Short of a personal communiqué from President Obama seeking your help in order to prevent a massive international crisis, phone calls just don’t get much more dramatic.
While Warren native Paul Blair, aka DJ White Shadow, was certainly doing well on his own, playing glamorous gigs around the world, running his own nightclubs in Kalamazoo and Chicago, and holding a residency at it-nightspot Hyde in Los Angeles, it’s no exaggeration to say that a voicemail he received last summer was a lightning-strikes moment. “I still have that voicemail on my cell,” says Blair, 35. “It said, ‘Hey Paul, this is Lady Gaga, I want to talk to you about some music.’ I thought someone was pulling my leg.”
Not so. Gaga, recently named the most powerful entertainer in the world by Forbes, had heard a few of Blair’s tracks, passed along by a friend who had caught his set at an L.A. club, and, after a series of tête-à-têtes, asked Blair to collaborate with producer Fernando Garibay on her new album.
The result of that 10-month, three-musician collaboration was the year’s most anticipated pop release, Born This Way (Interscope), on which Blair helped write and/or produce no fewer than 9 of the 14 tracks, including worldwide No. 1 lead-off single, “Born This Way.”
Blair was not born this way — at all. “Before moving to Warren in fifth grade, I grew up on a farm in Ohio,” he says. “I had to collect eggs before school and stuff. I have no idea how I got into rap.” Like that other famous white hip-hop artist from Warren, though, Blair got the bug early and bad. His first job, at 14, was at a Little Caesars, where he and his friends took what can kindly be described as an unorthodox approach to running the restaurant. “It was on one of the mile roads; I can’t remember which one,” he says. “We used to listen to the Electrifying Mojo and pour pizza oil on the floor and have dance-offs.” At the urging of his workaholic father, he got a second gig at a car wash, for the sole reason that it was near a Record Time shop. There, he spent most of his paycheck amassing what would come to be a collection of 15,000 records. “And I bought this set of crappy Linear Tech turntables,” he says. “I swear, someday I’m going to find one of those tapes I made in my mom’s basement and freak. I’m sure they’re awful.”
Post Eisenhower High School graduation, Blair grudgingly took the conventional route — but always with an eye for a more exciting angle. At his parents’ prodding, he enrolled in college, but quickly found an out in the form of a yearlong study-abroad program in Japan. It was there, at ex-pat bar Delta Market, that he began DJ-ing in earnest. “I sucked,” he says. “But I was an oddity, 6 feet 4 and white. The owner said, ‘Come back and spin every Thursday, and I’ll give you free beer.’ And it really turned into a massive party.”
When the year in Japan ended, it was back to Western Michigan University, where Blair became a fixture at African-American frat parties thanks to his skills, a few good friends, and the fact that “I was charging about a quarter of what other DJs were.” He also made frequent weekend trips to Detroit to DJ at Motor and other clubs and some major networking followed. Soon, Blair, while still a college student, found himself flying to Europe to DJ parties, cutting records for respected techno labels, and building the cred that would eventually find him working with Gaga.
“She’s so talented, it’s bananas,” Blair says. “She gets up, does four hours of conference calls, comes to the studio to work, does a live show, then comes back to the studio to work for another three hours.”
While his phone is ringing off the hook these days with offers of big projects, Blair isn’t sure about his next move. It’s fair to say he’s still basking in the glow of his major breakthrough. “It’s the best gift you could get,” he says. “You grow up and want to do something, then one day the biggest person you can possibly do something with says, ‘Oh, you’re really good at this.’ I feel really, really lucky.”
If early reviews and sales of Born This Way are any indication, Gaga may be feeling lucky, too.
Catch DJ White Shadow spinning at the Identity electronic music festival at DTE Energy Theatre on Aug. 12. Idfestival.com.