Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized version of my all-too-real experiences working as a DJ in New York City. Most of the names of venues, organizations or people mentioned herein have been changed or, in some instances, totally pulled out of my ass so stop even trying to guess, cool? Cool.
Here’s a fun game: Tell people you’re a DJ. Then sit back, and watch them venture down a K-hole of astonishment, curiosity and, often times, only thinly-veiled pity.
Indeed, during my 5 years in the biz I’ve discovered telling people you’re a DJ is like telling them you’re a monkey: Some people think it sounds exotic and super-fun; others are pretty sure that you don’t bathe and that you eat your own vomit.
And while there is some truth in both of these assumptions, neither is altogether true. For most DJs anyway. Let me explain:
Since DJing is a (relatively) new profession — newer than, say, coal-mining or prostitution — many people find it difficult to understand that playing Diplo-remixed Beyonce songs for inebriated twentysomethings is a billable occupation. That’s understandable, to some degree. There are moments where I find it difficult to believe myself.
Here are the two most categorical responses I get when I tell people I’m a DJ:
First, there’s the infamous “Wow! What a Cute and Trendy Hobby! But I Asked What You DO“ Reaction. This is a common response from many family members and friends of family members whom I meet at Passover Seders. Also podiatrists, sales associates at GAP and the over-inquisitive check-out lady at the East Village Union Market.
This response is dumb (and condescending). Obviously if you asked me what I “do” and I said “I DJ,” then DJing is what I do. It’s my job. It’s my chosen means of not starving to death.
Second, far on the opposite end of the spectrum, is the “WOW! You Must Be a Rock Star!” reaction. This one usually comes from friends of friends who have spent too much time watching EDC YouTube videos. “Oh my god, that’s so cool!! Have you ever spun with Zedd?! I LOVE Zedd” says my sister’s endearingly daft co-worker from Portland while I’m knee-deep in a 6-hour set at a steak restaurant in midtown.
This response is also dumb. Here’s how it is: If someone tells you they’re a DJ, there’s a better chance that they are an actual rock than a rock star (despite unconvincingly pretending to be one on Instagram). Furthermore, the average DJ’s primary relationship with Zedd is via their edit of “Clarity” which has 59 free downloads on SoundCloud.
The truth of the matter, for most DJs like myself anyway, lies somewhere in between these stereotypes. You are not doing this as a hobby, but you are by no means a superstar with millions in the bank or even any real “fans” besides your friends and your mom.
You are what I like to call a “working stiff” DJ.
The life of the working stiff DJ carries its own brand of confusion. First off, it’s confusing on a personal level to be a working stiff DJ because you don’t really know where you stand at the club – you’re in a nebulous zone between distinguished entertainer and busboy with access to the jukebox.
The plight of the working stiff DJ is defined by extreme peaks and valleys. One minute you’re throwing down a wicked Trap set at a celeb-hosted night at the new hotspot, sharing a shot with Lindsay Lohan and blowing your own air horn with Yeezus-level hubris. The next, you’re hustling for promoter gigs just so you afford a cab home from the venue.
Being a working stiff DJ is also confusing to other people.
“Do you have fans who come and see you play?” a former college professor asks over coffee. “Do you do Molly, like, every night?” inquires a ginger-haired Tinder date. “Do you introduce each song before you play it?” asks my grandmother at every birthday dinner ever. “Can you get me into 1Oak?” begs my younger cousin constantly. (I can barely get myself into 1Oak).
Working stiff DJs are also always spinning in situations where people can directly approach you and say all kinds of weird and disheartening shit, often including but not not limited to, “Did you know Paris Hilton is a DJ now too!?”
One of my favorites — or least favorites depending on how you interpret the word “favorite” — is when a former DJ encounters a working stiff DJ and drops the notorious “You know, I used to be a DJ!”
The bearer of this proclamation is often a white dude in his late 30s, a guy who now works in finance and somehow ended up with your friends at the club that night. After you’re introduced, he lingers around the booth while the rest of the crew has gone to the bar and waits for the perfect moment to bond. Then he seizes the opportunity. “Hey, you know I used to DJ,” he says with a glimmer of hope in his eye, praying for acknowledgment.
“Really? Cool,” you respond, attempting to turn back to your computer and immediately terminate the conversation. “Yea, back in the late ’90s I played at a couple of office parties for my friends. Pretty fun stuff!” Pretty fun stuff indeed, buddy! When this event occurs, the working stiff DJ might feel resentment because every one of us knows deep down inside that we too may one day be “used to be a DJ”-guy. It’s mortifying.
But being a working stiff DJ, even though you’re not regularly crushing Coachella or even Output, and even when you’re being mislabeled as “DJ Louie XXIII” on a flyer despite having worked at the venue numerous times in the past, is still a pretty awesome gig. The reason used-to-DJ guys is so scary is because deep-down, anyone who gets to play music for a living is a pretty lucky motherfucker and we wouldn’t trade it, no matter how confusing what we do is to other people, or to ourselves for that matter. I mean getting to answer the question “What do you do?” with “I’m a DJ!” is the absolute SAUCE, whether you’re Mark Ronson or you’re just Louie XVIIWECIVIF.
And hey: These days, it’s a living! *AIRHORN*