On The Record: DJ I-Rize
BY KALANI WILHELM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Setbacks can poison one’s motivation. For Isaia Fonoti-Paau, they’ve helped strengthen his character. At 6’3″ and 250 pounds, his tremendous size and stature have always got him noticed. These days, its his passion for DJing that gets him most of the attention.
From health scares and social sacrifices to being slighted at times because of his age, his positive perspective on life has helped him overcome the odds. At 15 years old, he believes he has already found his path and purpose and its only a matter of time before he begins to reap in all the rewards.
A football player who played offense, defense and special teams, the boy known as Zaya was the most imposing player on every field he stepped on. To the dismay of his coaches, he would always hold back his intensity in practice and in games. He preferred being a gentle giant who dreaded the idea he might really hurt someone.
“It was pretty clear I was built to play football. I was good at it too,” said the Leilehua sophomore-to-be. “I finally found something that I was good at where people loved me for being big rather than bullying me and making fun of me. Those bullies were now looking at me as the guy that was gonna save their butts from being hit by the other team.”
Sports was taken away for good at the age of 12, however, when an opposing coach attacked him during a game. He suffered a severe concussion that caused brain damage. Doctors noticed his brain wasn’t healing right. Fonoti-Paau said a white mass was found on the left side of his brain.
“They were frustrated they couldn’t stop me,” he said. “Turned out, the guy had been arrested 43 times and has 23 felony convictions ranging from sexual assault, murder, meth trafficking (and) assault.
“I’m still trying to get over a lot of things involving this so I just don’t talk about it much so he doesn’t take anything more from me than he already has.”
Carefully studying DJ videos became the ideal form of therapy for young Fonoti-Paau. After his mom downloaded mixing software onto her laptop, watching videos and perfecting every move became part of his daily rehab regimen. Since the near-fatal incident, he is more able to take the good out of just about any situation.
“To be honest, I believe (DJing) is what God intended for me to do. I did worry in the beginning that my brain injury would hinder my abilities to get better. I will continue to learn how to live with my new brain,” he said. “It’s a hard loss but I can see more and more that everything that man took from me has come back to me in blessings ten-fold.”
Fonoti-Paau, who was born in Washington but raised in Nevada and Hawaii, entered his first DJ competition last summer. Although he was emotionally crushed he didn’t win the grand prize, he said although he has witnessed “cutthroat behavior and hating on each other,” encouragement has been widespread ever since and mainstays like Kutmaster Spaz, Daniel J. and G-Spot have served as his biggest mentors.
“G-Spot is like Yoda to me because he has knowledge that spans from the past to the present. If you’re willing to work hard, he’s willing to help you. Kutmaster Spaz is like Obi-Wan. He definitely gave me a sense of confidence. Daniel J showed me you don’t have to be afraid to express yourself in front of people,” said Fonoti-Paau.
“I have learned that skills and like hard work are not the only thing that you should utilize during a competition,” he said. “I also learned that a DJ competition isn’t only about judging. It’s mostly based off of who knows you, how many people vote for you, kind of like a popularity contest.”
Fonoti-Paau said there are many more negatives to being a 15-year-old DJ than one might expect. While he is often praised for his commitment, the tendency for older DJs to overlook the sacrifices he has made bothers him more than he lets on at times. Adults tend to forget to look at things from his perspective. Such inaccurate perceptions have given him tough skin and an even sharper focus to prove them wrong.
“My social life as a teenager is non-existent,” he said. “I have friends but I don’t go out on the weekends or hang out with them. Some DJs feel that I should pay my dues, wait my turn; each time, I ask who’s dues and who exactly is deciding the time? I have sacrificed a lot over these last 21 months.
“I knew my skills would never improve as quick as I wanted them to if I didn’t dedicate myself to my craft. I don’t see it as grinding because I truly do love what I’m doing. If it was grinding, it would be work and music for me is definitely not work.”
The life lessons and hardships Fonoti-Paau’s has endured prepared him to compete in Tuesday’s preliminary round of the first annual Bacardi Iron EDM DJ Challenge at The Republik. After being selected by Soundcloud vote as one of 12 competitors, his skills and the way he let loose during his 10-minute set helped him make the cut among the eight DJs that moved one step closer to the Aug. 4 final and $1,000 cash prize.
“At first, I couldn’t even think straight. Mentally, I was still trying to take all of it in. The lights were bright, the crowd was huge and I seriously just blanked for a second and couldn’t answer the question,” he said. “Up until the time I started to walk up on stage, I think I was still pretty numb because I had around 24 hours to prepare, get my game face on and try to kill it. I just let go of the fear, doubts and any misgivings to just share my music with the judges and crowd.”
The intensity he was reluctant to unleash on the football field came out naturally to the audience, the majority of which were not only his peers but DJs he looked up to as well. Fonoti-Paau reflected on his performance with much gratitude and conviction. While he is the youngest competitor, he might prove to be the most inspiring when its all said and done.
“It’s really a visual of everything I’m feeling inside when I’m making that next transition or creating a cool sound and trick. That’s me sharing every ounce of my talent with the crowd. I want them to leaving feeling like holy cow, what did I just watch,” he laughed.
“When I was done, the emcee spoke with me and said, ‘Listen I can see you young but dang you are humongous.’ He said, ‘man you are big for 17’ and I whispered in his ear, ‘I’m only 15.’ He went nuts.
“He said, ‘15? 15 years old, holy s–t.’ When he was talking, I looked up to see the crowd and judges giving me a standing ovation. At that moment, music healed me a little more.”
Days later, the numbness of his big moment still hasn’t completely worn off, as the stakes and challenges increase heading into round two, Fonoti-Paau said he’s ready and will continue to make sure future experiences continue to feed his soul not his ego.
“One of the things that’s important to me as I continue in my career is that I remain a humble, kind and giving person,” he said. “I want the lessons and hard moments I go through to get to my dream to mean something for someone else. With the first week behind me, I believe any doubts or questions I may have had are gone. I believe my skills are close or up to par with my competitors.
“I have spent so much time alone in my room, makeshift studio that I feel I know myself pretty well as a DJ. If I didn’t know myself well enough, I shouldn’t be competing. To some degree, you have to know yourself before you can compete and battle others. That way, you don’t have to worry or doubt yourself.”
Kalani Wilhelm covers nightlife and music for the Pulse. Contact him via email or follow him on Twitter.