Leading up to our November 10 showcase, we'll be getting you familiar with some of our Dallas Observer Music Awards nominees, either via past features we've done on them, or new ones. You can vote for your favorite acts, venues and more right here.
They are all hunched over the jukebox, scanning titles, looking for a deep cut, and letting the music spark a conversation about producers and B-sides among artists as varied as the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Black Sabbath.
This is why I love the DJ. Sure, rock stars have their appeal, but when you really want to get in the weeds of a music conversation, what you are looking for is a DJ, a crate- digger, an encyclopedia. We had come to break bread at East Dallas dive Cosmo's, home to that legendary jukebox, as I doled out $1 bills for Best DJ nominees Tape Mastah Steph, DJ Sober and Wanz Dover. (The other nominees, Yeah Def and Track Meet, could not attend.)
Each will get three picks. Dover looks through the catalog. "Hmmm, not really any electronic music," he says. Dover then realizes he's "usually the jukebox." His first pick comes on, Roy Ayers' "Coffy Is the Color," and Sober chimes in, "This is on my phone!"
The rest of Dover's picks, Joy Division's "Digital" and the Rolling Stones' "Undercover of the Night," set the mood. I ask if he has a favorite jukebox in Dallas. Before praising the Lee Harvey's curation, he smirks, "Gabe Mendoza is my favorite jukebox."
Tape Mastah Steph, DJ and producer on Stones Throw Records, doesn't waste much time. The Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma," Beastie Boys' "Eugene's Lament" and Stevie Wonder's "That Girl" are all choices approved by our group. "I'm a total Beastie nut," he admits.
DJ Sober steps to the glowing machine and pulls out, the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place," Curtis Mayfield's "Pusher Man" and Black Sabbath's "N.I.B." NBD.
We settle into a booth in the corner of the darkly lit bar, and begin to discuss DJ culture and how it's evolved. In a day and age when you can make a playlist, go to the store, pick up Serato and head right to your new weekly (Sober's joke), I ask them simply: What is a DJ? Dover is thoughtful.
"For me, you are an archivist. A historian. And real DJ buys records."
Hear that, torrent streamers of top 100 old school hip-hop songs? The DJs are on to you.
"A DJ should be a tastemaker and serious about their craft," Sober says. "That means reading the crowd, which means understanding your collection, and loving music first."
"For me, it's being happy with what I am playing," Steph says. "There is an element of educating the crowds, but it's the editing. Being selective about how you move the crowd. I can feel when I stray from that, or when I am at a gig where I may have to play some pieces I don't like. That feels different."
The rest of the night is back and forth. Between the three of them, these guys know it all. Dallas' strange role in the electronic music scene, once a stronghold for touring artists until the rave laws (and drug laws) killed those parties in the '90s. The effect of Skrillex and the Make Your Own EDM kits Dover says line the shelves of Guitar Center. The difference between that wedding gig, that corporate gig and that sacred weekly.
I ask if there are any sets outside their known specialties they want to play. Dover quickly responds: "Disco."
"As a turntablist, I'd love to do a set of funk breaks that connect with hip-hop records that have used those samples," Steph says.
Sober adds, "Nu-disco and indie dance. I don't know if people realize what I can so with that."
All three are master crate-diggers, filling out genres and sub-genres within their intimidating collections. When I ask for help on how to create a collection, Sober's advice is simple: "Be an individual. Don't pigeonhole yourself in a genre. As a collector or an aspiring DJ, don't be afraid to carve a niche. That is how you stand out."
Steph's contribution may as well be poetry: "Start at the beginning. Learn your history."
"Okay, guys, what about requests?"
The DJs shoulders tense up. Dover admits, "At my gigs, I have regulars. I will honor their requests because they are in line with my taste but if I just played three hours of French pop, do not ask me to play Rihanna."
Steph tells a story of a patron removing his headphones, which feels like a good way to start a fight. Sober says, "If a request is in line with what I am going to play then I may include it, but I'm doing something with these songs. I can't just play it next. I can't play it before your girlfriends leave the bar."
Apparently drunk ladies at birthday parties make up the bulk of requesting. The dudes tip, the girls giggle. Frankly, we can all do better. In fact, here are some helpful DJ tips:
-No daps to the DJ (it's awkward, and their hands are busy)
-No drinks on the DJ table
-For the love of all that is holy, DO NOT ask the DJ to play something on your phone! The phone thing is apparently happening so much, I suggest they start a thievery operation. So, think twice, terrible people.
I wander back to Sober's comment on carving your niche. These three DJs, and our other nominees, Yeah Def, and Track Meet, are not just carving niches but creating them in the Dallas music community. We go to their parties to dance or drink, but also to hear something in a context we cannot create for ourselves. This is the power of the DJ to connect the dots of history, for the mood or beats per minute to tell us something new about the music we already love and, on the best nights, introduce us to something we never knew we loved.
This is why you should check out all of our nominees in their own setting. This is why you should stop making requests -- these artists are better at it than you. This is why you can have the band. I'll be with the DJ.