So I've decided to use my blog to start capturing my life as a DJ.
Being that I've now been in this industry since 2000 (almost twice the amount of time I was in bands back in California), I've got a few funny stories to share. For the record, I'm not some superstar, Las Vegas millionaire DJ (obviously)...I'm just a dude who spins music on the regular at venues that are kind enough to allow me to ply my trade. It's a hobby, not a career.
I'm sure there will be little time continuity to my stories, as some will come when I remember them (trust me, there are a lot) and some are still to be made. But I figure that this will be a way for me to share little snippets of my life as a working DJ, because it's one of the funnest hobbies I could ever have hoped to pursue and I've made a lot of great mates along the way and have had some brilliant nights, too.
So I will start off with a story that is simply too good for me to just let fall to the wayside...but first:
A semi-abbreviated history of The Penny Black
Last night I was booked for a hiphop set at a venue I've been playing since 2008 called The Penny Black. Some of you may have heard of it, actually...most of you reading this would have heard of it if you know me, as it's been a major part of my life for almost a decade.
A bit of a back story is required here, as I have no problem saying that musically speaking, me and my DJ's put this venue on the map. Not trying to be someone who's that far up their own ass that they think they're more important than what they are, but show me one person who had even heard of The Penny Black back in 2008 with any connection to the larger scene and I'll float you some coin. This place was untouched, uncharted territory back in the day. It wasn't just me either, it was the culmination of a lot of variables coming together at the same time. New ownership, awesome staff, changing demographics in Brunswick, lack of serious competition and, most importantly, a collective vision for a venue that was different to what else was out there at the time. But the music styles that brought easily up to 1,000 punters every Friday/Saturday night was me and my hand picked DJ's.
The first time I got booked to play The Penny Black, it was called Don't Tell Tom, which was the previous name. An ol mate, Paul Master (of Regrooved infamy) asked me to play some Sunday party in their main room (which was shit) there and then asked me to play some day festival thing called the Sydney Road Street Party soon after as he was away out of town. I'm from the outer east and had never even DJ'ed further north than First Floor on Brunswick Street, so this shit was out there for me...lol! I'd never heard of this street party, so thought it would be some fun and little boutique event.
Long story short (probably not that short as I ramble), but this street party turned into a 10-hour set out back in a beer garden (which I had no idea they even had) that was built (or left) to look like an urban wasteland. I'm talking chain link fences, old corroded scraps of metal, bar stools stacked on one another, boxes everywhere, open wiring hanging from the roofs, a few outdoors tables and benches, plates of glass, weeds, grafitti; you get it. It literally looked like a giant back yard that had been unattended for about 30 years and I seriously thought it might have been a back drop to one of the scenes in Full Metal Jacket. Luckily, they had wheeled out a portable bar and a BBQ for the day for the massive crowd that was already there when I arrived about noon.
Anyways, the decks n mixer were there when I got there and they were set up on top of the pool table (that punters were NOT happy to relinquish) and I was plugged into 2 portable stage monitor speakers surrounded by a few torn up couches and the portable bar. It was the most Spartan DJ set-up ever; it was heaven. I loved it!
I had just purchased Serato, so I played every style of music under the sun (which is what I do). Funk, soul, hiphop, reggae, dancehall, rock, disco, house, pop, punk, metal...it all got played that day. I remember my cousin being out from California and he was just blown away by that first festival because you couldn't peg any one thing that made it special. It was loose and packed from the start (as the infamous Sydney Road Street Parties usually are...especially at The Penny Black), so punters were losing their shit from song one. Again, heaven!
My biggest memory from that day was the manager (pretty sure it was Josh) coming up to me at 9pm (I was supposed to play 1-7 pm) and asking if I could go through til closing time, which was 11pm. Mind you, this was a Sunday and I'm a school teacher so had to work the next day. Of course, I said yes and rocked it til closing. So definitely one of my favourite DJ experiences...EVER!!!
This event led to them asking me and my mate Rob (Mr Lob...legend) to start DJ'ing there more regularly, as Rob was already DJ'ing one of their other venues, Murmur. Rob wasn't quite as convinced about the potential of Dont Tell Tom as I was (even after we both rocked the next Sydney Road Street Party the next year -- with stage diving, I shit you not, included), so I basically took the lead on DJ'ing there (and handling their bookings -- something that I do). This was also the time a new owner came on board, who invested in the venue, changed the name, built much better infrastructure out back and turned the venue into what it became.
For all the DJ's and punters that know about the venue now and are used to massive crowds, let me paint this picture for you: Other than the Sydney Road Street Party every year, a normal Friday or Saturday night was 300 punters tops and this was over the whole venue. Of those 300 punters, 200 of them were in their 40's-60's, liked rock music only, were missing most of their teeth and had a hatred for anything that sounded remotely like modern music. I remember one Friday night when I was playing in the back pool room (before they started setting us up outside in the beer garden permanently) and I got a bit of dance floor started with Arrested Development. An older and distinguished mole type just about glassed me and challenged me to a fight for playing such "shit" music and told me to play some Choirboys. Mind you, I love the Choirboys...but you get the picture of what we were up against here.
That said, I stuck to my guns and fortunately had a new owner in the place that believed in the music we were playing. Well, actually, I'm sure he didn't give a shit what we were playing as long as it kept punters in the venue and buying piss. Slowly over those first 2 years, the older rock crowd began to dwindle in numbers (not altogether though, as we still kept playing rock, punk n metal stuff along with the hiphop, reggae, pop, etc) and lo and behold a new demographic emerged at the venue: young urban club kids from the northern suburbs who couldn't be arsed driving all the way to the CBD...especially when there were talented DJ's pushing hiphop in a gigantic northern suburb where you could smoke out on the dancefloor -- yuck, but I took it). I don't think I can condense that down, so hopefully you get the picture.
So as the older rock crowd began to dwindle, this newer and younger crowd began to fill the place up (and of course they'd want to hear only hiphop and rnb...which we'd always throw into the mix with everything else). Because the owner of the place knew what would happen if we turned the whole venue over to young club kids, he specifically asked me to make sure all DJ's adhered to a genre "un-specific" vibe and not stay on any one style for too long. So all of my DJ's that I booked understood that you could play hiphop and rnb, but not play nothing but hiphop and rnb all night long. I should also point out that I was the Saturday night resident during this time (their biggest night each week) and it was around this time that I started playing 6 hour sets of nothing but 45's, specifically so I could decline requests in the most awkward way ever: Me - "Sorry I've only got these little records and Chris Brown never released a 45." Her - "Oh shit, my mom still plays CD's, too. Can I plug in my iPod?"
Now the main reason for this long story is that it's actually quite cathartic for me to put this all down as I do like to reminisce about positive experiences in my life and I can say, without a doubt, that The Penny Black has been a positive experience in my life. 6 hour sets every Saturday night to packed crowds taught me how to play off my laptop and on 45's. I learned how to read crowds better and gained confidence to drop shit like Ben E King on top of Run-DMC into Donna Summer and back down into Bob Marley. Crowds sweltered during my time there and from 300 every night, we began to regularly get about 1,000 each night and the place was packed every weekend. I'd book DJ mates who were down from Sydney to play and they'd be freaked out about how killer it was. Then they allowed me to run my own weekly reggae party on Sundays that went for 4 years and that was probably my favorite gig ever, as reggae got me into DJ'ing...full stop.
But the best thing of all was that we were operating in this vacuum where nobody outside of our circle really knew what was going on over there. We weren't Revolver (nobody is but them anyways). We weren't RNB Superclub, Bimbos, Laundry, Lucky Coq, Prince, etc. We were our own thing; it was heaven.
Then we got too big. I remember the owner sitting me down one Saturday night (a fucking larger than large Saturday if I remember correctly) to tell me that they were selling the venue to the same people that own Lucky Coq, Bimbos, Portsea Hotel, etc. My heart sunk immediately, as I knew that was the end of our little vacuum as having played for those venues, I knew they'd bring in their own DJ's, etc.
Still, I couldn't really complain about 5 of the most amazing years at a venue I'd never even heard of before, so I took it on the chin when the new ownership team got rid of all my DJ's, but kept me and Lob on. I took it on the chin when the set times were cut to 2 hours, instead of the 6 hour sets I booked me and my DJ's for. I took it on the chin when every DJ that came in started playing nothing but hiphop and rnb, because that was "what the crowd wanted" and that was what management expressed to the DJ's to start playing more of (hey, I can easily do that, too). I took it on the chin when I saw 2 full-blown bar brawls with pints shattering on the walls behind me and female punters had to hide behind the decks with me to escape the carnage (something that never happened in all the time I had played the venue...even when I was playing hiphop to old rock dawgs).
So I've worked with the new managers and they're all awesome people, too. Lately, they changed up the format for DJ's with nothing but big RNB type DJ's on Fridays (at least I think or hope they're big, but I really have no idea because I could give a shit about big RNB DJ's or RNB nights) and they hold these massive day party events on Saturdays in that same beer garden I first started playing in back in 2008. I mean MASSIVE parties with huge crews of even younger punters than the last crop who came in and they're into their harder styles...
So to the title of my blog post, the reason for this long winded tale of a venue very close to my heart is that I came straight to Penny Black from another gig last night. Upon arrival, I got out of my car and it was like cannon of noise hit me all at once. I'm talking banging, doof-doof beats that I clearly heard from the parking lot as I walked into the venue. I proceeded to greet all of security (who I know well) and there was a collective sigh of relief that I was taking over soon as I believe everyone was doofed out. They'd had a day party there all day with some crew dropping nothing but the most banging hard house music I'd ever heard and the place was absolutely packed out back with what I can only describe as a throwback to Summer Dayze, with enough shorts, combat boots wearing, tank top, crew cut and lollypop in the mouth eyes bulging out of their heads emphasis on glow sticks (in the daytime) rocking crowd I've ever witnessed there.
Management asked me to immediately change the vibe to hiphop and rnb so that the regular Saturday night crowd would feel welcome when they walked in. Yeah, that's super easy.
Mind you, they've also changed the DJ console out back to accommodate these day parties, so you play on a stage out back now with a better sound system (definitely an upgrade from the old system where the speakers were on the roof -- I shit you not). But this meant I had to walk up on stage (like a rockstar -- only, I'm not a rockstar) and take over from this dude who was jumping (like, really jumping) up and down whilst the crowd was going absolutely nuts for this hard style sound. Now I'm not one to judge as I like ALL music and if I don't like it, I'll at least respect it (especially when 1,000 punters are going off their heads to the sounds)...but I was given instructions to change the vibe and crowd up (who'd stopped drinking hours ago by the looks of the pupils in the joint or lack thereof). So I knew I was going to go down like a fart in a sealed room and be the biggest fuck wit these 1,000 punters had ever seen.
It didn't help that as I was setting up, the DJ kept jumping onto my big feet (I have big feet lol) with his boots on and he kept doing the David Guetta mixing with the nobs routine where he over accentuates every hand gesture with flying fists of fury. It also didn't help that his "entourage" was also on stage, with one guy joking with me that "you should probably just give him another 30 minutes ha ha" and his camera man (yep, there was also someone filming with a camera) getting in my way and the promoter telling me that he hopes I brought some big tunes.
Oh yeah, I should also mention that the DJ (who really wasn't a bad bloke at all -- just wired differently than me if you get my drift) was red lining the fuck out of the system. Apparently, nobody on stage could tell that the monitors were distorting beyond any form of distortion I've heard before, which probably happened because the sound guy kept turning the rig down due to all of the DJ's all day red lining and distorting (I know this because he was also on stage and we spoke about the distortion issues -- he'd given up trying to get them to turn the monitors down). He asked me to turn the volume way down when I start, too...GREAT, another way in which the masses are going to hate my Seppo guts.
So it's now time for me to start and inwardly I am laughing my ass off at this crazy life I lead. I'm just some American bloke school teacher and here I am at a banging hard house party in Australia about to ruin everyone's fun...and by everyone, I mean punters half my age. So my first track has got to be something that will immediately change up the vibe in the venue whilst holding onto the crowd...yeah, I can do this (I thought).
So I dropped this bass remix of Pony that normally slays the masses, but...CRICKETS!!! I think, "I am the biggest poseur to ever take the stage." Even worse, the DJ before me raises his arms up and everyone is cheering him on as he rips his memory sticks from the CDJ's and triumphantly exits the stage with his entourage. I literally watch as 1,000 punters basically carry this dude and his entourage out of the venue and there I am, left on stage playing music at an almost laughable volume to absolutely nobody whilst bar staff immediately start sweeping up the mess of broken glass...in a venue that holds 1,000 people. I actually think I heard some people laugh at me and shake their head as they left the venue.
I was like the guy doing a sound check for the next hour, but, of course, the normal Saturday night crowd came in and by the time I'd finished I left the next DJ a very tidy dance floor to work with. It also helped that my wife came in with some friends for a bit of a boogie, which is rare these days as I've been doing this a long time.
So I've moved on since the glory Penny Black days (whilst still playing there because I actually still love playing there) and do OK for myself in many venues (with all holding special places in my heart for a range of different reasons). I love music and probably will keep doing this DJ game for as long as I am able, but I just wanted to share this story with you. It's not every day that a hip hop DJ gets to clear out a banging hard house party, but that bucket list item has now been ticked off.