I have a kind of weird history as a DJ. I didn’t come up through house parties and then bars and then small clubs to larger clubs, which is the fairly normal route. I went from house parties to megahuge podcasts to clubs and conventions. More people download my mixes in an average month than the most popular DJs will play in front of in the same period, but because I didn’t come up through typical channels, club promoters and other DJs don’t have any idea who I am (and why should they), so my gigs tend to be intermittent. I’m the Rene Magritte of DJs: My work is pretty well known but nobody knows who I am.
I’m not remotely putting on airs about this. Downloading free mixes and paying to hear a DJ at a club are two very different things. My name at the top of a club flyer ain’t gonna pack ’em in. And I’m not really frustrated by it, either. I’m a really good club DJ, but believe me when I say that I’m aware that John Digweed has earned his status as a major club headliner in a way I never will.
All of this is preamble to saying that, after playing conventions and Vegas clubs and some smaller but well-known Hollywood clubs, I played my first-ever bar gig last Thursday, at The Rellik in Benicia, California.
Bar gigs are a very different animal. At a club people expect the DJ to guide the night, to read the tone of the crowd and reflect that in the music and then take it somewhere. A club DJ gives the night a sense of structure. He tries to take the room on a kind of journey.
Bar DJs are generally viewed as a kind of meat jukebox. People come up to you and say “I want to hear Beyonce,” and at some point soon you’re supposed to play Beyonce. A bar DJ who looks and acts like he’s spinning at Pacha in Ibiza is going to look like a jerk and bomb like a Rush Limbaugh sitcom.
Nonetheless I have no preparation for how to react when confronted with The Beyonce Question. In the first place I don’t own any Beyonce. In the second place I can’t imagine a situation where I’d play it. The bar owner wants a DJ night with a housey, laidback club vibe, and I spent the night playing funkyass house tracks with a retro Parliament Funkadelic / Sly Stone kind of sound (sort of my trademark) and remixes of pop from the 60s through the 90s. Here are some dialogue exchanges from the evening.
“Are you going to play something that isn’t techno?”
I haven’t played any techno. But what would you like to hear?
The song that’s playing right now is a remix of “Thriller.”
“This is techno. Don’t you have any music people know?”
The song that’s playing right now is a remix of “Don’t Stop Believing,” by Journey.
“Why are you playing all this pop? Don’t you have any dubstep or techno?”
See those people over there? Go ask them. They asked for pop and no techno.
“Well, don’t you have anything with more bass in it?”
I’m the first DJ here who’s ever brought subwoofers. Any more bass and we’ll be breaking glasses.
“Well, if you knew what you were doing your dancefloor wouldn’t be empty.”
“Hey, play some rap.”
The description for Thursday nights says no rap, no hip hop.
“Then play some hip hop.”
“Let me see your playlist.”
There isn’t one. I have five thousand tracks with me. I make it up as I go.
“Well let me see them.”
“Can you play Michael Jackson?”
Sure. Give me about 15 minutes.
“Why haven’t you played Michael Jackson yet?”
Because you asked me three minutes ago.
“When are you going to play Michael Jackson?”
This is Michael Jackson
“This is GAY Michael Jackson.”
So then it’s Michael Jackson. I’m also playing the black Michael Jackson. Is that not okay?
And my hands-down favorite:
“It’s really hard to drink cabernet to this music.”
For a while it seemed that the lesson I learned was that bar DJing is a kind of boxing match. Then I found out that in fact most people enjoyed the night, and the bar owner asked me to play every third Thursday, so I landed a monthly gig. So I think the lesson is what I call the Amazon Review Effect: Your perspective is skewed because people who have a problem with you are more likely to say so than people who like you, who generally don’t feel obliged to tell you that they do.
Or at least this is the lie I tell myself that lets me get through whatever book I’m currently writing.