DJ at Law
“Is there a lawyer in the house? There’s been a killing on the dance floor.”
My DJ career started with a mop.
The year was 2010 and my roommates and I had hosted the first of what would become a long-running series of parties (including infamous showdowns). I was on cleanup duty the morning after, and I realized I was having way more fun mopping the floor to my own Eurodance soundtrack than whatever garbage they’d been playing the night before. So I pledged to my ancestors that at the next party, I would anoint myself in charge of the music — a jockey of the discs, if you will — because it was my house and no one could stop me. I was lucky that one of my new roommates happened to be a legit part-time DJ, replete with bona fide professional equipment and the know-how to assemble it. I couldn’t make any sense of the Gordian knot of cables and wires, but I’d hitch a ride through the acoustic vestibule he would open.
So I DJed the next dozen parties. And to be clear, from a technical perspective, I was terrible at it. Because I neither understood nor cared about beatmatching, my transitions were jarring and awkward. Beats collided like mismatched puzzle pieces and our symphonic journey hit (mercifully) brief bouts of turbulence. What I lacked in technical expertise, however, I made up for in other ways: my enthusiasm about my own song selection was undeniable, and I knew how to read the crowd. I spent so much time dancing with people that I learned how to use my mixer upside down from in front of the booth. There must’ve been something irresistible about a man with a severe beard absolutely losing his fucking mind to the bass xylophone intro of Robin S’ “Show Me Love.” Folks were apparently into it and I went on to DJ tons of events, but generally not much more than your typical house party.
Fast-forward to about seven years ago. I’m living in a new city, licensed as a lawyer, and depressingly unemployed. In between submitting perfunctory job applications and getting nowhere, I’m binging through hours of Minecraft modpacks every day just so I can demonstrate I’ve built something with my time. My friend Annie knew me from before, had attended my parties, and by chance had made the same city move I did. She texted me randomly: “Do you want to DJ pride parade for google?” I mean, fuck yeah I wanted to DJ a Pride parade, but what was the catch — did I have to pay or something? Turns out the DJ Google booked had canceled on them just a week before the parade, and now they were scrambling to find someone, anyone, as replacement. Annie heard about this conundrum through a friend of a friend of a friend’s boyfriend, and she — bless her heart — earnestly told them, “I know the best DJ!”
I’d never been given money to DJ before so I didn’t know how much to ask for. But Google is a search engine company, so I used their weapons against them by googling the typical wedding DJ fee and tripling it. I was one hundred percent bluffing when they asked me how much I charged and I prefixed my answer with bullshit about “my typical fee.” Between their largesse and desperation, they didn’t blink. Just like that, I got my first paid DJ gig.
I had the gig but I didn’t have speakers, a controller, or any playlist ready. And remember how I rode my roommate’s coattails? Even if I somehow had the equipment, I’d never had to set it up before and I definitely never had to make it work on a moving truck in front of an audience of thousands.
I had three days to prepare. Fuck.
Pride parades nowadays barely resemble the riot at the Mafia-owned bar that kick-started the whole affair. Despite the hand-wringing over the “corporatization” of Pride, there is something uniquely affirming (in its own capitalistic kind of way) about car dealerships and banks bowling over one another in a race to tell the world how much they love gay customers and their gay money.
As for me, I used to be a practicing Muslim and (part and parcel) an unapologetic homophobe. When my friend in high school came out of the closet as gay, I made sure to tell him that his lifestyle was disgusting before I cut ties with him. Years later I gave up Islam and then eventually reconnected with and apologized to my friend, but I remain deeply ashamed of my actions to this day. I didn’t know any better at the time, but others did, and I should have.
So part of me saw this as a redemption of sorts: if I wore booty shorts and shook my ass to Diana Ross hard enough as the chorus to a flagrant celebration of purported sexual sin, maybe I could atone with finality. And consistent with the corporatization theme, the money I was getting certainly wasn’t going to hurt.
It was a mad dash for me to get all the equipment I needed. The speakers and the portable diesel generator were relatively easy. One of my fellow DJ friends handed me a beaten-up Vestax PMC-280 mixer that he warned “didn’t really work all the way but had a lot of soul.” The reason for both accolades is that it had been used to sneak cocaine into multiple Burning Man festivals and ended up with a bunch of playa dust inside it. Half the levers did nothing, but the circuitry seemed okay.
The biggest fear any DJ has is silence, so I was obsessed with making sure every aspect of my setup had redundancies. I drew multiple schematics for how to connect all the equipment and then ran multiple practice drills (“Okay, your left XLR cable failed, reconnect using RCA as fast as possible”). I tested the diesel generator inside my tiny apartment (briefly), and stayed up way too late compiling my playlist by typing “gay” in the YouTube search bar.
As a ploy to get my best friend Renee to partake in the Pride festivities alongside me on the float, I told everyone that she was my “assistant” and also asked her to bring her laptop as another one of my planned redundancies. Just in case.
I was intensely sleep-deprived by the time D-Day had arrived, but I had everything ready to go on the flatbed truck ahead of schedule. There’s always that flash of anxiety before you play your first song, before you finally know that every cable, every input, and every circuit board between here and there is indeed working. When I heard it come through that morning, I exhaled with relief. This meant I had all the hard work behind me. Ahead of me was a bright sunny daywith an exciting opportunity I intended to fully appreciate. I was going to be on autopilot from here on out.
So I took some ecstasy.
In case you’re boring, ecstasy/MDMA/molly works by magnifying the highs (and the lows too,I guess) all while turning your pupils into saucers. It’s perfect for enduring 18-minute Goa trance tracks and telling your friends you love them.
I stayed on the back of the truck as it made its way to the parade staging area, in part to keep an eye on my setup and make sure it was secure, but also because I got to dance to Mariah Carey on a stage moving through the city. Pride parades have no shortage of participants and the dozens of floats are accommodated by packing them tightly into a cramped staging area and then letting them out one by one (picture slowly uncoiling a bundle of rope). Although this means a lot of waiting arounduntil you’re at the front of the queue, it’s a thoroughly festive atmosphere.
Everything was phenomenal at this point, no notes. My “assistant” Renee made it past the throngs and joined me on the truck platform. The sound system I put together was definitely over-engineered and drowned out all our neighbors. I was dancing to whatever the fuck music I wanted to play. Our lowly rental truck turned into a gathering locus, surrounded by hundreds of participants waiting for their moment in the parade limelight. The ecstasy had definitely kicked in at this point, and I was glowing.
A friend of mine, one who knew me only as an unemployed lawyer, happened to walk by the truck and was absolutely bewildered to see me at the sonic helm of a convoy. Bewilderment naturally turned into vicarious enthusiasm, and he excitedly suggested a song for me to play. Undoubtedly well-intentioned, but my ass was high on ecstasy and still feeling the severity of the situation, and so I sternly responded with “Don’t tell me how to do my job.” My friend absorbed the curt rebuke, raised a conceding hand, and walked off with a good-natured smile.
This was a hint. I was precariously keeping it together with a patchwork of duct tape and sheer willpower, but the cracks were starting to show. Things were about to take a turn.
To be clear, by this point I really had thoroughly rehearsed many potential problems. Realistic problems. My laptop was the command center of the operation, and the vessel bearing my precious cargo of indispensable sonic gems that my entire persona staked its existence upon. One thing I didn’t account for was the possibility that the heat of the sun would somehow manage to nuke its microprocessor from orbit.
You can probably guess what happened next.
Remember how I mentioned staging areas involve a lot of waiting around? My laptop had been baking this whole time under a canopy of unobstructed June sunshine. The pathetic whir of its feeble ventilation was completely drowned out by the surroundings, and I did not know anything was wrong until I noticed my mouse cursor moving sluggishly.
“I think my laptop is going to shut down,” I told Renee, immediately before my laptop shut down. The screen blacked out and the sound abruptly cut, leaving behind a wake of conspicuous silence. The loudspeakers that had been blasting the surrounding area with a sound wave tsunami were now silent monoliths, a still shadow of their former glory. Those hundreds of revelers that had happily congregated around my platform were now all staring at me, waiting for me to fix it.
Losing audio was indeed always the nightmare scenario, but I had redundancies in place, remember? The parade hadn’t started yet so I still had time. Renee proved her worth as my fake assistant and dug her laptop out of her backpack. I flipped it open and noticed that it, too, was being sluggish, though obviously not for heatstroke reasons, but I thought, “No worries, I’ll just restart it.” This was why we had two laptops. Everything was going to be fine.
Renee stared at me, mouth agape.
“I haven’t restarted my computer in over ten months.”
The gravity of this revelation did not hit me immediately, not until I turned back to her screen and saw the eponymous monochrome apple, and the system updates progress bar below it about to embark on the pilgrimage of a lifetime.
Remember how I said ecstasy magnifies the lows? The over-preparation I described had served as the load-bearing pillar to my optimism, but now I was running out of cope and started to understand what it must feel like to become the physical embodiment of the Kola borehole.
I was still high as shit and yet maintained enough wherewithal to step back from the greased-up downward spiral unfolding in front of me. I took my heat-stricken laptop, shoved it into a trash bag, then stashed it inside a cooler full of ice and mimosa supplies. I unfurled the sweaty cabling diagram I had stashed in my pocket, and even contemplated the cardinal sin of DJing through — may Allah forgive me — an app on my phone. The progress bar was agonizingly slow but I peered ahead at the parade queue and saw we still had time. I took out the external hard drive hosting my playlist backup and positioned it ready next to Renee’s laptop.
Renee, to her credit, was having a ball and relatively oblivious to my ongoing personal crisis. She was devoted to the festivities and took part in drawing a rainbow on her cheek. Except she then accidentally smudged it with her hand and figured she’d ask me — of all people — to check. Hardly a pause before I turned to her to yell “FUCK YOUR RAINBOW”and immediately turned back, transfixed on the progress bar. She stepped back.
There was an eventual break in the gloom of rainbows and scorching sunshine.
The updates finished installing and as soon as the laptop was responsive, I dragged over my backup playlist. I picked the first song I could access, slowly cranked up the levels, and waited to exhale for the second time that day. I heard the sound go through, it made it there from here, and I could finally breathe easy.
Not for long. The surrounding crowd noticed that the silent standing stones had woken up, and they weren’t about to let me get away. I cranked the level all the way up and the crowd cheered. I continued through my set, all the way through the moment when the truck jerked awake and the parade finally started. The icebox laptop MacGyver trick actually worked, and my original was responsive again. Of course, I wasn’t going to take any other chances, so I took off my shirt to cover the laptop. I instead put on a Pride shirt that Renee cut fringes into.
The rest of the parade went great. I knew I had everyone in my grasp when the gay Google boys with feather boas who had crowded on the flatbed jumped up and down so hard during Britney Spears’ “Till The World Ends” woah oh oh oh chorus that I worried about the platform’s structural integrity.
I was picking bits of rainbow-colored feathers out of my stuff for months after.
Despite the slapdash jury-rigged nature of it all, I was invited to DJ again and again. Months later, I finally got a real job and started working as a public defender but kept DJing as a side gig. I mentioned it off-handedly to a client of mine and he memorialized my title on his phone:
I would often head to a DJ gig straight from work, still wearing my suit. One party attendee remarked how nice it was to see a DJ dressed up and my reply was, “This is literally what I wore to jail this morning.” I got a kick out of playing into the branding clash. I’d make the joke about how Lady Justice is totally a DJ: the two scales are obviously a reference to the two decks, and the blindfold is the sunglasses we use to ignore dumb song requests. The invoices I sent were austere mimicries of the templates law firms use, requesting payment for “Professional Services Rendered” and complete with “DJ JD” as my title.
I eventually “retired” because my public defense work became too hectic to coexist with late nights hauling speakers out of loading docks. I even recently had to cancel a casual gig at the last minute with the heretofore historically unprecedented “I’m really sorry, I can’t make tonight work. I have to interview a child sex victim for a life sentence case.”
I can draw further lessons out. Perhaps my ability to read the crowd on a dancefloor helped keep me sharp in front of a jury box. Perhaps my capacity to improvise around hurdles improved my ability to handle the chaos of courtroom trials. Perhaps it helped humanize me to my clients. No matter what, it was fucking fun, and it was crucial in sustaining my soul (and wallet) long enough to thrive in my current vocation.
Yassine Meskhout is a contributing writer at Singal-Minded. You can read more about him here. Questions? Song requests for him to ignore? Email him at email@example.com or me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The image at the top of Lady Justice on the decks was created with the help of Midjourney and InvokeAI.
THIS IS FORESHADOWING
COULD THIS BE EVEN MORE FORESHADOWING?
During Pride Month, no less!