...To Make a Thing Go Right | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

...To Make a Thing Go Right

I often give talks about journalism and my crazy journey that began when I left the state the day after graduating from Mississippi State, and vowing never, ever to return. I was headed off to go to law school in Washington, D.C., to learn how to change the world. Or stay out all night. Or something.

And in just about every one of those talks--whether to Ole Miss or Jackson State students or a dental society recently at Nick's in Fondren--I include a standard line: "I dropped out of law school and did the only logical thing: I became a club deejay."

Folks, especially the high-school and college students, look like I just poured a bucket of ice water on their heads. The guys usually lean back with scrunched eyebrows, like they're trying to find the deejay up in that crazy woman. The girls often look like someone just flashed diamonds in front of their noses. She did that? Chicks can be deejays?

I tell the story with a motive. I recount the part where I've recently run screaming from Mississippi because I thought it was the most backward, racist place ever (I mean, there was some evidence of such), and I'm suddenly working as a club deejay in the ueber-diverse Washington, D.C., and I learn that my state doesn't have the patent on bigotry.*

I quickly add how (white) club owners in all five non-southern states (plus the District of Columbia) where I ended up spinning records over 10 years would come up to me and say, "Stop playing so much of that n***er music."

The first few times, I looked at them as if they had slapped me silly. "WTF? This is a dance club, you fool!" was my first thought. My second was how I could move on to another club so I didn't have to work for such retrobates. But, somehow, I'd run into them throughout my deejay tenure (and would learn to drive them mad by sampling Rob Base in all kinds of songs so they could fear what was coming. Call it guerilla warfare.)

It was the 1980s, and it wasn't like I was I was a deep house specialist or learned my craft on the streets of the Bronx, break-dancing in my spare time. I just liked to mix it up; good dance music is good dance music.

At the time, though, hip-hop and rap weren't universally "mainstream" as now, and I quickly learned that the code phrase for non-black music was: "Could you play some rock 'n' roll?" I learned to ask what specifically "rock" meant to the requester; some would say Bruce Springsteen, others Motley Cruee (argh), and others would just cut to the chase: "You know. Something white."

I wouldn't take anything for those times, though. I learned so much more than I would years later getting a fancy master's degree at an Ivy League school. This was real.

Those days came crashing back on me earlier this month when Todd and I were on our 13-day road trip through the Northeast. We first stopped in D.C. for his cousin's wedding, and I was the navigator through the streets that were my first real connection to a world beyond Mississippi's borders.

The past sparkled before me. I remembered accidentally learning to deejay at a bar that used to be at 19th and M Street, in the heart of what is probably still called the "pubic triangle" because it was such a pick-up zone on the weekends. I didn't set out to spin records; I just happened to be working as a waitress, and the seven-night-a-week deejay needed a break now and then. So he taught me to start and stop records--simple segues. The place was usually empty, so no one gave a damn.

But I was a natural at choosing music and using it to build energy. Who knew? Truth was, I had a limited musical childhood and college years. Growing up in Neshoba County, I heard mostly country (I still love George Jones, Lynn Anderson and both Hanks) and what we now call classic rock (which I've always thought of as pot music due to the dudes I remember playing Kansas and Styx over and over again). The only "black" music I'd hear was on "Soul Train" (a much superior show to "American Bandstand") and when I'd visit Jackson and hear "black stations." I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and missed Motown, for God's sake, although I knew every word to Eagles and Alice Cooper songs.

I was musically naive. It was an insidious kind of segregation. Like sports, music can crumble racial barriers. The old Citizens Council coots, in fact, warned against allowing black and white kids to dance together because that would surely lead to race-mixing. (And that is why my Neshoba Central High School stopped having proms and starting having banquets. Afterward, the white folks would go to the stuffy country club; black kids would take their party to parts unknown to us.)

But when the music gods suddenly chose me to fill in for that cute little gay deejay in D.C., the skies opened up. It was the "Big Chill" era--meaning that the hip retro music was old Motown just as '80s music has been ironic and cool recently (including songs I'd really rather never hear again, thank you). I was blessed that the restaurant had a huge collection of vinyl dance music that covered decades; I not only "met" Smokey Robinson and Al Green and girl groups, but I grew to love old Glenn Miller tunes and standards (who knew I'd settle into life someday with a man who could make my toes curl just singing about any standard ever written?).

My lust for music new and old was awakened. I also loved to entertain people, to make them dance until they nearly dropped. It wasn't until after a man who owned a deejay company happened through and heard me playing a crazy mix of music one night with the tiny dance floor (er, corner) packed with perspiring dancers that I really became a deejay. In his employ, I learned the skills of the trade such as actually "mixing" music; it took a couple of years before I was comfortable on a microphone, and I credit my ability to give speeches to meeting that guy deejay.

This wasn't a life career for me, of course, and today I would have to use reading glasses to read the record labels, and hearing the beats would be tougher (thanks, ironically, to pumping loud music into my headphones for a decade). But doing a job that most people didn't expect "girls" to do helped me find my voice. It also taught me to be suspicious of people who only want to hear only one kind of music.

No matter where they live.

* My punchline to my racism-is-everywhere point in speeches is always, "But that doesn't excuse it anywhere." Pass it on.

Previous Comments

ID
158299
Comment

Rob Base! Ah, the memories! Very cool! One of my favorites was the Fat Boys song "Can You Feel It?" Do you have any recordings of the mixes you did back then? Racism and prejudice suck. I hate I'm going to miss the Boom relaunch. I will say summer in Colorado has its benefits.

Author
KendallVarnell
Date
2010-06-23T14:40:32-06:00
ID
158310
Comment

I do have recordings *somewhere*. Lord knows where at this point. I do have a fun memory of the Fat Boys stuffed into the deejay booth at Palladium in NYC when I cocktailed there (deejaying was way above my pay grade there). The DJ was the guy who used to remix Madonna's records (blanking on name; anyone?), and I had to squeeze by the Fat Boys to get to the *real* VIP room -- which you had to pass through the booth to get to! (There was an official VIP room elsewhere called Michael Todd, but this was the one that counted.) Ah, memories. That jock used to sample Rob Base a lot, and that one Information Society song (you want to know what I'm thinking) throughout the name. He could raise energy like no one I ever heard. Amazing stuff. Ah, the memories. (One time I took cocktails to the little VIP room and it turned out that i was serving Sly Stallone. He's so short that I was looking down on this head!) ;-)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-06-23T22:36:09-06:00
ID
158314
Comment

Ahhhh, Donna Ladd....Is there anything that you haven't done?

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-06-24T08:22:37-06:00
ID
158315
Comment

That jock used to sample Rob Base a lot, and that one Information Society song (you want to know what I'm thinking) Must be "What's On Your Mind" from Information Society.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2010-06-24T08:26:59-06:00
ID
158316
Comment

A few things, Queen. ;-) Life has been an adventure, and never more exciting than it is here now in Jackson, Mississippi. In fact, never as exciting. And I mean that. Meaning matters.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-06-24T08:58:48-06:00
ID
158317
Comment

So what was your DJ name?

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-06-24T09:18:43-06:00
ID
158318
Comment

Junior Vasquez?

Author
mpriesterjr
Date
2010-06-24T10:04:03-06:00
ID
158319
Comment

Donna. One word. ;-)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-06-24T10:43:38-06:00
ID
158328
Comment

I've always wanted to know which law school you attended, Donna. Tell me privately if need be. Once upon time I wouldn't listen to so-called white music because the radio station where I'm from only played so-called black music for one hour. We listened 1 hour and promptly turned off the radio. The only exceptions I remember were the Average White Band and The Tower of Power, which didn't have the so-called typical white sound. I wouldn't even listen to a white girl until I saw and heard Madonna. She was and still is sump nother. Once I saw and heard her I forgot all of my learned and trained prejudices or bias about white female singers. Strangely, I also liked Dean Martin but not Frank Sinatra and would watch the Dean Martin show but not anything Frank Sinatra starred or was featured in. I think Dean Martin's humor made me watch him. When I got to college I started hearing Elton John and hated him. Then I heard the Bee Gees and said those white boys can sing and play. Then I hear Hall and Oates and said the same thing. Incidentally, I was staying at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis recently and as I walked out of the door of my hotel room I saw Daryl Oakes leaving his room too. I told him I love their music and shook his hand. I considered telling him he was instrumental in breaking down my prejudice in musical taste but decided not to do it. I wanted to be a musician as a child. At this point I can say I love all kinds of music - blues, reggae, r&b, rock, classical, african, indian, soul, et al. College opened my eyes. So did Madonna.

Author
Walt
Date
2010-06-24T16:54:05-06:00
ID
158331
Comment

Walt, I think you mean Daryl Hall. Or did you meet John Oates (the one with the mustache)?

Author
golden eagle
Date
2010-06-24T20:03:11-06:00
ID
158334
Comment

I think that my first (and this is me trying to recall years back on my first cup of coffee) introduction to "white" music came with Duran Duran. I've been singing all my life so I have always been partial to REAL SANGING. Never really thought white folk could sing. Not the kind of singing I did, or that was played in my childhood home. It wasn't until recent years that I learned that, although different, there are plenty of talented singers who just so happen to be white. This is just my preference and opinion. You MUST remember that there was NO exposure to anything that wasn't black in my household. I remember when we moved to NY the only radio station I knew when I first got there was Z100. One day I was at school and a black male friend asked me what station I listened to and I told him. They laughed at me a lovely while and explained to me that that was the "white" station. They told me I should be listening to 97 (I think). I never listened to Z100 again from that day forward. Now though, I am proud to say, I'll listen to any kind of music that moves me and that just doesn't happen if there isn't a CLEAR and PRECISE vocal talent - meaning the artist MUST be able to SANG. I even like country (although one of my buddies says real country music is dead - not sure I understand that). Carrie Underwood and Faith Hill ROCK!!!! Point to Note: There is no black/white music anymore. Just music. Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and our very own Storage 24 (among others - too early to think too hard) are proof!

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-06-25T07:45:17-06:00
ID
158337
Comment

It was the same way with me, Queen. I'm not one who will limit my world by only doing things that are "black". I choose to expand my horizons by listening to all kinds of music. But these days, it seems like younger people are not so caught up in only listening to hip-hop (if they're black) or rock and country music (if they're white). I was in a Subway one day and heard a black girl singing to a Colbie Caillat song that was playing on the radio. And how many white kids do we hear playing rap music loudly in their cars?

Author
golden eagle
Date
2010-06-25T09:11:17-06:00
ID
158340
Comment

GE, I don't have any idea who Colbie Caillat is. I'm still deficient in my exposure. I consider myself really reaching the extreme when I listen to Greenday or Creed. Oh, I was a fanatic for Nivana; now they were another level for me. LOL

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-06-25T12:33:49-06:00
ID
158341
Comment

I'm into the rock music myself. Nirvana was cool but not my favorite. I really liked Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam more.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2010-06-25T13:38:33-06:00
ID
158347
Comment

Hey, I know Pearl Jam. Dennis Rodman wrote about them in his book. LOL! Alice in Chains...hmmm....not a clue.

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-06-25T15:03:55-06:00
ID
158379
Comment

OK Donna, you have just been hired as the DJ for the next JFP function of your choice.

Author
justjess
Date
2010-06-28T10:19:45-06:00
ID
158380
Comment

Nah, that's in the past, justjess. ;-) I'm *way* out of practice. Although with a good assistant to read the labels ... naaa. ;-)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-06-28T10:38:53-06:00
ID
158383
Comment

Once again, carpetbagger! Did you play any Ministry, KMFDM, Skinny Puppy, Kraftwerk, etc.?

Author
DrumminD21311
Date
2010-06-28T16:11:56-06:00
ID
158389
Comment

Golden Eagle I met the black hair one. John Oates, I believe. The one who was the second vocalist. Not sure if he had a mustache at the time I greeted and shook his hand. He had a child with him at the time. Drummin, Donna played music of real and known talents. Commercially successful!

Author
Walt
Date
2010-06-28T21:34:09-06:00
ID
158390
Comment

By the way, I finally saw THIS IS IT last week. Michael Jackson was an amazing performer. Watching him sing and dance to Billie Jean is like watching an artist who is in another world altogether. You have to be born with his gifts from the Almighty.

Author
Walt
Date
2010-06-28T21:39:15-06:00
ID
158430
Comment

Glad to see Walt found someone else to argue with in my absence... LOL. I missed him.

Author
WMartin
Date
2010-06-29T16:34:46-06:00
ID
158434
Comment

"(I still love George Jones, Lynn Anderson and both Hanks)" Donna, surely you know about Hank Williams III, He's WAY better than his Dad, looks and sounds almost just like Sr. He does both traditional country and punk/metal, both exceptionally well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6B-X6EEiHE

Author
bill_jackson
Date
2010-06-29T20:55:48-06:00

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