With Help From Icons Like Spinderella, Joel Salazar is Building a New Home for Hip-Hop
Jason Janik Joel Salazar and Spinderella
Few symbols in Joel Salazar's life hold more meaning than a set of turntables.
"Música, Daddy! Música!" his 2-year-old daughter, Natalia, yells at least once a day.
And when she does, her father is happy to oblige her. Salazar stops whatever he's doing and sets two chairs at his decks. Together they sit side-by-side as he picks out music and plays it with her. Natalia can already stop and start a record as well as work the fader knob between them. Her face lights up with joy when she does this and his heart melts, every time.
Hip-hop culture has given Joel Salazar much of what he values in life. For the last decade-plus, he's overcome high hurdles and taken big risks to share his love for it with everyone from his family to strangers he'll never meet.
Before he got his own set of turntables, Salazar used a dual tape deck to chop and mix cumbia and tejano cassettes as a boy growing up in Corpus Christi. At South Garland High School, he was a starting power forward on the basketball team and traveled all over the country for camps and tournaments. After a brush with the law lost him a couple of scholarship opportunities, he focused his attention on the passion for live music he was developing on weekend nights out in Deep Ellum.
"I started out doing a lot of EDM events. That's kind of where my roots are in the city, the EDM culture" Salazar says. "I started [hosting] in Dallas around 1998 at the Royal Rack -- the infamous Royal Rack on Greenville -- and just started doing shows. I got to perform at Trees, Gypsy Tea Room. I got the chance to feel a sold-out show."
Salazar understands and showcases the DJ's role in hip-hop better than most. Naturally charismatic, approachable and warm, Salazar excelled at hosting and performing. The more active he was in the scene, the more working relationships and collaborations he formed. Before long, he found his personality and knack for networking proved useful in event promotion, and he wanted to apply what he'd learned as an EDM DJ to the city's rap scene.
In 2006, hip-hop became Salazar's main creative focus when he formed Poor Vida Productions along with friends and collaborators Donny Benavidez and Colin Roy. Together, they booked hip-hop shows and events around Dallas. Poor Vida partnered with East Dallas b-boy and graffiti community staple The Rec Shop and began to throw their annual Elements of Hip-Hop festivals. They put the city's best rappers, b-boys, graffiti artists and DJs together under one roof for an authentic celebration of rap culture. Poor Vida's beloved weekly Sunday Sessions at The Green Elephant fell somewhere between an open-mic jam session and lyrical group therapy. For years, Sunday Sessions gave young local rap artists a place to hone their craft and collaborate with their peers.
Around October 2010, along with filmmaker Teddy Cool, The Rec Shop's Islam Sesaalem and Media 13 Productions, Salazar started production on We from Dallas. The feature-length documentary serves as an oral history and cultural archive, including rare performance footage and hundreds of interviews.
"About two years ago, we were working on [We from Dallas], and for the first time in my life, I was able to work in hip-hop full time. The two companies I had worked for were going under and downsizing. For the first four months, our executive producer said, 'Tell me what you need to live off of for a little bit, I need you guys to work on this project," Salazar says. But the four months passed, and Salazar had a decision to make: Go back to work he didn't love to pay the bills or take a risk on Poor Vida and his hip-hop dreams.
"A couple of months into that, my girl told me that if I wanted to make this transition in my career, she was willing to hold me down for three months," he says. "She said, 'Three months, you won't have to worry about bills or nothing. I got you. Make your own work.'"
The proposition was a risky one. It was early in his marriage to Christina Saenz-Pasternak, and they were raising a baby girl. While Saenz-Pasternak attended school, pursuing an education degree, the young family was living on Salazar's catering and food service jobs. But she saw his potential to do great things. Together, they decided he would go all in on the hip-hop career of his dreams.
What he didn't know was that the Poor Vida brand he'd been building all those years wouldn't be the vehicle to take him there.
"Fast forward a few months ... Donny had just gotten a new job where he was going to be traveling a lot, Colin found out that he was going to be a father, and I was more hands-on with a lot of Poor Vida. I was making the transition of turning a hobby into a full-time job," Salazar says. "So I made a decision, and the guys all agreed it was best for us to go our own ways."
Poor Vida Productions dissolved, but the reputation they'd built and demand for work was still there. So was Salazar's need for it, since Christina was due to have their second child in about five months. It was then that Salazar stepped out on his own, and Too Fresh Productions was born. He surveyed the Dallas scene, asking himself what it needed as a community, what no one else was doing. Salazar was determined to bring something different to the table.
"As opposed to trying to bring in the names that are catchy, that the young kids know, I wanted to do something for my older heads," Salazar says. "When they go out, these guys wanna make sure it's a good time. They get a baby sitter, they wanna go and have dinner first, and they want to have a good show. And they're looking for things like this.
"So I said all right, let's get back to more nostalgia, but with some innovation. That's been the formula so far. Like, for the longest time when I started Too Fresh, I didn't do live acts. I did straight DJs and emcee stuff. I wanted to get away from the live music, and focus on the people and the craft."
Unfortunately, though simple and well-intentioned, Salazar's ideas were met with plenty of resistance from Dallas venue owners. It's a sad tale that longtime players in Dallas hip-hop know all too well.