Determining what kind of DJ to be during a pandemic
When I approached KMHD about doing a radio show as a volunteer a couple of years ago, I certainly had something different in mind than what my show has become. I knew we were in the midst of challenging times, but I didn't anticipate that our nation would be in an ongoing state of constant and escalating crisis. As a result, the times have ended up molding my show much more than I ever would have imagined. I've DJed through crisis in the past, many many times over the years (including on 9/11/2001). I've always viewed my roll in times of crisis as a kind of musical therapist. In the past however, there have been ebbs and flows between crises. I've never DJed through 4 solid years of heightened crisis. It has really tested my resolve and my abilities to sense what will benefit my audience most.
DJs have often become the butt of the joke in recent years (thanks Portlandia), but in case you're not aware, many DJs are not "just pushing a button". They are in fact putting a lot of thought, emotional energy, creativity, and artistic effort into crafting their sets.
There are many different ways to be a selector DJ. Over the course of a quarter century, I've been all of them at one point or another:
DJ Lowest Common Denominator - the one-size fits all DJ (aka "DJ Obvious Choice" a term coined by friend Beth Kelly) - that's the DJ who's like a primary care physician, prescribing best-known, well-proven remedies (aka the guaranteed floor-fillers and crowd-pleasers).
The Me DJ - The DJ who creates purely for their own aesthetic. If other people like it, then cool. If not, whatever.
DJ Pass the Time - This is the DJ who knows they have a certain amount of time to fill with music and is not very discriminating or thoughtful about what they spin to fill that time.
The Status DJ - The DJ who spins to impress other DJs and music nerds. Whether it's expensive obscure records, or underground favorites, this DJ wouldn't "stoop" to playing "a hit"
The Soundscape Artist - The DJ who paints a soundscape with songs, or creates a narrative with songs. The records are their paints. The songs are chapters in their story.
The Message DJ - This DJ has a message (or messages) and they use their records to convey that message
The Educator - The DJ who crafts mixes from their own aesthetic but for an audience of others, keeping in mind the musical awareness of the general population, and choosing music from the DJ's own aesthetic that may hook their audience, guiding them through a set, song to song, with the aim of holding their interest throughout, so as to entertain and expose them to under appreciated recordings and lesser known artists.
Since hosting a radio show commands a certain level of emotional energy, the question for me over the past several weeks has been, what kind of DJ should I be during the Coronavirus Crisis? Do I want to be a "Me DJ" who processes my feelings through my music selections? Or do I want to be a DJ who helps others cope with the current crisis? I've selected the second choice, which ends up being an amalgamation of a few of the DJ types I've detailed in this article.
When I look back at the genesis of my KMHD show, it turned out that when I chose Travlin' the Tracks as the name of my show a couple of years ago, it wasn't simply fun word-play. That show title became prophetic of the type of show I would end up producing. Over the course of the first year of Travlin' the Tracks, I realized that my number one goal during this era needs to be using my records to lift spirits and provide temporary relief from the anxieties of our times.
The way I approach this show has gradually become very different from how I've done a show in the past. Here's an example: If you've only known me as a DJ in recent years, you may not be aware that I'm a lover of sad songs. I love a heartbreaking tear-jerker like nobody's business! The sadder the better. Those types of songs are therapy for me - Hearing them and singing along with them gets the sad out of me.
However, since I began doing a show on KMHD, there has rarely been emotional space to spin music of that ilk. I know people react to music differently and I fear that by playing sad songs, I'll bring people further down during such a difficult time. In fact, when I was crafting my Bill Withers tribute show, I refrained from featuring some of my favorite Bill Withers recordings because they are so dark and tragic.
The overall anxiousness and grief felt across the land over the past few years has been amplified exponentially (and quite suddenly) in March. It became clear to me fairly quickly how I needed to address this via my show:
1) Virtual escape from confinement
2) Mental escape from the harshness of our current reality
3) Encouraging solidarity by acknowledging our collective struggle and giving permission to seek temporary relief
I care very deeply about my community, and I'm working very hard to be the DJ you need me to be right now. So, I'm crafting a variety of musical escapes for you. Most of them will be heard via the show I produce as a volunteer KMHD, but there are also the occasional dance mixes (to provide an option for physical release as well).
I hope these efforts help in some small way to get you through your day. I wish you every best wish to make it through this unfortunate situation with the least amount of damage.
DJ Action Slacks
(Your Friendly Neighborhood DJ)