Words by Sean Sharp
It’s a quarter to midnight on a Thursday and I am sitting alone in a dressing room located just off the balcony of the Grand Ballroom of Webster Hall, the iconic NYC Dance club. The small space smells like cigarettes and good weed and is littered with the half empty water and beer bottles left behind by the well known indie rock band that just vacated the private room after their sold out show. In a few minutes I will be down on stage playing the HipHop hits du jour for the two thousand swag surfing twenty year olds that pack the building on a weekly basis. But for now, I take a few moments to reflect on my long term adventure in this storied building. It is a journey that was supposed to last for a weekend, but has somehow stretched on for almost two decades.
For the past nineteen years I have worked as the nightly resident DJ at New York City’s most famous night club. Regardless of what is going on in the building, you will always find me spinning somewhere on one of the four dance floors in the club. My prolonged tenure at one spot is unheard of in this industry, where everything and everyone is disposable. Clubs open and close on a daily basis in this city, however, Webster Hall continues to be the exception. The club has kept its doors open and busy for twenty five years by constantly reinventing itself. From a “Ladies Night” party complete with male strippers, to a Circus Party, featuring actual acrobats, or an EDM festival after party with Skrillex and Diplo, you never know what you are going to get when you step into the two hundred year old building. Taking my cue from the club, I have also had to evolve as a DJ over the years. I walked into the building a HipHop DJ, however, as musical tastes have changed I have been forced to expand my repertoire in order to keep my gig. I now play every genre under the sun including, EDM, Reggae, Rock, Jazz or whatever else the eclectic crowds that enter the building demand. My flexibility, has been the key to my longevity.
Tonight’s event is “House Party,” our weekly multi-level hip-hop event featuring Just Blaze or Funk Flex and a host of other guest DJs. There might even be a performer coming through tonight. In recent months, artists like Fetty Wap, Cam’ron, and Post Malone have all graced the stage. The colorful flier for the event that borrows it’s theme from the House Party movie, meticulously lists every DJ, promoter, sub-promoter, and friend of a friend of a DJ or promoter associated with tonight. It is rather thorough, except for one glaring omission. Even though my in-house DJ team will open and close two of the main floors tonight, our names are no where to be found on the flyer. The exclusion is not a mistake, it’s a tactic that has been used by several outside promoters over the last seven years. By ignoring me and my team, they can take full credit on social media for a party that existed way before they ever stepped in the building. It’s a Christopher Columbus move that I have had to get used too. The blessing and the curse of being an in-house DJ is that I always have a job, but I am often overlooked.
For my first twelve years at Webster Hall, I was spoiled because there were no outside promoters to deal with. Everything was done in house and even without a big name DJ, our room stayed packed on a nightly basis because we were the alternative to everything else that was going on in the city.
When I started my tenure at Webster Hall in 1996 we still carried Vinyl. My partner Smokey Fontaine was the main DJ and I was his hype man. Because neither of us had a car, our nightly ritual included calling Hi Class car service to come pick us up so we could transport our six crates of records to the venue. These days I just carry Serato and a laptop with twenty thousand songs to work, but back in the vinyl days, when the owners of Webster Hall built us a locked storage box for our records, it was one of the happiest days our lives. Our first gig at Webster was only supposed to be a one off guest appearance, as we filled in for a vacationing DJ. However, after hearing us play, management fired the other DJ and gave us a three night a week residency. The Basement Hip-Hop Party was born and a lesson was learned: Don’t take nights off unless you can control who will replace you for the night.
For the next decade we had one of the best Hip-Hop parties in New York. Webster Hall was one of the rare places in the city that seemed truly integrated. In our room that held about 500 people, tourists from around the world mingled with the tri-state locals in what felt like a racial Utopia. The common denominator was the music. At the time, our nightly staples included all things A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty by Nature’s “OPP,” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push it.” As the Bad Boy era of commercial friendly Hip-Hop flourished, so did the popularity of our event. Eventually Smokey moved upstairs to play House Music at the club and I took over the Hip-Hop room by myself. For a brief period Almighty KG of the Cold Crush brothers would come through and hype up the crowd for me. I eventually added my current partner DLO in to the mix, his booming voice became an instant hit with the crowd. As Hip-Hop got harder with labels like Ruff Ryders taking over the airwaves, Caribbean music became more popular in our room. The music was more fun to dance too. We established a strong reggae crowd and would have nightly dance offs and striptease contests where women would dance completely naked for nothing more than the promise of a drink ticket.
However, after the tragic events of 9-11, the make-up of the club changed. Since the tourists stopped coming, for a period, the club was much less diverse. While Hip-Hop continued doing well at the club, the other floors were not having as much success. The owners eventually hired an outside consultant and for the first time in my career, my job at Webster Hall was threatened when the consultant insisted that he bring in his own DJs. For a few weeks I was replaced by a string of white boy DJ’s that he insisted where hipper and trendier than we were. Truthfully they did dress better and funkier than we did, and they were all extremely talented technical DJs, but they lacked soul. None of them resonated with the crowd the way we did. The diversity did return to the club as they switched their emphasis to more popular forms of EDM, but fortunately for us, when we left, the numbers for their Hip-Hop party drastically decreased. We were soon asked to come back and started playing Hip-Hop in the Grand Ballroom on Thursdays and open format on other floors during the weekend. The consultant was eventually let go and I have been rocking at Webster Hall three nights a week ever since.
It’s now one thirty in the morning and my black T-shirt is drenched with sweat. DLO and I just finished our set on the main stage and the energy is sky high. The upside to having so many guests djs come through the club now is that on a nightly basis, I get to be a fan as I stand back and watch legendary Hip-Hop DJs move the crowd. I started DJing because I was obsessed with music, and even though I know next week my name still won’t be on the flyer, there is nothing like getting paid every week to spend quality time with your first love.