Aspen Sojourner: You’ve DJ’d the halfpipe competition at the Winter X Games since 2003 and have spun at big sporting events all over the world, including the Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi. How did a local DJ from Aspen pull that off?
Michael Nakagawa: When the X Games was in its second year here in Aspen, they were looking for a DJ. My friend Othello [Clark] was a sideline reporter and mentioned me. The producers came and saw me and offered me a job. I’ve been doing the X Games ever since. It opened a lot of doors for me.
A.S.: Do you play for crowds or for the athletes?
M.N.: More than half the riders will request a song for their run. But if they don’t, I focus on the crowd, because the energy can really affect the athlete’s performance.
A.S.: How do you decide what to play?
M.N.: I go by what’s happening and try to make the music a part of the moment. You have to be able to read the crowd and connect with them. It’s like watching a movie unfold, and I’m in charge of creating the soundtrack.
A.S.: What are some of the greatest of those moments?
M.N.: Oh, man. There are so many! Travis Pastrana’s double backflip at the X Games; Shaun White’s gold medal victory lap in Vancouver; or DJ’ing the U.S. sweep of the ski slopestyle competition in Sochi.
A.S.: How did you become a DJ?
M.N.: I’ll never forget the first time I went to a club in Denver and saw how the DJ made people dance and forget their troubles and just be in the moment. As soon as I graduated Aspen High School, I moved to SoCal, where there was a bigger music scene, and started saving up for turntables. I stayed up all hours of the night trying to teach myself how to scratch, how to beat match, and how to put songs together. It was all vinyl and analog back then, big stacks of records. Now you can literally take someone’s iTunes library, buy a DJ program and a controller, and call yourself a DJ. Back then you had to work for it.
A.S.: You come from an immigrant family that grew up in Aspen. What was that like?
M.N.: My family moved to Aspen from Puerto Vallarta in 1981, when I was four years old. I didn’t speak a word of English. My sister and I might have been the first Latinos in the school system in the ’80s. That was before ESL, and at first they didn’t know what to do with us! I had never seen snow. But we adapted pretty fast. My dad took us to Buttermilk and taught us how to ski, and that was all it took. We loved it!
A.S.: Nakagawa does not sound Mexican.
M.N.: My mom is Mexican. My dad is Japanese, but he was born and raised in Brazil. When he first came to the United States, he took a bus from Miami to L.A., and the only words he knew were “hot dog.” He ate a lot of hot dogs along the way.
A.S.: What was it like growing up in Aspen?
M.N.: It was awesome. It was very integrated and small. We were all friends. I never felt like I was less than anyone who had more than I did. The way I was raised, “rich people” were the ones who provided for us, who gave my mom and dad an opportunity to grow their business and raise their kids in Aspen. We grew up in one of the most expensive trailer parks in the world!
A.S.: Now you’re a family man, raising your own kids here.
M.N.: My daughter Jaelin is almost thirteen, Kylani is eight, and my baby boy, Aizen, is two. There’s no word to express how amazing it is. For as much as I had, they have ten times more. It’s not the rural little ski town it was when I was growing up. The things they get to do and the opportunities they have, there’s really nothing like it.