First Class carriage on Virgin Trains’ 16:03 service from London Euston to Birmingham New Street. (Coach J seat 14, to be absolutely precise)
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m on my way to do a spot of DJing in one of my favourite cities – playing at someone’s retirement/60th birthday do.
This is my second DJ gig this week. The DJ role is one that’s kind of been imposed on me throughout my life; in social settings, I’ve always gravitated (or been pushed) toward the stereo. I have a wide range of ‘likes’ and so can do quite a diverse mix on the turntables (actually, I use mp3 players and occasionally a laptop. But you know what I mean). I’m equally happy playing dancey stuff, or just something in the background while people socialise. I love it when I put a tune on and someone comes up to me to ask what it is. You could say DJing falls into two categories – “What I want to play” and “What the punters want to hear” – and my two gigs this week cover both those categories.
My first one (on Thursday night) was a “what I want to play” one. In theory, this type of gig is easiest for me to play, because it just involves me imposing my musical tastes on the public. People have differing reasons for why they get into DJing. Me, I do it because I love music. And herein lies my problem: I don’t always like what’s popular with the masses. No, I’m not a snob who only likes bands as long as they remain obscure. I want my favourite artists to be able to eat well, feed and clothe their families – and for their fans not to need to set up a fund or organise a benefit whenever they fall ill because they can’t afford health insurance (the American ones, that is). For artists to do all that, it usually helps if their music sells well – so I’m all for the masses liking the music I like. But it should be the masses coming up to my level when it comes to musical taste – not me going down to theirs (all right then, maybe I am a snob. I don’t care. Someone has to stick up for good music).
But as I said, this is all “in theory.” In reality, Category 2 occasionally sticks its butt in when you’re playing a Category 1 gig – and Thursday night’s gig was a classic example of that. It was in a bar on the Old Kent Road, with a couple of friends with equally impeccable music tastes: Vince (one half of the Secret Archives of the Vatican – check out their podcasts here) and Guy, aka ‘the Ginger Ninja’ (check out his latest mixtape here). We offered an eclectic mix of everything from dubstep, moombahton, Afro-beat and more – and Guy had made that absolutely clear when booking the venue for the night. But the moment Vince put on a dubstep track, the manager of the bar was over like a shot to order him to take it off (“This is a soul bar. Play stuff like that again and you’re out.”). By the time it got to my turn on the decks, I was self-consciously censoring my previously prepared playlist in my head (I wasn’t planning on playing any dubstep myself, but Brazilian drum & bass can pack a kick when it wants to). Still, in a virtually empty bar I made a bouncer dance with some Dele Sosimi and Femi Kuti tunes (and a cute barmaid with a Kassav’ track, and an extremely plastered punter with an obscure Chic tune), so I’m marking that gig down as a win. And if you’re reading this and happen to be in possession of (or have access to) some bar space, there’s an eclectic club night looking for a home…
Category 2 is where DJing requires you to have a professional attitude and think of it more as a job – because that’s what it is. You’ve been hired to provide a service, and you need to do that to the best of your ability… even though it does invariably mean that you might be playing one or two tracks you don’t really care for yourself (speaking as a self-confessed music snob here). At weddings, office Christmas dos, hen nights etc, people have come to party – and to dance to old, familiar stuff. Your job is to give them what they want, and to grin and bear it when a difficult customer gives you grief. And boys – if you got into this because you thought that being a DJ would be an easy way to get girls to like you, think again. Remember that old song by Space, about the female of the species being deadlier than the male? It definitely applies to female punters! Grannies in particular can be rather rude about music they don’t like. What was it one old lady asked me at one birthday party I played at? “Could you play something with a tune, please?” What on earth do you say in response to that?
But for all the grief you can get, it’s also the people who make the gig rewarding – even if you’re doing “a night of cheese.” Seeing a whole family rocking at their table to ‘1999’; having a little girl come up to request a song that’s older than she is; the declaration of intent when the hen party all take their shoes off the moment they hear the opening strings on ‘I’m Every Woman’ (or the opening drum beat of ‘All the Single Ladies’); the elderly couple waltzing to ‘Kingston Town’… these are the little things that make the job special.
As for that awkward moment when for a split second you think you might actually be starting to like that Girls Aloud track you’ve been forced to play… that I’m not so sure about.