Unlike last month, I didn’t split my pants on stage at Holocene during my performance at Atlas on Saturday. That much is good. I had a triple threat weekend. I had to prepare all of my tax paperwork for my accountant, I had to prepare a Dungeons and Dragons session I was DMing for some friends Friday night, and I had to get ready for Atlas on Saturday. On top of all this, we were fortunate to have our inspirationally-knowledgable and passionate friend Jacques in town from Hawaii, and NYC’s Bulgarian DJ extraordinaire Joro-Boro, who was stranded in Portland for several days when the Balkan Beat Box tour he was supposed to be a part of was canceled because members of the band were held up in immigration in Canada. This meant amazing times and great conversatons, many fabulous meals with friends, and the chance to see Joro play two March Fourth Marching Band after parties at the Crown Room. The only problem with this wonderful situation was that it also meant that there was very little time to work on tax paperwork, much less prepare a stellar D&D session, much less absorb a lot of music for a new and meditated DJ set.
After many, many hours of work the tax paperwork got handed off on time, but I felt woefully unprepared for my D&D game, and I felt completely out of sorts when I took the stage at Holocene to perform my first set. Granted, Anjali had been sick all week, and Saturday I felt like I was coming down with something as well. -Great. How many times do I have to perform while sick at Atlas?
I barely, barely, barely scraped the surface of getting ready for Atlas. As usual I was surrounded at home by hundreds of albums I imagined would make a great part of my set if only I knew them far better than I do. As usual I wished that I spent more time with the music I already know is great, rather than trying to find new and undiscovered gems. As I was onstage at Holocene considering what to play first, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and how anything I might want to do would go over with the crowd in attendance. The crowd seemed very strange to me. Strange in that many people seemed very “normal” (high heels, little tight black dresses) and not sure what to make of the music at Atlas. E3 played a typically stellar opening set before heading off to DJ a costume ball at Reed College. (Last weekend he made Anjali and I very proud by delivering a brilliant opening set for Cheb I Sabbah at the Hippodrome. Best set of the night, no joke. Go E3!) I had the task of going on after E3, since Anjali was still decompressing from having double-booked herself, arriving at Holocene after DJing an opening set for well-dressed Russian couples at the Chervona show at the Fez Ballroom. I really didn’t know what to play. I’ve developed a habit of opening my sets with a reggaeton number, invariably dropping the tempo precipitiously from what either E3 or Anjali before me have been playing. I don’t see it is an effective or popular strategy, just one that in my DJ perversity, I have adopted. With no better ideas about what to do I said, “Sure, let’s suck all the energy out of the room, drop the tempo by 40bpms, play a long introductory beatless melodramatic vocal and see if anyone wants to stick around to hear my second song.”
I’m on stage. I’m woozy. Sickly. Disoriented. Apparently deranged as well.
From my first song the sound just sounded wrong. It sounded like distorted mud coming out of my stage monitors, and from the horrified looks of people gawking at me from the crowd, I can only imagine how bad it sounded out in front of the club speakers. I was trying to adjust my levels, nothing seemed like it was running that hot, and I thought, “Great. It’s one thing to attempt a totally perverse move of ramping down the energy and the vibe, yet another thing when the song doesn’t sound like anything other than a distorted radio slightly off station. Claudia, the new sound person at Holocene, ran on stage to tell me I did not have the mixer levels set right. I was used to having the mixer running at a certain level from when Tim worked the soundboard at Holocene, and Claudia had it set up with E3 so that we were supposed to be running the levels far lower on the DJ mixer than usual, but I didn’t know that until it was too late, and I had begun my set by frying out the speakers and making sure that my introductory songs sounded like absolute shit. And no doubt LOUD, fried-out, muddy shit at that.
I proved at other editions of Atlas how easy it is to lose the crowd with 180 bpm merengue, and in February I showed that it was even easier to lose the crowd by going on early and quickly alternating 90bpm reggaeton and 180 bpm merengue. “Yay. Let’s try it again.” I gave the crowd at least a few reggaeton numbers before blasting off into merengue hyperspeed territory.Since the manic meren-ton proved so alienating to the general affections and movement of the crowd I decided that hyperspeed Balkan beats would win over the uncoverted. Yeah, right. I watched what had been a full dance floor enjoying E3′s set empty until only a few game couples remained dancing in tandem to the Balkan sounds, while everyone else either fled the room, or hugged the walls. Now I have cleared plenty of dance floors in my time. I have cleared plenty of dance floors at Holocene. But I don’t think I have ever floundered so badly out of the gate, losing 98% if the crowd at the beginning of my set.
Not a good time to empty the dance floor at a club on a Saturday night. So what is a sickly, woozy, perverse and unprepared DJ such as myself to do? Why, play more reggaeton! They loved that the first go-around. Uh-huh. Not by a longshot.
Well I do it anyway.
At this point I am melting down onstage in abject humiliation and despair. Anjali comes on stage sensing how badly I am doing. I am doing so badly I suggest she go on, even though I am barely halfway into my set. She goes to get a drink before returning to take over, and by the time she gets back I decide (to her mild consternation) to tough it out. No matter how miserable I was, I knew that if I fled the stage after bombing so atrociously that it would have rippling effects of causing me to doubt myself and descend into weeks of self-loathing and self-abnegation, and if I didn’t turn things around during my set, people would be horrified to see me re-take the stage after Anjali’s set, and no doubt they would flee for the exits.
-As it that doesn’t happen enough already.-
So I tough it out. I keep playing. I play MIA “Boyz” in an attempt to woo the crowd with something they know and Anjali tells me later there was only one girl in the crowd who acted like she knew it. Like I said, weird crowd. I played Swami’s “Electro Jugni” and I played DJ Vix’s “Desi Boliyan,” which was the only straight-up bhangra track I played all night. I finished up with some vintage meren-house with my final song being Proyecto Uno’s meren-house oldie “El Tiburon,” which had been going through my head a lot lately. So, while I’m not claiming to have set the club on fire, I at least regained the dance floor and left the stage with a full crowd dancing; and not after having successfully cleared most of them.
I was so glad I made the decision to stay on stage and keep performing, despite how much I bombed at the beginning. It is so easy for me to drown in a whirlpool of self-hatred if I feel like I didn’t perform well in a set, so it was crucial to my self-esteem to show that I could get people to dance and stay on the dance floor while I am on stage. -That does seem like kind of a fundamental DJ requirement at a dance club, don’t you think?-
Anjali played a very well received set starting off with MIA’s “Big Branch,” which by playing it two nights in a row, Joro forced us to re-evaluate after we were too quick to dismiss it in initial listenings. She played Blaqstarr and Rye Rye favoring musical infatuation over strict Atlas format, a track on the Egyptian riddim, several lesser Sean Paul hits, some bhangra dancehall, and then a long energeteic bhangra set that the dance floor soaked up. Anjali later said she feels like that is all the crowd wants from her despite what else she might want to play. Her last tracks were high-energy Panjabi Drum’n’Bass and 2-step.
“Hey Kid, you didn’t try to nosedive the energy again when you went on, did you? ”
Oh yeah, from the first moments of Johnny Prez’s “Dancing” track with Deevani I could feel the deflation of the crowd as people’s energies dropped. I stuck with reggaeton for awhile, sticking to the uptempo side of the genre (excepting the super-fast bachaton which I am always telling myself I’m going to play and then never do), tracks with a dancehall vibe, Panamanian reggaeton, and an oldie by Tempo. I then play “Habibi Min Zaman” from the new Balkan Beat Box, in honor of their cancelled West Coast tour. I move into Arab-ton from the new Said Mrad “Esmerium. ” A few Middle Eastern house tracks with some thrilling Darbakeh runs that inspired some of the crowd to vocalize in appreciation loud enough that I could hear them over the onstage monitor, and then by birthday request, acoustic-guitar-driven-leisurely-house song “Dildarian” by Amrinder Gill, which seemed to really bring the energy down, which I predicted, but I was being a nice guy. I then get a Desi guy onstage explaining that I have to shout-out his friend whose birthday it is. Seconds later Anjali comes onstage reminding me that it was also almost our friend Jeevan’s birthday. Oh boy, what do I play to dedicate to these girls? Think, think, think. Oh, “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” should do the trick. I play my mix of the original and MIA’s version and portions of the crowd go crazy, so I realize I did something right for once. Since there is a cluster of Desis going crazy in the front I decide to play a mini-filmi set. “Sajnaji Vari Vari,” Soni de Nakhre” and “Mind-Blowing Mahiya” all stoke this subset of the crowd, and I get stage dancers and all that, so at least I please some people to no end playing filmi hits, even if such a move no doubt alienates others who aren’t feeling the “cheezy” filmi vibe. I then transition into Meren-house, which because of the house beat underpinning no doubt, doesn’t clear the floor like my Dominican selections often do. I did manage to further challenge the crowd by finishing up with several Balkan tracks, which while they didn’t completely decimate the dance floor like in my first set, they certainly thinned out the dancers in the back room. I often feel like we don’t play enough Balkan material at Atlas, and often the crowd is highly appreciative when we do, yet it seemed a constant at this edition of Atlas that the Balkan material had far fewer demonstrative fans than I had hoped.
After I left the stage several people were kind enough to thank me for my set, and offer me compliments, so thanks to those kind souls who let me know that there are some people on earth who are capable of enjoying what I do. Just like February’s Atlas, I played hardly any bhangra all night. Only one straight forward bhangra track, and a few fusion tracks. I knew there were Desis in the house, but I didn’t know there were that many Panjabis until after the show Anjali told me there were a handful of Sardarjis in attendance. If I had any idea, I certainly would have peppered my sets with some hardcore bhangra. I always try to play to different communities if I know they are in attendance at Atlas. It certainly creates a different vibe playing music for people for whom the music speaks of self and not other. My goal since Anjali and I were first playing the Blackbird in 2001 has always been to establish a place where people from many different, backgrounds, cultures, and nations can all delight in each other’s languages and dance together to each other’s music.
Anjali finished up the night with some more Panjabi hip-hop bhangra, and an electro-giddha mini-set, which had the crowd pogoing in appreciation, and when she thought everyone had had enough bhangra, a Balkan set which now that it was after 2am, served as the exit music for people who then missed out on Anjali’s Khaled two-fer, Rachid Taha, and some vintage filmi. Thanks to Jacques, Claudia, everyone at Holocene, and all of you who came out (especially Tracy), even if you didn’t know what to make of anything you saw or heard. Thank you especially to any of you who somehow kept faith in me after my disastrous opening.