Tonight I’m scheduled to play a party in honor of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the most recent incarnation of the Portland Wobblies. According to the host, Lil’ Pete will also be DJing tonight. The joke is that I owe my DJ career to Lil’ Pete and I’ve never even seen the man perform. Many of you may have heard him throwing down the old school Jamaican sounds at Beulahland. Now, I may have briefly been at that bar while he has performed, but I have never watched him with intention, and having no conscious memories of any of his sets, I will stick by my assertion that I have never seen him perform.
Now back in the ’90s I had briefly been a radio DJ on KWVA, and I had assisted on Nomadic Noize’s show on KPSU, but it was only due to the insistence of friends who were awed by my vinyl collection that I found myself DJing house parties. By the Spring of 1999 I had done a few that were basically total busts with no one really dancing or necessarily even coming near the room where the DJ set up was. I was still intrigued and still up for doing more, but I hadn’t had a very successful experience. May Day of 1999 rolls around and a huge May Day party is thrown at the Borthwick Manor. A large Communist arch has been erected over the driveway and the long kitchen counters are covered in donated artisan Bread and Roses. The house is packed. Everyone is buzzing about Lil’ Pete, soon to arrive and DJ. Even though my prior experience of DJing at the Borthwick Manor had been a bust, with neither I or my partners able to generate much positve interest, I was still hurt that I hadn’t been asked to perform at this party, with a “name” DJ booked instead. At a certain point the hosts find me in the packed house and insist that I must go home and get my music because Lil’ Pete is not going to show. Resentful that I hadn’t been asked all along, yet excited at the possibility of playing for this crowd, my friend Kanoa and I drive to my house to pick out music. This was a new task for me at which I had little experience, and I did play things for Kanoa while I got ready, so it took a fair amount of time. I remember playing the first Eminem album that had just come out for Kanoa. He was quite intrigued by the song about a date freaking out on psychedelic mushrooms. By the time Kanoa and I had returned to the Borthwick Manor the house had cleared out quite a bit. Who knows how long I had taken to return with the music. The DJ set up was an amazingly cobbled together patchwork of home electronics with no DJ mixer or professional turntables in sight. Who knows what Lil’ Pete would have made of it had he shown up.
I had recently returned from Central America with piles of bootleg cassettes I had bought on the streets. Reggaeton, meren-rap, meren-house, and other dance music. At the time I didn’t even know these genre names. I just knew that this was some exciting dance music. The DJ set up consisted of tape decks and turntables and maybe even a CD player. I proceeded to play a mix of my new Central American tapes and my favorite revolutionary hip-hop. The dance floor exploded. Although many people had left, the ones who remained WANTED TO DANCE! People were throwing themselves about the room, spinning, whirling, stomping their feet. This was the DJ experience that got me hooked. I played hotshit material that really excited me and got a vigorous dance floor in response. No DJ can ask for more. If I had to point out one experience that really gave me the DJing bug it would be this one, May Day 1999.
The night was not without hitches. The electronics that I was playing through included a haphazardly plugged in guitar amp. The sound sources had greatly different volume levels, due to turntables being plugged into line inputs without the proper amplification. Some songs whispered out of the speakers even with the volume cranked and others screamed out from belly of the guitar amp with such a force that looks of terror would grip the faces of those near to the sound.
Interestingly enough, after most everyone was gone and it was just the hosts and I and a few friends laying about and relaxing, Kanoa got on the turntables. He began experimenting and scratching mostly using that first Eminem record. Although I had never heard it myself, I had heard legends about Kanoa’s radio show at Lewis and Clark. Apparently he would play multiple conflicting sources at once and leave the DJ room. In my own shows I had always prided myself on playing as diverse and experimental a range of music as possible, but Kanoa showed me the box I had yet to think outside of. Multiple clashing sound sources? Wow, I hadn’t thought of that. I had a similar response listening to him shred my vinyl in the wee hours after the party. He was taking a lot of chances, making a lot of noise, and having a lot of fun. Being experimental, basically. As juiced as I was from my performance I was humbled by the fact that Kanoa was taking things farther into the abstract. As perverse as I get when I’m DJing I still have a fundamental part of me that wants to give the people what they want, and get them off. I’ve always admired DJs who go much farther out than anyone is expecting or prepared for. My crowd pleasing tendencies sometimes hold me back from really pushing people in a much more aggresive or experimental direction. The truly willful make me aware of my own inhibitions when it comes to sharing sound.
So there you have it, the story of how I owe my DJing life to Lil’ Pete, the DJ who didn’t show. I hope we have fun playing tonight.