Hey DJ!

Posted: February 5, 2014 in Career, Music
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Years ago, I was sent to New Orleans for six months to be the DJ in the nightclub at the top of the Hilton Hotel.  I was trained to spin by a company out of London that built clubs in hotels all around the world and then provided the DJ’s to play the vinyl and keep the visitors dancing.  My club was called The Rainforest.  It was on the 29th floor of the building, the same building where Pete Fountain and his band would play every night downstairs.  If you wanted live jazz and dixieland, you went to hang with Pete.  If you wanted disco and the very newest in the blossoming genre called new wave, you took the elevator up to my aerie in the sky.From my DJ booth, I had an almost 360-degree view, through the enormous windows, of the beautiful Crescent City and the Mississippi River as it curved around and hugged the town.  I lived in an amazing house in the Garden District and drove to my job down St.Charles Avenue, following the route of the city’s oldest surviving streetcar.  Once at work I’d unlock the turntables and thumb through the hundreds of vinyl albums and 12″ singles at my disposal.  I was new to beat mixing so sometimes I’d play the same records in order, night after night, until I felt like I had a true feel for a bunch of new songs, how long the intros were, where the breaks and good blending points were, what the energy was like and how long I could keep two songs going simultaneously before slamming into the next tune.  I figured no one would mind since I played primarily for tourists who came up to the place once and then moved on to something else the following night.  Once I felt comfortable with a song, though, I felt like I could throw it in anywhere, and I got better and better at mixing and keeping the crowd satisfied.

One crazy, busy night, a very drunk woman approached the booth and asked for a specific song.  I was in the middle of playing rather fast dance music, upbeat disco at about 130 beats per minute.  The song she asked for was slower, funkier, and I told her I’d get to it eventually.  The dance floor was packed at the time and if I simply segued into her request I would have lost more than half the dancers.  So I set up a mix into another fast disco tune and started to switch to it.  Once that song was playing by itself the drunk woman returned, looked down at the label and brazenly reached over to take the stylus off the spinning disc.  The whole place went silent.  All eyes looked at me.  I screamed at her and had her escorted out by security.  It took me a few minutes to get the crowd involved again but a couple of people actually came up to make sure I was okay and to reassure me that I did the right thing when I had her thrown out.

The coolest part of The Rainforest was the little toggle switch on my mixer.  All I had to do was flip it up and in about five minutes it would rain from the ceiling, into pools of water surrounding the dance floor.  People used to come up to the booth and ask me to “make it rain.”  I did, about ten times every night, feeling the awesome power of Mother Nature at my fingertips.

Michael Jackson was huge back then.  I played Walk Right Now by him and his brothers at least once a night.  To this day it is one of my very favorite dance tunes.  Evelyn “Champagne” King was hot and her song Shame made a nice mix with Super Freak.  I still do that mix sometimes, when I’m spinning a retro party and feeling nostalgic for the old days.  Donna Summer had not yet done her best to alienate her huge gay following so I played Hot Stuff and Bad Girls regularly.  Then I put those records away for a while, in protest.  I only took them back out a few years ago, when she apologized for every single homophobic, hateful thing she ever said.  I’m glad she made peace with her gay fans before she passed away.

New wave started to get big back then and I would play I Will Follow, Private Idaho and Whip It for anyone who asked.  Blondie was popular, the Pretenders were just starting to get noticed, Talking Heads was setting college radio on fire and Billy Idol was the new kid on the block.  I played them all, sneaking them in to expand the tastes of the disco- and funk-loving dancers.  I also played a lot of reggae and was saddened yesterday to read about the passing of Bunny Rugs, the lead singer of Third World.  Try Jah Love is one of my favorite songs of all-time.  And, little by little, a brave and completely fresh genre known as rap started to seriously make the scene.  I played Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa whenever I could.  The crowd was cool to the newish stuff but I forced it on them anyway.  They needed to learn.  And those were the breaks.  They warmed up to early rap eventually and even started asking for it….

The craziest experience I had down there happened on an evening off from my nightly dance club grind.  I had made a friend named Bonnie at The Rainforest and she and I both found ourselves off from work on the same Sunday night.  We decided to pick up her boyfriend and his buddy and go for drinks and a movie.  She picked me up in the Garden District so I left my 1970 Plymouth Duster in my short driveway.  In college I had been the photography editor of the weekly student newspaper so my New York vanity plates read PHOTO-17, to commemorate my love of taking pictures and to honor my lifelong softball number.  Bonnie and I drove to her boyfriend’s apartment, about 15 blocks away, and had a cocktail while we waited for his buddy to show.  Once we were all ready to hit the road we came down the elevator and headed outside.  I led the way, opening the glass front door and strolling down the flowered walkway towards the street.  Just as I got to the sidewalk I turned to my left and saw an old, weathered, leathery and messily bearded man ambling in my direction.  He was shabby and drunk and I felt kind of sorry for him until I looked up from his worn out shoes and saw an orange and blue license plate hanging around his neck, tied on by a couple of shoelaces that were knotted together.  Oh, I thought for about half a second.  PHOTO-17, just like mine.  New York, just like mine.  “Hey,” I yelled when he got to where I was.  I grabbed his interesting attempt at a necklace and started trying to get the string over his head.  At that point, Bonnie and the guys ran up and asked me what the fuck was going on.  “This guy has my license plate.  From my car.  Which is parked at my house on Chestnut.”  It took a few seconds for this to register.  The timing was what made it all seem so unreal, that I should walk out of a random building at a random time to see a random person walking down the street with something he had so obviously stolen from my car, which was parked almost a mile away.  Bonnie’s boyfriend’s buddy caught on first and pretended to be a cop, intimidating the poor guy and threatening to arrest him unless he gave the plate to me.  He did, reluctantly, unwilling to give up his new, cool treasure.  And then he kept on walking, shaking his head, the incident as random for him, I’m sure, as it was for me.  He must have thought he’d entered the Twilight Zone!

My stay in New Orleans was short and amazing.  The food is America’s true cuisine.  I learned to make shrimp creole while I lived there and I’m so glad I did.  The flavors and spices of Cajun and Creole food are nothing short of genius, inspired.  The music is sizzling.  Jazz is a genuinely American phenomenon we have given to ourselves and the rest of the world as a gift.  The Saints were known as the “Aints” back then so tickets to their games were easy to come by.  I went to four gridiron battles at the Superdome and there’s not a more exciting place to watch a football game, even when the home team stinks.  The weather is steamy.  The flowers are huge.  The river is mighty.  The architecture is stunning and original.  I wonder, since Katrina, if New Orleans has managed to make its way back to its former days of glory.  I hope so.  Maybe it’s time to go back.

  1. ck1 says:

    Woo-hoo! You wrote it!!!! 🙂 Thank you. Wow, what a great story. How many lives have you lived? Did you just decide to be a DJ? Did you quit after the 6 months? Was your car in tact with that guy walking around with your license plate? And whose the person in the picture? (Just kidding!) Fantastically written!

    • djgrrr17 says:

      thanks, ck1! glad you liked it. i decided to be a DJ right out of college when i was having a hard time breaking into broadcasting. before New Orleans i had been sent to Des Moines. After, i got to spin in NYC. then i found work as a stage manager so i only DJ’d occasionally, at parties and in clubs when i was asked. my car was fine. he only wanted the plate. i put it back on the next day. can you believe that’s what i looked like all those years ago?

  2. ina says:

    I’m glad you had a good time there.

  3. ck1 says:

    Looks like you’re posing for a catalogue… is there another blog you want to share that you’re not telling us about? :p Actually, there’s some 80’s band you look like a member of, but I can’t remember which one…

  4. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you ought to publish more about this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but generally people
    don’t talk about such topics. To the next! All the best!!

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