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Miami’s Irie, other DJs, becoming powerful celebrities

Most DJs are content to show up at gigs, spin their tunes, collect their checks and go home. But DJ Irie realized early on that he could parlay his growing fame into lucrative business partnerships with major companies like Verizon Wireless, adidas and Heineken. It’s all part of his master plan to turn the name Irie into a brand, and so far it’s working like a charm.

Irie, whose real name is Ian Grocher, is the official DJ of the Miami Heat and Carnival Cruise Lines and personal DJ to actor Jamie Foxx. He’s the top-rated DJ for WEDR 99 JAMZ and owner of the talent consulting firm, Artist Related.

Widely recognized as one of — if not the — top DJ in one of the world’s hottest club destinations, Irie has extended his reach far beyond South Beach. In an industry where the most well-known DJs have surpassed many original recording artists in terms of fame and fortune, DJ Irie has a achieved a level of celebrity that has caught the eye of corporate sponsors.

“I realized at a point that I reach a lot of people, so I started to think about what it is that I do and how I do it,” says Irie, whose reading material includes Inc., Forbes and Fortune magazines, strewn about his office, and daily newspaper business sections.

“Take a week in my life,” he says. “I’m global. I perform pretty much all over the world – Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, all of these continents. Between the Heat, the nightclubs and other events, I reach thousands of people every single week. And I reach them in a way that no matter what I’m doing, I’m the focal point, and I have a voice. That’s very powerful.’’

Irie realized he could market that voice. “I’d go out and people would ask me what kind of shoes I’m wearing, and what kind of watch is that? What am I drinking? And I’m like, ‘Wow, I am going to wear a watch, a shirt, a pair of shoes, so why shouldn’t I be aligning myself with brands that I believe in, and support them, and make this more of a business relationship?’”

Though DJ Irie hasn’t yet hit the ranks of household-name celebrities whose multi-million dollar net worth is chronicled on the world’s wealthiest lists, his fame is broad enough to have earned him endorsement deals as the Florida Brand Ambassador for Premier Beverage (Grey Goose Vodka), Heineken and Verizon Wireless; a business partner with ownership in the luxury car rental company Lou La Vie and Pucci’s Pizza. Plus he’s affiliated with the New Era Cap company, adidas and Doral Automotive.

“We were looking for someone to interact with the club-culture demographic, and he’s the perfect fit with the social network that he has and his popularity in Miami,” said Jay Collins, marketing manager of Verizon’s Florida region. “And also his character — that’s a big factor when representing a company like Verizon.”

The 36-year-old DJ was in the national spotlight recently on Good Morning America April 27 and June 1 as part of GMA’s DJ Friday. He kicked off the second hour, showing off his mixing skills with real vinyl and getting the whole staff dancing in Times Square to classic dance, hip-hop and house tunes.

His powers of persuasion also work for the community. This week, the DJ hosts his eighth annual, three-day Irie Weekend charity event benefitting his foundation, which works with South Florida youth through educational and extracurricular opportunities and scholarships. The event includes a Chambord Vodka kick-off at a private residence on Star Island, a celebrity golf tournament, concert at Mansion nightclub and other events. Past guests have included A-listers like Foxx, the Miami Heat’s Three Kings, plus Reggie Bush, Jason Taylor and Chris Kirkpatrick. Last year’s event raised $70,000, according to a spokesperson; the foundation is a registered not-for-profit. Irie is part of a growing cadre of DJs who are spinning their skills into gold.

The term DJ — for “disc jockey’’ — spans a wide track. Some focus on providing a smooth mix of familiar tunes for private social events; others pick play lists for radio stations. The stars are more creators than interpreters, spinning original mixes that earn them big names — and big dollars.

“DJs like Irie are celebrities in the way that some recording artists are,” says Serona Elton, professor and director of the Music Business and Entertainment Industries Program at the University of Miami. “The reason people come to a club is because they’re spinning that night. They’re almost transcending the idea of what a club is.”

The world’s top DJs, like John Digweed, Paul van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold and DJ Tiesto — who occasionally play Miami clubs — boast net worths of $45 to $65 million, according to Celebrity Networth website.

“DJs are being recognized for their work and are being paid more nowadays,” says Marlon Singleton, national promotions director for Interscope Geffen A&M Records.

Forbes Most Powerful Celebrity List for 2012 features two DJs — Tiesto (earning $23 million as of May 2012) and Skrillex (earning $15 million). But more importantly, Singleton says, is their “ranking in the top one-third among social popularity, beating out celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Tiger Woods, P. Diddy and Leonardo Dicaprio.

Irie prefers not to discuss specific dollar figures, but he says that for an event, “on the celebrity circuit of things, the range is anywhere from $25,000 to $35,000” — a figure confirmed by Horace Madison, a South Florida financial advisor who specializes in athletes and artists. That figure doesn’t even sniff what superstar DJs such as Tiesto or Paul van Dyk would command for a similar gig, which is upwards of $100,000.

“DJs are being booked for gigs selling out 10k and 20k capacity venues worldwide,” Singleton says. “I don’t foresee the momentum slowing down for a long time.”

Treading turf once reserved for elite athletes or actors, DJ brand endorsements have become “extremely common,’’ said Michael Capponi, chairman of Capponi Group Companies, whose concerns include event sponsorship and club promotion. DJ Diplo has been starring on TV commercials for Blackberry; Funkmaster Flex has teamed up with Ford Motor Company for his MTV2 show Funk Flex Full Throttle, and Avicii has a new collaboration with Ralph Lauren Denim Supply.

When an artist or an athlete becomes the face of a brand, it is a “mutually beneficial relationship,” according to Elton. “The cool factor, the hip factor is transferred to the brand and vice versa,” she said.

“Irie was ahead of this time,’’ says Capponi, pointing to Irie’s 2007 creation of the Adidas Remix collection featuring sneakers color-blocked in the Miami HEAT colors.

Irie’s transformation from a shy kid who loved to collect records to a well-connected, internationally known DJ and highly coveted marketing asset is an example of how impeccable timing and sharp business acumen can turn a merely successful career into a far-reaching web of opportunities.

A sliver of good luck didn’t hurt. Irie, whose Jamaican-born parents moved him to Miami when he was 2, didn’t even plan to become a DJ until he allowed a high-school crush to assume he was a turntablist, because of the massive stacks of vinyl that littered his bedroom (“My parents used to give me lunch money, and I’d just buy records and eat whatever leftovers my friends didn’t eat”). Then, she invited him to perform at her family’s annual New Year’s party, and although he had zero mixing skills or equipment, he had to say yes.

“I had to kind of go with it at that point,” he recalls with his easy, inviting chuckle. “I ended up borrowing a bunch of equipment from a bunch of buddies, and I showed up at her house on New Year’s with this Frankenstein of a system, with no two brands the same. And her dad was like, “What the hell is that, and where is it going?’ It was the ugliest thing ever.”

But Irie played “songs that I thought were cool songs,” and thanks partly to plenty of strong drinks, everyone had a great time. And it turned out that her father ended up being the general manager of the popular restaurant Planet Hollywood, and invited Irie to DJ there at night.

Irie quickly honed his skills and became a mainstay in South Florida’s exploding nightlife scene, where a less well-known DJ could expect to make between $500 and $1000 on a normal night, according to financial advisor Madison. Today Irie spins regularly at hotspots such as LIV, Mokai, SET and Wall, as well as anchoring the No. 1 mix show on WEDR 99 Jamz. That success led to an unprecedented offer for any DJ, anywhere – to become the official DJ for the Miami Heat.

And Irie nearly turned it down.

“I was ready to walk away,” he said. “And the reason for that was, on my radio show I was playing all the newest cutting-edge hip-hop beats, so I had a lot of street credibility. And I knew I would have to conform and do other things that I wasn’t doing at the time, and I thought that for me, that’s selling out. And I was like, I gotta keep it real. Like, I don’t want to play KC & The Sunshine Band – this is not what I’m doing!”

But when Irie asked the Heat what kind of music the other teams’ DJs were playing, he was told there were no other official DJs in the NBA. Ditto for MLB and the NFL.

“And that’s when it hit me,” he said. “I could be the first to fail – or this could be groundbreaking, an opportunity to trail-blaze a specific lane of opportunity for DJs. And I’ve never been one to walk away from a challenge.”

Eleven years and two Heat championship rings later (“I was right there in Dallas in 2006, with Alonzo Mourning and Jason Williams grabbing me and dousing me with champagne, like I had hit the winning shot or something, you know?” and again last week at AmericanAirlines Arena), Irie knows he made the right choice — and that decision was the beginning of his professional metamorphosis.

He took a decidedly proactive route by putting out a newsletter that touted brands and trends that fit into his lifestyle, and companies began to seek him out to represent them. He scored a successful shoe deal with adidas where he “remixed” a new version of a classic sneaker, with his choice of colors and fabrics, and helped launch it by featuring it in the Heat store, and also hosting a special release party at a club. Then Verizon Wireless, which also sponsors the Miami Heat, came calling.

“We provide him with products and ask him to give us his feedback on how he interacts with our products — our phones, our tablets, Internet service,” says Verizon’s Collins. “And when he’s in the club, Verizon has this logo called Rule the Air, which kind of has a dual meaning and also applies to the club culture. So we want to target the tagline Rule the Air in the club and have the patrons kind of make the connection: Oh, that’s Verizon. It’s more of a soft approach, rather than a really hard, in-your-face sale.”

Heineken has enjoyed a similarly successful relationship with Irie.

“Heineken has worked with DJ Irie in the past, and has always been impressed with the events he DJs,” said Pattie Falch, director of sponsorships and activation for Heineken USA. “His fun personality is very much in line with the Heineken brand DNA: creative, spontaneous, upscale and progressive men-of-the-world, ages 25-34.”

That fun, infectious persona also attracted Carnival Cruise Lines, whose chairman is Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison.

“Irie’s name to everyone just means "fun" and "friendly," and both of those are such key, core components of Carnival Cruise Lines, and they always have been,” said Mark Tamis, senior vice president of guest operations. “As part of FunShip 2.0, which is our overall effort to contemporize our experience on-board our ships, he’s a perfect marquis name, up there with Guy Fieri and George Lopez. He was just a perfect person to bring into the family.”

Aside from corporations, Irie has also been welcomed into a far different family – Hollywood. While Alonzo Mourning helped cement Irie’s popularity in the athletic world, Jamie Foxx has ushered him into the A-list celebrity circle.

“When Jamie started hiring me to do his birthday parties and started flying me around on tour with him, he really let it be known who I was,” said Irie. “And when his friends were having parties, he’d say, “Hey, make sure you get DJ Irie.”

That consistent endorsement led to one of the professional highlights of Irie’s life – Robert Downey Jr.’s 52nd birthday party at his Malibu mansion. The actor was skeptical about why he needed to fly in a Miami-based DJ when there were so many California DJs available, but Foxx insisted. The party was “incredible,” Irie says, and featured superstars including Samuel L. Jackson, Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson.

“But the icing on the cake was [Police singer] Sting,” said Irie, still giddy over the memory. “He was in the middle of the dance floor, dancing his ass off, and I played this remix of Roxanne. And this was just like out of a movie – I see him lip-synching along, and I toss this microphone to him, and he caught it in mid-air and started singing “Ro-o-ox-anne!” Most. Epic. Moment. Ever!

“And Tobey Maguire was calling me after that, and Leo DiCaprio, and the rest is history. Crazy stuff.”

But today, along with celebrating the Heat’s victory, Irie is focusing on his vision of networking with various brands that he believes in.

“If you go to pretty much any other DJ and ask to do a deal, they’re gonna say to go talk to my manager. That’s how it is,” he says. “I don’t need to have a manager — I need to have a business. I need to have people fulfilling roles. And here’s why: Let’s say you’re Verizon Wireless, and you want to do a deal with “DJ B.” So you approach DJ B, and he says to talk to my manager. And you tell the manager that you want to endorse DJ B and have him use our phone, and have him play at free events and put him in a commercial, and compensation’s gonna be $50,000. ‘OK great, let’s do it.’ And that’s it.

“I never wanted that. I wanted people that we partner with to look at us as a resource. When a company comes to DJ Irie and says they want to do a deal, I can say, ‘Let me connect you to my vice president of business development.’ Not my manager. My VP is going to speak to you and find out what you want to achieve by working with DJ Irie, and your overall goals for your brand. We’re going to use your product and showcase your product and bring you into our family and social networks.

“But the company may have other needs as well, like to put on an event for your brand, and we can help you with that.

“We have a network of celebrities and venues and other brands that we work with. So if, say, Verizon wants to put on an event, they are probably going to need some liquor or spirits. We can bring in one of our other partners to help you with that, and take extra special care with you because they’re part of the family.

“And we work with all the nightclubs. Let’s figure out the capacity you need, what specific attributes, and we’ll tell you the best club for you, and help you put that deal together.

“So this has gone from a small $6,000 sponsorship deal for Irie to a $100,000 event-consulting deal.

“Why? We’re part of the event, working from the inside-out. We’re able to increase our business by leaps and bounds being set up as a company, a true consulting/marketing firm that can offer an array of services. Working with DJ Irie is just one foot in the door,” he said.

Miami Herald writer Anna Edgerton contributed to this report.