“I built this.” Lee Mayjahs is talking about his house, but this statement could easily be applied to the empire he has built in the East and West Coast U.S. Burning Man scenes. Now an international DJ, Lee has been pleasing crowds with his DJ skills since he was 12 years old. Since his first Burn in 1999, he has been building and coordinating the Philadelphia Experiment (PEX)—a theme camp with anywhere between 15-500+ people, and placement on the Esplanade since 2007. PEX also throws annual fundraisers and festivals, such as Halloween, Heartburn, and PEXFEST in the Philadelphia area. This calm, humble man has built an empire in Philadelphia based on a love of music, people, and the 10 Principles of Burning Man. As the man behind the machine that is PEX, Lee managed to take a breather with me and share his memories of burns past, his advice to fellow DJs, and his hopes for the future of the Philadelphia Experiment.
If your music was a texture, what texture would it be?
I think it would be like laying on the beach in the sun and getting a massage while a light breeze blows through.
What was your favorite childhood movie?
Easy Rider struck home to me. When I was 16 and a punk rocker we were jumped by these rednecks and I was almost killed. I remember when I saw that movie, about a year after that happened, it was the thing that Jack Nicholson said something like, These people will tell you all day long how they support freedom, and they’ll fight for freedom, but when they see someone who is truly free, they want to kill them.
Were you a burner first or a DJ first?
I was actually a DJ first, but getting involved in the Burning Man scene in 1999 reinvigorated my love for dance music and DJing. I started DJing when I was 12 years old in 1983. My neighbor, David Fitzgerald and I became break-dancers and we had a small DJ crew called the “Electric Breakers”. He was “Electro” & I was “Dr. Shock”. We became enamored with the NYC urban break-dance culture and wanted to be like the DJ’s we saw in movies like “Beat Street” and “Breakin”. We had a small lawn mowing business and we saved up the money we made cutting lawns one summer and bought our first mobile DJ sound system. We mainly played High School and Middle School dances. We also had a residency at the local teen club, and we played lots of top 40 gigs at weddings and private events. When I was 15 and David was 16, he was in a near fatal car crash. He was in a coma for two months after the accident. He came out of the coma, but has been unable to talk, walk or function since then. I lost my love for DJing when that happened because we were a team. I sold all the gear and quit DJing for 10 years after his accident. I moved to New Mexico when I was 18 and got a job working the front door at a nightclub as a bouncer, but I didn’t buy another set of turntables until 1996.
Why the “?” at the end of LeeMayjahs?
The question mark represents a question. It asks “Who is Lee Mayjahs?” because I am constantly reinventing myself and re-evaluating who I am and what I do. It also ties into the word itself. “May” is a question, and “Jah” is god in the Rastafarian religion. So “May-Jah” Is asking God for permission. I am not overly religious, but I do ask the power of the universe for guidance and permission in the path that I choose.
What is your Burning Man DJ dream?
I think I fulfilled my BM dream in 2007 when I played on the Esplanade for the first time. It was Monday night, I had about 500 people dancing in front of me, there was a full eclipse of the moon, and the man was lit on fire early. All of this happened at once. It was one of those moments you never forget.
What advice to DJs new to Burning Man?
I would say stick to the CD’s or laptop and leave the vinyl at home.
How has Burning Man changed?
It definitely seems like people are going for bigger and bigger sound systems. I feel like Burning Man is now becoming more of a slice of general society at large, in that, where the most people are, or what the most people like, doesn’t mean it’s the best. I feel the playa is like that too, that some of the biggest camps, with the biggest sound systems, they have big crowds there, but the music just isn’t that good. One of my best experiences this year was this little teeny Irish Pub between Hookahdome and Fractal Nation. I walked by it several times. I heard that Osunlade, my friend and world-class producer, was camped there this year. I walked by and I wanted to just see if he was there. I walk in, and there he is DJing, on a little teeny sound system, and we walked in and we just danced our asses off all night. The best music, on a little sound system, a little party… It was like the old days. I miss that. We’re thinking about doing that for PEX this year, maybe take it back to its roots, like a small dome or just a small little sound system, and just keep it right.
How did you get involved with PEX?
PEX started as our camp at Burning Man. The seeds were planted in 1999 and we officially became the Philadelphia Experiment in 2003. After a camp split up in 2006, we started doing big fundraisers here in Philly and the community started to grow exponentially.
Will the PEX Theme Camp be back out this year?
We’re gonna be there, we’re not gonna do a big PEX camp itself, but we’re gonna have a PEX Village again, and then we’re gonna invite other crews that wanna do their own thing to camp with the Village, so we’ll have a portion of the Village on Esplanade, and then a portion of the Village on A, and then we’ll probably just help the other camps with logistics, like power and water and stuff like that, cause I think I might be done building camps.
How long have you been running theme camps?
I really started doing camps in 2002, so 8 years. In the beginning, I went out there, I didn’t really know anybody, so you start calling up people who you think would really enjoy it and you start talking them into coming. You’re like” DUDE! You’ve got to come to Burning Man, it’ll change your life, you’ll have so much fun! What about food? Don’t worry, I’ll bring the food! Well what about this? Don’t worry, I’ll bring it!” You want to invite all your friends because you want them to share this experience with you. And then the reason you build a camp is because now you want a place that’s home, where you can wander around the playa and do whatever you want, but then you come home and you have your own space. And for me, that was how it all started, our camp in the beginning was only like 15-30 people, but I was trying to do as much as I could to make everyone else’s experiences possible, and I didn’t really mind doing it. Then 2006 was the year our community really started to grow here in Philadelphia, and 2007 was our first year on the Esplanade, so where a few years before you couldn’t talk enough people into camping with you, in 2007 we had 150 people request to camp with us and we had to pick 80. Then we formed the Village, which had like 500 people. And now, my attitude is shifted where I don’t feel responsible anymore, I’m almost not encouraging people to go anymore. If you wanna go, go, and I’ll see you out there. If somebody calls me up and says, do you think I should go to Burning Man? If they have to ask me, I’m just like “Absolutely not! You should not go. It’s gonna be dustier this year.”
What camps do you love the most?
Obviously I love all of our friend’s camps, you know, Disorient and Kostume Kult, and some of our friends from LA have been doing one called Mosaic Lounge which is an offshoot of the Soulicious crew. Green Gorilla Lounge is one of the old ones from back in the day, they’ve been around as long as I have, and they’ve always consistently had good music. The camp that I used to love the most when I first started going was Lush Camp, they always had these really big flowers, they had a couple domes, and they always had really good music. For me it’s all about the vibes.
What is your favorite art project you’ve seen at burning man?
I think that Dan Das Manns large sculptures are extremely impressive. His Mother & Child sculpture in 2005 and the Crude Awakening in 2007 were two of my favorites. I also feel that Peter Hudson’s strobe light moving pieces are probably the most creative series of art I have ever seen.
What do you do outside of the Burning Man and dance music scene?
I build houses and commercial spaces. I got into construction in 2000 and have done a bunch of projects since then. It also helps to have a couple of big trucks when building a theme camp!
Do you have any parties coming up?
PEX has HeartBurn VI coming up in Philadelphia on Feb 10th.
Awesome! Thanks for the great words of advice, next time you see Lee Mayjahs?, buy him a round and let’s hope he and the Philadelphia Experiment rock us for years to come!