Rafael Lopez ’07
This DJ went from performing on campus to the Coachella main stage.
By Jessica Weber
Rafael Lopez ’07 has come a long way from experimenting with a set of turntables in his bedroom as a high schooler.
Better known as “DJ Alf Alpha,” the 35-year-old Palm Desert native has played Indio’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — one of the largest music festivals in the world — every year since 2011.
Last year, he shared the festival’s main stage with performers such as Ariana Grande and Khalid. But getting to this point took more than a decade of hard work and a huge leap of faith.
Lopez became fascinated with hip-hop culture at a young age and took up “scratching” vinyl records. As a teen, he saved up to buy his own turntables and taught himself how to DJ.
“This was before there was tutorials on YouTube — it was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “I was in my bedroom DJing for two years just getting in the fundamentals.”
It wasn’t until he transferred to UC Riverside in 2004 from College of the Desert that Lopez got his first chance to perform in front of a large crowd. A founding member of the university’s Hip Hop Congress chapter, Lopez began DJing near the former UCR Commons for “Ta-Dow Tuesdays,” borrowing equipment from theatre professor Rickerby Hinds.
The weekly event drew big crowds, so UCR gave the chapter money to organize larger events, including an urban arts festival, and eventually, the music festival HEAT, which ran from 2007-17. Lopez took the stage in front of thousands at the first HEAT festival along with rapper Lupe Fiasco and others.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Lopez attended the former UCR Heckmann International Center for Entrepreneurial Management in Palm Desert with plans to go to law school. But he decided to withdraw and move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the music industry. He was offered an internship at Squeak E. Clean Studios, where he helped create music for TV commercials and befriended an executive who offered him DJ gigs on the side.
“It was getting my foot in the door and making relationships,” Lopez said. “Those are priceless.”
Lopez continued to book gigs, eventually becoming the resident DJ at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs in 2010. Music entertainment company Goldenvoice, which organizes Coachella, took notice of Lopez and offered him a spot on the festival lineup in 2011 — an opportunity he had dreamed about since attending the first Coachella festival in 1999.
Meanwhile, Lopez was still interning at the studio and working as a computer lab and physical education instructor and coach at Dahlia Heights Elementary School in Eagle Rock. Soon after booking Coachella, he quit his 9-to-5 job to concentrate on his DJ career full time.
“It was heartbreaking for me to leave a lot of those students,” Lopez said.
But his tough choice has paid off. Lopez keeps his passion for working with kids alive through several community projects in Palm Desert. He was a founding member of the nonprofit Coachella Valley Art Scene, which for several years provided a space for open mic nights and art shows and gave many artists their first chance to showcase their work. One such artist was Sofia Enriquez, whose art has since appeared at Coachella.
“It’s very rewarding to see that, because art matters,” Lopez said. “It has the power to change and open people’s minds.”
For the past five years, Lopez has also offered six-week DJing workshops to high school students in the Palm Springs Unified School District. Using professional software and equipment, students learn about the history of hip-hop and DJing techniques, experiment with mixing their own songs, and put on performances for their peers.
“It’s really liberating for these students and really rewarding for me as a teacher to see these kids transform,” Lopez said.
Lopez hopes the students will be inspired to pursue their own dreams and take a chance on themselves, like he did.
“My window of time was going to close if I didn’t take the chance,” he said. “In the end, you really don’t have anything to lose.”