The six-month contract, with a family temporarily relocating here for the pandemic, would support him through late January and his annual gig at X Games Aspen.
“With all the restrictions going on, I wasn't legally allowed to do what I do as a DJ and work events,” he said. “It was either dip into the savings and spend money that we didn't want to spend or, you know, seek a different line of work, at least temporarily.”
Nakagawa in the Superpipe at X Games Aspen in January. He DJ'd the event as he does annually, though for the first time there were no fans on hand listening. It marked his first major gig since March 2020 when the pandemic struck.
Growing up in Aspen, Nakagawa’s parents had run a property management company that gave Nakagawa his first job, helping his dad at local homes and learning the value of work. (“Literally, like, ‘Here here's the bucket, here's a shovel – go pick up all the dog shit. You get $1 for each one.”) So he was able to slip back into that role, at 43 after a decade behind turntables, doing the catch-all Aspen version of property management: getting things fixed around the house, keeping cars filled with gas, doing airport pickups, getting takeout, and so on.
“I think the family was really happy with my performance,” he said, adding that he’ll keep doing some property management work until events and live music pick up again. “It definitely wasn't the money I was making DJ-ing before.”
He’d made his DJ business a profitable full-time operation since 2010, when he lost a graphic designer job at the Aspen Daily News in the wake of the Great Recession. Before that, it had been a passion but not a true vocation.
“Now DJ-ing has kind of gone back as a side hustle,” he said of 2021’s slow trickle of returning gigs.
As the pandemic neared its one-year mark, Nakagawa has had a few DJ opportunities come back — including a regular gig at the Little Nell’s revamped all-vinyl listening room and wine bar, a few small wedding receptions and March’s FIS Snowboard and Freeski World Championships at Buttermilk where, without cheering crowds, his music is about the only thing pumping up the athletes.
Nakagawa at the Winter Youth Olympics in January 2020 in Switzerland. As a renowned DJ for sporting events, he performed at events around the world until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. | Photo courtesy Naka G
“The event world has taken a big hit and we’re last on the list to come back, so I didn’t have time to wait around,” Nakagawa explained. “I’ve never given myself the option to fail my family financially. If I can’t provide for them, what purpose do I have?”
He kept himself going creatively while the paying gigs went way, making new mixes and spinning at home. Also, beginning in the early days of the stay-home order last spring, he hosted live performances on his social media channels.
They became a cherished near-nightly community experience in those grim early days of the pandemic.
With his home turntable setup, some black lights, a disco ball and occasional cameos from his children, Naka G’s shows became communal experiences for quarantined Aspenites and people around the world who follow him. Hundreds of people watched and commented — upward of 1,100 tuned in for an April 1 performance on Facebook Live.
He’d usually play for about an hour, spinning mash-ups of crate-diving old school funk, hip-hop and soul with pop hits and rock anthems and peppering it all with his dry wit and snarky humor, picking up his handheld microphone to react in real time as fans commented.
“During that time I was able to provide those livestreams, people were just so psyched to have it,” he recalled. “We didn’t know what was going on. We just knew that we had to stay home. That virtual sense of normalcy was something that people embraced.”
After a few streams, at the encouragement of other DJs, he started accepting tips via Venmo.
“It wasn’t something I was making a living off of, I just wanted to do my part in some way,” he said. “It took me a few livestreams to put that out because I felt like I was asking for charity.”
But the response, in tips and in gratitude, was moving for Nakagawa: “It was definitely like, ‘Wow, people do care about each other,’ you know? It was amazing to see that.”
Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Nakagawa would normally have 20 to 25 gigs on his calendar – everything from après-ski sets to Belly Up opening gigs to private parties. This year there was almost nothing. Then the New Year gave way to a bleak January and tighter public health restrictions and spiking virus caseloads.
But now, with vaccines rolling out, restrictions slowly loosening and the promise of a more open summer ahead, Nakagawa is eager to spend more time doing what he loves with some in-person crowds listening again.
“With the restrictions, it was pretty hard,” he said. “It was tough on all of us that were DJs or musicians. But now that it's slowly, slowly coming back, man, if it does feel really good.”