Updated April 23, 2014 at 1:22 p.m.
If his catchy stage moniker doesn’t catch your eye, sophomore DJ Lean Quatifah is confident that his thousands of brightly colored stickers emblazoned with an “LQ” logo on city lamp posts, garbage cans and stop signs will.
Quatifah has gained popularity in D.C. clubs and the internet soundscape, boasting mixes with hundreds of plays on SoundCloud that fuse house and trap, a genre with roots in Southern hip hop. And he’s put almost as much emphasis on perfecting his image and mystique as he has on putting together the perfect mix.
His marketing effort with promotional stickers is also a form of vandalism under D.C. law, so the sophomore only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
Over winter break, Quatifah said he spent $170 on 6,000 stickers – a supply that’s dwindled to about 2,000 as he plasters them across city and campus walls. When social media and stickering fall short, ingenuity compensates: In a promotional campaign he called “Lean Quat-Easter,” he place 96 flash drives of his music in plastic Easter eggs across campus.
“The local marketing is very visual based. You have to spend money so people see your name,” he said.
Quatifah said establishing a presence offline entails constant outreach to local clubs, including Flash on U Street, Tropicalia and Ultrabar. The effort is difficult in a city already saturated with aspiring DJs and producers.
But he has landed gigs at Lima, Rosebar and Malmaison alongside Australian DJ Bass Kleph and mash-up artist Trademark. He typically earns about $100 per hour at shows.
“I have the marketability to be like, ‘I’m young, I’m musical, I have a lot of friends in D.C. who can come listen, and I’ve been deejaying for four years now, so I’m not going to fuck up or mess up your sound system,’” Quatifah said.
Omar Popal, co-owner of Malmaison in Georgetown, said credibility and marketability matters when booking DJs for the restaurant’s entertainment space.
“We turn a lot of [DJs] away because we want to maintain a brand. I’m looking for people who have a good sound and a good following,” said Popal, an alumnus.
“A number of times I’ve been playing a song and I’m like, ‘God, I love this song, this is so great,’ and in the next second the promoter is yelling in my ear, ‘Go back to Top 40! There’s no one buying drinks!’” – Lean Quatifah
Building that following takes more than bombarding friends with SoundCloud links, said Garrett Lockhart, who graduated in 2013 and deejayed under the name GLock.
As an undergraduate, Lockhart promoted himself with stealth flyers across campus. (GW Housing has to approve all flyers before they appear in residence halls.) He also ordered hundreds of stickers with his logo – a combat plane from the Star Fox video game series – and 150 T-shirts in a semester to give to club bouncers, students and promoters.
Lockhart, who graduated in 2013, piqued the interest of local booking agents at Lima and the now-defunct Sweet Spot – as long as he could rally a congregation of college students.
“When [clubs] asked me to play a show, I thought it was because I was talented, but really it had a lot more to do with who I knew and my position as a college kid,” Lockhart said. “They were just trying to make it as convenient as possible for GW kids to show up.”
Quatifah said playing D.C.’s high-profile club scene at venues like Lima can mean compromising between artistry and popularity. Promoters want to draw crowds and make money on drink sales, he said, which means DJs have to cater to calls for popular radio hits.
“A number of times I’ve been playing a song and I’m like, ‘God, I love this song, this is so great,’ and in the next second the promoter is yelling in my ear, ‘Go back to Top 40! There’s no one buying drinks!’” he said.
But he said he wants to establish himself as a DJ who “straddles the line of what the crowd wants to hear and what they want the crowd to hear.”
He started deejaying in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., where he said he felt like an “outlier” because he used electronic media in a city revered for live guitar music. A friend suggested his alias, a play on the name “Queen Latifah,” while binging on trashy television when they were teenagers.
His “Sounds of Summer” mix, which features blends of Bibio’s “Lovers’ Carvings” and Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You,” took five days of mixing, editing and thoughtful attention to the theory behind song transitions, he said. Quatifah played piano for nine years and performed in a male a capella group throughout high school.
“There’s a lot to real instrumentation and being a musician. You can’t really make it anywhere without having some artistic element to what you do. DJs don’t get famous for their deejaying, they get famous for their productions,” he said.