Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized version of my all-too-real experiences working as a DJ in New York City. Most of the names of venues, organizations or people mentioned herein have been changed or, in some instances, totally pulled out of my ass so stop even trying to guess, cool? Cool.
I first realized I was old at age 20. In fact, I remember precisely when decided I had already missed my moment. It was 2007, during my sophomore year of college in Washington, D.C., and I stumbled on a piece of web content that brought my utter archaism into austere relief.
The headline was benign enough: "Rihanna to Release New Single 'Umbrella' on March 29th." But it was the opening sentence of the piece, so heart-stopping in its cruelty, so soulless in its flippancy, that had to be seen to be believed. It read: "19-year-old Bajan superstar Rihanna will will release her new single next month."
Just like that, my life shattered all over my dorm room's linoleum floor. I could barely fathom it, and yet I could not unsee it. I, Louis Mandelbaum, was, definitively and in no uncertain terms, older than Rihanna.
Of course, like all citizens of our youth-enshrining western civilization, the notion of a rugrat pop icon is not exactly novel. But I had never until this moment found myself actively older than the aggressively adequate teenage phenom du jour.
This trend hasn't changed, either. Quite to the contrary. These days I'm older than ALL the pop stars. Ariana Grande's bed is surely still covered in collectible antique dolls, and Charli XCX was still shitting her diapers when CrazySexyCool dropped.
The point is this: By the time I decided to dip into nightlife, I knew damn well I was too late to be a wunderkind DJ. My classmate Jesse Marco was a virtuoso before we'd graduated high school, and knob turners far younger than I had long been integral members of Mary Kate Olsen's posse.
And indeed, over the last five years I've worked in nightclubs with numerous DJs who I probably should have been babysitting, DJs who probably had to wake up early the next morning for a bowl of Captain Crunch and a pre-algebra quiz.
There was one experience, though, that towers above the rest, one where I was officially forced to part ways with my ego and lay bare for the world just how long-in-the-tooth I was at age 23. Journey back four years with me down Unwanted-Memory Lane with me, won't you?
It was an Autumn Sunday in 2010, a perfectly brisk day for shame. A few weeks prior, I had connected with the promoter of an annual street fair in the Lower East Side called "LES is MORE." The promoter--a human named Bethany--hit me with an "offer" I've received innumerable times since: "We'd love to have you. We don't have a budget, but I promise it'll be great publicity!"
"Don't worry," her email reassured me, "You'll be sharing the stage with some really dope DJs. It'll be a great look for you!"
Let me break this email down for uninitiated. "It'll be a great look for you," is coded promoter language for, "I relish that you're desperate enough to probably do this for free, idiot." And "great publicity" eventually amounts to a fleeting mention on Instagram--in this case on Bethany's personal account, 657 followers strong.
As for the "really dope DJs" Bethany mentioned, when pressed regarding what other luminaries would join me on the LES is MORE stage (Equal? Sam Ronson?!? DeadMau5!?!?!), her answer went something like: "We're still locking down details but as of now we have DJ Romeo Slayz who was recently featured on Bad Girls Club and most importantly we have Ty, the 8-Year-Old DJ! Have you heard of him? He's really hot right now. He just did a tour with Red Bull!"
Before you judge me for taking this gig in the first place, here're some facts about the non-Guetta DJ life. When things are good, there is no greater pleasure than turning down pitiful offers like Bethany's. Screaming "Later bitch BAHAHAHA!!" and riding off into the sunset cackling wickedly on a noble steed is how I always hope to respond to offers as offensive as this.
At this particular moment, though, I was still brand new to the game and work was slow. I was scared I'd soon need to start offering $15 BJs on the corner to make ends meet or, still worse, move back in my with mom. And when the only thing on your schedule preventing you from accepting a gig is anxiously watching a Barefoot Contessa marathon until it's an acceptable hour to drink wine, you do extraordinarily questionable things.
So that's what I did.
When the day of LES is MORE finally rolled around, I had worked myself into enough delusion to actually invite some friends. "Hey," I enticed, "We'll be outside, and at least I can play my classic Nas tribute set." I wrangled up my usual crew: my sister Lily, my writer friend Kevin, Kevin's Slovenian friend Vince, my mom (also an LES resident) and her miniature poodle Peaches. Squad XIV rolled into LES is MORE in our Sunday Best right around 4PM.
As we approached the corner of Stanton and Orchard, 15 loafers had gathered around the stage: several moms with strollers, a group of teens eating grilled lamb on skewers, and an older ambiguously Eastern European couple investigating what all the fuss was about. Basically your average big-tent festival crowd.
"Hey Louie!" squeaked a disembodied voice suddenly. I whipped around to the sight of blonde highlights and Aldo shoes. "I'm Bethany!" Oh duh. "Nice to meet you, Bethany," I replied. "Thanks for having me."
"Thanks so much for being here! We're really looking forward to your set. DJ Ty is about to go on for 30 minutes and then you're up! He and his mom just got here from Great Neck."
"Oh, my mom actually brought me here too," I joked sheepishly, pointing to my mom who had moseyed across the street with Peaches to check out some soy scented candles. "Great!" said Bethany. "She's from Suffolk Street, though, not Great Neck," I continued, hoping some self-effacement might distract from the reality that both myself, 23, and DJ Ty, 8, had been chaperoned to this gig by our respective moms.
"Oh, well Ty is actually not legally permitted to perform without a guardian present," said Bethany, decidedly not taking a seat next to me on the sarcasm train. "Oh cool," I said. "Yea," Bethany proceeded, "We're so lucky Ty could fit this into his schedule. He's actually on tour right now. He played in Ibiza last week, can you believe that?!"
"I surely cannot!" I replied, forcing a smile and glancing around for literally any way to exit this conversation before I turned to dust. "Oh, here goes Ty. I'll come and grab you a few minutes before you go on," Bethany informed me before dashing away to escort the golden child to center stage and his milk crate, a necessary prop for him to reach his CDJs.
When he appeared, Ty was already rocking the mystifyingly self-important attitude of a DJ 20 years his senior. His ego found its physical manifestation in his reflective Ray-Ban aviators, which he refused to remove despite the fact that it was a deeply overcast late September evening and LES is MORE did not have a lighting budget.
Ty mounted the crate, shot a incomprehensibly confident look at the audience that silently screamed "fuck with me, fuckers," brushed his bangs out of his face and hit play on his first CD, a remix of Far East Movement's melodic thinkpiece, "Like a G6." Then all hell broke loose.
Like the seasoned veteran he was, Ty proceeded to launch full-throttle into an immaculately choreographed dance routine, bounding from side-to-side on the stage, throwing his pre-pubescent hips about and sashaying into the air like a young Michael Jackson who'd just eaten a fistful of molly mistaken for Altoids. He'd point at girls and shoot them a disturbing come-hither look--disturbing because I'm pretty sure DJ Ty's OKCupid profile would include hobbies like watching Dora The Explorer and being way down 4 string cheez.
Meanwhile, my whole crew stood slack jawed from the first step. The site was plainly horrific yet also strangely mesmerizing. DJ Ty's routine was halfway between a DJ set, performance art, and some sort of alternative haunted house that scares you through the sheer tragedy inherent with child stardom. It worked like an absolute charm.
As Ty shimmied, people from surrounding stalls began to peer over to see the little tyke sell himself like OxiClean in a Billy Mays Infomercial. Ty would return to his milk crate only occasionally to "mix" in the next song, suspicious as one of his CDJs appeared to be missing a power chord.
The crowd multiplied at a violently fast rate, dwarfed only by my growing self-doubt regarding how my Nas tribute set could possibly follow this spectacle. By the time Ty threw on his climatic acid house remix of Lady GaGa's "Poker Face" while reaching his arms to the sky and beckoning for Jesus' return right there on stage, no fewer than 100 souls had crowded the stage. They snapped pictures and videos, laughed delightedly, and ooh'ed and ah'ed themselves at the sheer youth of it all.
Then the chanting began.
"Ty! Ty! Ty! Ty!" they yelled as Ty fist-pumped to each iteration of his name, biting his lower lip and winking casually at each audience member he made eye-contact with. Ty fisted bumped; the crowd fist-bumped in return. It was a dystopian, Huxley-esque nightmare, and the person at the helm had probably just started consuming solid foods on a regular basis.
I, meanwhile, was melting. As Ty's set reached its 25th minute, Bethany shuffled over. "You'll go on right when Ty is done. We want to hold the crowd!" I grabbed Lily's hand and dragged her with me. "What the fuck am I gonna do?" I whispered through my teeth in total dismay. "These people don't wanna see a grown man do a classic Nas tribute set!" "Don't worry, just get up there and do it," Lily responded in a tone that already felt very sorry for me.
I debated choking myself to death with my headphone wire right there but worried I wouldn't have enough time to asphyxiate.
Ty fired off one last airhorn, hit stop on the record, and the crowd erupted in cheers. Completely straight-faced, he bowed, leaped off the milk crate, sauntered down the steps, brushed past Bethany without a fleeting glance and, I shit you not, hopped directly into his mother's waiting black Escalade that immediately sped off into the abyss.
By the time I had gotten to the booth and kicked the milk crate to the side feel like I may start bawling at the drop of a needle, half the crowd had dispersed. The other half were staring at me with hopeful glances that belied their collective fear. Would I be able to pull a rabbit out of the mixer? Maybe I'd pull the fader and make it rain hundred dollar bills? Could I give them a death-defying orgasm with a single record scratch? Whatever it was, they needed me to do something, anything, to keep the thrill of DJ Ty burning in their their loins for eternity, or at least another 30 minutes at LES is MORE.
I fumbled about setting up my records and needles, opening my laptop and anxiously trying to settle on an opening song. I selected Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing," cuz people love "Vivrant Thing," and scratched it in. A few people began bobbing their heads, most began looking around for the next Bacchanalian thrill that LES is MORE had to offer--a table that had just been set up around the corner with farm-fresh hot apple cider, for instance. I began to sweat profusely.
One verse into "Vivrant Thing" and a 14-year-old white girl heckled "Bring back Ty!" before flipping her hair and dejectedly moping down Orchard kicking trash. A middle-aged man leaned down to his young son, whispered something apparently hilarious, pointed at me and broke into raucous laughter before hitting the falafel table. DJ Romeo Slayz, an Emporio Armani clad gentleman with lightening bolts carved into his sideburns, just stared at me from the crowd and shook his head.
My first mix in--LL Cool J's "Around the Way Girl"--and I was fully cooked. Every DJ trick I could imagine failed to get me on par with a freakishly competent 8-year-old. I began sweating more. Maybe they'd get into it eventually? I kept my head down and barrelled through my set, "All About U," "Ain't No Fun," "Party and Bullshit," trying every scratch and speed mix I could muster. When I finally got to "It Ain't Hard To Tell," the kick-off to my Nas set, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Lily.
"You okay?" she asked. I looked up and realized that "the crowd" had become an abyss of concrete with my mom and Peaches standing in the middle. It was over. I had lost the DJ battle for LES is MORE to a toddler who may or may not have been an actual human wind-up doll.
"Don't worry," Lily responded, putting her arm around my bruised ego. "I like you way better than DJ Ty. So do mom and Peaches. DJ Ty is a little shit face." "Thanks," I responded. "He really is, isn't he? "Yea," Lily continued. "Besides, one day you'll write about this, and we'll all laugh." I finished my set, and Lily and I walked off stage onto a completely vacant Orchard Street. "Check your instagram. Shouted you out!" chanted Bethany as we walked away.
I did see DJ Ty again, fairly recently. It was at a Red Bull event in Chelsea Piers, and he was now a much older gentleman of 12. He did his exact same routine, move for move including the milkcrate, hair, shimmies, gyrations and winks, except now it all was as an awkward, acne-ridden, slightly chubby pre-teen. This gave me absolutely no pleasure at all, I promise.
When Ty finished, I walked up to him. "Nice work! We actually played together once a couple years ago. Don't know if you remember LES is MORE?" Ty shot me one disaffected glance through his sunglasses, pursed his lip, and walked away without saying word. In that moment, I knew one thing for sure: Ty was perfectly suited for DJ superstardom.