Legendary Chicago dance music DJ Aaron-Carl once opined about house music: "It's not just a groove. House is a feeling." As Boston enters nearly half a year of COVID-19 related closures, the DJs of the Hub stare down the barrel of a year without nightclubs being open. But it's that feeling Aaron-Carl expressed which has kept Boston's DJs booked and busy even through these challenging times. They are finding ways to make the dance floor experience more accessible and intimate than ever.
DJs don’t need nightlife or festive occasions to practice their craft. DJ Troy Frost has had her share of bookings across the Hub, but her main gig is actually educational, teaching DJing and hip-hop history with Roxbury-based Transformative Culture Project.
“That didn’t stop at all," remarks Frost. “The actual going-and-being with the students stopped, but instead of working with the kids, they had us make videos. Because of that, the audience became broader. At first, I was teaching elementary school kids, I think first grade through fifth grade. Then it became open to all ages, high-school ages, so I could kind of broaden what I talked about in relation to hip-hop and DJing.”
Elsewhere, the in-person gigs haven't stopped completely either. Though Pride Month finished without a full-scale march, at least one Boston DJ got a chance to ring in the occasion on wax. Shamara Rhodes, better known as DJ WhySham, made an appearance at the Black Trans Pride Rally in Allston in June. 75 queer punks sitting atop Ringer Park and observing social distance made up Rhodes' audience. Event co-organizer Mick Beth, who uses they and he pronouns, extolled the necessity of having a DJ for that event.
“Something that’s really important right now is the feeling of togetherness. The reason why I care so much about nightlife is because it’s a community space — it’s not about going out and getting drunk, that’s fun, but to me it’s about music and bringing people together. We had WhySham because Sham has been consistently one of my favorite DJs. She’s always made me feel safe, respected and valued in my identities while putting on an amazing show,” Beth said.
Rhodes, meanwhile, has also found a niche DJing for community events over Zoom. For her, gigs at a wellness retreat in April and the Chica Project "Virtual Dinner Party With a Twist" in May stand out. At the end of June, Rhodes also featured at the Black Music Month spotlight event for DJs sponsored by BAMS Fest. As a result, Rhodes is optimistic about the pulse of DJ life in these times.
"Right now, it's about encouragement. People are saying, 'I can't do this, I can't do that.' But [performers] are getting creative. Coronavirus is teaching us what we can and can't do, that we just can't let the show stop - we have to figure it out and adapt.”
"Coronavirus is teaching us what we can and can't do, that we just can't let the show stop - we have to figure it out and adapt.”DJ WhySham
Of course, DJs have also made themselves at home with digital pathways to meet their audience halfway. Matheus Cabral, alias DJ Math3ca, is one element of the Boston-based artist collective Boudoir. Boudoir presents itself as an "underground and sultry queer dance party" that aims to create full-fledged experiences for its quarterly events. Upon the announcement of the COVID-19 related restrictions, Cabral recalled a feeling of hopelessness and frustration.
"It stung a bit! Nightlife is an outlet for my creativity, basically. So I express my creativity through nightlife by creating these parties that, like, I really put my heart and soul into them. So being told that, like, that wouldn’t be possible for a very long time really stung. I’m not angry at Marty Walsh for doing this, I understand he’s doing this for the safety of people, and I respect that. It’s only hard because it's so specifically affecting DJs."
That said, the team at Boudoir quickly sprung into action planning a spring event, a Zoom dance party with a hotel theme called "Room Service". That first event, as Cabral describes, was a rousing success.
"People were excited, they were pent up and they wanted to express those sort of emotions. And Zoom was a good platform for that. People really got ready, we created some videos giving people advice on how to create like a makeshift set at home. Where to place your lights, and what kind of clothing you should think about wearing. And that was a huge success!" Cabral adds: "It really felt like that would be like a satisfactory sort of replacement of the nightlife scene while we had these crazy restrictions in place."
For Mick Beth, who is also a DJ in addition to an organizer, the role of DJs is irreplaceable in uniting the various spheres of Boston, especially during this time.
"The Black Trans Pride Rally was extremely healing. It was a moment where we weren’t just going to sit in silence. Having that music — I mean, people started dancing! I haven’t danced with other people in so long. It’s been such a long time since I saw the smile on someone else’s face when they heard a song that they liked, you know? It was really nice, you know, seeing the people we really care about, who we want to dance with the most, for the first time in months because of this terrible thing that we are still trying to find ways to deal with. But that doesn’t mean we can’t choose joy.”
Spark FM Online is streaming DJs live every day, including DJ WhySham.