Jake Dela Cruz unwrapped his favorite Christmas present in 2011, and it transformed his life.
Jon and Arlene Dela Cruz gave their son a DJ mixer after Jake overheard family members talking about the days when Jon worked as a DJ in high school and college.
"He said, 'Dad, I'd like to learn,' " Jon recalls.
A month later, Jake, then 10, officially earned the DJ moniker when he played his first gig for the FishHawk Hash House Harriers running club at a post-race party. DJ Jake spun his tunes with enough up-tempo authority that he was asked back multiple times.
"He was a natural at it," Jon said. "He knows when to put the music in and take it out. He reads the crowd. If it's dying down, he changes the music. He's ready to DJ at any club."
Now the 12-year-old seventh-grader at Randall Middle School moonlights as DJ Jake. He has played in front of 1,500 peers at a school pep rally and large crowds at multiple Lithia events, including the 2012 Park Square Pizza New Year's Eve bash.
On Saturday, Jake will be a featured guest at the World's Largest Food Truck Rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds. For Jake, who won't become a teenager until next May, this is the latest step toward becoming a music producer by cueing up top 40 songs and amplifying crowds as he booms electro house and progressive house beats.
"I like seeing people dance," Jake said. "I do a mix that I already did, or I usually wing it."
Jake wants people to take him seriously, like his favorite professional DJs, Calvin Harris, who according to Forbes was the highest-paid DJ of 2013, grossing an estimated $46 million, and Swedish DJ Avicii. To him, it's more than a hobby, like his participation at Sidekicks Family Martial Arts. By definition, Jake already is a professional DJ.
"Jake keeps 100 percent of the money he makes," said Jon, who acts as his manager when he's not working as vice president of sales for Tampa's Tudi Mechanical Systems. "All I do is book his events, drive him and set up."
Jon goes out of his way to ensure that Jake works in accordance with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Child Labor Program. Jake works a maximum of four hours on Friday or Saturday nights and is finished by 11:30 p.m. For each occasion, Jon obtains a permit to hire from the state.
The list of Jake's clients is more than 20 organizations long, with more than half of them inviting him back for repeat appearances. Verizon Fios, the Girls Scouts of America, Park Square Cellar and the Glazer Children's Museum have hired Jake. He used to be the resident DJ at the Upstairs bar in FishHawk and now can be found the first Sunday of every month at the Tampa Kids Market in Hyde Park Village.
He is booked through October, including the Chick-fil-A fall stampede Sept. 28 at Curtis Hixon Park that benefits the Children's Cancer Society and the third annual Halloween Spree Oct. 31 at the Glazer Children's Museum.
"I first heard Jake's music when his DJ booth was located next to the Glazer Children's Museum's activity area at the Tampa Bay Kids Market," said M.J. Craig, marketing and communications manager at the Glazer Children's Museum. "I was less than enthusiastic about having to stand next to the loud speakers for six hours but found myself dancing along to Jake's mixes with the children all day long. Even my untrained ears could recognize that Jake's talent spans far beyond his years."
While Jake said he enjoys making money, so he can purchase upgraded equipment, he carves out time in his schedule for charity events. He has a special place in his book for cancer fundraising and awareness after seeing his grandmother Conchita Dela Cruz die of pancreatic cancer in January 2009 when he was just 7.
He canceled a scheduled paid event in Tampa last year to donate his time to the FishHawk Relay for Life. Why?
"Because I'm helping people," Jake said, adding that he's pretty sure his grandmother would approve.
DJ Jake helped the FishHawk chapter of Relay for Life raise more than $155,000 this year, which placed the organization 16th overall in the state, according to Mary Kathryn Kennedy, team development chairwoman. He already is booked for next year's event as well, April 5-6 at Newsome High School.
"He was there for hours and he did an incredible job," said Kennedy, a cancer survivor who also hired him for a personal house party. "The fact that he comes to the event with love and leads with his heart is amazing. He is so professional."
In May, the FishHawk community rallied around Jake to do the "Harlem Shake" and benefit children through the Big Big World Project and A Kid's Place Brandon. At 12, Jake realizes there are less fortunate children than he and his 10-year-old brother, Joey, are. He is acutely aware of how people react to him as a DJ, and during his full-time "job" as a middle school student.
Eric Wood was Jake's sixth-grade language arts teacher last year at Randall. Wood now teaches math at Pierce Middle School in Tampa but plans to attend the truck rally to support his former student. He said Jake was an A student who began the year worried his peers didn't like him because he was so mature.
"I told him to just be Jake," Wood said. "Jake is a little different, he is focused. Jake knows what he wants to do in life, and most sixth-graders don't. In a few years he will have 50 people behind him wanting to do what he does."
Eric Vician can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.