.Replete with Beats

Local DJ Monk Earl spins Afrobeats and more at weekly dance party

DJ Monk Earl sets up his mixer on the outdoor stage at Woodhouse Blending & Brewing. It is late afternoon. By nightfall, a tide of dancers will rush in, the stage lights will kick on and the courtyard, quiet now with its empty picnic tables, will be transformed. 

“It was like 50 people who came here that first night,” Earl says. “And then, from week to week, it just started growing. Every week I was like, whoa, that was a lot of people. Now, there’s about two, three-hundred people who come out.” 

Jase “Monk” Earl is the current organizer of Afrobeats Nite Santa Cruz, a free, weekly DJ’d dance party featuring African music. The popularization of Afrobeats Nite—and the journey of Monk Earl to head it—has been long in the making and involves many players. 

Earl has worked his whole life—nationally and internationally—as a rapper and DJ. While overseas, he was based, mostly, in Brussels. 

“I definitely heard African music when I was in Belgium,” Earl says, but it wasn’t until a return to Santa Cruz and meeting Babacar Biaye, an aspiring DJ from Senegal, that DJ Monk Earl went deep with African music. Biaye showed Earl music from West Africa and other French-speaking African music. Biaye left town about a year later, but his musical influence remained. 

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“From there, it made me dig deep in and find more music from Africa. Around that time—about four years ago—I was [DJing] at the Shanty Shack. It was late at night. They were about to close, no one was there. And I was just like, you know what, let me try playing some of this African music.”

Earl’s experiment landed on receptive ears—those of Lisa Norelli, one of the owners of Moe’s Alley. Norelli wanted to know why Earl had not yet played Moe’s. 

“She said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna play there,’” Earl remembers.

After successful gigs at Moe’s, the pandemic hit, and it wasn’t until April of last year that Earl started up a conversation with Tug Newett, Creative Director at Woodhouse Blending & Brewing. He told Newett he wanted to do a night of all African music. “His face lit up when I said that,” Earl says. They agreed to host the night every other week. 

Newett made a flier for the event and called it Afrobeats Nite.

Earl defines Afrobeats as “contemporary pop music from Africa that has a number of influences. Among them being Afrobeat. No ‘s’ at the end. Afrobeat is an experimental jazz crossover which started back in the ’60s.”

Nigerian jazz and funk musician Fela Kuti is credited with the creation of Afrobeat. “Now, a contemporary Afrobeat band would be like Antibalas or Amayo, both of whom I’ve opened for here at Moe’s Alley,” Earl adds. 

Along with Afrobeat—which tends to have a “strong political message”—Afrobeats takes inspiration from genres such as house music, hip-hop, and dancehall. 

In turn, Afrobeats has become a giant in contemporary Western pop and hip-hop: Afrobeats artists collaborated with Beyoncé on The Gift. Drake and Wizkid’s “One Dance” has become ubiquitous. Fireball DML remixed Madonna’s “Frozen” and his track “Peru” features Ed Sheeran. Earl adds to this list Rema’s “Calm Down” and its subsequent remix with Selena Gomez.

“It’s been growing in popularity for years now and doesn’t show any signs of stopping. What it really reminds me of is hip-hop,” he says. 

Earl, who was born in 1974, recounts recording tracks off public access and college radio stations which played hip-hop. This was during his childhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and in the DC-Baltimore Area. 

“I remember, people back then saying, ‘Oh, this rap stuff, this hip-hop stuff, is just a trend,’” Earl says. “And here we are, 50 years later. It’s still happening. It’s a billion dollar industry. I mean—not that that matters—but it’s a central part of culture in general. Across the board. The language that we use comes from hip-hop. There’s a similarity in the way that Afrobeats has taken off.”

Afrobeats, which is variably vocalized in West-African dialects, French or pidgin English, remains popular for American audiences. “Despite this—the colloquial language that’s being used—people are just drawn to it. The music is just undeniable. I love it.”

This love of the music powers Earl’s dedication to Afrobeats Nite. This past winter, the event went indoors at Moe’s Alley. Earl worked with local sponsors—like The Hook Outlet, Oswald and The Tequila People—to make sure there were free tickets to keep the event accessible. He also works to hire local DJs, like Casa Primos and DJ Sal Tek from Watsonville. 

“He spins everything. Reggaeton, hip-hop. He loves house, Brazilian house, Afro-Brazilian house, all kinds of things,” Earl says. 

Curating the event is a careful exercise in listening to the crowd. “I take cues from what I see. From what the community wants,” he explains. 

Shortly after landing the every-other Thursday night at Woodhouse Blending & Brewing, in a pattern fitting with his previous run-ins with venue organizers, Earl told Joey Ward of Abbott Square about the event. “He was like, ‘You want to do the alternating Thursdays here?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yeah.’” 

Looking forward, DJ Monk Earl is keen to grow the night’s sponsorship program and to branch out to other creative projects, one of which is the new Motown Mondays at Motiv. He’s happy to do it.

“I’m just elated that the community comes out. They do. They come to dance. There’s no greater satisfaction for me as a DJ than to see people happy.”

Afrobeats Nite Santa Cruz, Thursdays 7pm, Free, Woodhouse Blending & Brewing (7/6) or Abbott’s Square Market (7/13) @afrobeats_nite_santa_cruz

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