‘Every day brings something new,” says DJ Handler, the impresario behind Modular Moods, an independent record label whose first releases hit the stores this past April. The 24-year-old Handler — ne Erez Shudnow — lives this credo. In addition to running his own record label, he is a DJ who spins at art installations and clubs including Manhattan’s Knitting Factory and the Five Spot, a member of the breakbeat klezmer jazz band Juez, and one of those people who seems to do it all: writing, performing, and running three or four businesses at once.
“I am just trying to connect to as many people as I can through dialogue — verbal, visual and sound,” Handler said in an interview with the Forward. “Sometimes it’s film or writing. A lot of times it’s music.” Handler also runs Shemspeed Publishing, an embryonic independent press.
Handler formed Modular Moods three years ago, and the label now has 11 artists, ranging from Radiohead-soundalikes Bellflur (whose record release party is May 13 at the Knitting Factory) to the “jazzy trip-hop” band mR. id. Jewish music forms the basis of many of the bands’ sounds, from Juez’s hybrid of klezmer, punk rock and breakbeat to Handler’s own DJ stylings, both in his solo work and in his many collaborations with other artists, including Biet Indecisive (featuring members of John Zorn’s entourage) and a klezmer-electronica fusion project called Kle-Da’as.
Nevertheless, Handler doesn’t see himself as making “Jewish art” per se. “I am moved mostly by art that is art first,” he said. “I think when you pigeonhole yourself with something that is ‘Jewish art’ you lose the chance to work with people that you would otherwise have gained so much from.”
“Of course,” the yarmulke-wearing Handler added, “I am very passionate about being religious and that comes out in what I do as well.”
Handler’s eclectic style reflects his upbringing. He was raised in San Diego, Japan, South Carolina, Chicago and Naples, Italy, as his father, a rabbi, served in the Navy. He adopted the name DJ Handler at the end of high school as a parody of the self-aggrandizing names taken by Djs — a “handler” is a hack who plays the pre-recorded mixes of other DJs.
As busy as he is managing an 11-artist record label with three record releases in as many months, Handler’s deepest love is performing. “Everything else I do comes from that love,” he said. “I think that putting out albums is a longer-term satisfaction, but nothing beats the feeling of playing something that you aren’t sure if people will understand — something that maybe be too ‘different’ — and having people love and connect to it.”
Those unfamiliar with DJs and electronic music may be surprised to hear how important improvisation is in DJ Handler’s performances. At Zeek Magazine’s recent release party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Handler was joined by Timothy “Speed” Levitch (the underground celebrity featured in the films “The Cruise” and “Waking Life”), who ad-libbed spoken word rants while Handler responded with scratches, samples and beats. Handler created music for an art installation at Chashama at Times Square, improvising with musicians MC Paul Barman and Shanir B, incorporating samples from the notorious proto-rap group The Last Poets, and layering electronic sounds reminiscent of New York postmodern musician DJ Spooky and trip-hop pioneer Tricky. Handler’s music also defies stereotypes by frequently including collaborations with non-electronic musicians, creating fusions between different art forms and, occasionally, cultural communities. His samples include Ashkenazic cantorial music, traditional Yemenite melodies and hip hop, and he frequently plays keyboards and guitars alongside his traditional DJ decks.
“I just love when different artists are helping each other in order to put something beautiful out into the world,” Handler said. “My role models are people like [Jean] Basquiat and John Zorn. They have opened the eyes of so many to a form that would have seemed formless or worthless until they came along and kept building towards a greater understanding of the art…. There is nothing more inspiring than a person who is creating something original and can’t sleep till that vision has been executed.”
With regular touring and record promotion for the bands on his label, with frequent solo gigs and collaborations, and with a successful monthly party (“Playground,” cosponsored by Heeb Magazine), Handler is now trying to live up to his moniker. Ultimately, the inevitable stresses melt away behind the turntables, or on stage, when, like most performers, Handler remembers why he’s there in the first place. “I can’t really describe it,” he said of the moment at which a performer creates something new, seemingly out of thin air, and shares it with his audience. “It’s definitely a sexual feeling. It’s very intimate, and I think I am addicted.”