The House DJ Dream

I never had a Prince button on my backpack. No New Edition patches on my jacket. No Michael Jackson pictures up in my locker. I only had two music loves: Depeche Mode and house music.

Lots of other kids who grew up in the Chicagoland area in the early 80's probably felt the same way. Ok, maybe not obsessed with the Depeche Mode thing, but definitely feeling the house music!

I fell in love with house music by listening to the tracks spun by WBMX's Hot Mix 5. They were magical, hypnotic, soulful. The music got in your heart and just made your body move. Take a look at these guys in the picture, the original five: Farley "Jackmaster" Funk. Mickey "Mixin" Oliver. Scott "Smokin" Silz. Ralphi Rosari. Kenny "Jammin" Jason. None of them would ever be jumping off the pages of GQ. Ever. The only talent required? Being able to feel the music, being able read your crowd, being able to mix so seamlessly that folks think it's all one record.

Thanks to them, I'm sure there's a whole generation that pictured ourselves behind two turntables, hauling around crates filled with the hottest 12 inches available from Gramaphone Records. I used to dream that I was going to be the biggest house music DJ in the world. I was going to rock the Northside's Riviera Nightclub and take over Shelter downtown. And then I was going to conquer Manchester, England.

I sometimes wonder how many other girls thought they could be DJs. After all, DJ'ing, like so much of the music business, is very male dominated. That hasn't changed one bit. The DJ's I'm into now, Gabriel and Dresden, Fedde Le Grand, Oxia -- they're all men. The women in the house/techno scene have three choices:
a) sing on the track,
b) dance to it, or
c) sleep with the DJ.

I have a terrible singing voice and option c wasn't happening, so I got very good at option b.

Sure, in Chicago we had Val "Psycho" Bitch and Teri Bristol down at Medusa's, (and they're still DJ'ing now at Crobar) so I had some role models, but they were the needles in the turntable haystack. Sometimes I wonder if DJ'ing being so male dominated is part of why I abandoned the dream of being a DJ. That and the teeny-tiny problem of me sometimes losing track of where I was in a record because I was too busy dancing to it. I'd be so busy doing the wop and then I'd realize, "Oops, time to mix another record in!" I'd have like four eight-counts to do it...definitely rushed, sloppy mixing.

The other reason I gave up my dream?

I credit it to the few hours I spent with Julian "Jumpin'" Perez . I was in absolute awe of him and faithfully listened and danced to his mixes almost every Friday and Saturday night of my teenage and early twenties.

When I was 21 and two days away from getting on a plane to China, I managed to hustle my way into sitting in the DJ booth with Mr. Perez. I was content watching him cue his records, watching him feel the rhythms of the tracks. I remember he let me pick out a few records to mix and then he asked if I wanted to give a try at the turntables. I was too in awe to say yes, and more than a little intimidated. I knew that I wasn't even close to being as good as he was. Not by a long shot.

As I watched him mixing, I started to wonder what he would be doing when he was 50. Would I be happy with a life of mixing in clubs for years? Sure, I was in love with the music. He clearly was in love with the music. But there were a whole lot of people out on the dance floor that were more in love with snorting stuff in the corner and trying to find a one night stand.

I had a crisis of conscious. Was being a DJ at all socially redeeming? I couldn't get past this sudden feeling that the answer was no and that I'd be on my death bed wondering what real difference I'd made as a DJ. Could I change the extremes of wealth and poverty, racism and sexism by mixing records at Shelter and Crobar? Um, probably not. I realized that being able to directly change things was really important to me, and so I let go of that dream.

There are days like today where I wonder, what if I hadn't seen things in that way? What if I'd seen the enjoyment people get from listening to the music and to the mixes as being socially redeeming in and of itself? What if I hadn't let that dream die?

I can drive myself crazy asking such questions. Do you do the same thing? What dreams have you abandoned?


Anonymous said…
Hmm I was lucky, I never gave up my dream of studying abroad and at 26 a kid, husband, mortgage, i dropped everything and flew half way around the world to study in Taiwan for a year...Thank God for that! But I realized at 22 I would never be a U.S. Ambassador to China...Oh Well!!
Baseem said…
maybe because i had the advantage of being male, i was dj for 3 years - i did house parties and also dj'd for a club for 2 years. it was awesome, the feeling of being able to make people move their bodies the way you wanted them to, one of my favorite songs to play with was by Stardust-Music Sounds better with you...if you ever get the opportunity to dj, take it! your not promoting the coke sniffers, there gonna do that regardless of the music, also the sexism in clubs, cant stop that either, the only thing you could do is mix beats so awesome, people dance more than drink.
Baseem said…
Mamita Umita said…
OHM!! You used to drive me crazy with HOUSE woman!! I remember sitting next to you in the van on the way to Atlanta. You went out to a club the night before, so you slept the entire ride down with House blarring into your headphones from you walkman tape player. It drove me nuts.
The sad thing is now I love it. Fortunatly they still play it alot here in the Chi.
West said…
I wanted to be an actor.
Liz Dwyer said…
Wow! I can't imagine leaving my kids for a year. That must have been so hard for you. Did they come visit?

Welcome to another Depeche Mode lover! I have the Stardust record in my collection and that was a good one. Last night I headed to Amoeba Records and bought Tom Novy's "My House". The Big Bass Edit is fantastic. I know Tom's German but I'd swear he's from Chicago. You should check it out. It's the kind of record that will definitely make everyone put the drinks down!

Hah hah! I remember that trip. I remember Errol driving (what happened to him) and Julie yelling at him to slow down. I'd been to Kaboom the night before. Good memories there. I miss the Chicago house scene so much. Thank goodness for internet radio and podcasts. I still go to sleep sometimes listening to house. It's very relaxing to me. I listened to it nonstop when I was pregnant with Olinga and he's such a chill kid. But Toussaint got dosed with Depeche Mode and he's sooo wild!
Lisa Johnson said…
Thanks for dropping by my blog! You really have some great stories here. I'll be coming back!

And my take on your question "
Was being a DJ at all socially redeeming?" is a resounding YES!!! Well, if you're good at least.

Back in the day, I used to go out dancing a fair amount and the feeling of being free on the dance floor caught up in the music is absolutely Zen. When someone can make people feel that way, they are indeed of value to society. I think we all give value in different ways.

My dream has always been to be a writer and I'm just now really trying to make a go of it.
Liz Dwyer said…
Acting...I can see that. Now why did you give that up? I thought about the acting thing but knew I could never do nudity or sex scenes.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for coming by for a visit! Maybe the issue was that I just wasn't that good of a DJ and so I knew I should probably let the dream fade away. Some of the dry humping and grinding that passes as dancing these days would definitely have gotten on my nerves though. I have the writing dream as well and I haven't let that one die. I don't think that's ever going to die.
Jameil said…
oddly enough, i wanted to be a hairdresser. i gave it up b/c my family badgered me to death about going to college. i also wanted to be a politician but i joined a sorority in college and became inordinately annoyed with people watching my every move and always bein in my business. if i do something, i'm doin it big so i would've been a high up politician and i don't need people diggin that much.

Depeche Mode?????????? wow...
Anonymous said…
Wow Liz, you never cease to amaze me! What an awesome article!

You can stll get you some twelves and do that thing! (or at least the new CD mixers they have!

Sigh, The HOT MIX 5, as I told you in my last, I have written Farley Jackmaster Funk and Ralphie the Razz into my little story for two club scenes.

And ANYONE who knows who Teri Bristol is, IS FOREVER cool with me!! You have carte blanche in Liberia!! We'll re open Medusas and the Music Box!!
Nice Post! I picked it up from DJ BLACK ADAM'S Blog.

I'm from Baltimore, and in the 80's it was all about Randy Dennis on WEBB and Frank-Ski on V-103!

We had this little local group called "The We Rock Crew" [with Geoffrey G, Universe]and the Z3 MC's. I love that whole thing! That whole scene!

Look, I was even a break dancer's body guard! LMOA!!!

But, you know what? There is a way you can take a taste of your dream when nobody is looking.

-Go to and order their Music Maker 11 software for about $60. It is amazing music software and very user friendly. Then go to and set up a DJ profile [for free] and download your music. Every week and every month people will check out YOUR music!

Go do that DJ thing!

Great post!
Liz Dwyer said…
Just think, you could have ended up being a celebrity stylist, charging $500 for a haircut. I agree that having folks always in your business can definitely sour you on lots of things. I always say I never pledged because I figured the only person that ever needed to beat my ass was my mom.

Folks just don't understand that there was a point when on a Friday or Saturday night in the summertime, if you were stopped at one of those lights down on Lake Shore Drive, just north of the museum, every single car would have BMX blasting. I miss those days so much. I'm glad you're representing the story that needs to be told.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thinking Black Man,

A break dancer's body guard? Did anyone really want to jump the break dancer that bad? Couldn't he just spin on his head to get away? ;) LOL!

And thank you so much for those links. I am definitely going to check those out!
Anonymous said…
OMGD Liz, no wonder my 4 year old is so sassy and comical...maybe it was all that Prince I kept pumping into my stomach when I was pregnant with her....I tried to balance it out with some classical music...I guess there's no drowing out Prince!

My husband came to visit me in Taiwan, but I couldn't imagine a 2 year-old on a 13 hour flight...can we say MENTAL BREAKDOWN!!!
West said…
I gave up the acting dream partially because of a lack of acting opportunities (in my youth) and because I didn't like the price actors paid for their fame. (I guess I hadn't considered non-famous actors.)

As far as House is concerned - it always turned me off.
Liz Dwyer said…
I sat by a 2 year-old on a flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco and that was definitely an ordeal for everyone. And no, there's definitely no drowning out Prince!
Baseem said…
"I don’t want nobody, baby.. but you"
tom novy's beats are like a green light you have to sitting and waiting! armand van halen mixed a couple of his tracks.. im assuming "little black spiders" is among the tracks in your records. did you see Daft Punk is playing main stage at lalapalooza! this year...
Liz Dwyer said…
There's still a lack of acting opportunities for black men. For every Terrence Howard or Morris Chestnut there are a thousand other guys out here in LA trying to make it happen. They still get offered the thug roles more than anything. I agree about the price of fame. I don't think I could take paparazzi.

Now, about this, "As far as House is concerned - it always turned me off." Nooo! Don't say that!

Yes, love Tom Novy. I don't have "little black spiders" on wax. I often just download songs I like, but some others really inspire me and I get the actual record.

Daft Punk at Lalapalooza is going to be great. I've never seen them live but I heard they were great at Coachella last year.
Anonymous said…
It's taken me 7 years of marriage and 5 years of friendship to finally acknowledge that my house-head husband had it right all along there's simply no better music. I can't say I have any deferred dreams, I lived life pretty fully before settling down and having my family- but now I have my new dreams which I am making strides to bring into reality.
Gunfighter said…
I wanted to be an astronaut.

I also wanted to be a high-school history teacher.

No. Really.
Liz Dwyer said…
You make a great point! It's better to have new dreams than to pine over the dreams that haven't come to pass. And glad you finally saw the light about the house music! ;)

I think there's a whole lot of folks from a certain generation that wanted to be astronauts. I don't hear too many kids talking about that these days. The HS history teacher? I suppose you could make the Howard Zinn book your textbook if you were doing American History. And you could really teach what actually went down with slavery. Hmm... I like that dream!

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