No shame in the game
Hustling DJs play undercover for cash, practice and freedom.
We’ve gotten so used to the idea that DJs live to hype their work, pass on their passion for music and pack the place that, frankly, it hurts to learn they’re often holding out on us. Local go-getters are keeping many of their gigs quiet—even from their own crews.
Why? Reputation, for one. Secret gigs tend to be good for cash flow but low on street cred—and who’s turning down paychecks in this economy? One Chicago-based lady spinner explains that “there is a stigma against DJs who purely play local,” so while she was the longtime nightly resident at a chic downtown spot, she only promoted one night a week. “I can’t get fans to come out twice a week every week to the same place,” she says.
There can be perks to playing places with no cool cachet but lots of bodies—like a postcollege bar. Kampfire Killa plays those places, it seems, for practice, but he won’t be hitting you up on Facebook about it. “I would rather play house (fidget, tech, progressive) or techno (mainly minimal), but I usually get booked for more party-rocking sets. I play Top 40 gigs in Lincoln Park to keep up with the party rocking, and those people usually just request crap, so it’s a challenge to keep the floor moving.”
Like any craft, deejaying in different environments pays off in experience and confidence, but often, it just pays. One of Chicago’s younger professional DJs, Matt Roan, claims there’s no shame in his game. “I’ve done more corporate events than you can shake a stick at, man,” he says. Roan and DJ cohort E6’s association with New York DJ school Scratch Academy gets them and their protégés gigs in retail spaces. Roan has played Gen Art parties and invite-only hotel openings for a professional crowd. “The clientele seems to appreciate a DJ that knows what they are doing,” he says.
But there are some events to which Roan won’t bother bringing his followers: “Most of the downtown club gigs, I’d just as soon as not invite people. It’s a pain for me to get them in, and I know my friends can’t afford $10 and $12 bar drinks.” There are pitfalls to playing department stores, too, Roan says. “Just last week at Macy’s on State Street, we got locked in the loading dock for an hour waiting for someone to open the door.”
Besides being private affairs, weddings are high-risk DJ jobs but can be a blast if the stars are aligned. “I hate them but will spin at one if they want eclectic music,” says DJ Trew. “Last year I did one (with Bernie Mac in attendance) and all they wanted to hear was Afrobeat, steppers and soca.”
Genre masher Major Taylor makes his flexibility—he plays downtown, in hipsterville, even on cruise ships—a point of pride. “A truly well-rounded DJ should be able to step out of his or her comfort zone and make the new environment work. I pretty much hate everyone equally, so I’m always comfortable,” teases Taylor even as he concedes that his friends aren’t as flexible.
Playing out secretly can also mean freedom from expectations. Trew maintains a no-flyer monthly at Small Bar where he and Pickel experiment with the format—a luxury that’s increasingly rare in this hyperprogrammed world.
Roan, Kampfire Killa, Taylor and Trew play every week.