Pair of Aspen DJs spin their way to China for the Winter Olympics
DJ Naka G, DJ Trizz and producer Kutcher Miller putting on the show in China
Skiers aren’t the only Aspenites representing local elite talents at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
A trio of locals who all cut their teeth pumping up crowds and putting on the show at the X Games at Buttermilk Ski Area are part of the team on the ground in China at the Olympic Games opening Friday.
DJ Naka G, a lifelong Aspenite and fixture on the Aspen event and nightclub scene, is spinning music live during the speed and technical Alpine racing events at Xiaohaituo Alpine Skiing Field (part of the hotly anticipated Mikaela Shiffrin campaign for gold). The Beijing competitions mark his fifth time as a music director at the Olympics, and his fourth winter Games going back to Vancouver in 2010.
He has previously provided the sountrack Olympic freestyle skiing and snowboarding events — the traditional races have required a slight pivot in approach, he said.
“It’s really all about high-energy racing music while the racers are coming down the course,” said the DJ, whose out-of-the-booth name is Mike Nakagawa.
As an action sports go-to DJ, Nakagawa has also played summer X Games and major events around the world. He was Aspen’s pioneer for this space, blazing a path for DJs and event production pros who have followed him in what has become a pipeline from Aspen to international sporting competition for events professionals.
DJ Trizz, a Carbondale-born DJ mentored by Nakagawa and now based in Denver, likewise found a niche as a large sporting event music director. He played the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, but is making his Winter Olympics debut in China, spinning at Genting Snow Park for snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle events.
“We’re trying to create an atmosphere,” the DJ, born Aaron Markham, said before heading to China. “The live show is going to be different this year, but we’re still trying to build excitement from athlete introductions on. Once competition starts, it’s just trying to keep the energy high for the hands.”
And Kutcher Miller, an event producer, is running the show at the Big Air venue at Shougang in Beijing. He’s the guy making the live event happen for the crowd on-site, managing music, video walls, three announcers in multiple languages and other elements from a control booth. Miller, like Nakagawa, used X Games as a springboard to international work and has been producing at Olympics venues since the Vancouver Games in 2010.
In the years before the pandemic, Miller would log about 120,000 miles annually out of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, flying to produce action sports events around the world from CrossFit competitions to BMX and skate comps along with winter sports.
He’s yet to get jaded or take for granted his being a part of history.
“It’s always an honor to be a part of the Olympics and to be chosen to work in this kind of international environment,” Miller said in a video interview from the Big Air venue in late January.
Markham likewise recognizes the privilege to play a part at the Games.
“It’s a huge honor,” Markham said. “I never thought I’d be going to the Olympics, traveling and getting paid to do something I love.”
All three made it to their venues for the historic Olympiad taking place in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and under strict protocols in line with China’s zero-COVID-19 policy. They’re part of a small team of about 70 foreigners who the IOC tapped for the production alongside the mostly Chinese crew.
The days leading up to the Games required two weeks of temperature monitoring, two negative COVID-19 tests before flying to China, where another PCR test was administered and a short isolation period was required until results came back.
Those all clear, they went to work on-site, where they are to stay in their bubble.
The strict atmosphere means the Aspen contingent won’t be able to go out and do any sightseeing in China (Miller noted he’s hopeful the pandemic will wane enough to allow for some nightlife in Paris in 2024).
In the bubble, they’re also doing a daily COVID-19 test. If any is to come back positive, they would spend at least 14 days in a quarantine facility — not an experience any of them want.
Those nasal swabs never get more comfortable — “I think they took part of my brain,” Miller joked — but the logistics on the ground have been navigable so far.
“The Chinese have been exceptional to work with,” Miller said.
The pandemic as well as political concerns about China have kept many professionals from going to this Olympics. Nakagawa, a father of three, contemplated staying home and skipping this go-round given all the hassle and risk.
“I was pretty nervous about it at first, and I was questioning whether I should or shouldn’t do it,” he said. ”But I came to the conclusion that, for me, it’s always a sacrifice having to leave my family behind, but it also helps me as a DJ and my craft, it gives me more clout, more value, and it keeps me relevant. This isn’t just about Beijing, it’s about future events.”
Last month’s X Games in Aspen was Nakagawa’s 20th as DJ.
His on-mountain gigs started here in 2001, when the Aspen Skiing Co. brought him on to play at the top of Aspen Mountain, when it first opened to snowboarders.
But his big break came two years later, when ESPN hired him to DJ the X Games during the event’s second year at Buttermilk.
January’s X Games, with crowds returning after a fan-less 2021, served as a final warm-up for Nakagawa, Markham and Miller.
“This year (at X Games), you could just tell the energy was back, and people were stoked to be back,” he said. “And the athletes were probably the most thrilled to have fans coming back.”
The X Games has served as a feeder event for DJs at the Olympics, much as it has for freestyle skiers and snowboarders. Nakagawa, for instance, was first invited to play the Olympics in 2010 by his X Games producer, Christy Nicolay, who also works for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
“She came up with a big roster of talent for them and threw my name on there, and the rest is history,” Nakagawa explained.
Nakagawa was tasked with bringing the notorious X Games party atmosphere to the more staid Olympic grounds as more freestyle events joined the Games.
Years later, he recommended Markham for X Games after seeing his rise as DJ Trizz on the Aspen scene and the dedication he brought to the craft.
“When I see someone with the same grit and grind and dedication, who leaves the ego at home, I’ll gladly throw their name out for gigs,” Nakagawa said. “I’ve been in those shoes, and I know what it means to get a big break like the X Games or the Olympics.”
Markham said Nakagawa has blazed a path for local DJs and set a standard of conduct.
“He’s been a mentor and grown into a great friend,” Markham, 30 and a generation behind Nakagawa, said. “He’s one of the most humble, hardworking DJs that I know and he’s definitely an inspiration to me.”
From the DJ booth, they’re proud to represent the U.S. and Aspen.
“I love representing my country, but it’s a true honor to represent this town and my community,” Nakagawa said. “This place has always had my back and has always been super supportive.”