10/14/07 (Revisited multiple times and finally posted 10/27/07)
Thank you to everyone who came out to see Maga Bo at our Atlas party last night. We are really lucky to have hundreds of people come out to our night with our four-year anniversary just around the corner next month. One of the few concrete goals I’ve had in the last few years is to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Atlas, and the fifth anniversary of Andaz this November. Who knows what happens after that? I have been very ambivalent about my DJing lately. While I was playing at the Goodfoot recently I actually thought the words “I hate this,” as I was looking to pick out my next track. “I hate this,” while I was on stage (actually on the dance floor, since that is where DJs set up at the Goodfoot). “I hate this.”
As an adult, I have pursued very few long-term goals. In the Spring of 2000 I started getting really serious about DJing, and told myself I wanted to be an internationally-touring DJ. That was seven and a half years ago. At this point I have only played Canada and the USA, but have made it to Eugene, Bend, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, and New York. It doesn’t feel like a lot in seven and a half years. What does seem significant, is being a part of Andaz and Atlas, two entirely unique and long-running fixtures on the Portland, Oregon club scene. There was nothing like these parties when we started, and aside from irregularly-scheduled gigs here and there, there still isn’t. There have been attempts to throw other global-themed club nights in Portland, by other DJs, and other clubs, but nothing has stuck the way Andaz and Atlas have, and I’m proud of that. I’m just not always so proud about my DJing.
I have very mixed feelings about my performance last night. It was typical of many of my gigs for a long while now, where I feel a lot of pressure to put on an amazing performance, but can’t motivate to prepare in the weeks before the gig, other than to spend some time listening to music. Until the last minute, I can’t really focus on any sort of intense preparation. Then at the last minute I feel like I am surrounded by hundreds of amazing pieces of music, that would add immeasurably to my performance, if I could somehow magically absorb them all in the few hours until I am supposed to be on stage. I feel this way before so many gigs.
I was not looking forward to this performance. I was not looking forward to going on before Maga Bo. Part of me wanted to change the schedule, and open the night, so I could play to no people, and feel no pressure. However, I open at Atlas all the time, and I realize that occasionally I do need to actually play during prime time, I just don’t always know how well that is going to work out.
Lately I have thought a lot about the tension in my DJ performances between what I want to do while I’m on stage, and what the crowd (or various factions in the crowd) might want me to be doing. I feel like I am torn in many directions, and what I end up playing is an often surprising (and sometimes scary) response to the different directions in which I am torn. It usually doesn’t please anyone, sometimes not even myself.
Because we have been having so many guests at Atlas lately I have been less concerned with pleasing the crowd, and more concerned with reflecting my current musical interests and obsessions, figuring that if people don’t like it, they are not going to leave, because they won’t want to miss the headliner. I feel like I overestimated this desire in portions of the crowd at the last Atlas. Which makes me feel really guilty, because the goal is to spotlight the guest DJ at Atlas, not clear the club before they go on. Following is my best recollection as to what I played on October 13th before Maga Bo took the stage:
Randy “Soy una Gargola”
Alex y Fido “Me Quiere Besar”
Daddy Yankee “Impacto (Remix)”
LDA “Ooh Aah”
DAM “Mali Huriye”
Bhool Bhulaiyaa title song
“Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” from Disco Dancer
PJD “Boliyan” sung by Lehmber Hussainpuri
Sunil Kalyan “Dil Kich Ke Lagayee” sung by Lehmber Hussainpuri
Preet Brar “Boliyan”
Nelson de la Olla
Garifuna Legacy “Manos Arriba” or “Aunli Turi”
Anjali had been playing a super uptempo Panjabi D’n’B and garage style set before me, and the crowd was lapping it up, but I had no interest in matching her style or pace, no matter how unhappy the dance floor might be at the white guy going on and killing the vibe. So no matter how little it fit, I played a bunch of reggaeton, because that was what I wanted to do. Since there were two dance floors going on, in both the front and back rooms, I have no idea how anything went over for everyone, since I only had one room to judge by. I’ve seen guest DJs at Atlas go on in the back room, and I feel bad when the most raging dance floor is in the front room, because the guest DJ has no idea how well their set is being received. I’ve seen the back dance floor thin and losing steam while the front room is raging to a guest’s set. The guest DJ might think their music is not working, and that they need to start doing something different, when the front room’s stage is full of dancers and people are going buck wild. So having said that, I am aware of the quantum possibility that the front room was responding better to my set than the back room, but I am by no means asserting that. I am trying to be somewhat charitable to myself since I left the stage after my set so convulsed with shock and horror at what I had done, and such were my feelings of self-loathing, that I wrecked my immune system to the point where I called out of an entire week of work sick with the flu.
Because I am often so uncomfortable and self-conscious on stage, I look to Anjali for inspiration. She will play whatever she wants, regardless of what she thinks (or knows) the crowd wants. She can have a crowd calling out for bhangra and Bollywood, and she will play nothing but Asian D’n’B or breaks. (And if you are someone who thinks all Indian music is the same, I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth to its listeners, many of whom don’t see Indian electronica as being “Indian” in the slightest.) Since I can feel so much pressure to give the crowd what I think it wants, I try to balance that inclination with the thought that I need to be open to a higher artistic purpose than simply getting people off on the dance floor. That may be blasphemous to those who view the ecstasy of the dance as paramount to the DJ’s purpose, but I have seen so many crowds getting down to the most predictable and boring shit for so many years, that I think there is far more that a conscious DJ can strive for beyond just giving people what they want. When I first started DJing house parties it was the coolest thing to be able to play anything that people would dance to: just the act of being able to put a needle to vinyl and watching people dancing in response. From the very beginning of my life as a dance party DJ, I wanted to stick in all sorts of cool stuff that I liked, and not play a lot of mainstream crap I didn’t like, but I became very focused on playing new and different things the more I realized how vociferous and monomaniacal many dancers are about wanting to hear the same shit over and over and over, whether that is Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, or 50 Cent, Kanye West, “Baby Got Back,” “My Humps, ” etc. Sometimes this desire to play new and different things can push a dance floor to the breaking point, and I feel like that is what happened during my set at the last Atlas.
I didn’t feel like anyone was particulary appreciating the reggaeton, but I stuck with it for a while. Moved on to political UK hip-hop, Palestinian hip-hop, and then on to some Bollywood. The filmi was certainly appreciated by some of the Desis in attendance, but how much beyond that? I then went into a bhangra set. No idea if anyone cared for that. Especially the Preet Brar “Boliyan” which goes on forever, has many long a cappella passages, and shifts from very slow, to incredibly fast, over and over. A rollercoaster of a song, that I don’t know if anyone wanted to keep up with. Feeling like I had pushed the crowd’s (what little was left) patience and tolerance to the limit, I then pushed harder with light-speed merengue. Yeaaaah. The gringos always love that. Now from my perspective in the back room, I feel like I had cleared everyone except for a few diehards who were somehow hanging with me in my fit of perversity. Maga Bo came to the stage at this point, but I was lining up another song, so he went back to the green room to wait for his set. What was the Kid going to do next? Win the crowd back?
Yeah, right. I wanted to take it as extreme as I could, which is the frantic polyrhythms of Garifuna Punta Rock. In my experience, Punta Rock has to be the most challenging-sounding rhythm any gringo could attempt to dance to. I was not going easy on people. It was more about what I wanted to represent, and present, dance floor be damned. Now as I mentioned, there were a few diehards left in a room that had been full. They were sticking with me through the last blasts of Nelson de la Olla. But as that song ended in its final bursts, my attempt to transition on a dime between the hyperspeed merengue, and the polyrhythmic frenzy of Garifuna Legacy (good luck attempting a blend) left a crucial millisecond of silence. A pause between onslaughts. In that crucial pause, I lost the faith of those few still remaining on the dance floor. I felt a deflation, a shrug, an abandonment, overtake the few dancers left, who then began filing out of the room. Dead air. A millisecond of dead air. It is often claimed that for a DJ, nothing is worse than dead air, and from my experience on that evening, I would have to concur, no matter how fleeting a moment of silence there was. That moment of silence was a station, where the few people left on the train decided to get off.
I was horror-stricken. “Oh no, what have I done?” Here I was, entrusted to warm up the crowd before our guest DJ, and in a pique of self-absorption, I clear the floor before he has a chance to go on. Watching the backs of the people filing out of the back dance room I realized I had to act fast. I raced offstage and into the green room, trying to rush Maga Bo on stage, before the last of the audience had left. He was backstage with Anjali and E3, who didn’t know what to make of my panicked rush into the room. I told Bo I got a little perverse, but that I thought that he could win them back. They all didn’t know what I was talking about, since they had been discussing my set from backstage, and thought that it had sounded great.
Now I have been backstage at enough shows to know that no matter how little anyone can hear, or no matter how little anyone bothers to pay attention to, a performer’s set, everyone says how great the performance was once the performer makes their way backstage, so I didn’t give a lot of credence to the claims that my set sounded great. Despite my reverence for Garifuna Legacy, and my insistence that I play them, when I saw what a floor-clearing effect they were having, I couldn’t justify playing the nearly ten minute track all the way out. Maga Bo made his way to the stage, and I brought the volume down on my track, mere minutes after it had started.
Anjali got on the mic to announce Maga Bo. First she wanted to shout me out, but so horrified was I by my performance, and its aftermath, that when she attempted to say my name I shouted over her, and yelled instead that everyone should give it up for Maga Bo. I couldn’t stand to have any ill-deserved attention directed my way, since the few people left in the club had already been through enough, having to suffer through my set, in order to finally be able to see Maga Bo. Anjali was not pleased at my cutting her off, and I apologize here for the rudeness. Such was my self-loathing that I couldn’t bear to hear some forced applause at the sound of my name. This self-loathing was such a powerful force that it decimated my immune system in its wake, and forced me to lie in bed sick for a week.
What is a DJ to do? If I play songs just because I know people will get off, then I am really alienated and depressed, all too aware of the familiar-schlock-uber-alles attitude of most dance floors. If I try to play just what gets me off, in some attempt to make some personal artistic statement, then I am made aware of just how easily I can clear the dance floor and lose the favor of an entire club. “Balance, balance, balance,” the Greeks would tell me. “Stick to the middle, avoid either extreme.” I certainly didn’t do that at the last Atlas night.
Maga Bo did, fortunately, entice those remaining in the club back to the dance floor. I have no idea how many people were left at the club after I got off stage, since I went straight back to the green room, where I stayed for the first few songs of Maga Bo’s set. By the time I made a trip around the club, it was almost entirely empty, except for the people dancing to Maga Bo. Since both rooms of the club were full when I went on, I can only conclude that I managed to clear the majority of the club during my set. If I was playing until 2:30am or so, then maybe that would be acceptable, but seeing as how I finished up around 12:40pm, then I would say, “Houston, we have a problem.” True, we do have a crowd that often arrives early, and leaves early, but if I am clearing them even before the guest headliner goes on, then that is not acceptable. I feel awful about clearing people due to my own selfishness, perversity, and inability to interact musically with the crowd in a meaningful way. Uggh. Its been so difficult for me to revisit this night in writing, that it has taken me two weeks to write this much.