FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Meet Vladimir Putin’s Official DJ
A 32-year-old Russian knob wizard who goes by DJ Fenix recently became the first turntablist to perform a DJ set at the Kremlin. He opens up about Putin, Russia, and house.
Contrary to the cinematic exploits of Tom Cruise, namely Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the Kremlin still stands tall. Over the years, Moscow’s “fortress inside a city” has withstood the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Polish occupation during the Time of Troubles, Catherine the Great’s stallion sex, and Napoleon’s explosives. It currently serves as the official residence of the oft-shirtless, bear-wrestling President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin also serves as a house of entertainment, hosting chanson performers, Tchaikovsky symphonies, Ravi Shankar (see: Inside the Kremlin), and ballet. But on November 19, the 520-year-old governmental complex was given a heavy dose of big room house when DJ Fenix became the first DJ ever to spin at the House That Ivan the Great Built.
It was the 2nd Annual Musicbox Awards, a nascent TV channel dedicated to music, and DJ Fenix was not only commissioned to create an official anthem for the show, but also nominated for Best DJ (an award he eventually won). So, he asked if he could perform. According to reports, the lineup had to be vetted by Putin himself—although DJ Fenix remains tight-lipped on the subject of the controversial Russian leader.
“Somebody from very up high at the Kremlin authorized the whole lineup,” Fenix says with a grin. “There was a lot of security there.”
DJ Fenix’s Kremlin bash was actually his second Putin-approved set. The first came when he was invited to play at Putin’s second inauguration prior to his speech—effectively opening for the man ex-President George W. Bush used to affectionately refer to as “Pootie-Poot.” When asked if he’s heard whether Putin is a fan of or listens to EDM music, DJ Fenix laughs.
“He hasn’t said anything officially!” he says. “What do you say here? No comment!”
As for the history-making house set at the Kremlin, DJ Fenix says that the reaction from the crowd was one of confusion, with most audience members sitting in their seats with their arms folded.
“We played the Kremlin, and it was an entirely new instrument,” says Fenix. “DJ music is very different for these people in Russia because they still listen to chanson music and see ballet, so it was funny. People were expecting to hear chanson music and the announcer said, ‘And now… DJ Fenix,’ and everyone turned their heads and said, ‘DJ?’ It was very unusual for Russia.” He adds, “A few people got up to dance, but most people didn’t know how to react.”
DJ Fenix’s real name is Alex Mamonov, and he’s 28. He was recently named one of the most eligible bachelor’s in Russia by Cosmopolitan magazine, and when he’s not serving as the Kremlin’s “official house DJ,” he’s spinning private gigs for some serious Russian elites, from the likes to Prime Minister Medvedev to Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. His father, strangely enough, is a high-ranking member of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), formerly the KGB, but instead of choosing to follow Dad’s footsteps into the military, he chose the life of a jet-setting DJ.
He’s here in New York to play his first Big Apple gigs, including sold-out shows at the clubs Provocateur and Marquee, and is part of a new wave of Russian DJs—including popular acts like Arty, Zedd, and Swanky Tunes.
“It’s new wave, new power, and new energy,” says Fenix. “It’s young love. Chanson music is very popular in Russia, but people want this new energy. The EDM community is so strong that it is uniting people across the world. It’s a multibillion dollar industry.”
DJ Fenix has been spinning for 12 years, and while EDM music is gaining popularity in Russia—he says Russian fans enjoy remixes of Rihanna and Lana Del Rey the most—DJs are still considered to be “underground” artists and have a hard time getting placed in magazines and on TV shows. Also, even though he says “banks and mobile companies have started to invest in EDM music in Russia,” it’s very hard for DJs get paid any royalties in Russia on their music since the country has no infrastructure in place for receiving royalties for placing your music in other media, like TV commercials or movies.
“If you want to release music in Russia, you do it only to promote your gigs,” he says. “A big reason why I come to America is that royalties work everywhere else—except in Russia. The government is trying to reorganize it, but I’ll write music for fashion shows, movies, or corporations, but I don’t get money for it. My Russian agency can’t collect money for it because they don’t know how to track it.”
Another thing that makes it tough on Russian DJs—and another big reason why they play most of their gigs in America or Europe—is that Russia has blocked all online streaming music services, and since it’s an uphill battle for them to get on the radio, it’s very difficult for DJs there to circulate their music to the EDM-hungry masses.
“In Russia, we don’t have Spotify, Pandora, SoundCloud or too many services to download and share music,” he says. “We listen to music from local Internet pages, which makes it very difficult to share internationally. Streaming is very important for artists, but Russia has blocked all that. If Russia unblocks it, EDM will grow so much faster.”
And, after spinning at Provocateur in NYC and other clubs across the U.S., DJ Fenix sounds like he enjoys playing for American crowds much more than Russian ones.
“There are too many VIPs in Russia,” says Fenix. “At dance clubs in Russia, there will be one rich guy with 10 girls, or two rich guys with 20 girls. In America, fans are crazier. They really enjoy music and want to listen, download, and take photos. They’re crazy about the DJ lifestyle and follow everything.”
He pauses, and smiles. “I love it here.”