When most people experience DJing in Ann Arbor, they’re probably spending the night out at Necto or Rick’s. But mainstream music is the last thing on the minds of Sam Billetdeaux, Robert Wells and Rick Wade, who have all been shaped by the Ann Arbor DJ scene.
“I think people don’t really realize what goes into it. It’s not just putting on an iPod,” said LSA senior Billetdeaux, who DJs at Sigma Phi, for Shei Magazine and at house parties in Ann Arbor. “Anyone can play two good songs one after another, but to mix them together is another level. It takes a while to learn the ins and outs of it. You have to learn to think about music in a different way. ”
Like most DJs, Billetdeaux, who has been DJing since his sophomore year, first fell into the hobby simply because he loved listening to music.
“Diplo is my first idol. I saw Diplo open for Justice. That was the moment I realized I wanted to DJ. That was my freshman year,” he said.
Robert Wells, a graduate student in Rackham, is another Ann Arbor local whose interest in DJing spawned from his undergraduate days, when he started working for the college radio station at the University of Kansas. Since moving to Ann Arbor, Wells has gotten involved with WCBN-FM, the University’s radio station.
Wells, who has now been a DJ for nine years, has spent six of them at WCBN and four with Ann Arbor Soul Club, which was dreamed up by Wells and his DJ partner Brad Hales, a Detroit record store owner. In contrast to venues frequented by many college students that typically spin Top 40 fare, Soul Club spins original Motown hits in 45 rpm. The monthly dance party draws a considerable crowd of booty-shaking nostalgia seekers.
“Just knowing other DJs and hopefully having good taste” was important in establishing himself as a DJ, Wells said.
“We were fortunate with Soul Club because it had a great beginning. A couple hundred people were there the first time we tried it.”
Class of ’91 alum Rick Wade, on the other hand, prefers to play what he calls “deep house” music.
“What’s funny about that term is what city you’re in. They’ll have their own definitions. It kind of stretches across genres,” Wade said. “The best description (of the difference) between deep house and regular house is that deep house is more instrumental-based, whereas house has a lot of vocals.”
Wade has made a name for himself internationally as a DJ in part thanks to the popularity of Late Night Basix Vol.1— his first record — released in 1994. He’ll travel to places as far-flung as Australia and Russia to play gigs.
“I do a lot of traveling. I actually fly back to Berlin on Oct. 7. Then I go to Vienna, Austria. Then I fly back out again to Japan. Then to Australia,” he said. “I just got lucky, that first record was really popular in England. Then it started popping out on charts. As a by-product of the record’s popularity, I started DJing.”
But it hadn’t always been so easy.
“When I first started DJing, I had no idea I would ever be traveling at all. I would just try to make things for mix shows,” Wade said. “I worked on farms until high school. I grew up listening to hot mixes, the discos, that sort of stuff. So I would go to the record station and buy songs that I’d hear on the radio. I got to be known as the guy who had the music. I became a DJ by default, so to speak.”
Back then, Wade spun quite a different genre.
“I started out as a ghetto tech, booty-based DJ,” he said. “I worked in a DJ record store after college. I was in charge of hip hop and ghetto tech.”
A couple of bad gigs didn’t stop Wade from continuing to pursue DJing as a career.
“Every DJ has had a bad gig,” he said. “Maybe people weren’t showing up, or you weren’t feeling it that night. You just take it in stride. You have to accept those things are going to happen. You just have to let it ride. You just smile and just keep pushing through.”
While Wade kept busy in Buchanan — a small town in Michigan with just under 5,000 residents — playing house shows in his friends’ basements, it wasn’t until his move to Ann Arbor that things really began to pick up.
“(It wasn’t) until I moved to Ann Arbor that I really got serious with the DJing. Then I started doing mixed shows for WCBN,” he said.
His set with WCBN helped open the gates to many opportunities, including getting the European tour circuit. Wade waxed nostalgic on “the good old days” of Ann Arbor, more than a decade prior to its current scene.
“I haven’t played in Ann Arbor since the year 2000. It’s been at least 10 years. It’s probably been just as long since I’ve hung out in Ann Arbor.” he said.
“It was good back in the day though. Everything was new back then. All the big dogs were DJing around in the city. I was just a young pup looking around with big eyes.”
Not everyone has found the Ann Arbor scene as accommodating as Wade. While Wade considers the city as a “breeding ground” for his artistic growth, Billetdeaux finds the city much less of a nurturing atmosphere.
Billetdeaux chose to keep himself under wraps for a few months to practice privately in order to hone his DJ techniques.
“There were probably three or four months that I devoted to practice. I didn’t get gigs right away,” Billetdeaux said. “Me and my friend Brandon DJ’d at Cantina last summer for two months. It was OK. It was playing pop music for a fratty college crowd. It was fun. I got a lot of experience playing for a crowd. It wasn’t ultimately the kind of music I wanted to play, but I got a lot out of it.”
Billetdeaux’s main concern is with the city itself. In his view, there simply aren’t venues available for the type of music he wants to play.
“I think the biggest setback has been Ann Arbor. There’s not really a crowd for the kind of music I really play. Or if there is, I don’t really know where it is,” he said.
The ideal kind of music Billetdeaux wishes he could play? “Experimental” would be one word for it.
“Not the club bangers you’d hear at Necto,” he said. “I would really love to create a scene in Ann Arbor for the kind of music I really love to play. Because right now it just doesn’t exist.”
His musical preferences vary, depending on his mood, but always veer on the side of eccentric.
“I love all things house music. My musical tastes shift really frequently. One minute I might really be into dubstep; the next, trippy-ass new school beats. Definitely more dance-focused, house-focused,” Billetdeaux said.
His preference for the eclectic is apparent in the type of gigs he signs up for.
“My first gig was at Sigma Phi. I was friends with a couple brothers and they asked me if I wanted to do it. I put a bug in their ear and they finally asked me. It was an ’80s aerobics party two years ago,” he said.
Billetdeaux’s primary motivation for DJing, like Wade and Wells, is for people to enjoy the music.
“I mean honestly, most places that I DJ don’t have money to pay. I didn’t get into it to make money; I did it to play music for people who wanted to hear some cool stuff,” he said. “I think it’s really fun to make people dance. Give people a good time.”
Wade feels the same way. The crowd’s energy and the music itself is his favorite part about DJing.
“I really like to interact with the crowd. I feed off of that, and they feed off of that. It’s like a high without doing drugs to get it,” Wade said. “Music itself is just something that I’m into, that I love. And if I’m into something, I do my homework on it. It’s like an odyssey. You find one artist you like and then you get turned onto a different group. It’s like branches on a tree — it connects.”