My dad surprised me with a visit on my thirteenth birthday. It was great to have him there for it, as he lived in Texas and wasn’t around for all of them. He took me and a bunch of friends and cousins to see Die Hard in a limo that night. That was cool enough on its own but he also got me my first stereo. True to form, it was way more stereo than a thirteen year old kid ever needed.
Up until that point, I had been using a system that to my estimation had been manufactured in the mid-seventies. It had been the basement stereo until I was old enough to want my own. It had a record player, cassette deck, and eight-track player all in a small combo, with two small speakers on the side. The one my dad got me was a top-line digital receiver with two huge speakers I still have plugged in about eight feet behind where I’m typing this.
Parents aren’t always great at guessing what a thirteen year old kid might like but this was right on the money. I plugged a tape deck into it (CDs were only just emerging) and was good to go. I also had ideas for it that wouldn’t bear fruit for a couple more years.
I’ve always wanted to run my own business, from my earliest days selling pine cones to neighbors. I didn’t paint them or anything. I picked them off up the ground, put them in a wagon, and tried to sell them for ten cents a piece. Thus my first business failed in a short manor.
A few years later, I had a couple friends, Gil and Steve, who were stereo guys as well. Together we’d Frankenstein systems together for parties and our cars. I don’t know if there’s a stereo culture with teenagers any more. I have a feeling iPods killed it off (outside of cars which still rattle my windows). It was all about more power and bass so heavy you could feel it in your chest on the other side of a wall. My crowing achievement was my senior year for the class Rock-a-Thon. For that, my friends and I assembled a video game/movie/music entertainment system that stretched from one end of the cafeteria stage to the other.
Together, we had a few CD players, a good tape deck I had gotten for Christmas, a hell of a lot of speaker power, and a decent collection of music. I don’t know when exactly we decided to become DJs but the idea had been bubbling in my head for a long time.
We started off doing free graduation parties for friends. Our first was Heather Burgess, who lived up the Belle River from me. Either Gil or Steve had built a kicker box (a homemade speaker system meant for car trunks), which we added to my speakers. I left the party at one point to grab my friend Ian from well on the other side of the river and felt a special pride in my heart when I could still hear the music on his front porch.
From there we did a handful more free parties the next year. After feeling assured we could handle such events, we moved on to seeking out paying gigs. We found out you could bring a lot of business in by being a third of the price of other DJs. We started buying up a variety of music outside our taste (oldies, country, etc) and began DJing weddings, middle school dances, and graduation parties, which remained our bread and butter.
By the time we got serious, we had a whole routine down for keeping the music going. If we had one CD going, we’d have another paused. One of us would spend most of the dance with headphones on, getting songs lined up on the dual cassette deck. We manually faded between songs except when we went from a cassette on the right side of deck to one on the left, as the deck did that for you. While the other two lined up songs, the third guy would interact with people to take requests and/or complaints.
Most of the gigs have blended together in my memory but a few stand out. The “hoedown event” we did at a jewelry store in the Birchwood Mall was a long day. I didn’t like country music before but four hours of playing it non-stop crystallized the feeling. We were supposed to make announcements for it but didn’t have a microphone, so Gil went to the Radio Shack in the mall, bought one we could afford (i.e. the cheapest one), and returned it after we were done. I also remember a graduation party where we had a cowboy cutting up the floor to Public Enemy’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.” At a band camp somewhere up in the thumb (I can’t remember for what school) we were a particular hit. We ended the night playing Van Halen’s version of “Happy Trails” and they made a huge circle to sing along.
Our biggest fiasco was on our home turf. Due to the good response we’d gotten from Algonquin Middle School down in Algonac, we were hired to do a Marine City Middle School dance. About five songs in, something popped on my receiver and everything went out. Blowing the fuse was always a threat as my system, as great as it was, was not made for this kind of use. We were always blowing a small fan on it to keep it from overheating. We were booed for what felt like an hour while we tried to get it going again. I remember thinking my little brother, who was in attendance, must’ve been embarrassed beyond belief. We got it up again but were not invited back.
We never settled on a name. Given the under-the-table nature of the business, I guess we never needed one. A couple other friends, Matt and Mike, joined us for a bit toward the end as well. Just like I can’t remember starting it, I don’t remember any details about us ending it. It was probably because the fun was fading as it turned into real work.
Whatever the case, it was my first business. Well, the first one to make any money. It was certainly more lucrative than selling pine cones. It set me up for a series of runs at “doing my own thing.” Looking back, it’s not a surprise I wound up working for myself, partnered up with people I consider friends. Some things never change.