Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cameron Paul Tells All
Pt. 3

It was October 1977 and I had just gotten my first DJ gig at Broadway Power and Light on Broadway in San Francisco, California. I had never been paid to play records for people to dance to but I was about to and I was very excited.

After my audition I went straight home to tell my parents the great news. I was now a Professional D.J.! My parents were very happy for me. They weren’t thrilled with the location of the club but they tried very hard to overlook that.

Marvin, the owner of the club, had asked me to come in that weekend to listen to Peter spin before I started playing the following week. So I spent a couple of sleepless nights and when Friday night came I was the first one at the club. It was only 7:00 and there were only a few people sitting at the bar and there was country and western music playing! I thought, “Oh no, what the hell did I get myself into?”

Rudy, Marvin’s girlfriend and the woman whose recommendation had cemented the job for me, saw me come into the club and told me to sit at the bar next to her. She called Richard, the bartender, over and asked me what I wanted to drink. I was partial to Cuervo Gold Tequila, straight up, with a ginger ale back at the time so that’s what I told her I would like and she ordered it, and a beer for herself.

I was very nervous and I really needed the shot of tequila to calm my nerves. In fact, I needed a couple of shots to calm my nerves. I asked Rudy what was up with the music. She told me not to worry. She explained that before the dance crowd started trickling in, around nine, that a few locals hung out at the bar and that after nine the music changed to dance music. What a relief.

I hung out at the bar with Rudy and, at 9:00, in walked Peter. He came over to Rudy and I and shook my hand, congratulating me on getting the gig. He walked over to the D.J. booth and unceremoniously turned off the country western tape and started playing another tape of R and B music. He came out of the booth, walked over to the last stool at the bar, sat down and ordered a drink.

There he sat until about 10:00 when several groups of people started coming in. He took his drink and went into the D.J. booth and started playing his first record. I started listening intently.

Since I had heard Johnny Hedges mix music, beat for beat, that’s what I was expecting to hear from Peter, even if he did some talking. To my surprise he just faded the next song into the one that was ending and talked over the music while he was doing it. Like a radio disc jockey! He even made his voice sound like a typical AM top 40s jock from the 50s or 60s.

I thought that I really wasn’t going to last very long here. There was no way I was going to be able to talk like a radio D.J. I had no desire to do that.
As the night wore on and the club got more and more crowded, Peter’s rap got more and more annoying to me. It seemed he never stopped talking! And the crowd didn’t even seem to mind. And by 11:00 it was packed.

Another thing that weighed very heavy on my mind was the fact that this crowd was 99.9% African American. And the other .1% was me.

I decided I better pay careful attention to the music Peter was playing. I realized I wouldn’t be able to play a lot of the high energy disco music that I was used to. So I sat there the whole night until closing at 2:00 A.M. And I returned the next night, Saturday. If I thought Friday had been crowded, Saturday night was packed. Wall to wall bodies.

Peter played a lot of the same songs several times so I was able to learn a lot of the titles. I was very eager to play and I couldn’t wait until my first night. My schedule was Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. The club was closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

My start time Sunday night was 9:00. I arrived a half hour early and climbed up into the tiny D.J. booth. There was a package on top of the record bin addressed to D.J., Broadway Power & Light. Well, I thought, I’m the only D.J. here. I guess it’s for me.

I opened the package and there was a double record album inside. On the front, stamped in big gold letters were the words, “PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR RESALE”. It was the soundtrack to the new motion picture, Saturday Night Fever.

I couldn’t believe it. The movie hadn’t opened yet and I hadn’t even heard any of the music yet on the radio. This was my first advance copy of a record. Since I was early, I put on the album and just let it play.

I thumbed through all the records and recognized all the titles Peter had played over the weekend. A cocktail waitress asked me if I wanted a drink. I was very nervous so I ordered my usual. A Cuervo Gold with a ginger back. 9:00 rolled around and I started my first shift as a professional club D.J.

My first night actually went very smooth. I played a lot of the music I had heard Peter play and I snuck in a few of the high energy records that I liked. It got fairly crowded, however nothing like the crowd over the weekend.

The crowd was more ethnically mixed than it was Friday and Saturday although it was mostly black. I had been really worried about the crowd accepting me, this skinny white kid from the suburbs, but as the night went on I fell right into a groove and immediately got a feel for what they wanted to dance to.

I’ve always thought that a good D.J. has a natural talent for “reading” the crowd. Knowing what kind of mood the people in the club are in. Feeling the energy in the room and playing the appropriate music. I’ve called all of that, “The Psychology of the Dance Floor”. I think I’ve had that natural talent for being able to read my crowd from that very first night. And I think it was one of the keys to my success.

Another thing I knew was that I wasn’t going to say much over the mic all night. The only thing I said that night and just about every night for the next fifteen years was, “Last call at the bar. Last call for alcohol”. How many times I would say those two sentences over the next decade and a half.

That first night of my new career, little did I know where it would lead, I had a blast. I had so much fun I couldn’t believe I was being paid. Paid only $8 an hour, but at the time I thought it was a hell of a lot.

I didn’t try any fancy mixing that first night. I just segued the songs together. As one started to fade out I started the next one. Mixing would come later.

As I got more and more comfortable with the music and the crowd I started experimenting. The equipment I had was prehistoric. I didn’t have a clue about beats per minute or pitch control. It didn’t matter anyway because the only pitch control these turntables had was a switch that said 33 and 45 RPM! I learned how to mix on these things.

The mixer must have been an ancient radio mixer. It had giant knobs for the volume control and huge VU meters over them. Above the mixer was a lighting console that had about twenty toggle switches for the lighting effects. I was also the light man. Underneath the shelf that had the turntables and mixer was a reel to reel tape deck. To my left was a record bin big enough for a couple hundred records and beneath that, on the floor, there was an area large enough to place my own crate of records.

For the first couple of months I wasn’t too popular with Marvin, the middle aged owner of the club. He was so used to Peter’s style that I seemed radical to him. Especially when I played a record that he had never heard before. The D.J. booth was enclosed in plexiglas and whenever Marvin didn’t like the song or if he wanted my attention he would throw ice cubes at the booth. After a few weeks I learned to ignore the barrage. The important thing was that Marvin’s girlfriend, Rudy, liked me. And more importantly, she liked my music.

As time went by I decided to try to mix the way I had heard Johnny Hedges mix. I didn’t have a clue how he did it. I just figured I would play two records that sounded like they were the same tempo on top of each other. And that’s how I went about my first beat mixes.

I had no idea there was such a thing as a turntable with pitch control. And yes, back in 1977 there were Technics turntables with pitch control. I just had never been close enough to Johnny Hedges to see what kind of turntables he was using. I assumed you had to get two songs that were so close in tempo that you could speed them up or slow them down enough with your finger to be able to overlay their beats perfectly long enough to do a complete mix. I truly believe that learning how to mix on tables without pitch control helped make me as proficient as I later became.

And so I started to attempt true mixing. At this time, in the late seventies, beat for beat mixing was, for the most part, only heard on the east coast and in gay clubs on the west coast. Most straight clubs had “radio jocks” like Peter. The popular D.J.s were the ones who talked and cracked jokes. The more jokes the better. I was determined to change all that.

At the time, “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees was a huge hit. Whenever I played it, the dance floor would get packed. The only problem was that there was only one version. And that version was a short, three and a half minute track on the Saturday Night Fever album.

The way I started mixing was by using two copies of the same record and mixing in the beginning of one back into the end of the other to make the song last longer. The very first record I tried this with was “Night Fever”.

I found it to be very easy because at the end of the song, the Bee Gees sang the chorus over and over, which is exactly how they started the song. One thing theses ancient turntables did have were slip mats. This enabled me to slip cue one copy of “Night Fever” from the beginning, at the exact point where they started singing the chorus, into the end of the copy that was playing, exactly where they were singing the chorus on that record. I eventually learned to do this so well that I went back and forth several times making the song last for as much as fifteen minutes. And no one knew any better.

Since “Night Fever” was the biggest hit at the time it always got every last person up on the dance floor. Well, once I got them there I didn’t want to let go of them. And it seemed like whatever I played after “Night Fever”, I would completely lose the dance floor, meaning practically everyone would sit down.

I was very frustrated trying to keep people dancing after “Night Fever”. So one night I decided to see how long I could keep them dancing to the same song. If they wanted “Night Fever”, I was going to give them “Night Fever”!

They had no idea that I was able to make a song last longer. If the song was longer than they were used to, they just assumed it was a longer “D.J. version”. 12” dance mixes, which were nothing more than edited long versions, were starting to become popular at that time. And tonight they were going to hear the longest version of “Night Fever” they had ever heard.

I played it over and over again. Mixing it together so cleanly that not one person suspected what I was doing. Peter would play the same song over and over again. But he would just fade one in while the first one faded out.

Back then, people would dance until the song they got up for was finished. Since they didn’t realize that I was making the song last longer they just kept on dancing, and dancing, and dancing. After fifteen minutes not a single person had sat down. Although I was starting to get some dirty looks.

I realized that I was torturing these poor people and I finally ended the song after a full twenty minutes. They actually applauded as I faded it out and segued in a slow song.

That was my first feeling of the power that the D.J. has.

After several months I started to get my regulars. These were people who came in often when I was spinning. And I started getting compliments on the way I was playing the music. They had never heard it mixed that way.

Marvin started liking my style too even though he wasn’t sure what I was doing. All he knew was that my crowd danced hard, which meant they drank hard. Peter’s crowd was sitting more than they were dancing.

One weekend, after about a year, Peter had to be out of town and I would be filling in for him. I had never played to a crowd as large as a weekend crowd. I was petrified and ecstatic. I knew about it the week before and had been telling my regulars so they would all be there for moral support. Friday night couldn’t come soon enough.

...to be continued