DJ Leesto brings the beats to L.A. night life
DJ, producer and songwriter Jalen Stokes — who goes by Leesto — was in the eighth grade when he saw electronic musician, record producer and DJ Dillon Francis mixing at his friend’s birthday party.
Leesto, now a junior majoring in music production, grew up listening to Michael Jackson and ’90s R&B — not to mention the extensive history of music within his family. His father produced music in his younger years and his uncle DJed — both of which Leesto does now. But it wasn’t until he saw Francis perform that he began to seriously pursue music as a career.
“[I was drawn to] being able to create something from scratch,” Leesto said. “And … telling stories through music. I don’t think there’s any other platform or thing as a creator that I [could] express myself like that other than music production.”
Once the Thousand Oaks native entered high school, Leesto started to take music production classes and DJ for neighbors’ get-togethers, high school parties, proms and, eventually, nightclubs.
“It’s just funny because I was doing this at 15 [years old], and I didn’t have a license yet,” Leesto said.
In freshman year, he marketed himself on Twitter and Instagram, filming and uploading videos of himself doing different mixes. His first gig was a birthday party for a neighbor who had just turned 50 years old.
“I had to have a bunch of ’70s music. I didn’t even know how to set up stands or a speaker … so my uncle came and brought his stuff and showed me how to set stuff up,” Leesto said.
As he booked more and more gigs, Leesto said he grew more aware of how he could connect with people through DJing.
“[DJing] has always been more so about meeting and creating energies in the room,” Leesto said. “So [when] I get hit up for an event … [it’s] ‘Where are we trying to go tonight?’, like ‘What’s the energy on the dance floor?’… A lot of that is reading and identifying your crowd and what type of people are on the floor.”
At first, his father assumed music was just a phase for Leesto and wanted him to focus on track & field and football, Leesto said.
“Once [my parents] saw I was able to make my own business … they put a lot of faith in me,” Leesto said. “They at least knew that I was taking this seriously, that it was something that I wanted to keep pursuing and do. And I guess I’m thankful to have their backs, honestly, because I know a lot of people, if you say, ‘Yeah, my kid wants to get into the music industry,’ they start biting their nails and looking at you [like you’re] crazy.”
After curating mixes for his high school basketball team’s halftime shows — “The students section would just go crazy,” he said — Leesto began to gain more attention from his peers, and eventually became involved in the party scene in Los Angeles, where he would DJ for hundreds of people.
“The era of entertainment in Los Angeles, especially [for] … teenagers in high school was very interesting because they would market and throw parties on Instagram,” Leesto said. “I just never heard of anybody doing that in other places or other states.”
However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Leesto said there was a time when he was unaware he and another DJ were both booked for an event — him stationed inside and the other stationed outside.
“Everybody was outside, it was honestly probably one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had,” Leesto said.
“That moment on, I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to let this happen again.’ I have to be the best and I’m going to make sure that happens.”
After practicing six hours straight everyday during the summer, Leesto was getting gigs for nightclubs like Nightingale Plaza and the Blind Dragon.
Despite his success and growing reputation, Leesto said he sometimes struggles with the pressure.
“Your performance and reputation and everything is all in one,” he said. “You’re up there and people are relying on you … for them to have a great night and at the end of the day, it’s based on how you play.”
Singer Randy White, a frequent collaborator of Leesto’s and his friend since middle school, pointed to Leesto’s ability to engage the crowd as one of his major talents.
“He’s really good at controlling the audience, the party and everything,” White said. “He plays all the really good, popular songs, but he also throws in all the bangers that people forget about. Everytime there’s a party and Leesto is the DJ, everybody knows there’s going to be good music.”
After mixing music for years, Leesto also started to work on creating his own music with White.
Their R&B and soul album “After Night, Before Morning,” which they began producing during Leesto’s senior year of high school, was released last year and featured 14 tracks.
The album’s opening track, “Simulation” was the hardest for Leesto to write and produce due to its complexity. The track, Leesto said, centers around the idea that “you can be experiencing something positive or negative with someone or something … and it can feel so fake or so real that it can’t be real.”
For the production of “Simulation,” Leesto went back to his roots — the ’90s R&B and soul music he had heard as a child — and went for a neo-soul vibe. Leesto also said he was inspired to add organ music to one of the album’s tracks after seeing a video where someone worked with the same instrument in their studio.
“That night, I started making something, and [Randy and I] shared a notes page,” Leesto said. “We really wanted the song structure to be symmetric so that the first verse, the way the nouns and verbs and everything lays out, is the same in the second verse. We were very methodical of what words were going to go where in that track.”
Leesto and White pulled from their personal experiences to craft each song out of a desire to “make something real, something different.”
“[We were] honestly just making music based on events that would happen in either my life or his life,” Leesto said. “It’s kind of like that ‘12 a.m., you’re by yourself’ vibe of music.”
Now that Leesto finished his first album and the pandemic’s halt on any parties and clubs he could DJ for, Leesto said he is focusing his efforts on producing and writing new music, as well as marketing his music through music placements.
“I’ve been trying to get into the habit of organizing a lot of music … really trying to get [music] placements, and reach outside the community of people that I’ve been working with,” Leesto said.
Leesto now also collaborates with new artists he’s met at USC, like his roommate Jonah Horne, who goes by Esso. Despite their different sounds — with Esso describing his music as “ethereal” and Leesto focusing more on R&B, soul and hip hop — Esso said he was immediately drawn to Leesto as a collaborator.
“His creativity is just insane. I’ve never met anyone who’s as good as him at making stuff on the fly,” Esso said.
Despite his new collaborations, Leesto and White still work together on music.
“I think the collaboration works so well because we both have very creative minds. We both have our own thoughts and our own ideas and then we just bring them together [and] they mesh so well,” White said. “So [there’s] always a flow and [we’re] always [in] constant movement.”
The music Leesto is currently working on is more hip hop heavy than “After Night, Before Morning” — “I’ve been listening to a lot of Juice WRLD,” he said — as well as more party-centric than the more intense production that characterized his first album.
“The album I worked on before was like music for yourself if you’re either going through stuff or you just wanted to mellow,” Leesto said. “The music that I’m working on now, it’s like, ‘Let’s have fun. Let’s have a good time.’”
Despite the more upbeat tone in his upcoming songs — which he plans to release sometime between March and April — Leesto still wants to draw from “real” experiences like he did in “After Dark, Before Morning.” Although the pandemic has encouraged him to focus on producing and writing music, he said that it’s also given him more time to contemplate his future career prospects.
Since Leesto wears multiple hats — as a DJ, producer and a songwriter — he said he’s unsure of the specific music career he looks to pursue in the future. DJing for festivals is on his list, especially now that he’s done parties and clubs, but so is pursuing entertainment law or starting his own management label.
“I’m just doing it day by day,” he said. “There’s going to be so much opportunity when COVID is done … you can probably imagine [how it will be] when things open up… I feel like it’s going to be a great arena to hop into.”