DJ Mel Is BFFs With the Owners of Everyone's Favorite Austin Restaurants
In Austin, they prefer grimy over fancy.
DJ Mel. Photo courtesy of DJ Mel
For good or ill, DJ Mel is now known nationally as "Obama's DJ" after his stints spinning at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, Obama's election night party, and the Inaugural Ball. This election cycle he's been out and about for Bernie Sanders. But first and foremost, he's Austin's DJ, having been here since dinosaurs roamed back in the 1990s. He's lived everywhere in the town, too—the Eastside when it was dodgy as hell, and downtown before the word "condominium" became de rigueur. Now living around the South 1st area with the "OG-Austin" residents, DJ Mel knows Austin is the best of both worlds, where long-time Texans and hungry upstarts making the city, and its restaurants, their own.
How would you describe Austin to someone who's never been here?
I've DJed in every major city in this country, and I've spent a lot of time in a lot of those cities. They're great, don't get me wrong. But there's just something about Austin. I think that, when I was younger and I first moved here, this town was a place where creative, cool kids from all the small towns all over Texas would move to to get the hell out of their town, you know? Whether it was El Paso or Longview or Waco or whatever—this was their destination. I think it's still like that now, but I think instead of everybody from all these small cities all over Texas, it's everybody from all over the country.
You've been here since 1994. Has the change in Austin really been that dramatic in the past twenty-odd years?
I think so. For a while I was kind of mad at it. I think I was just mad for the sake of being mad. But, like I've told many people before, I see a direct connection with all my friends, including myself, doing a lot better. And it seems to coincide with the growth of the city, so I can't be mad at that. The only thing I'm really mad at right now is the traffic.
Do you think people's perception of Austin is changing in any way?
No, I think it's always been the same, just more so now. When I say "Austin" they kind of light up. I like that. I don't know how to put it, but this town has always been this thing, and it's hard for me to put into words without sounding like I'm bragging. This town's awesome.
Do you feel pretty settled in doing good things here? I know you travel a lot.
Yeah. I've been DJing at this bar here in Austin pretty much the entire time I've lived here. I honestly think that if—God forbid—if a nuclear bomb hit Austin, Nasty's would probably be the only thing standing. It's just one of those places where it's just never going to go away.
What's new that you like?
There are so many new things being built and everything, but I also think—whether it's new restaurants or new hotels or whatever that are really cool, hip and whatever—I still think that Austin people like their bars kind of grimy. Look at East Sixth Street.
Do you have any favorites?
I like going to places where I don't want to bump into anybody. If there's a place everyone's at, that's the place I don't want to go to. If I'm not DJing. Have you ever been to the Cloak Room by the capitol?
Yeah! Oh, man, that is a dingy little hole.
It's like not on anyone's radar, really. It's not like this kind of hip New Austin thing. It's just like this thing that's been there forever. Just like Nasty's. It will never go anywhere. And it's not pretentious or whatever. I just think people like their bars not-too-fancy here. In a way, I still think that, to a certain degree, people want their Lone Star beer and they want it in a place that's grimy.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood? Obviously you're living south.
I've lived everywhere in Austin. When I first moved to Austin I lived on the Eastside. I lived on 16th and Chicon in the '90s.
Everyone thinks the Eastside's kinda whatever now, but like, live on the Eastside in the '90s. For the most part it wasn't this cool, hip place to be. It was where you could actually buy a house, and rent was under a thousand dollars. I would probably still be there if my house hadn't gotten broken into. That's how crazy it was. There was a crackhead in the house.
I live in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood now and I think that you still see glimpses of Old Austin, old South Austin. There's still a lot of super-OG Austin people who live there. It's nothing like the Eastside. Definitely, Eastside is very hip.
Bouldin Creek is probably not the hippest neighborhood in Austin, but that's where the Austin mural that everyone and their mother takes their photo in front of is. Bouldin Creek Cafe is there. Seventh Flag Coffee is there. Some of the new, cool restaurants are there. There's Sway, there's Elizabeth St. Cafe. That's what I like about it. There's this old with the new thing.
Are those some of your favorite places to get grub?
They're kind of part of this new Austin restaurant movement thing that's awesome. They're really doing cool things. It's one of those things where this town can't just be, "OK, we're just gonna eat barbecue, and we're gonna eat queso, and we're gonna go to Magnolia Cafe at 2 AM, and we're gonna go to Kirbey Lane Cafe, we're gonna go to Green Mosquito on Barton Springs." It just can't be that forever.
How would you describe the new Austin food places? It's all over the map, but is there anything that sort of unites them?
I think that they're flipping it in a way where it's not like, "What are they doing?" or "What is this?" They're just adding this subtle twist, whether it's what Paul [Qui]'s doing at Qui, or what Jesse [Herman] and Delfo [Trombetta] are doing at La Condesa and at Sway, or what Larry [McGuire]'s doing with Elizabeth St. Cafe. I think they're just putting their own twist on it.
A good example is Ramen Tatsu-ya. Tatsu [Aikawa] and I used to DJ together a long time ago, back in the early 2000s. Little did I know that this guy was also a chef, and earned his stripes working at other restaurants, then going to LA working at a sushi bar, before coming back to Austin and deciding "I want to open a ramen restaurant." And he's killing it. I don't even know if "comfort food" is the right word. You just know it's gonna be good and it's always gonna be there. You just know it's gonna be dope.
Has the DJ scene changed here since you arrived?
Back in the '90s, even up until the early 2000s, I could keep up with everybody. Now you could just throw a rock and hit a DJ in this town now. There's a lot of them.
Any places you like the DJ line-up?
Volstead is really good on the weekends. It's definitely representative of Old Austin, where it doesn't really matter who you are, where you're from, what you look like, or whatever. It's just like, "We're just going to go out and go dancing, get drunk, and we're gonna throw beer on everyone, and the floor's gonna be covered in booze at the end of the night."
Do you have a favorite Austin festival?
South by [Southwest] is just kind of like a free for all. And that's great. But I'm biased. I like ACL. It's in the heart of town, Zilker Park. You can ride your bike there. It's in October. It's not that hot. You have downtown Austin as a backdrop. Whether it's a festival or no one's at Zilker, I love that place, so you can't beat it.
You can read the entire VICE Guide to Austin here.