All of us have an idea of what's like being a DJ—there's the glitz and glamour, the swanky hotels and business class flights, the free drinks and ensuing anxiety. And for some DJs, that's exactly what does happen. There are, however, a group of selectors with a different story to tell: they're not experts on Romanian minimal, they're not deftly and seamlessly mixing track after track to wild adulation and walking off with a bulging sack of gold bullions. These are the DJs who take requests, give birthday shout outs, and play pretty much everything anyone asks for, regardless of how soul-destroying it might be. They're the student night DJs, and I was once one of them.
For two years, every Monday and Tuesday night I was to be found in the basement of a central London bar, playing music for a client base predominately comprised of medical students. From the confines of my greasy wooden booth I pumped out a toxic blend of 50 Cent, J-Lo, and Bryan Adams, and gave the biggest shout-outs I could muster through my Tandy microphone. That was me, that was what I did and who I was.
Although for me the music was the focus of what I did, it was often ancillary to the punters who were there to take advantage of ever more creative drinks deals, and to try to get off with each other. The average attendee arrived just in time for happy hour, ready to smash a few Dirty Russians or Adios Motherfuckers before engaging in the pre-mating rituals of dancing badly and asking me why the music was so bad, with the intention of facilitating some form of sweat-soaked tongue action before scoffing a double cheeseburger on the N18 back to Harrow town centre.
For the sake of both convenience and avoiding a lawsuit, let's say that the venue I held my residency in was called Los Crazios. Apart from the future proctologists of the UK, Los Crazios attracted a crowd of exchange students, holiday-makers, travelers, office workers, blokes on stag do's, here-by-mistakes, and waifs and strays who'd never satisfactorily be able to explain how they ended up there in the first place. In addition to that vast web of revellers was a hardcore of local market traders who treated the place as though it were their local boozer, which in many ways it was, although not many boozers are stuffed to the gills with not-quite doctors looking to get lucky without throwing up.
As you can imagine, all this resulted in a crowd who were virtually impossible to please—from a DJ's perspective at least. And that meant that a night playing at Los Crazios became less a musical journey and more an attempt to steer a disparate ship through a sticky-floored and carnivalesque series of booze-sodden waves, with only saccharine teen pop, bait R&B, and 80s nostalgia anthems for support. My role was not to entertain and educate in equal measure. Jesus no. My role was to keep punters from fucking off somewhere else. Make 'em work up a thirst and pay their money over the bar, but not excite them too much that they'd kick off. And with regards to the music policy, the manager was pretty clear: "Keep 'em happy and keep that 'doof doof' shit for someone who cares, somewhere the fuck else."
Being a good employee, I played whatever the punters asked for, going as far as to studiously download the latest singles by Ja Rule, Britney Spears, and R Kelly as soon as they hit shelves. By that I mean I nicked them off Soulseek because I wasn't actually going to pay for them. Sorry, music industry. Not only did I never pay for the stuff, I went as far as never actually listening to it either. I'd stubbornly whack ear plugs in at the start of a shift and leave them in until 3.01AM. But I could still hear enough to have protracted arguments with girls called Megan who would go batshit crazy if you played J-Kwon when they were in the loo, and would aggressively insist that you play it again, now, five minutes after you just played it. I once had a bunch of clubbers leave, actually gather their shit together and and exit en masse, as a protest against my refusal to play Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" twice in a row.
Then there were those who just weren't paying attention:
Punter: "Play Justin Timberlake?!"
Me: "I am, this is Justin Timberlake."
Punter: "Not this one."
There were lots of variations on similar themes:
"Can you play something my friend likes?"
"Can you play something we'll all like?
"Can you play something different?"
"Can you play something we can dance to?"
"Can you play something else?"
"Can I have three large vodka tonics and three Bacardi Breezers please?"
Then there were the Zen-like unanswerable questions:
"What is the music tonight?"
"Do you know where my friends are?"
"When will it get better?"
The question I always struggled to answer the most was "what music have you got?" This was before USB sticks made everything viewable with the flick of a wrist, so apart from having a printed-off Excel spreadsheet of my alphabetized library to hand, there wasn't much I could to do satisfy the knowledge-hungry hordes. The evening was always carried out in shouts, punters grabbing at my CD wallet while I pinballed around the booth, heavily lubricated by the complementary lager handed to me by higher ups, ear plugs stuffed deep in my canals, all of us as arseholed as each other.
DJing in an environment like this isn't about narrative and moods and subtle shifts and silky smooth transitions. It isn't about Masters at Work or Michael Mayer. This is about "Crazy in Love" and "Dirrty," veering wildly off into "The Final Countdown," by Europe or Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," which used to always send the crowd into total frenzy. And yes, I did use to cut the volume on the chorus of the latter and watch an entire room creak out a "WOOO-AAAHHHH," at the top of their gleeful, stupid, terrible voices—a room briefly united in drunken desperation. All I could do was sigh, light another cigarette to cover the stench of vomit and bleach crawling up from the toilets, and play "Drop It like It's Hot."
Something you should know about Los Crazios was that the booth didn't have a lock on it. One evening I returned to my un-shut sanctuary after taking a slash and arrived to silence. Four young women had invaded, spilled three different kind of very sticky drinks over the mixer, turned the music off and the strobes on, and were treating the club to an acapella rendition of "Dancing Queen." If the customers weren't singing they were shagging; a blocked booth door actually once led me to a trouserless couple going at it on a floor that was an inch-thick with the debris of fallen pints. And if they weren't singing or shagging they were scrapping. The fights I witnessed were half-arsed, scrappy bouts contested by very drunk young men who'd not fought since school and weren't that interested in doing it now.
Two years into the job and I was coming to the end of my tether. The alcopop that broke the camel's back came in the form of a long, drunk, and particularly pointless conversation with a paying customer about my lack of songs by Paul McCartney and Wings, a group he only ever referred to as Paul McCartney and Wings, as if the world is awash with other bands called Wings, which was followed almost immediately by a far briefer, but more illuminating exchange that seemed to be a succinct summary of the utter pointlessness of it all.
"Can you play something I like?' asked an out of breath, rosy cheeked young woman.
"Yeah," I replied, "of course."
She runs off. I play "Jump Around" by House of Pain and wait for 3AM to roll round. I hand in my notice immediately and never return.
Harold Heath is a freelance writer.