Wednesday: I reminisce about being a DJ
For the last three weeks, I’ve been working in a very large convention centre near the airport in Toronto, which is one of the reasons I’ve been neglecting a lot of my online activities. The centre itself is like 5 miles long, and my legs and feet are KILLING me from all the walking—I would probably have lost weight at this point, except that our lunches are catered, and they are full-sized meals. The menu repeats every week—I’ve eaten more butter chicken, rice, and raita in the last 14 days than I’ve eaten in the last 5 years, and then there’s the large chunks of beef with instant mashed potatoes, the chicken wraps and baked beans, and the hamburgers/hot dog steam trays. Wednesday, though, is lasagna day, and since I can’t eat gluten, I dashed next door and brought back Swiss Chalet chicken (if you’re a true Canadian, this is better than caviar to you, mostly because caviar is fish eggs and that’s just disgusting, while Swiss Chalet chicken is delicious and comes with an amazing dipping sauce that can also be used with your fresh cut fries. And now, even though it’s 8 am, I badly want some). Anyway, we were all sitting around the banquet table, and one of my colleagues brought up the fact that she had worked for years at Swiss Chalet to put herself through university. Then we all started talking about our own part-time jobs, at which point I offered that I had been a DJ in university. I didn’t get much of a chance to elaborate, because then the bell rang, signalling the end of lunch (yes, I said “bell”, because we have almost 1500 people working for us, and if there’s no bell, it gets confusing. Just when you thought you were OUT of high school, am I right?).
But I continued to reminisce in my head about being a DJ, and what that meant in the late 80s compared to what it means now. Being a DJ now is like being a rock star; they have their own shows, and equipment that absolutely boggles my mind. One of my all-time favourites is the Canadian DJ and producer Deadmau5, who is amazing and wears this ubercool mouse helmet when he performs. (Yes, it’s called a performance now, unlike back in the day, when I was just “background to the party”).
Me, I had two turntables and a microphone, to quote Beck, and sometimes not even that. My first actual job was working at a local university radio station, a job for which I had to audition in their sound booth. I did well enough for university radio—I’d been a club kid for years and was pretty familiar with that scene–and was given a position subbing in for a friend when she was unavailable—her show was called “Your Grandma’s Tractor”, and it was alternative music featuring bands no one had ever heard of. Then I was offered my own show. This might sound amazing, but they needed to meet some kind of broadcasting regulation, and they’d just lost their Classical DJ. Yep. Classical Music. Luckily, I’d grown up on that sh*t, and my parents had enough albums to start their own store, so “Symphonic Gestures” was born. I did that gig for over a year, putting together intro notes from the backs of record covers, then just letting the music play for the next half hour. I didn’t have an audience per se—I know this, because once the radio station ran a contest for prizes (I can’t remember what they were), but the only person who “called in to win” was my Mom. God love the woman. But it was great experience, and it got my my next two jobs.
The first was at a local hotel that had a dance club on the top floor. It also had a strip club on the second floor, and I was always careful to specify WHERE I worked, which is ironic, as you will soon find out. The problem was that the building was really f*cking old, and the floors were super-bouncy. DJs today can’t relate to this—everything’s so high-tech, and they have crews and all that, but the bouncy floor was my biggest problem in an era where the “pogo” was still one of the most popular ways to express yourself on the dance floor. My stabilizers were a joke, and at least twice a night, I would have to talk over some New Order song and nicely request that everyone STOP JUMPING UP AND DOWN because they were making the record skip. They were usually too drunk to notice the gaps in the lyrics, but it pissed me off and made me feel like an amateur. Still, the money was good and the drinks were free. Well, the water was free—in order to maintain a constant flow of song, I had to start one track before the other ended, and I don’t know how they do it today, but I had to physically put my thumb on one record to slow it down if need be, and I had a knob that would speed it up otherwise, so that the beat would match to the best of my ability. My motor skills are shite even when I’m sober, so I stayed alcohol-free until the night was over.
Then I saw an ad from a DJ service called Doctor Music. They were looking for a club DJ for a bar in Waterloo, and the money was better, so I applied, auditioned, and got the job. My boss was this huge guy named Ron—I mean gigantic, like 6 foot 5, about 300 pounds, with tight curly hair that he gelled up like crazy. I was excited, but then I learned that their entire music collection, which I would have to transport back and forth with me to the club every night in a suitcase, was on MIXED CASSETTE TAPES. Skrillex would probably be screaming with laughter right now. Kristian Nairn wouldn’t, though–he would just say “Hodor” in sympathy. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to try and blend the beats between two cassette tapes? I would spend at least a couple of hours at home every night before work, cuing each song that I wanted to start with on each mixed tape, using my index finger in the circular hole to cue it back about 15 seconds (or two and a half winds) so that I could try to match things up. And how the f*ck did I do that once the tape was playing, you ask? By using my fingernail against the ridges in the reel hub to slow one of the songs down–there were no covers on the decks, so it was just slam the tape in and mess with it however you needed to. It was STRESSFUL. Because once I had exhausted my predetermined selections, I had to start cuing up new songs in a cheap-ass glass sound booth that was NOT soundproof. Even though I had the best headphones that money could buy (well, the best for the 80s anyway), I could still barely hear what I was doing over the sound system in the club. My only saving grace was Milli Vanilli, that pseudo dance duo who put out an eight minute long extended version of a song called “Girl, You Know It’s True”, so that I could either get my next set ready, or go to the bathroom. My job at the club was good for a while (aside from all the drunks requesting “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” every five minutes), and I would dance away, hyping up the crowd with my arms in the air, or shouting encouragement into the microphone–until the fateful day that the club owner, who was a young, chauvinistic d-bag, decided to have a special university night with a “Wet T-shirt Contest”, which involved young men in the audience being encouraged to spray young women’s tops with water. My job was to play “sexy music” whilst said contest was progressing. As a woman, I was unhappy about the whole thing, but then the shit hit the fan as the contestants got more and more drunk, and more and more desperate to win the $100 cash prize, which back then was a lot of money for a university student. Suddenly, one girl tore off her t-shirt and bra, and started dancing topless. I was shocked, and then relieved as the owner came over to the sound booth. I assumed he was going to call the whole thing off, but no.
Club Owner: This is awesome! Play that stripper song by Man Parrish. That’ll really get the girls going.
Me: No! This is ridiculous and probably illegal!
Club Owner: Play it or you’re fired.
So I put the song on. But then, another girl took her top off, and then another and another. There was one girl left, the men were screaming encouragement, and I realized that as she was taking her shirt and bra off, she was CRYING.
So I shut the sound system down.
Club Owner: WHAT THE F*CK ARE YOU DOING?! PLAY THE F*CKING MUSIC. THAT’S WHAT I PAY YOU FOR!
Me: Not any more–I’m a professional! You want “stripper music”? Play it your goddamn self. There’s a sh*tload of cassette tapes in there—I’m sure you can handle it.
And I walked out, the club owner screaming epithets behind me, and the men in the crowd booing. I would have thrown down my headphones, but as any good DJ knows, your headphones are your best friend, and you would never hurt your best friend. Or a naïve university girl who was pressured into doing something that made her cry.
When Doctor Music found out, he was pretty upset, but he understood when I explained that, had the police shown up, his business might have been in jeopardy also. I had no idea if that was true, but I was working on a Master’s Degree at the time, and he assumed I knew what I was talking about. At any rate, I decided that I needed to get a job that was more career-oriented (because again, DJ was not a real profession YET, at least not in Ontario), so I started working as a teaching assistant at the university. The money wasn’t as good, but there was less nudity. Sorry, I mean NO nudity.
As an addendum, the club shut down not long after I left. Poor Doctor Music met a tragic end a few years later. Apparently, he lived in a compound out in the country surrounded by a huge barbed wire fence and patrolled by five German Shepherds. When the neighbours heard the dogs howling for days, they called the police to investigate. They found him dead inside the house, wearing a long wig, eyeshadow, and a giant flowered muumuu. And although this is a humour website, I don’t have anything particularly funny to say about that, because he was a really nice guy, all in all, and I guess living a secret life was pretty hard on him.