Life of a DJ Then and Now

Let The Music Play

Mylove for DJing started 30 years ago in high school. Back then in Chicago, before Hip-Hop took over, House Music was the thing with my teenage friends. It wasn’t mainstream so I felt like I was part of something special. Like I was in on some secret that only the underground knew. Chicago DJs would mix the music using Technics turntables and 12″ vinyl, blending the tracks seamlessly so as not to interrupt the packed dance floor. Since my friends and I were too young to get into bars or dance clubs, we would go to dance parties hosted at local VFWs or in somebody’s basement.

That was the scene back then. And the DJ was always the life of the party.

To see a melting pot of people, all grooving to the same beat, was inspiring. I could feel their joy. I could hear their heart beat in sync with the music.

I was just coming out of my super-shy, nerdy phase of adolescence. When I saw the girls swoon over the DJ, something told me that I needed to be that guy. My friend Charlie Manlapaz, a.k.a. DJ Charlie, kindly took me under his wing and showed me the way. After teaching me the basics of beat-matching, he showed me how to scratch and even a few record ‘juggling’ tricks. That’s how my DJ life started.

By the time I was in college, I had enough experience to DJ live at parties. Up until then, I was just practicing hours and hours in the privacy of home. After rotating as a guest DJ at several university dances, I noticed that most of the DJs played the same type of music…the same songs just in a different order. To set myself apart, I chose to play more “new wave.” This is what got me invited to mix at more parties. It wasn’t because I had better skills. That definitely was not the case. I just played good music that people didn’t hear from the other DJs.

DJ Insight #1: Find the gap that everyone overlooks and find a way to bridge it. When introducing something new, it helps to sandwich it between the familiar. Make sure it blends nicely and make the transitions as seamless as possible.

There was a bar at U of I called Skylight Club. They had a DJ every night and there was usually a long line outside to get in. During the weekends, the line would snake around the corner. When the head DJ, a senior about to graduate, auditioned people to replace him, I stepped up. Using DJ Insight #1, I got the job.

After college, I spent six years working in Japan. When I wasn’t working, I spent my free time with Japanese friends as well as other gaijin. Most of them were still in their twenties and loved to party. I began offering my DJ services for special events and even organized a few myself. Mixing music abroad drove home something I guess I already knew…

DJ Insight #2: Music is magic. It’s a universal language that speaks to people from all cultures. It can connect and inspire.

I returned to the States in 1997 and decided to start a mobile DJ business on the side, focusing mostly on weddings along with a few school and corporate parties. This was the first stretch where I had to constantly deal with requests from the crowd. I hated it. As much as I like to please the crowd, especially the client, to get bombarded with individual ad hoc requests — while you’re in the middle of spinning a live set — is very distracting.

While it paid well, the DJ-for-hire life taught me that DJing is much more fun when the only one you’re trying to make happy is yourself.

DJ Insight #3: Selling your services often feels like selling out. Unless you’re in a financial position to be selective and say no, it often takes all the fun out of why you went into business in the first place.

A few years of providing mobile entertainment almost every weekend was enough. When my wife told me we were expecting our first child, I put my equipment in storage and started working my way up the corporate ladder. It paid off, except that in exchange for six figures, I sacrificed my family life and personal interests. Somehow that doesn’t make much sense in the long run.

So now, in this chapter of my life, I’ve slowed things down, gave some things up, but got some great things in return. Family time feels special again. I’ve dusted off the DJ equipment and am exploring other interests (like cooking and writing!) I’m mixing things up again, instead of playing the same tune day in and day out. The magic is coming back.

DJ Insight #4: It’s good to mix things up. You discover new things as you explore and experiment. There’s value in dabbling and incorporating something fresh. And if you do it long enough, you find it gets easier to create the perfect blend for you.

I’ve been a DJ on and off for 30 years. Vinyl is now back. I use the original Technics turntable from back in college. And the songs I used to spin many years ago can still rock a party. So many great experiences along the way and a few very valuable insights. Today, I spin music only when I want to, not because I have to. I still take requests, but I don’t get many since the people I choose to spend my time with are those who like me for who I am, the way I do things, and the music I choose to play.

Let the music play.

-Donn (a.k.a. DJ ReCreator)


Recorded practice set when I volunteered to DJ for my son’s end-of-year middle school party.

Track List:

  1. Tom’s Diner (7″ A) — DNA & Suzanne Vega
  2. What’s My Name (Funkymix by Supa Dave Jackson) — Rihanna w/ Drake
  3. Lean Away (3LAU Mashup) — Fetty Wap vs. Daya vs. Major Lazer
  4. Thrift Shop (Short Edit Xmix) — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Feat. Wanz
  5. Yeah! — Usher Feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris
  6. In The End — Linkin Park

https://soundcloud.com/donn-durante/3d-blend-fancy-champagne-with-shirt-and-tie

One of my first mixes recorded after dusting off the DJ gear.

Track List:

  1. Champagne — Salt-n-Pepa
  2. Not For Long (Xmix Short Mix) — B.O.B Feat. Trey Songz
  3. Suit & Tie — Justin Timberlake
  4. Only Wanna Give It To You — Elle Varner Feat. J. Cole
  5. Fancy vs. Rich Girl (Xmix Mash-up) — Iggy Azalea

https://soundcloud.com/donn-durante/2016-04-17-5h10m48

This blend is a spicy mix of female vocals with some unusual twists. At 140 bpm, it has a bit of a kick.

Track List:

  1. What’s Up (Original Dance Mix) — DJ Miko
  2. Another Day (Two Man Remix) — Whigfield
  3. When I Grow Up — Garbage
  4. Mickey (Killa Klub Edit) — Toni Basil

https://soundcloud.com/donn-durante/friday-flashback-1-dj-recreator-mix

Serving up some disco flavors, peppering in some reggae and old school rap. Then I top it off with a classic from the Jackson 5.

Track List:

  1. Best of My Love — C.J. Lewis
  2. Got To Be Real — Cheryl Lynn
  3. Good Times — Chic
  4. The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel — Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
  5. I Want You Back — The Jackson Five

Time to slow it down a bit. This mix is more of an eclectic blend including mild samplings from Africa, United Kingdom and Japan.

Track List:

  1. No Worry — Angelique Kidjo
  2. Thank You — Dido
  3. Moonchild — Cibo Matto
  4. We Are One — Angelique Kidjo
  5. Can’t Help Falling In Love — UB40