I can't remember the last time I played music for a crowd of people but suffice it to say it's been a while. I've piled up my share of vinyl, CD's and digital tracks but it's one thing to play it at home or work but quite another thing to present music in public. When Adam Shore at Vice Magazine asked me if I wanted to DJ at NYC hot-spot Scenic, I was a little nervous but I knew that I should do it anyway.
You'd think that having a good size collection would make it easy to DJ but you're wrong. The fact of the matter is that it makes it harder. If you have a ton of records that you love (say at least dozens or maybe even hundreds of them), how do you whittle that down to a set that lasts about an hour or so? Think of it- you're presenting yourself and your taste for all to see. It's one thing to do that in guise of newspaper, magazine, website or blog but it's a lot more upclose and personal when you're actually out there playing your favorite records. You get a little taste of how daunting it can be to be a performer. I always said that I admired any band that could get up on a stage and perform just for having the guts to do it. When its your own guts on display...
OK, so now what do you chose from your own collection to present at a club? Do you pick a theme? Do you just grab some favorite records and hope that they'll go together? Do you try for some kind of mix of styles? How long is this really worth fretting over?
I don't know how conscious it was or not but as I started to grab music off my shelves, some themes did emerge and make me think of which songs and albums might fit or not. Somehow I came up with the idea of brutal art-rock, outre jazz and raw, exotic world music. That's not to say I don't have a soft spot for old school rap, honky tonk, Chicago blues, Western swing, soul, etc. but for some reason, I was formenting a perverse pleasure that I thought that I'd get from presenting this kind of esoteric music to a club crowd who might not have heard all of this or hadn't heard it in ages. As this idea conjealed, I came up with Sun Ra, the Residents, Jon Hassell, Master Musicians of Joujouka, John Zorn, Moondog, Tuvan throat singing. Also, why not throw in some spoken word pieces, ads and language instruction over instrumental music like King Tubby, Basic Channel singles and the Clicks and Cuts compilation. For the latter, I could throw some Ilhan Mimaroglu over the top it to spice it up a little. Also, I could trot out some recent favorites that people might not have gotten to hear: a Zac De Lac Roc/DJ Shadow collaboration, Fiona Apple's controversial unreleased versions of her upcoming record, a mash-up of U2 and the Streets. As I dug futher into my collection, I found other tidbits that seemed to fit in well: a mischievously doctored Bush speech where he declares war on America, a Sex education record obviously from the 50's, a great 80's Paris show from Jamaaladeen Tacuma, long-lost (but recently reunited) Athens GA legends Pylon, Byrne/Eno, a field recording of Ghana's drums of death, the Jungle Brothers (MIA?), Henry Threadgill, player piano rolls, a little turntablism (from a Return of the DJ
compilation), some B-Movie promos, a Morricone soundtrack, Neu! (the really weird stuff from their 2nd album), doo-wop and even a homemade mash-up. Even if I couldn't figure out which tracks I'd use from each album, I was determined just to find SOMETHING that fit in just because I liked the idea so much of having these artists together and reasoned that there had to be at least one song from their albums I had that would blend or contrast well with the other selections.
And what do they say about the best laid plans? When I arrived at the club, I saw that the booth was accessible by a small metal ladder that wasn't easy to climb at first. Once you got into the tiny booth, you had two CD players that didn't look like anything I'd seen before. I had some of the cuts ready to cut at exact moments but I couldn't figure out how to advance, pause or even put in or take out the CD's. Luckily, someone from the club was there to give me a primer. Even with that help, it occurred to me that getting songs cued up at the right moment probably won't work out until I was really comfortable with the decks.
Another thing that I found out early was that the spoken word, ads and language lessons just weren't going to work. You have to figure crowd noise into the equation. Hearing the particulars of a speech is just going to get drown out as I found out the hard way with the Bush speech and the Spanish lesson- I guess this is why Mississippi John Hurt's tender music wouldn't cut it in a smokey bar while Muddy Water's electrified band with a drum kit would. For me, that meant that the movie trailers, Malcolm X and sex ed tapes wouldn't get an airing. Oh well...
Other than the trial-and-error tribulations of figuring out pausing and start-of-song cueing on the CD players (I didn't even wanna attempt the stratching function offered as I had enough problems just playing the records), I found that I was making last minute decisions about the order to play the songs and what play-over records I could or couldn't attempt. Since the voice samples weren't working, I was squeamish about trying this but the Mimaroglu/techno combo worked out just fine. What you don't consider beforehand is that since both decks are already being used, you better be ready to cut out one of them early so you can cue up the next song on one of the players. Also, you can't really appreciate the volume of what you're playing, not just because some music is mastered better than others but the small DJ speaker doesn't accurately reflect what the crowd hears- one of the bartenders had to come over to tell me to turn it up more than once. On the plus side, I did get free drinks for my trouble.
And so it went. Someone actually came up to ask about the Sun Ra song ("Disco 3000") and compliment the long fade out of a Residents song ("You Yes Yes Yes Yes You") but I didn't get a chance or time to do Threadgill, Basic Channel, doo wop, Neu! or my own bootleg remixes. I did throw in Jonathan Richman at the last minute, maybe because he was on the same record as the doo wop (the Lipstick Traces
As nervous as I was to start, I was actually fine to run over time and get to play a little more than I thought I could. Hey, I was just getting the hang of this! Then the next DJ came up, playing Elvis and 70's ballads as I slunk over to the bar. People seemed to be really getting into it, making me wonder if the abrasive stuff I was blaring didn't really reach them. And just like Janis Joplin said, you make love to a crowd of people and then you go home alone.
Still, I was exhilirated and pumped to be ready for the next time, whenever that might be. I would be armed with Howlin' Wolf and Terry Riley for sure. Also, I had a much greater appreication for DJ's, seeing all that they have to go through to try to put on a good show and entertain a crowd. It also made me appreciate how easier it is to exhibit my taste in music in print (a much more controlled situation) rather than in front of a crowd.