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Jason Swamy

Dark Side of Creative: Jason Swamy of Robot Heart

by Charlie Zhang

“I've been sharing my story with the younger generation around the world,” says Jason Swamy. “I don't want to harp on that too much, but what I really want is to impart knowledge, help educate young creatives and let them avoid the mistakes I made.” It’s hard to give Swamy the introduction he deserves without mentioning his enormous contributions to nightlife. A music and entertainment maven, the man has been responsible for as many things as cultivating a large part of New York’s club scene, playing a critical role in the birth of music genre Deep House and establishing one of Burning Man’s best-known stages, Robot Heart and Hong Kong's pioneering music events brand small&Tall. He’s the founder of creative agency Do What You Love and is the founding member and Director of Asia's award-winning, first sustainable lifestyle festival, Wonderfruit. To say that Jason has created impact would be an understatement. While his CV is packed with impressive titles and projects, getting there required some serious grit. It was not an easy, predictable path. In fact, it was something unprecedented and unpaved. As someone who has lived most of his life in the night, the man has some stories to tell.

We sat down with Jason Swamy, DJ, tastemaker, creator, producer, entrepreneur, innovator and all-around cultural zeitgeist, to discuss the challenges that came with all the wins of his career, unveiling the real work behind his success.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

My mother is Chinese, my father's Indian. I was born in Hong Kong at the Adventist hospital where most of my family was born including my sister, my wife and son. I went to Kennedy Road Junior School, formerly a beautiful colonial building. Then I went to Island School for primary school, British school. After that I went to boarding school in the U.S., and then from there my creative bug emerged. I went to 10 different schools. I lived in India, China, U.K. and various parts of the US. Spent a lot of time in Thailand and travelled constantly around the world. All of that contributed to a distinct perspective that really influenced me. It was an undetermined and unpredictable path, which made me become adaptable, resilient and able to deal with ambiguity — to get along with a lot of different people and appreciate world culture and different perspectives. It certainly wasn't the path that I was hoping for but it shaped my personality and, as mentioned, my greatest strengths and unique perspective. 

I would not change a thing if I could. Not sure my parents would agree as I put them through a lot of stress, but they were very supportive. The freedom to explore and be left independent and somewhat to my own devices, fight or flight, to thrive. In retrospect while this was not by design the unintended consequence became the backbone of my creativity. Hong Kong was a British Colony back then until 1997. I was mixed race, which was unusual back then. I always stood out as I had ADHD, but that was not recognized back then. I wouldn't say I was great in school, either. I did most of my learning outside of school. I had a very Asian upbringing which I really treasure. Looking back, I wasn't proud of it. I encountered a lot of racism so I suppressed it, but little did I know it was a tremendous strength and contributed to my uniqueness. Academically and socially I had a very Western upbringing. 

Do I recommend going to that many schools? Certainly not, but it certainly aligned with the globalized, multicultural and more mindful acceptance of perspectives and values of the world today. So this is something that one can plan for now via study abroad, mentorships, internships, experiential learning, travel and actual academic programs.

Do you speak Cantonese?

Yeah, I'm fluent, but I can't read and write. It was through immersion through my mother's side family. I have a bit of Mandarin, too. I totally regret sleeping through and ditching those classes, as it's so useful now. Especially when I was working with NetEase and co-founded Fever in China. My Hong Kong upbringing made me love all that Canto stuff. It was a golden era for Hong Kong. My love for art house cinema, my auntie used to take me to the movies all the time when I was a kid and I would try all this street food as well. This developed my foodie palette. ‘In the Mood for Love’ is one of my favorite films and each component of that from Wong Kar Wai (Direction and storytelling) Christoper Doyle (cinematography, lighting and mood) Leslie Cheung (Charisma) and Maggie Cheung (beauty) heavily influenced me. I would come back from boarding school and go to Laser People and rent stacks of Canto movies and binge on them during holiday breaks. A friend of mine who was working at a hotel in Hong Kong back then told me Tarantino used to come to Hong Kong to lock himself in a room and get his inspiration for his movies. You know, the other day, I started crying because I was listening to some buskers sing to Danny Chan. It triggered all these emotions, reminded me of my Mom and my childhood. My local upbringing had a huge impact on my DNA.

“My life changed when Sasha came to play in Hong Kong.”

What sort of music did your parents expose you to?

So of course there's the Cantopop side, but my dad exposed me to a lot of stuff like Motown, Fleetwood Mac, disco and Michael Jackson. The first concert I ever went to was Whitney Houston in Hong Kong. The second one was Public Enemy. My life changed when Sasha came to play in Hong Kong.

Did you harness your creativity in your childhood or teenage years?

While growing up, I didn't really have any mentors to help nurture my creativity and my interest in music. Naturally, I was really creative, but what I kind of knew about a career was my dad's business. So I thought I'd just go into business and marketing, since marketing is the most creative aspect of business. So then I went to business school in Boston and it was like, I joined a fraternity, which is funny because I was the only Asian there. 

Boston was very provincial. Even though Hong Kong was the most densely populated place in the world, many people in Boston thought Hong Kong was in Japan. I was in a steroid-pump, like Irish, Italian, Jewish fraternity, and I was just this skinny raver guy. But it was amazing. Being there taught me a lot and it was a lot of fun. They accepted me. I was really into Stone Roses, Mo Wax stuff, DJ shadow, Massive Attack and things like that. I studied abroad in London for a year, and that's when the gloves really came off. I went to London and literally spent all my money on records. I had the nickname One Deck Wonder because I could only afford one turntable. I really immersed myself in the scene and I was just loving it. 

“I really want to figure out how we can help people and recognize talent so that they don't get shut down.”

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you were younger?

Looking back, you realize that if you have mentors and people who know how to look at skills and talent, it's much easier to channel those things into something valuable. Even with my son right now, he's three years old. People might say, “he's a bad kid because he does xyz.” But I know he's not a bad kid. A good kid to you might be someone who's able to sit properly for a long time, but that to me is a robot. It depends on the context. If you want to be an accountant, that might be good, but if he's a creative guy and jumping around all the time, he might become like the best free jumper, right? But you might've just shut him down because he's a bad boy. I really want to figure out how we can help people and recognize talent so they don't get shut down.

What advice do you have for young creatives?

You don't really learn from your successes. What success does is for your ego. Confirmation biases. You think you're the greatest and then you keep thinking it until you mess up. But then as you make mistakes, you become aware of the mistakes, I think the cliches are true: fail fast, learn fast. Obviously you're not going out there to fail on purpose. Like I wasn't trying to fail, I was just very confident and I had hubris.

Do you need hubris to push you forward?

Well, hubris is bad. I think you need confidence on different levels. I think if you're performing, you have to be somewhat over-confident. No one wants a humble performer on stage [laughs]. I guess you need to activate different levels of confidence in different ways. Confidence gives you the ability to take risks. The risks are what gives you success. Not many people will go that distance. So if you take that risk that gives you the reward, you will want to push further, because it's like a dopamine fix, but then inevitably you get stung on the way up and then you go, boom. That brings you back down to earth. Then you go, "okay, I'm not going to touch the fire without the glove now." So you keep going like that. But then you also need the ability to just keep going. You could be depressed, embarrassed, ashamed, and you might not have the confidence to be able to get up.

In case you missed it, check out our interview with YeP YeP magazine Founder Kenny Li.

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