Smooth Transitions: From opening for Jay-Z and a residency at Ann Arbor’s Alley Bar to spinning online, DJ Graffiti is in the mix
From opening for Beyonce at the Palace to dad, entrepreneur, and local DJ, and back again—this is the story of Martin Smith aka DJ Graffiti and how he made the dream of becoming an internationally renowned DJ work during a global pandemic.
Let’s start at the start—the rise of DJ Graffiti. A young man, attending underground hip-hop shows, meeting DJs, starts making his own music, performing, and carrying around a box of mixtapes wherever he goes. He starts getting recognized.
This leads to mainstream DJ gigs, which Graffiti slays, opening for a Jay-Z tour at the Palace, then a Beyonce tour at the Palace, on the bill with Big Sean, opening for Dave Chappelle at the Fillmore. He expands his territory—hitting Chicago, New York, Miami, L.A., and Detroit after every major mixtape release. Then DJ Graffiti goes international. Tours the Caribbean. Goes on a European tour with Phat Kat—part of the extended family of Slum Village and J Dilla.
And that’s when things change.
“I was never actually on tour-tour before,” Smith aka Graffiti says. “You go to a city, play the show, back on the bus or to the airport, then to the next city, weeks at a time. I realized it wasn’t for me, even though that’s living the life—traveling on someone else’s dime, seeing all these amazing cities in Europe. Everyone I know who’s successful at this is on the road more than they’re home. They’re fiends for the road. It was the opposite for me. Been out a week and a half and it was already time for me to go home.”
That’s when DJ Graffiti aka Martin Smith decided to shift gears.
He started his own marketing agency right after finishing business and law school at U-M in 2003—but he gets serious now. He rebrands his agency as Overflow, and before long has a solid roster of clients and work. He spends more time than ever with his family and daughter, Elia, while also staying in fighting shape with a weekly residence at Ann Arbor’s Alley Bar—DJing every Wednesday night.
“I wanted to create a hidden gem,” he says. “If you know, you know. I wasn’t trying to make a bunch of money or blow up again. It was an investment in the community and people kept coming out.”
He celebrated his 10th anniversary at Alley Bar, then the pandemic hit. Alley Bar nights ceased, so DJ Graffiti took his show online. It took some trial and error, installing commercial-grade internet, finding the right platforms to stream to, but just like the early days, Graffiti found a way and got noticed.
It allowed him to reconnect with his audience, build an even bigger following, and work around the thing that kept him from being international DJ Graffiti—travel. With the world at home and online, he didn’t have to jump on a bus or plane to go from city to city, on to the next show. He could do it from home.
“That’s the lemonade out of the COVID lemons,” he says. “I got to tap back into this thing I let go of.”
His first big virtual event was a corporate gig, and he slayed once again. Then came co-DJing with Jazzy Jeff, hosting and producing an event featuring Erykah Badu through Overflow. More corporate events and conferences and panel discussions. Martin brought his Overflow team into the mix more and more, to add motion graphics and work with companies on brand launches and more. It all started connecting, with clients and companies understanding the value of bringing people together from all across the world to celebrate and experience something together.
“We’re crushing it for larger companies than we ever would have even tried to work with,” he says.
The New Year has been as prosperous as ever. Recently, he wrapped up seven events at a sales conference for tech company, GitLab. He’s got events with Google and U-M Law School’s African American Alumni Reunion on the calendar. He’s also launching a campaign to promote his free weekly DJ streams, making sure he doesn’t lose touch with the community he worked so hard to connect with DJing at Alley Bar.
Plus DJ text alerts, a DJ Graffiti mixtape archive, past virtual sets, and a list of ever-evolving ideas.
“I love being able to push boundaries and break new ground in my career,” he says. “I’m doing that more than ever now, and I’m so blessed.”
Rich Retyi is the marketing and communications director for AADL.
Learn more about DJ Graffiti at djgraffiti.com or follow him on pretty much every social media platform.