By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Michelle Pesce can pinpoint the moment when she knew she wanted to be a DJ. It came at the Woodstock 1999 music festival in upstate New York.
“I was overwhelmed at the energy there, of 200,000 people jamming to the music, and I thought, ‘I wish I could play [an instrument] or sing,’” she said. “Then later that night I saw a blond girl bouncing with a ponytail. She was a DJ.”
It was a key moment in her life, and it gave her an instant mental picture of her own future.
Today, Pesce — a Liberty native and Ursuline High School graduate who lives in Los Angeles — is one of the most sought-after DJs in the country. She specializes in Hollywood parties, but also travels a lot for gigs.
She has appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” twice this year, and will be part of the On the Road with Yahoo! tour this month.
Her life is a whirlwind, but Pesce still finds time to visit family in Youngstown four or five times a year. She made a 36-hour stopover a few weeks ago, which gave her a chance to reconnect.
Actually, Pesce has never really strayed far from her roots.
At first glance, she is about as West Coast as it gets. But moments after she stepped into Kravitz Deli in Liberty for a brunch interview, she was hugging old friends at a neighboring booth. And when the waitress stopped by, Pesce didn’t need to see a menu before ordering fried pastrami and hot mustard on an everything bagel.
“I’m so glad I grew up here,” said Pesce, who worked at the Handel’s Ice Cream stand on Belmont Avenue as a teen. “Coming from a gritty town, you know what’s important, and it makes you tougher.”
Pesce — her grandfather owned Pesce Bakery, and she recalls riding on delivery trucks in the Mahoning Valley as a kid — took off for California shortly after graduating from John Carroll University in Cleveland.
She became a public-relations specialist for Fox Broadcasting Co. in LA, working with the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Taye Diggs and Matthew Perry.
Six months after returning from Woodstock ’99, Pesce decided she had to give DJing a try. She bought her first set of turntables — tools of the trade — and the segue to her new career had begun.
“I’m still using those tables today,” she said.
In those days, she was going dancing several times a week at an LA club where the legendary DJ AM — another huge influence on her — held court. “I was obsessed with DJ AM and his style,” she said.
She kept her day job, but began DJing on the side until she had another career-defining moment.
“I got introduced one night to Spinderella, Salt-N-Pepa’s DJ, at one of their shows,” said Pesce. “She mentored me for a year on things like beat matching and song cues.”
Pesce took the final leap nine years ago.
“I got asked to DJ at Sundance [Film Festival] but at first I couldn’t go because of [her PR job],” she said. “I didn’t like that. So I worked it out with my boss. I gave her a three-month notice and I went to Sundance.”
Pesce has been working solely as a DJ ever since.
This year easily has been the biggest for her.
High demand has her in constant motion. After leaving Kravitz, she was flying to Chicago and then to Washington, D.C., for gigs. She also recently had to hire an assistant to help keep her on track.
“This year has been the craziest yet,” she said.
She is about to join the West Coast leg of Yahoo’s On the Road tour. It’s a bus-tour featuring actors and singers, including The Lumineers and Kendrick Lamar, that will stop in dozens of cities.
But most of her work is in Hollywood, where she DJs at the giant parties thrown before and after the big entertainment awards shows, and also at conventions and corporate events.
“I do three to six gigs a week, sometimes two in one day,” said Pesce.
She also still DJs regularly at The Dime nightclub in LA; it’s always been her home field. “I’ve had this gig [at The Dime] for eight years now,” she said. “It’s where I play the music I love.”
By that, she means the old-school hip-hop and pop of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s what she listened to while growing up and it still shapes her tastes today.
“It’s my signature sound,” she said.
Pesce spends time every day researching music and down- loading it to her laptop.
It’s part of the preparation, although what she plays on any given night is a decision made on the spot and adjusted on the fly.
“I don’t have a set list of [the same] music [that is standard] for each show,” said Pesce. “I’ll talk to the client before a show or party, and then make a [computer] folder of music for the night. And after the event starts, I’ll see what [the crowd is] feeding off. I get tuned in to the crowd and see what they give back.
“I know how to read a crowd,” she added. “I get the party going.”