A Black DJ’s Life
I started DJ-ing with my uncle Herb King back in 1980 when he relocated from Las Vegas to Tampa, Florida and took a job at WMNF 88.5. He did an R&B / Jazz show. This was how I came to be his assistant, as he was blind and needed someone to pull his records for his show. I was 12 years old. That was an amazing summer and I learned a lot about programing. This was a valued partnership that also led me to working with him as his assistant at parties.
My uncle did not mix but relied more upon his programing skills and choices of songs to keep a party going. I didn’t find out about mixing until I spent my 1983 summer in Chicago and heard the “Hot Lunch Mix” on WBMX. I was so taken with it that when I returned to Florida I saved up and bought a pair of Realistic turntables with a mixer, all from Radio Shack. And believe it or not, I still have that mighty mixer. Realistic turntables were belt driven and absolutely horrible. But it was what I could afford and what I learned on.
1980 was the year I began writing for the Tampa Tribune. By 1985, I was doing pretty well for myself and Thursdays were payday! My best friend, Rick West would pick me up that every Thursday payday and go, you guessed it: record shopping! We would then either go to my place or out to his parents’ house to pop seals and play our new additions to our libraries. Many DJs today will probably never know the beauty of handling vinyl: A glorious format to work with and I loved it!
I guess I could say that my entry into Tampa’s gay nightlife as a DJ began in 1985. I graduated and by fall of that year I began DJ-ing in a small bar in Tampa. I got the job when the owner of the Northside Lounge discovered that the “DJ” was a fake who had been playing my mixed tapes that I always signed and put my number on. By 1986, I was the head DJ at a redneck lesbian bar called Paradise. By 1988 I was the resident DJ at Tampa’s only black gay bar. Rene’s. I had applied a couple of times at the largest gay club in Tampa, Tracks/El Goya but somehow never got a call back. Meanwhile, my best friend who was white got in on his first attempt even though I had the longer resume. I would later graduate to a residency in St. Petersburg at a new gay club there called Puzzles in 1990. My last big club residency was back in Tampa in 1991 at a mafia owned interracial club that turned gay after too many fights broke out there. The owners didn’t want to hire me because I was black but the manager who was Latino said he would quit if they did not hire me. That was the first club that I got to really show what I could with my knowledge and diverse and personal music library.
That club was BVDs (Boys, Video & Dance) and I got the opportunity to do a mixed format of Pop, Club and House. In all the other spaces I had worked before I was pigeon-held as a “Black DJ” who was going to play “Black Music”. So many were surprised when I would drop a dance-able rock song like “Black Betty” in the middle of my set. House music was not the mainstay in Central Florida so introducing a track like “This Is Acid” was unheard of.
Being both black and a DJ are hard because most venues are white-owned. And it is the belief that if you have a black DJ you will attract a black crowd. And that is considered “bringing in the wrong element” (code for being racist). So, most black DJs have to go in and prove they can play “white”. The only problem with that is there is no room for adding a more Urban format to be more inclusive and diverse. I even know some white DJs from back in the 80s who were told that they were playing too much black music.
Unfortunately for me, the feds closed in and got the bar owners of BVDs for tax evasion. The club closed in early 1992. I was out of job and had worked for all of the gay bars or clubs that would hire me at this point. I had been to New York City in the summer of 1990 to audition for “The Crying Game”. I fell in love with the Big Apple and vowed that I would live there one day. Plus, the documentary “Paris Is Burning” made me feel like I needed to be in a place where being black and gay was vital. I took the last of my savings to buy a one-way ticket to New York.
I came to stay with a complete stranger who had dated an ex of mine and I had only spoken to a few times on the phone. Her name was Grace (The Electrifying Grace in the drag scene of Times Square). She basically got me my first gig in a transsexual hooker bar on 43rd Street called Sally’s II. The truth of the matter is that I only got this DJ job because I knew how to read. Sally’s had been hiring hustler boys from Port Authority as their DJs. The problem was most of those boys could not read. So, every one of those boys were fired and I was hired seven days a week because the owner didn’t care what was being played…he only cared about having the drag shows run smoothly.
I then moved on to Sally’s rival, Edelweiss and eventually got into The Hangar on Christopher Street (a new interracial gay bar in Greenwich Village). And I won’t bore you with all of the bars and clubs that I spun for in New York City, but I’ll just say that the big clubs like The Limelight, Escuelita, The Pyramid and The Works was where I honed my skills in audio/video mixing and programing.
The strange thing about the 90s was that Hip Hop had become Pop and mainstream. So a new form of racism began in the DJ world. White DJs could get away with playing “some” Hip Hop and R&B but Black DJs still had to walk on egg shells and mainly stick to playing general White Gay Playlists to stay employed. Fortunately for me I worked in places that allowed me to experiment with mixing a general white format with some urban selections thrown in. Since I came from a smaller place where the gay community was forced to share the same spaces with lesbians, drag queens, twinks and leather men I knew exactly how to play for everyone at once. Eventually my ability to keep both black and white audiences happy became my strength for hire in New York. This is not the case for every black DJ. Most of my friends would be typecast as just being able to spin for a black crowd. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, at all. Many of my followings in the Urban and House markets led to huge names and would even become legendary like Frankie Knuckles and Quentin Harris.
But for the average DJ like myself who is just trying to keep a job you must do what you have to in order to keep a roof over your head. And that means having another job. I worked at Citibank until 9/11. It was that day that made me realize that I only wanted to do what made me happy. And DJ-ing was the only thing that fulfilled my life. Spinning music for a room full of people became the only passion that mattered. So, I left the only security blanket I knew and became a fulltime DJ. It was tough at times but my following was growing and I was being recognized for my mixing and programing.
The only really racist experience I had in New York City was at The Monster. I got hired to replace Warren Gluck when he and the owner had a big falling out. I became the first black DJ to break the colorline at this landmark gay bar. My first month was like a dream. I came in and started adding something for everyone in my sets. Because I worked at Escuelita on Sundays for the longest running T-Dance for people of colour, the Ballroom kids would show up and vogue. Popular artists like Beyonce and Rihanna made it easy to transition to Pop Hip Hop artistry, not unlike the esteemed Missy Elliott. The influence of 90s Hip Hop had become a mainstay on the Billboard charts and the Club scene was changing. It felt like a new era was happening in New York’s LGBT nightlife.
Unfortunately, as more and more black patrons started showing up, the owner and bar staff began to feel uncomfortable. Mind you…they paid cover and bought drinks like everyone else but the venue was beginning to look a little too dark and the wrong element had crept in. So by my second month the owner started telling me that I had to stop playing Hip Hop and he put up signs around the dance floor directed at the vogue-ing kids that read “no vogue-ing” and “no falling on the floor”. You would be asked to leave if security saw that activity.
So I became creative and started remixing Hip Hop tracks into Club remixes. I’d keep the energy of a 125 BPM floor with the flavour of urban hits. This encouraged the owner of The Monster to have the Bartenders spy on what I was playing. If they heard anything that had a rap in it they would report it back to him. And that’s how I got fired. This was back in 2007 and the power of the Internet had not exploded quite yet, like Twitter has today. Otherwise I would have protested more. But instead I had to just take what was handed to me and move on.
These days there are white DJs who play at The Monster who have free range to play whatever they want and many are duplicating from the open format that I started there. But The Monster has never hired another black resident DJ since me. There’s been black guest DJs but no residencies.
I moved to Toronto at the end of 2009 and began on Church Street in the spring of 2010. It’s been a decade since then and I have probably worked in every venue in some capacity. The funny thing about being here in Toronto is that I have an extensive resume as a DJ and as a drag performer but none of that has played a part in me working in this town. I gave my resume to everyone at first but it meant nothing because I was the outsider. DJs who so-called admired me when I didn’t live here suddenly were territorial and didn’t really want me around (or at least that’s how I perceived it).
But the reality is that I have been living with being black in the LGBT community since I came out in 1985. Florida had its own racism that most people don’t think about. Everyone hears the name of the state and automatically think of Disney and Miami Beach. Gay people who live up north never really consider that the LGBT experience for people of colour in the south is quite limited (unless you live in Atlanta). We only had one black gay bar. Otherwise you had to accept and assimilate to white gay culture and music. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I found spaces for black gay men to fit in. I ended up as a member of the House of LaBeija and became somewhat exotic because I was from the south.
My years in New York City afforded me travels to San Francisco & Los Angeles (California), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Asbury Park (New Jersey), Rome (Italy), London (England), Santa Domingo (Dominican Republic), Amsterdam, Athens (Greece) and Montreal. And I have to say that travel has expanded my outlook of what my place in the world is. I’m fortunate to have been able to see other parts of the world. Most of my family and friends back in Tampa have never left. I’m not surprised that their views emanate from the lives they lead in Florida.
Because my livelihood is playing the soundtrack of our lives, I feel this is a part of the fabric of what it means to be LGBTQ. I bring a rich history of the music that I grew up on and all the music that my uncle taught me about in the 80s. My love of MTV and Pop music is mixed with being introduced to House and Club music.
So, when the Black Lives Matter Movement started protesting after George Floyd’s murder I decided to use my knowledge and skills to express what I was feeling. I started with one mix to inspire others to continue the fight. We need to keep up this energy until November if we are going to start the change we would like to see in the world. But afterwards I kept seeing videos of police attacking unarmed protestors and I needed to make a second statement with a mix to express my anger. So, here are the links to the both mixes and I hope you get a better idea of what it is like for a DJ of colour in the LGBTQ Community. This isn’t everyone’s experience but it is relative to many out there.
About the Author
Alphonso King Jr - originally from Tampa, Florida. Moved to New York City in 1992 and then relocated to Toronto when he married John Richard Allan in 2010. Together they run POZPLANET on facebook and produce a monthly magazine for the group. King is also the founder of Relentless Entertainment which produces the POZ-TO Awards that recognizes ten people each year for their activism in HIV/AIDS as well as the MINGLE events that are social HIV events to raise funds for local ASOs. King is known as DJ Relentless and drag recording artist Jade Elektra. A CANFAR Ambassador, King uses his voice to raise awareness for those who are living with HIV.