That was the question one party-goer posed to me at the event I DJ’d for last weekend. And I thought it was a great question. But let me start at the beginning.
The event was a corporate holiday party in a large ballroom at a local hotel here in Cleveland. I haven’t been that challenged by a crowd recently and although I had a couple uncomfortable moments as the DJ, I don’t think I’ve felt more invigorated by a gig in a long time. I learned some really good lessons that night.
The crowd was well over 300 people, a large number of which were African-American. Naturally, as a black DJ, I always feel comfortable with black guests. We love to dance. Black people, in fact, are very active dancers and have very specific tastes (and opinions) about what is or isn’t being played. We want to be on the dance floor and we will challenge a DJ to keep us there – on our terms. The challenge this night was that I was the DJ and there was also a large number of guests who were older and not black. I knew this was a professional event with a mixed crowd and my goal was to try to appeal to everyone. We all know you can’t just pay attention to who’s on the dance floor, but also to who isn’t. Unfortunately some guests didn’t see it that way and saw fit to challenge me throughout the night. And, as frustrating as it can become, I love a good challenge!
Some Enchanted Evening
Lesson Learned: Always continue your musical education. The first challenge that emerged was a request I kept getting for a song I’d never heard of. Well, I’ve heard of it now and I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget it. African-American party guests generally love line dancing and any DJ at a black event (or mostly black event) needs to be equipped with them all! At least 10 people kept requesting a line dance called Enchanted Evening or something like that. No one seemed to be able to get more specific about the song for some reason. I didn’t know what they were talking about. Of course, being the theatre geek I am I am well familiar with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical South Pacific. But I never heard of a line dance version of that and no on-the-spot Google or iTunes search would yield anything I could download. After the fact, when I had time to dig a bit deeper I discovered that the song is, in fact a cover version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” covered by a late version of The Temptations. Please – if you don’t have this song, download it right away. I’ll never be without it again. Despite playing every other line dance I had, many guests seemed genuinely (and perhaps aggressively) irritated that I wasn’t playing the one I never heard of. Did you ever have that feeling of impending doom every time someone approached the DJ booth to make a request you know you don’t have? Ignorance is no excuse when the law is broken and I guess it isn’t when DJing either.
DON’T Teach Me How to Dougie!
Lesson Learned: Don’t assume all guests in a certain demographic group will appreciate a certain type of music. After getting pummeled with “Enchanted Evening” all night, I was anxious to please in any ways I could. I was getting quite a few requests for some Hip-Hop music. Of course, my music subscription service provides radio-friendly versions of songs, but you can’t bleep out suggestive or offensive connotations of songs. With a mixed demographic crowd in a corporate setting, you have to tread the waters of Hip-Hop very carefully if at all. I didn’t. I had a few requests for “Teach Me How to Dougie”. I have both the clean and unedited versions and mistakenly cued up the unedited version. However, I was emboldened by the many requests for it and by the fairly packed dance floor. Maybe this would appease this crowd so they might let go of the Rodgers and Hammerstein/Temptations cover. I was wrong. I was quickly approached by a black man who was clearly irritated and offended by the liberal use of the N-word and profanity in the song. Of course I knew better. He reminded me that this was not an appropriate venue for that sort of song. Of course he was right. I humbly agreed, apologized and quickly cross-faded into the next track. I was guilty of racial profiling. AND I’M BLACK!
“What do YOU think I want to hear?”
Lesson Learned: a combination of the first two lessons; know your music and what’s hot on the charts, but don’t make rash generalizations. I think I must have gotten every cliche pain-in-the-ass request that night. You know the ones…”Can you play something GOOD?” or the girl who begs you to play “Sweet Home Alabama” which clears the dance floor, and of course, the girl who requested it is nowhere to be found. But one such approach intrigued me. A young black woman approached me and asked me when I was going to play some “good music” (ugh). I asked her what she had in mind. That’s when she laid it on me. THE question: “I’m a 30 year-old Black woman. What do YOU think I want to hear?” I immediately thought to myself, “You know, lady, that’s a good question”. Isn’t that my job as the DJ to know (or at least have a damn good idea of) what would appeal to dancers like her? Or is it? I just got my ass handed to me by making rash generalizations about people. Everyone is different. The truth is we DJs DO have good ideas about what appeals to certain groups. We OBSESS over that stuff. We’re experts in mass musical psychology. But the fact of the matter is, you can take all the chart data and previous experience in the world and it still is just our best guess at what might work THIS time. A chef might have a damn good idea of what to cook if you tell her you’re Italian, but she’ll never know if you prefer lasagna or spaghetti unless she has more specific information. Pizza may be the best place for her to start. It’s the same for DJs trying to cook up the perfect recipe for full dance floors in our musical kitchens. But it was a very thought provoking question for me that night. I hope it is for you too. I told her that everybody’s different and reminded her that many guests were on the dance floor and enjoying themselves to the song I was playing at the time. She grunted at me and harumphed off in a snit, but left me with more great things to think about on my path of DJ education.
In the end, the client (white) was very happy with the evening. Technically everything was smooth and many guests stayed until the end. But clearly I got my ass handed to me a few times. Many of us DJs complain about hassles like the labor involved in hauling and setting up gear. Personally I’m desk bound much of the week so l don’t mind a little hard labor to remind me I’m alive. In the same way, I think I needed that ass kicking to remind me I don’t have this whole DJ thing all figured out. I felt stressed but alive. I earned my money that night. I was/am learning all the time, gig to gig. And even though it was a struggle then and there, an ass kicking never felt so good.
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