electric Pickle is another dope spot, as is Bardot. All these clubs are very cool, and I love how they're not trying to do what the Beach does.
What would you tell someone from out of town about Wynwood?
If you're gonna go to Miami and you want to do something cool, you want to do something the locals do, the new spot is Wynwood because you won't feel like a tourist. If you want to experience Miami how Miami is happening right now, I think Wynwood is the one.