So, why don’t you try it?
(photo: Maro Hagopian)
Okay. CHERYL is an awesome, fun, super-inclusive, very successful monthly dance party at the Bell House in Brooklyn. It’s my favorite place to get down. I know Nick, Cheryl’s resident DJ, and we’ve talked tunes a few times. Our tastes don’t always line up but I’ll always give his recommendations a shot because I trust him. Dude has a strong compass–he listens a lot and only plays music that he thinks is amazing. There are a few common threads, but enough outliers that I’ll never be able to make a reliable prediction about his setlist. And there are always a few that I sit out. I don’t always have to like what the DJ is doing to appreciate what they’re going for. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails and invariably there will be people who disagree. And I’m not even touching on the subject of transitions and beatmatching and DJ nerdery here, I’m speaking strictly of good taste and good instincts. Nick’s got ‘em. The DJ curates the dancefloor all evening. He’s got a huge role in crafting the experience for the night. He’s got to take risks if he wants to keep things interesting, and balance it with a healthy serving of the comfortable-and-familiar. If I’m committing my Saturday night out to dancing and getting stupid and and loose, I’d like to trust that the DJ is going to be good to me, not waste my time, show me some new things, get creative with context, tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end, provide some dynamics and some surprises and keep the floor engaged. It’s a daunting task, when you think about it: a given night only happens once, and you’re expected to act as a filter for this vast and constantly growing catalog of The Music that Exists In The World you’ve got to handpick and artfully present a few dozen tracks that will define everyone’s evening. Of course there are happy accidents, of course we can play it loose and shoot from the hip, and the people who want to have fun will always find a way. But it’s a service, and just like a great waitress can do a great deal to improve your breakfast experience and a bad one can do a lot to ruin it, a DJ whose heart is in it has a lot to think about. A great waitress can spill my drink and mess up my order and still make me smile and tip generously, and a great DJ can make some questionable decisions or have a trainwreck and hopefully not have the whole room turn mutinous if he’s taken the time to earn their trust. It’s easy, right? A DJ is just a dude with some headphones and records like a painter is just a dude in a dirty smock. You might not think what they do is difficult, but you’ll know when it sucks.
I remember hearing this old story, I think it was about Larry Levan, who played Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” when it was new, in the middle of one of these legendary club nights and completely cleared the fucking floor with it. His response? He played it again, and again and again, saying “Listen, y’all aren’t going to hear anything else until you get up and dance to this shit. It’s hot, and it’s new, and I’m here to make you understand it.” And people got into it, and remembered it, and it’s a classic, and it’s been sampled by everyone everywhere and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone saying Fuck That Track. In 2012, “Heartbeat” is not a risky move. Playing Miley Cyrus at 4am is a risky move. (And yeah, now people know it and love it expect it because it’s a signature track and it wouldn’t be a Cheryl without it. See how that works?)
Not every track is going to be a 5-alarm banger, and some of the best stuff won’t appeal to you right away. Sitting around criticizing the DJ is like fucking with your underwear on–you’re not going to catch anything but you’re probably not going to get off, either. For me the “this is a room full of cool people in great costumes, they come here every month and they get excited and creative and they make out with each other and they always leave happy, and perhaps I should try a little harder to get into this groove and explore what it’s about instead of immediately dismissing things that don’t grab me in the first fifteen seconds” factor has led me to appreciate a lot of music I never used to care for. There’s still some stuff that I just don’t get, but that’s fine–you gotta piss and grab a drink sometimes.
CHERYL still has my vote.