Coflo was a dancer when he became a DJ, and a DJ when he became one of the finest music producers to emerge from the Bay Area in the last decade. But he practices all three at an exceptionally high level — incorporating dance and movement from the American style of house dance and the Afro-Brazilian art of capoeira into the music he plays and the music that he makes.
From learning dance at a young age among the legendary Circle of Fire crew, “my whole world,” Coflo says, “has revolved around house music. I always say that it was the culture that raised me.” And after heeding the call to teach house dance, managing Carlos Mena’s Ocha Records and releasing new music and remixes on labels from Local Talk to Yoruba, he’s emerged as an absolutely vital artist in the house music scene.
5 Mag’s Czarina Mirani spoke to Coflo in this wide-ranging interview, documenting his background amid their shared love of house dance and house music for this 5 Mag cover story.
Coflo photo by Angelo Paulos (Jiwa)
Czarina: So I did not know that you were in Circle of Fire. I have an old Circle of Fire VHS tape from many years ago. Were you in that?
Coflo: You have that old VHS tape?!
Czarina: Yeah! I used to collect dance tapes. That was one of my favorites.
Coflo: That’s great! No, I’m not in that. The original group was featured in that video. For a long time they never really expanded. Then around our 15th or 20th anniversary (I can’t remember exactly) they decided to bring in a few more dancers that had been close to the group for many years. So I’m a part of what’s considered a second or last generation because I don’t think we’re gonna expand Circle of Fire anymore. It’s not like the contemporary crews that have gone through multiple generations. There’s really just like the original group, which you see on the VHS tape, and then there are a few more that are part of it.
Czarina: I’m interested in your dance background. So did you start out as a dancer and then you learned Capoeira, or you practice both and then you went into DJing and producing? How did it all happen?
Coflo: The story is — and you might appreciate this since you actually had some of these old tapes! — but I was maybe 11 or 12 when a VHS tape came out for one of those old b-movie action films, like with Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude van Damme. I was a little kid who loved them and rented one called Only the Strong. The movie’s on YouTube so it’s pretty easy to find now. But like a lot of VHS tapes back in the day it had various advertisements and things like previews for other movies at the beginning of the tape. The movie itself is kind of cliché story about a Green Beret that comes home from service and does Capoeira. He’s teaching Capoeira to the inner city youth of Miami and he has to fight these drug dealers for the health of these poor kids.
One of the advertisements at the beginning of the tape was an ad for the soundtrack for the movie. It was a mashup of traditional Capoeira music, in some cases contemporary Capoeira music, hip hop and house. Now nothing about it is very good other than it was a sign of its time. It was something unique but it wasn’t high quality stuff. And I don’t know what it was — I had seen dance plenty before on MTV and stuff — but for some reason I was affected by it.
Essentially on my own I got into trying to copy these movements. I met kids from the other side of my neighborhood, they were all a little bit older than me. They were break dancers and were into this thing called “strutting” that’s from out here, and something else called “rebelling,” which is a style of house dance from out here back in the ’90s.
Later I was in high school when I went to one of the local house parties, there was a DJ and a bunch of dancers there, people in their 20s. A bunch of them were from the original Circle of Fire crew. It happened that a lot of them were from a city very close to where I grew up. So I kind of like became like a little brother, just bothering some of them and wanting to learn how to dance.
Dancing Capoeira is something I started with, but from day one I was raised in this dance and house music culture, because what we danced to was primarily house music back then. And it wasn’t until some years later that I joined a Capoeira group out here and started studying it more formally — not just copying movements but actually studying the artform and learning more about it. If you don’t know much about it, Capoeira is quite a bit more than just movement. It’s got a lot of elements to it. It has its own music and of course it’s from the Afro Brazilian diaspora. It’s got so much depth to it in terms of an art form or a martial art.
But yeah, those are my beginnings into everything. My whole world revolved around house music and continues to revolve around house music.
Czarina: So Circle of Fire were the ones that trained you in house?
Coflo: Where I’m from we didn’t call it “house dance” back then. I’d been studying dance with some of them. There were other people locally that I learned from but they were the crew that I followed. I always make an analogy about it — that it’s kind of like how kids grow up following comic book characters like Batman and Superman. Mine were the characters in Circle of Fire. These people were like my superheroes, watching Orb or Free or Seth or whoever. Like these are like the people I wanted to be like. It just so happened that I ended up becoming friends with them as the years went on, but they didn’t teach me house per se because we didn’t call it house. I learned how to dance in what I would consider now the American vernacular sense, what’s actually ended up being codified as “American house.” If you go to Europe and you learn house dance, you learn a style that’s more or less perpetuated and codified by people from New York, New Jersey and that area. I did learn that style from a man named Brian Green from Queens.
Czarina: Oh I knew Brian!
Coflo: Okay, there you go. So I did learn that style eventually, but I was probably already studying dance for 10 or 11 years or better before I learned the New York style.
Czarina: I guess it’ll be a whole other conversation but it’s interesting as a side note. I was reading your bio and you weren’t saying “house dance,” you were saying “club dance.” But 10 years ago when I used to teach house here once in a while, I remember it was just such a problem with the labels, right? Because older people had a real problem with youth labeling anything.
Coflo: Oh of course! I’ve come to the point where it’s easier for me to just say the stuff that I know, and say where I’m from and what I do and call it “club dance” or whatever. I just got back from Amsterdam at what is the biggest house dance competition currently. I talked to a lot of young people and I got to teach. You know in Europe these forms are considered to be on the road to like how ballet or modern dance are looked it. This stuff is being studied at such a serious level there — it’s so different than the way that we look at it in America. It’s easy for me to convey to them and it’s easy for them to grasp the concept of me saying I’m from an area in my country and what you’re learning comes from a particular place in my country, but it’s not necessarily what I do or what I learned when I first started.
Czarina: Were you teaching there and what were you teaching?
Coflo: I always teach house dance. When I learned how to dance to this music from various people out here, I was surrounded by a generation of people that were doing it at the same time that New York was codifying their version. A lot of the stuff that I grew up with and that you saw in the club was Capoeira or had Capoeira stuff in it. For some reason, one of the most famous Capoeira masters came out here in the late ’70s and infected a bunch of kids with Capoeira, and these kids were doing it everywhere. When they were break dancing, they doing Capoeira. When they were dancing in the club, they were also doing Capoeira. In a lot of places in America in the ’90s, they had no idea about Capoeira. It was common and it’s still really big here, just not as much in the club — it’s obviously gone a different direction.
I started Catch The Ghost for the sole reason that no one was fucking with me. That’s it. That’s really what it came down to. I was demoing music but no one would sign shit. No one would even listen to it.
Czarina: Okay, so you’re a dancer, you did Capoeira — so tell us how you went from that to music production and DJing, and what came first.
Coflo: I always say that it was the culture that raised me. When I was learning to dance I was experiencing and learning about the music. Right away after getting into things, it was obvious that the DJs were super important. Right? Like DJs are important. Parties are important. These places that hold these parties — they look different, they sound different, they’re important. I don’t know any details, right? I don’t understand how the shit works. But it was obvious that these things were important.
So I was maybe 16 or 17 when I began collect CDs with some purpose. I wasn’t collecting records at the time but I was collecting CDs and tapes. I had already started going out in the adult scene because you could sneak into places and get fake IDs way easier back then. One of my friends when I was 18 or so is a DJ out here named Jayvi Velasco, he was always a super easy-going guy that I could talk to at the club. I asked him if I could hang out in the booth and just watch what he was doing. He was telling me about stuff and I was like, “So if I get into this, I guess I need these turntables and a mixer, right?” I started collecting used equipment and teaching myself with Jayvi kind of, you know, telling me different things.
5 Mag Issue 206
MOVE: This was originally published in 5 Mag Issue #206 featuring DJ, dancer, teacher and producer Coflo, Alland Byallo, Phil Kieran, DJ Rocca, Jeff Mills’ Metropolis Metropolis and more. Help keep our vibe alive and our shine bright by becoming a member for $2/month and get every issue in your inbox right away!
While DJing, I thought it would be really cool if I could make the music too. The internet existed then in a more juvenile capacity at this point — you could actually search for things and find them. I learned there’s software that can help you record music and you can edit things and sample things. I tried playing around with stuff and learned to DJ and learned to kind of make music, but it was very much a hobby kind of thing. Recreational.
By the time I was probably 23 or 24, Brian Green — this is where he becomes an important part of this story again — Brian Green had been teaching me the American style of dance. I asked him, hey what can I do to get my dance to another level? Like what’s the next step I need to take? He said, Man, you’re a shit student. If you know Brian you might know his personality — but what he meant by that was I don’t learn the way that he learns, and I don’t study the way that he studies. He comes from a very rigid formal background and I come from a very, like, “one foot in the studio, one foot in the club” background. Not to say he didn’t dance in the club but he also had tap, jazz and ballet, and I was going to studios where Circle of Fire people were making up ways to teach a dance that didn’t exist yet. It’s just different. So he said, “You know, you’re a shit student,” and probably what would be best is if I started studying an instrument. He didn’t really give me much more insight into that. He just kind of said, you know, pick up an instrument. I just thought Brian was the most amazing thing. He didn’t give me a reason other than to just do it.
My parents are musicians — not professional musicians, they’re hobbyists. My dad used to play guitar and write songs and my mother played guitar, bass, ukelele (she’s from Hawaii) and she would also would sing. I grew up with my parents having a band, doing like a folk Americana kind of music or singer/songwriter stuff. I was always around playing guitar and bass and fucking around with my uncle’s keyboards and all these kind of things. So after Brian told me that, I thought, okay, I used to play bass, I’ll go get my bass, maybe I’ll buy a keyboard. I started teaching myself some of these instruments, but I was doing it because it was supposed to make my dance better, although I wasn’t sure why or how yet. It was purely motivated by becoming more complete as an artist, not necessarily wanting to be a music artist or whatever.
And then from there it kind of like it just got to the point where I just enjoyed it more and more. And then it became like dance, where if I went a week without doing it, I didn’t feel as happy, you know?
I always say that it was the culture that raised me. When I was learning to dance, I was experiencing and learning about the music.
Czarina: So how many years would you say you studied the keyboard or piano before you felt like, “okay, I’m pretty good at this”?
Coflo: I mean I still don’t feel like I’m great at it. I’ve played live, but I don’t feel like I would never call myself a pianist or a keyboardist. People have asked if I consider myself a musician. To some degree I do but the reason why I even consider myself a musician to any degree is because in Capoeira we have to play music and sing live. Outside of the Capoeira world, within my music music world, I have played with people and I have played live and I have done solo live shows. I play live on records that get recorded. It’s not like I don’t do what musicians do, but I definitely don’t consider myself a musician because I do three other art forms at what I consider a pretty high level.
Czarina: Don’t you think you’re being humble because you’re comparing it to other art forms where you have graduated?
Coflo: I guess there’s a little of that. I’ve been DJing since I was 19. I’ll be 39 in a couple of months. That’s almost 20 years of DJing. But I didn’t start considering myself a DJ until maybe a year or two before the pandemic. And it’s because I had to put in the time for that, you know? Before I was doing it as a hobby and it was fun and I even played parties and things like that, but it was nothing I was actively looking at expressing and creating within. And now, even though it’s still not one of my favorite things that I do, I do consider myself a DJ, but it took me a while to get the headspace to be there.
Czarina: Did you find there was some judgment when you transitioned from being known mostly as a dancer to DJing? Was there some resistance in people that knew you strictly as a dancer when you began to carve out a career on the music side?
Coflo: That’s actually a super awesome question because this is something that I feel I struggle with big time in my area. You know, I’ve been serious about my music since maybe like 2009, and heavily focused on it being an artistic outlet since 2013 or 2014. But I’ve been clubbing out here since I was 16 or 17 years old. Although now more people, producers and DJs give me more respect as a producer and an artist, I still think they see me as just “the dancer guy.”
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s also because with the people who raised me out here in dance, it’s very communal. I was raised to learn how to produce events and build community through dance. I’ve taught forever out here. I was producing the only house dance festival out here for years. The scene would see me as like a community activator, specifically around dance within the music, right? So for them to see me as like someone who’s also contributing in a major way with the music — the way I look at it is like I have to be an artist close to the magnitude of an Osunlade or Louie Vega for them to see me that way.
But outside of this area I’ve noticed it’s a little different. I mentioned I just got back from Amsterdam. I’ve been going to Europe to dance since around 2006 and I’ve built a lot of relationships with people who now are considered older generation dancers and are the people who have gotten thousands and thousands of kids dancing in Europe. All these young kids see me out there and they all started figuring out like, “Oh you’re Coflo, I listen to your music.” But this time all these conversations ended with, “I did not know you danced!” You know, I never thought I was going to meet somebody who was a dancer that was like, “I love your music! I had no idea you danced!”
Czarina: You mentioned a couple of names already. Who are your influences for musical production and for DJing?
Colfo: Of my biggest inspirations I’d say Ron Trent‘s gotta be Number One. I teeter back and forth between Ron Trent and Osunlade. But with Ron Trent, it’s crazy because I’m such a long time fan and I’ve studied a lot of his catalog from Prescription — or really “Altered States” — up till current. You can see how even today, the man is still getting more capable and still expanding ideas. Yet it’s not turning into fucking avant garde trash that only he understands. It’s still so danceable and so dope. I think there are very few artists that when you listen, you go, “Oh, that must be a Ron Trent record.” Like it’s identifiable, you know. I would be over the moon if I developed something like that one day.
The other reason is his work ethic and longevity. He’s been doing this since he was a kid and he continues to grow. And it’s really him doing all this stuff, you know. Not like I think producers that hire tons of musicians and have all these other people on their team to get a result are wrong or something. A producer is a producer: if you produced a beautiful song, you produced a beautiful song regardless of the method by which that occurs. But Ron is able to do all these things by himself. He’s also a killer DJ in that regard too. He doesn’t slack on that side, with his depth and knowledge for all this. It’s really inspiring.
Osunlade is also a big inspiration. With Osunlade I started realizing that I would hear a dope song and realize that it’s one of his remixes and it would sound like it came from a completely different human being than these other songs of his that I liked. This guy can go from writing and singing one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in house music to producing this dark, deep, sinister, infectious fucking dancefloor banger. That’s crazy. Like, what the fuck? How is he able to do both of those things? The range is just mind-blowing. And again he’s similar to Ron in the ability to be so prolific and so self-standing in creating music.
I’d also say Atjazz for similar reasons to the other two. But in particular, when I started testing out and playing my own music, one of the things that I realized is that while I would like a song that I made, I wouldn’t like hearing the song I made next to another song. I didn’t understand, but it just so happened that I would play a song of mine and then mix it into an Atjazz track. I would just be like, man, his music translates so much better than mine. Why is that?
So I started referencing and studying his music. That led me down a rabbit hole, studying audio engineering from the perspective of getting the sonic palette to make sense. Maybe you don’t fully understand why you’re choosing the things that you’re choosing when you write the music or produce the music, but it’s about finding the techniques and the know-how so it’ll stand up correctly next to another song that does well in the club. Atjazz became a big focal point for me in trying to understand how he makes his shit sound so good. It led me down a whole path of what people would consider more like the audio arts world rather than just production and writing.
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The last guy — I still haven’t unlocked this box but I’m just fascinated with the production of Kuniyuki Takahashi. That sound is so mysterious to me. How is he able to create stuff that has so much depth, but still has such danceability? You listen to his music and from the audio arts world you would say, “You shouldn’t use this much reverb. It’s not a good idea to muddy up the song.” But he’s able to make it work somehow. Or, you shouldn’t have the drums mixed this loud because they take away from the groove. He’s able to have a dynamic element when he use these drums in a certain way.
Those are probably like the biggest inspirations to me and have been for the longest time. Maybe Joe Claussell as well. There were records that I was listening to that I didn’t know were Joe Claussell’s records or records he was involved in. When I looked back, I started realizing Joe exposed me to something that I fell in love with, that I didn’t know I had an affinity for, which is an African diaspora context within house music. Ron was exposing that to me as well, but I didn’t hear it the same way. It almost sounded more like dancefloor candy to me from Ron, where Joe was kind of touching me almost spiritually without having any understanding or practice or faith, you know?
If I were to unpack this more, it’s very easy to make the same connection as those other gentlemen that I mentioned. Joe’s longevity and his work ethic are just fucking insane. You learn about all these projects that he’s involved in and it’s like… Oh my God, does this guy sleep?
Czarina: What is “Catch The Ghost” that released a bunch of your early material? Is that your label?
Coflo: Yeah it is. I started Catch The Ghost purely for the reason that no one was fucking with me. That’s it. That’s really what it came down to. I was demoing music but no one would sign shit. No one would even listen to it. This was around 2012 or 2013. So I buckled down and started learning the baby steps of the industry which included how to put a label together.
Circle of Fire developed another artistic crew — more of a collective than a dance crew — called the Soul Shifters. The Soul Shifters stood by this moniker called “Catching the ghost.” As a club dancer you can understand this. It’s those moments in time where you’re dancing and for whatever reason this feeling takes over. It’s almost like you were physically present, but you weren’t consciously present. You caught this spirit and you created this piece of art and there was no rhyme or reason other than it was just you and the music and the dance, you know? It’s one of those things we’d say, like “Yo, you’re gonna be in town? Let’s go out, let’s try to catch the ghost.”
I got involved with Ocha and Carlos Mena because I tried to become an artist and in becoming an artist I became the label manager.
Catch the Ghost Records built off of that kind of branding idea and that was the concept behind the name. But — and I’ve never been shy about this, it’s just that people don’t print it because it sounds so negative — but I started a record label because no one was working with me. It’d be a weird thing to say in the bio of the label, so I wouldn’t put it on the website or anything, but it’s not something I’m ashamed of.
So that’s why Catch The Ghost was started. The other artists that you see on the label are my friends, all of which are dancers that need the outlet or that I want to try to help to achieve whatever it is that they’re looking for. It’s not specific to dancers, but it just happens to usually be that way. Artists who know me through dance also know I’m also the guy who does music. I offer to help because I see that they can do something. And usually it’s like a project or two, and then they’re off doing their own thing, because then they get the information they need from me, or they do some self-discovery, or they make relationships with people to be able to put out their own records or whatever it is they’re looking for.
Czarina: You’re managing Ocha Records now. How did that happen? How did you meet Carlos Mena?
Coflo: Carlos used to live in the Bay Area for a long time. He used to throw BEMBE out here with my friend DJ Cecil and Yoruba Dance Sessions, which was a midweek party. I’m a head out here, I go to parties to dance, but I never had a close relationship with Carlos. I had a closer relationship with Cecil.
Around 2015, I had a handful of songs that I didn’t necessarily have a project in mind for, but I liked all of them. I hit up Carlos. He had moved to Brooklyn, and I noticed that Ocha had kind of slowed down. Like, you saw a lot of music coming out for like five or six years, and then all of a sudden it was more like one or two projects every so often. They were really cool, I had always been a fan of the label. So I hit him up. I was super fucking surprised he told me that these three songs should be an EP and we should put it out on wax. He signed the songs, but then there wasn’t really anything happening, he had a P&D deal but was going through a lot of labor and logistical stuff. I was just kind of bothering him about my record and asked what else he had cooking. He mentioned he had another project with BokkieUlt from South Africa, but he didn’t even have time to do the A&R with the logistics of running the label. I said I could help with A&R if you don’t mind. I mean I’m just looking to be involved in more of everything when it comes to music right? I want to understand, I want to learn, I want to grow and meet people. I’ve got no relationships with anybody other than local DJs.
I’ve been DJing since I was 19. But I didn’t start considering myself a DJ until maybe a year or two before the pandemic. Because I had to put in the time for that, you know?
And so I started doing A&R. And I realized there was no infrastructure around the label. I said, hey, would you be down if I put in some process around the A&R stuff? As soon as I had a little bit of process in place like what I had done for Catch The Ghost, he was like, “Yo you’re managing the label, you’ve graduated.” And he offered me what is almost like a partnership in a lot of ways. I mean it’s very much his record label. But yeah, that relationship grew and I wouldn’t have been willing to invest into that relationship it wasn’t for the fact that I learned very quickly that Carlos is about as real as it fucking gets. He’s a real quality human being. I think he has fantastic taste in music. We get along super well — like we should have been friends 10, 15 years earlier, you know?
So I got involved in Ocha because I tried to become an artist and in becoming an artist I became the label manager.
Czarina: And you’ve been releasing records with Local Talk as well, how did that happen?
Coflo: I got involved with Local Talk because I had a project that I had done called “Lux.” This was for Catch The Ghost, when I was building up my Bandcamp audience. I really wanted to press a record but I couldn’t figure out the process. Maybe it’s having a bit of a resurgence now, but I think the reason vinyl died is because the people running the process of manufacturing and distribution are not at all making it very fucking easy for people. I don’t think it’s anything to do with technology. They just make it way too difficult. I couldn’t even get answers to questions I asked.
I came across these guys in Tucson that were doing picture discs. They were essentially polyurethane discs very similar to the ones that you would get on the back of a cereal box. I remember as a kid, you could put it on the record player and it sounded like shit because it was printed on a thick plastic or whatever it was. These guys had a slightly higher quality than that. It was a high quality print that was sandwiched in between two pieces of cut urethane. It was maybe about as thick as a 180 g record, about the size of a 45 but in more or less a square shape. They looked like little playable pieces of art.
So I created a series where I hired a few visual artists from my crew to create pieces of art and then I wrote songs based on what those pieces of art looked like to me. My wife is an artist (and also an amazing dancer) and she created one and called it “Lux.” They were sold on Bandcamp in limited quantities.
Something happened with the guys in Tucson where all of a sudden the quality dropped to shit. They weren’t as high quality as vinyl records to begin with, but it dropped to the point where you couldn’t even play them. I was not happy with this. We went back and forth and I ended up just calling it a loss and it was like, well, I guess I’m not doing this anymore…
So I had this really cool song that I wrote that I was super proud of, but I had no product for it. I thought this was a vibe that I could hear on Local Talk. This would have been around 2018 or 2019. At this point I had some releases besides Catch The Ghost, I was getting remix work and stuff like that so now I can approach people and they can at least Google me and there’s something there. So I sent it to Mats and Tooli at Local Talk and they really liked it. They suggested I do a version that’s a little more club friendly because it was very jazzy. So I did another version and it’s probably one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. They told me they were going to hire Kaidi Tatham to do a remix and he did a killer version of it in his style.
So that’s how I got hooked with them. I’ve done a few releases now with them. It was all from “Lux.” It’s funny how it was such a disappointment but then turned into this whole other thing.
Czarina: You also have a show on Twitch with a good following. Did that start during the pandemic?
Coflo: Yeah, we call it the “Simmer Room.” I used to host a practice on Friday nights before the club. I would teach a dance class and then I would host a practice session in a studio that our crew used to run. After the pandemic hit, I was like, I gotta do something — kids still need to dance and we need to get together. So it’s on Twitch, and we’d run a Zoom and people could connect. And it turned out that way more people than just local people were connecting since nobody anywhere could go out. We had dance communities from all over the States and various other countries once in a while that would tune in and would be featured in the show. When the world opened back up, I kept it going. It was also a good excuse for me to make sure I reserve a slot time every week to practice DJing, to test my music that I’m working on against other songs that I’m purchasing and collecting and looking to play.
Czarina: Why the name Simmer Room?
Coflo: The name Simmer Room is like the antithesis of Boiler Room. On Boiler Room, they film the DJ and the people all crowd around the DJ, right? It’s not at all what the real world looks like in terms of what I’m into. When Boiler Room rose to popularity, they did a show in Paris with either Joe Claussell or Kerri Chandler, I cannot remember which one. In this episode they had a dance crew from Paris that are all friends of mine. It was way more like I would want to see, with a dope DJ killing it and all the dancers are like really wrecking shop, right? It was just so sick. I couldn’t wait to see Boiler Room start doing this more often with more dancers and crews and shit.
And then I read the comments. They were just despicable. Everybody was just hating. “Where’s the crowd? Why aren’t they showing more of the crowd? Where’s the girls?” The comments were just so negative about them featuring these dancers. It fucking killed me.
And also, locally Boiler Room never showed much interest in doing stuff out here. I think when they finally did it was not at all the underground stuff. I always thought was really cool that they could do underground stuff and they also did the shit that was, you know, “popular” or, in my opinion “corny” or whatever. But we said okay, I guess that’s how it is and if we’re not going to be “boiling” then I guess we’re just gonna be “simmering.” It’s a little jab. I’m not against Boiler Room or anything, but it was just that one memory and thinking, Well if that’s what’s “boiling” then I guess I’m just “simmering.”
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