Anjali and I had a very unusual New Year’s Eve party. We had approached a number of clubs early on about throwing our New Year’s event, and the wonderful Seann McKeel of the Cleaners at the Ace Hotel wanted to confirm with us first, while the other clubs were weighing their options, as it were. After we had confirmed with the Cleaners, all of the other clubs got back to us saying that they wanted to confirm us for New Year’s. -Nah, sorry, we’re already committed.- There were even attempts to try to outbid the Cleaners for our services. That’s a funny one: you aren’t sure that you want us, and then you want us so bad you try to drag us away from someone we’ve already committed to? Hmmmm. What’s that about? My skepticism tells me it has more to do with money than a commitment to our artistic vision.
The primary challenge with having our party at the Cleaners was that because it is a bare event space, we were going to have to bring in our own sound system, and decorate the space from scratch ourselves. This is a lot more work than just showing up at a club and performing. Especially when our DJ crew usually consists of just the two of us. The plan was that guests of the Ace Hotel would be allowed free admittance to our party, and everyone that had paid for dinner at the Clyde Common next door would be given free admittance as well. Because the space has such a limited occupancy, and because all these guest slots were to be given away, we felt forced to charge $20 at the door in order to make it financially feasible for us at all. This was not an easy decision for us to make. We were leaning towards $15, but after expenses, we would have made so little money that it simply wouldn’t have been worth the time and effort to throw a New Year’s party at all. We are not like many DJs who have high-paying tech jobs and throw lavish parties with their disposable income; this is our job, and we need to make some money doing it. We work damn hard and spend a great deal of our lives involved in the process of throwing parties and taking care of everything that goes with that. While we are happy to DJ benefits and do sometimes volunteer our services in the name of a good party, when we are throwing our bread-and-butter parties, we simply ask for fair compensation for the time and money we put into doing what we do.
$20 is twice what we have ever charged for a party before, and it was a little unnerving for us. We knew that in other cities all the New Year’s parties were typically $40- $75 at the low end of the scale, but Portland has always been a very cheap city. There were other parties in Portland charging $20, but these parties were the result of large-scale efforts involving large budgets, dozens and dozens of people, huge warehouses, several different stages, and multitudes of performers. By comparision, Anjali and I were simply offering ourselves and our music collections at a small event space downtown.
Since we needed to hire people to help us work the event, we were fortunate enough to secure KC of former Fez security fame to work our door. We were happy to work with Seann at the Cleaners, and Charlie Hodges of the Clyde Common. As far as actually putting the party together and promoting it, we were on our own for the most part, until fortunately on the day of the party, we were blessed to have our friends Tessa, Jean Luc, Toby, Sonia, Carmen, and Emmett help us decorate the space and get ready for the party. Thanks also to E3 and Ken for the sound system additions.
We were concerned about having the DJ set up on the floor, and taking up that much more floor space from the dancers, as well as making us highly vulnerable to drunken New Year’s requesters and soused patrons intent on rifling through our music collections in a search for some elusive song. Much to our delight, the maintenance staff at the Cleaners were kind enough to build us a DJ crow’s nest on an upper landing above the crowd. We’ve never done a good job of branding ourselves at our parties before, and Anjali took the time to make giant red glitter letters spelling out our names to hang from the DJ booth. This was, ironically enough, possibly the worst party we could choose to initiate a branding campaign, as we shall shortly see.
We weren’t sure if our party would get any media attention at all, but we were fortunate that it got listed in several papers. The Oregonian went so far as to write it up as one of the top ten New Year’s events for the city, even running a picture of Anjali with the article. The timing of this listing was ironic, because we first saw it after having returned from a woefully under-attended gig in Seattle. We went from playing a city where we are still mostly an unknown quantity, to our home town, where the state newspaper proclaims our upcoming party as one of the best in the city. It is a very instructive experience to be unknowns abroad, and big hypes at home. It keeps everything in perspective and keeps one humble, as if I had any problem maintaining a state of humility. Or humiliation.
After spending all day with our friends getting the space ready for the party, we realize once the sun went down that there was one major flaw to our plan. The Ace has tall floor-to-20-foot-ceiling windows on all sides. There are window shades that go from floor to head height, but no shades to cover the tall upper halves of the windows. Once the sun had gone down and the street lights came on, it was apparent that so much artificial light was going to flood the room that it made the space that we had tried to light warmly and dimly, a very brightly lit space. We had never noticed this before because all our time in the space planning how to decorate it was spent during the day, so we never saw how the outside light was going to affect the space at night. Oops. Major oversight on our part.
In my experience, bright lights are a major problem for a dance party. Some people (Anjali included) like to dance in bright light, but most people prefer the anonymity of dimly lit spaces. I have watched many dance parties only take off once the lighting was reduced from a too-bright level. (In fact, if you ever find yourself playing any sort of role in an event that is supposed to involve dancing, and people aren’t dancing, try lowering the lights.) At this point it was too late to do anything about it, as there was no time remaining to plan a way to attempt to cover up the upper portions of the windows. We were simply going to have a very brightly lit dance party.
People started very slowly arriving after 9pm. We had just had a huge sold-out party at the Fez with DJ Rekha a few days before, and our friends were convinced after seeing how successful that party was, that our New Year’s party was going to quickly sell out once the doors opened at 9pm. As it was, that didn’t happen until some time after 11pm. Anjali had stuck a Bollywood DVD in the projector, and as people arrived, they began sitting around the edges of the space and watching the movie on mute while I DJed from the crow’s nest. As people continued to arrive the benches along the walls got fuller and fuller, and it was like some weird sitting party, where we play a movie on mute, and simultaneously play a soundtrack of our devising. Not exactly what we were shooting for with our New Year’s party.
When I sent out press releases for the party, I didn’t mention anything about what genres we were going to be playing, as I wanted us completely free to play whatever we might be feeling, and whatever might work best with the crowd that was going to show. In all our promotions, whether online, or on fliers, etc., we never hinted at what type of music we were going to play. The press decided for us, and every article described how we were going to be playing bhangra and Bollywood. Now, it can be a wonderful thing to be strongly associated with particular sounds, but when it is only a part of what Anjali and I are able to do musically, it can feel like a straight jacket at times. I was planning on bringing a lot of hip-hop, Latin music, Balkan music, etc., but after seeing how the party was constantly listed as a bhangra and Bollywood party, and since my phone was ringing off the hook with questions from curious older Indians asking about the party, I figured I should just give in and stick to Indian music.
At one point I had suggested to Anjali that I wanted to play other things, and she said, “Be prepared for a mutiny.” I assumed that she was warning me away from doing something different, but after she began her set at 10pm at the Ace with Nicole Willis and Mary J. Blige, I soon learned that she wasn’t advising me what to do, just issuing a proper warning. Her first set showed that she wasn’t at all concerned with how the party had been listed, or what people might have been expecting, she was going to do whatever she wanted to. People steadfastly refused to dance, and Anjali noticed that people were not drinking, just sitting and waiting. People finally began to dance when Anjali unleashed the bhangra and started playing Specialist & Tru-Skool. It was probably 10:30pm at this point, and after a long awkward start, not a moment too soon, the party was finally rolling to the sounds of modern dance floor bhangra. I think a crucial factor is that as people began dancing and the place got hot, the upper windows all fogged completely over, greatly reducing the amount of street light illuminating the space.
I took over from Anjali at 11pm and I had a unique opportunity to reflect on where I was at after 7 years of professional DJing. Anjali and I (along with DJ Peregrine and The Nick) threw a New Year’s party at the Medicine Hat in 2000. We wanted a super-cheap, house party-styled event, and we insisted on only charging $3. In fact, when we arrived at the Medicine Hat to set up, the then-owner threatened to not even open the doors unless we charged at least $5, even after the party had been promoted and listed as being a $3 party. Thanks to the graceful intervention of Chantelle Hylton, who was then the booking agent for the space, the doors opened without a hitch, and with only a $3 cover. Here we were seven years later charging seven times as much, or at least one dollar shy of seven times as much.
I vividly remember taking over the decks from Anjali at 11pm on New Year’s Eve 2000, and steeling myself to take the crowd all the way to the top by midnight. In a set that was typically eclectic for her at that period, Anjali had been playing things like: Asian underground, Bollywood, bhangra, Glam, a remix of the Sleeper cover of Blondie’s “Atomic,” the Timelords and such in her opening set at that party, and I remember feeling that people were not where I wanted them to be by midnight. I was going to have to play some super party tunes in order to get people fully rocking and ready for a midnight blast-off. I remember being satisfied at the time that I managed to achieve just that, and here I was seven years later at 11pm on New Year’s Eve wondering if I was any better of a DJ than I was then. Had my abilities improved at all in seven years? Was The Incredible Kid of 2007 a better DJ than The Incredible Kid of 2000?
I actually felt like a worse DJ. I used to have so much confidence in my abilities. I used to think I could rock any crowd, anywhere, any time. Now I think I am lucky to be able to rock portions of particular crowds at particular times, and in particular settings. I feel like there are millions of crowds I can’t rock, and billions of people I could never please. One thing had changed in all those years, in 2007 my arsenal was limited by choice to only Hindi and Panjabi songs, whereas in 2000 I was playing Jurassic 5, Meat Beat Manifesto, Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock, Le Tigre, you name it. Anything I thought would make the crowd move. Anything to rock a party.
For my New Year’s Eve 2007 sets I stuck to playing mostly filmi, with some bhangra thrown in. Being directly above the crowd I was amazed at how clearly I could hear people loudly singing along to the Hindi lyrics, especially when the song would drop down to an a cappella. Hearing the singing juiced me and kept me inspired in my DJing. It made me feel like there were some people down there who appreciated what I was doing. This is significant, as I often feel like the majority of the people in the crowd hate my guts and everything I do.
When it was several minutes from midnight I handed things over to Anjali. I have my reasons for dreading New Year’s Eve countdowns. Maybe if I had an atomic clock it would be a different matter. Or even a watch that tells the seconds. As it is I am lucky to know roughly what minute it is. That is all my cellphone tells me. At our New Year’s Eve parties I am afraid that there are people with highly accurate timepieces in the crowd that will revolt if I don’t do the countdown on the exact right millisecond. The places I have DJed for New Year’s Eve usually don’t have a television on the dance floor, so it’s not like I can let the TV tell me when I am supposed to celebrate.
“Well,” you might say, “Why not just get a timepiece with the seconds for your New Year’s Eve countdowns?” I guess it never seems that important to me until it is near midnight on New Year’s Eve and I realize I am terrified to start a countdown that is not 100% accurate. When we celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Fez in 2005, I was so petrified about getting the timing off by even a second, that I never did a countdown at all. I got on the mic and yelled several times before and after midnight, but nobody could make out what I was saying and people just cheered and cheered. Five minutes after midnight one of the staff at the Fez told me to do a countdown. I explained why I hadn’t done one, and she told me to do one anyway; that it doesn’t matter when the countdown happens, it just needs to happen at a New Year’s event. Like I said, I never ended up doing one.
The best countdown I have been involved in was at the Medicine Hat where we had the help of a TV to tell us when to start, and hours upon hours of blowing up balloons paid off, when an imaginatively jerry-rigged collection of tarps stuffed with the balloons was successfully tossed off the balcony and dropped into the crowd, who rapidly began popping all the balloons in an orgy of noise and destructive celebration. Thanks to DJ Peregrine and The Nick for all that effort.
Knowing how paralyzed I am by New Year’s Eve countdowns, you would think I might have planned ahead this year, but naaah. Since I knew Anjali would be taking over at midnight I laid it all on her shoulders to do whatever she wanted.She had really wanted to play Blaqstarr’s “Shake it to the Ground” (with vocals by Rye Rye) at midnight. She had been announcing her intentions for days. Given the likely nature of the crowd, I thought that this was sheer folly, but I’m not going to try to stop Anjali from doing what she wants to do, even if I postulate that something might not be the best idea. Although it was not quite midnight, Anjali decided to play that song as her first number. It definitely stopped the crowd in their tracks, being so different from what I had been playing for the last hour. A large portion of the crowd definitely remained confused for the duration of the song, while some pockets of the younger and hipper attendees began to get into the booty bass, and throw themselves into the fast new groove. As it comes up on midnight, Anjali shuts off the music and readies her megaphone.
Now, this megaphone was a Christmas gift that I had ordered for Anjali, after she had spent a long time fantasizing about having one to use at our gigs. We have problems at both the Fez and Holocene with massive feedback whenever we try to use the mic, no matter if we try turning down the stage monitors, or adjusting the EQ on the mic, or anything else. In addition to this, Anjali was really into the visual and sonic element of the megaphone, as well as the characteristic megaphone siren. The model I ordered for her was twice as powerful as most megaphones, and the distributor claimed that it was the same model that is used by police departments throughout the United States, and is used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan to clear the streets. I really appreciated the irony of utilizing the exact same tool that serves as an instrument of violent oppression and control, in the service of musical ecstasy, liberation and abandonment. Now because of the exceedingly high power of this particular megaphone, it is covered in warning notices about ruptured eardrums, and I had read reports of the megaphone being audible a mile in the distance. I wondered how easy it might be to shatter 20-foot windows. We were very concerned about not overdoing it with the megaphone, and having our New Year’s attendees fleeing the club with blood gushing from their ears. Because of the volume of the megaphone, we weren’t about to test it out at home, and we never took the time to test it at the club. In fact, Anjali had never really practiced with the megaphone at all, since receiving it as a Christmas gift.
Anjali lifted the megaphone mic to her lips, and an indecipherable squealing began. I was a few feet away, and I couldn’t really make out what Anjali was saying, so I can only imagine what this all might have sounded like to the crowd below. Anjali then began the countdown and I heard nothing coming from the crowd below. They’re not getting it, I realized. I started shouting out the countdown along with Anjali at the top of my lungs, and the other celebrants up with us in our DJ crow’s nest began shouting as well. We were all armed with handfuls of sequins with which we planned to shower the crowd below at midnight. As we reached the end of our countdown I leaned over the balcony to toss my sequins and I was shocked to see an entire room of people intensely glaring up at the DJ booth with palpable hostility. I was startled to see -not cheering and clapping and yelling and joy- but a sea of hostile, angry faces gazing up intently. I still threw the sequins anyway, but I was stunned that this was the sight that greeted my eyes at midnight on New Year’s Eve at my own party. I leaned back into the booth, did some toasting, and tried to take it all in, brain searching for a reason for this hostility.
Were we that off on the countdown? Is that why people were so angry? I checked my watch. Even after the toasting it was only 12:01am, so if we were off, it was certainly by less than a minute. Had people heard countdowns and cheers from neighboring parties before we began our countdown? Is that why people were so upset? Maybe people were expecting more. An exploding rocket ship, perhaps? Except for some last-minute help, Anjali and I had basically thrown this party ourselves. What kind of budget or crew did people think we had? Maybe for twenty dollars they expected a lot more. Maybe a handful of people in the VIP balcony throwing sequins was the single lamest midnight moment ever for the people in attendance.
The hostility was so intense, that it has stayed with me ever since. Here we were, throwing the most expensive party we have ever hosted, and the attitude of the attendees at midnight was anger? Something was not right. Since then we have wracked our brains trying to understand what had happened. Unfortunately the only people we have had the opportunity to ask about the party were either celebrating up in the DJ’s crow’s nest with us (and none of them had any memory of any hostility, and all of them had a great time, but they were all partying in the friends and family VIP, so they had a very different party experience than the crowd below) and the people working the event (who all thought it went great and was a smashing success). Anjali and I were the only people to sense the hostility, and so we alone are left to try to sort through it and understand it. There has been some conjecture that people were simply caught off guard, having no idea that it was now midnight. It is true that when Anjali picked up the megaphone at midnight that that was the first time we had addressed the crowd all evening. Maybe we should have announced fifteen minutes until, ten minutes until, etc. No one had any memory of champagne being distributed despite the advertised free champagne toast at midnight. Now, anyone that approached the bar got their free champagne, but from what Anjali and I have heard, it doesn’t sound like anyone went through the crowd handing out champagne glasses, which we, perhaps erroneously, assumed would happen. Maybe all the anger came from people who were having midnight sprung on them, as it were, who had been given no heads up about going to the bar to get their champagne. Not knowing that the champagne was not going to be distributed, it never occured to us to get on the megaphone in anticipation of midnight and announce to the crowd to line up at the bar to get their toasts. Was that the source of the bad vibes, a lack of a midnight toast? Was it the low-budget approach to a midnight moment? Was it the radical change in music followed by silence and a squealing megaphone?
After the countdown, Anjali then put on Swami’s “Electro Jugni.” I’ve been playing that song a lot too recently, but this crowd was, for the most part, not ready for this sort of sound at all. Still not wanting to be pigeon-holed, Anjali then chose to play a series of hip-hop and dancehall songs. At this point the crowd began dispersing. People were simply turned away from the doors when the event had sold out, and no line was created, so when people began leaving after midnight, there was no one to take their place. Everyone that left created a hole in the party that would never again be refilled. Eventually Anjali began playing bhangra, and an energetic circle of Panjabi dancers that formed did not stop many people from continuing to file out the door, deciding that they had had enough. Eventually even popular bhangra songs were failing to move the crowd, even the Panjabis in attendance. A crumpled request for “Captain Bhangra Da” had been thrown up into the crow’s nest, but unfortunately not found and deciphered until after the party’s end.
I took over again at 1am, and played until nearly 2am, though this was hardly necessary, given how quickly the club had cleared out in the hour after midnight. Was it because it was a Monday night? Was it because Anjali felt like going in a very different direction at midnight, avoiding the more traditional bhangra and Bollywood that was expected, and that I had played to warm up the crowd? Was it because the crowd was not much of a stay-up-late-and-dance crowd, and more of a “Microsoft-y” crowd, as one of our crew described it?
That is one factor that everyone we’ve talked to has agreed on, it was a weird crowd. Whereas our regular crowd showed up in the hundreds for our Andaz party a few nights before, they largely ignored our New Year’s party and left us with a crowd that was possibly the result of our significant publicity in the Oregonian and who knows what else. When the Oregonian says that you are playing the “epicenter of hippitude” there is some probability that quite the opposite will occur.
I certainly don’t mean to dis anyone in attendance, or bite the hands that so graciously feed me, especially when you were all so gracious as to spend $20 to share your New Year’s evening with us. Nor do I mean to throw the early disintegration of the party at the feet of the crowd, when if I did not think that I had any culpability in the matter as a party-thrower and DJ, I would not have been so particularly obsessed with how this party went down so as to find it worthwhile to take several months to try to get down my account of it. Any comments I am sharing about the perceived nature of the crowd are simply because they were so consistently repeated by the friends in attendance we have queried, and certainly do not refer to you, Dear Reader, who happened to be in attendance, since no crowd is a monolith, and all crowds are composed of different tribes, cliques, factions, subdivisions, dyads, and various individuals. Especially a sold-out New Year’s Eve event. Thank you to everyone who attended, and all of those who helped us with the party, and my apologies to all of those who were potentially frustrated in your attempts to rock harder and party longer.