Let me introduce you to the likes of St. Louis native Tony James (Called often by both his first and last names – Tony James, not just Tony). I met him earlier this year at Stepaganza and upon delving into those mini-mixes of his, I realized that James was actually a deejay who made me want to actually write an article about, well…a deejay.
I know it sounds trite but unless a person is heavy into production, sound stage, or other music equipment and engineering, they’re not reading articles about a disc jockeys unless there’s some element of drama involved, i.e. Hot 97s former DJ Mister Cee or unless they’re branded into infinity like producer Swizz Beatz or DJ Khalid, recently covered in The New York Times. Besides, I’d never written about deejay before, despite having selfishly jammed in the car or on the dance floor as a result of their hard work.
And that ain’t right, is it, folks?
Thousands of deejays across America help to shape the soundtracks of our lives within the social stratospheres. I remember specifically, one New Yorker and fellow Morgan State alum – DJ Kaos (or Mike, as we coeds knew him around campus) mixed Toni Tony Tone’s “It’s Our Anniversary” with Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean.” Over 20 years later, I still remember it as one of the most innovative mixes I’d ever heard. In the late 90s, dudes like Kid Capri, DJ Clue, or in the early 90s, DJ Red Alert or Dahved Levy were in constant demand.
The same way it’s damned near impossible to forget a spot that sells slap-yourself-good fried fish – it’s pretty difficult to forget a skilled maestro.
Certain deejays, and James is one of them, have a knack that warrants a double-take, a rewind, and possibly a curse word or two: “Did he really just mix that? Where the hell did he find this song? Oh, I gotta download/buy this!” Or quite simply, the least refined, but most honest classic, “Oh, shit! This mix is crazy!”
James has a relationship with music that is intuitive and almost ethereal. When he speaks about music, you’ll get the thoughts of a historian, an entrepreneur, and a frighteningly smitten lover of music. There’s an obsession about the strategy of delivering the right music and having a keen observation of what a dance collective embodies that James possesses. And the results are reflective of his efforts because the retired data analyst and financial services professional will tell you that he treats all of his music-related endeavors “as a business, not as a hobby.”
Not only are his selections appropriate for steppin’ venues, but I have driven to work, cooked dinner, and opted to binge-listen to his mixes. Check out his Mix #30 with three different versions of “Holding Back the Years.” Who in the world DOES that? James, does.
“My love of music and what it does for me drives my desire for people to feel what I feel and hear what I hear. I’ve been fortunate to enough to be exposed to greatness,” Tony shares.
His father was a middle school principal and football coach, and his mother was an English teacher. James recalls reading Alex Haley’s Roots in “two sittings.” (Must have been two very long sittings!) Academic focus was fused with musical trivia. James’ father would quiz him on the likes of Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, and The Four Freshmen. Additionally – piano, violin, and the trumpet were all instruments James learned to play in his youth. The music of the 1960s was a rapture to which he willingly succumbed.
“From Jimi Hendrix to Rare Earth – the music was outstanding. Psychedelic music came into its own. Then you had Motown music. The Philly Sound. It was just a great time to experience a wide variety of music. Music has always been my sanctuary. A place to find peace and joy,” he recalls. “When I was in the 10th grade, I began collecting albums. I made friends with the disc jockeys on radio stations because I used to call in to WESL and KXOK. My ear for music is what makes me different. It’s just the way I hear music.”
James, who was part of St. Louis’ Northwest High School’s Black Student Union knows that music back then – Marvin Gaye, Carlos Santana, Smokey Robinson, The Parliaments, Gil Scott- Heron – was a reflection of the Civil Rights Movement and racial injustices in the United States at the time. He recalls his cousins from Detroit coming to spend time with him in St. Louis to escape the turmoil of their city’s 1967 riots. Detroit isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away from St. Louis, so they were obviously desperate to escape. If you are familiar with the details of this uprising, you’ll understand why it is considered the largest “urban uprising” of the 1960s after the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And growing up during a time like this – how could one not utilize music as a form of expression, reflection, and hope?
Today’s standards in popular music aren’t as impressive to James, however.
“Some of this music encourages the breakdown of the [black] family,” he says. “The images and words that are project into our community contain subliminal messages and encourages a prison culture. There used to be positive, conscious rap – like KRS One but now you hear ‘bitches and hoes’ in too much of the music. I find some of it misogynistic.”
James notes that some of urban popular music reflects the rough lives that the some of the artists come from but for the most he loathes the rappers who flaunt platinum chains, Bugattis, and being higher on drugs than the St. Louis arch.
Despite these criticisms on cultural genocide and hedonism, the former nightclub owner explains that he is an “old school, hard core party guy” who came from an era where they “were fortunate because [they] got to have a childhood.”
“The music was necessary! I wanted to dance. I didn’t have to worry about getting killed because at the time, the community was fairly stable and not as transitory as it is now,” he shares.
James’ foray into Steppin’ came about when he saw Iary Israel, also of St. Louis and CEO of Word of Mouth Entertainment, the host of Stepaganza, doing a trio. “When I saw him dancing, I said ‘I must have this in my repertoire!’”
Prior to stepping into Steppin’ (pun intended), James had several professional experiences, which prepared him for the business and social sides of being a deejay, giving large social events and producing television dance shows. His experiences includes quantitative applications such as selling insurance and data processing as well as managing and owning the 30 Something Nightclub in St. Louis, a stint that lasted seven years.
“I got out of that business when it stopped being fun,” he confesses. “I made money but I was married with a child, and working 16 hours a day for six days a week in a cash business. It wasn’t really conducive to family life and besides, I didn’t have a vision for a long-term strategic plan. It became a grind.”
James recalls his club owner days with a humor about what he calls the “Bartender Syndrome.” “People are crazy. When people get a little tipsy, they tell you all their business. I know and still keep those secrets,” he says, chuckling.
Now instead of hearing the woes of the inebriated, he’s more apt to be asked by dancers if he can play a song at a set when he’s on the “turntables.” That also applies to line dancers, a nationwide community to which he also belongs. He understands that there are clear differences between both worlds – often a touchy area for some steppin’ enthusiasts and purists. However, he knows that both dance forms can, and should, co-exist. If anything, the disproportionate number of women to men at Steppin’ sets lends itself nicely to line dancing.
“My formula is called ‘Nurturing the Dance.’ We can all play nicely together. In fact, I learned line dancing on skates in the late 80s when the Electric Slide was out. Now with Big Muchi, Casper, Cupid Shuffle and Dialtone’s Flashing Slide; line dancing has taken on a life of its own. As we continue to deal with the shortage of men, we can play some of these songs for the women who didn’t get any dances,” he says earnestly, explaining that the male shortage in Steppin’ can be connected to racial, cultural, political, and socioeconomic circumstances of the last quarter of the 20th century.
“Black men are under assault in this country. There are too many who are unemployed, under-employed, in jail, on, or selling drugs. We’re easy to target and it’s generational. Many men – and a lot of people don’t talk about this – when they came back from the Vietnam War, many were changed for the worse. Many had PTSD and had trouble re-integrating into the community. Some couldn’t find employment and had to create their own forms of income. Some of them chose to hustle and many got so used to fighting over scraps that they would kill each other for those scraps. That is not sustainable. Man, these police will lock your ass up!”
And yet, at the core of Steppin’ James maintains that as a deejay, he pays close attention to the men on the floor.
“Anytime you doing couple dancing, it’s about the men. I need to know who they are and what they can do, what is their level of endurance. It depends on the level of maturity in the crowd. There’s a pace and flow to any good set if you really understand your crowd,” he shares.
“There might be some guys who are good with dancing only twice in just one hour. They might not want or be able to go as hard as me because I’m a dancer!”
When it comes to taking requests at sets he considers when the time is right to include the person’s request, especially if it’s something obscure. Each crowd is different, depending on whether it’s a local, traveling, or even a more intimate crowd.
James’ exposure to a vast array of new music allows him to facilitate dropping new songs into his mixes without driving everyone off of the dance floor, because let’s face it – all new cuts don’t inspire every dancer. Some of us, like this writer here, will become annoyed quite easily with the unfamiliar.
“I have a ton of music – some I haven’t even listened to yet! I really love remixing –
I’ve remixed Tyreese Gibson with Teddy Austin and Kem, just to name a few. Remixing is my mistress,” says James. A lot of his on-set success is born of these very remixes, which he finds naturally easy to accomplish and also enjoys listening to what other deejays and production professionals are creating in their labs. “When I heard Colage’s ‘Afraid of Love,’
I said, ‘I need to know this man,’” he adds, enthusiastically.
James easily – and with humility – gives credit to his contemporaries in the field who have shared their skill set in record production which is much more challenging than deejaying.
DJ Tony Lane, Colage N Tonya Ni and DJ Chillnite are all professionals he toward whom he tips his hat.
“These guys are making stuff from scratch,” he says. “In record production, it’s about finding that elusive level of perfection. There’s a price to pay for excellence. There are some good deejays and then there are some who are great.”
But deejays across the Steppin’ stratosphere don’t all share a utopian vision, James explains.
“There’s some grimy stuff that goes down behind the scenes. I’m lucky to have encountered a lot of like-minded individuals, and that’s the way it should be. It should be a brotherhood.
But sometimes, there’s pettiness in competition.”
Ethics aside, every deejay is different, asserts James.
“You can give us all the same songs to play but you’ll get all different sets, with songs played in different orders, and we’ll blend different songs together. But a deejay knows that you have to bring the crowd back to a familiar spot or they’ll get lost. Start the crowd off where they know, and then you can take them somewhere just a bit further – and then bring them back again. You can keep that going until four in the morning, when the heavy hitters clown,” James says.
Stepaganza is a significant junction where top deejays cater to a diverse crowd of steppers from throughout the United States. For James, who has been playing sets for the event since its eighth year, it’s an excellent opportunity to support the culture of Steppin’ as well as Word of Mouth Entertainment. At Stepaganza, for three years James recalls giving “The Ultimate After Set” at Club 314 with his then business partners Johnnie Campbell and Evaughn Harris. The BYOB set was from midnight to 5 a.m. and steppers could buy smothered chicken and rice, juice, and soda and Step until the sun came up in the city. Now, Stepaganza’s events are late enough (2015’s main event at the Embassy Suites went until 3 a.m.) that there’s no need for after parties.
“Iary Israel is doing an excellent job. He’s building great relationships around the country.
It’s commendable to see a black business man do this,” he notes.
In St. Louis, additionally, a key element in the dance culture – with all respect due to Steppin’ – is Boppin’.
“Boppin’ in St Louis was like Steppin’ is in Chicago, ” he says. “If you wanted to be on the dance scene, you needed to know how to Bop. It was right up there with the Mashed Potatoes, The Twist and The Bump. It came and it went. But we brought Boppin’ back with vengeance.”
James points out that in 2012 the St. Louis Bop Preservation Society, of which he is a member and music master, was presented with Proclamation from the City of St. Louis that declares The Bop the Official Dance of St Louis. In fact, a variety of dances, including Boppin’, Steppin’, Salsa, Free Style, and Line Dancing can be viewed on the television series StLDance: On Location, which airs late Sunday night on local ABC channel 30. Season One’s episodes can also be viewed on Youtube.com.
It’s clear that James has his hand in several aspects of the music scene in his native town. But when your uncle was a world famous musician in The Quartette Tres Bien, playing gigs in Gaslight Square during the 50s and 60s, and banging on bongos and congos in your basement as a kid, it’s only natural that someone would bear the burden of cultivating music on behalf of the family name. So when Tony isn’t tied up with building his newsletter and ad business,
The St. Louis WeeklyWord & Weekend Update, posting top notch mini-mixes on his Bandcamp page, or uploading new videos on his YouTube page, he’s supporting the next generation of musical genius – his 21-year-old son, Quinton, known professionally as Quizzy of New Money Records.
“He raps, performs, and produces,” says James. “He’s my engineer and does some video for me, too. He’s such a busy young man and I really respect his work ethic. He records every single day. He has a vision and the passion to achieve it. I told him, ‘Nothing is free, especially success. If it was, then everyone would be doing great.’ He knows that working behind the scenes can be lucrative.”
But the money behind the music industry doesn’t take away the human side of James, who still recalls fondly, asking his wife, Joyce, of 26 years to learn how to step. James spends much of the morning and early afternoon tending to his businesses, and then focuses on music production until the evening when Joyce gets in from her job as a social services professional.
“I can pull from so many genres,” James says. “I might find an instrumental that complements a vocal from another song so well, you’d think it was that song’s instrumental track. Now when you put your remixes and production out there in the anonymous world of the internet, you subject yourself to critics. And critics are everywhere. You have to have a vision and believe in it.”
James believes in his musical visions so much so that in addition to his other contributions, he spins shows on Mondays via WZon Radio from 4 to 6 p.m. (CST).
Apparently a life well-lived has left him with few regrets.
“I’ve been a thousandaire, not a millionaire,” he says jokingly. “I have not seen The Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. I had turned down a job in China when I lived in Houston running computers, I do regret that. I could have seen Asia at someone else’s expense. The bottom line is, I love music. The question is, as a deejay – do people like the way you do your thing and can you take them somewhere new while giving them what they want and need. You have to serve the people who are in front of you.”
Considering the deejays we’ve all known at graduation parties, weddings, clubs, resorts, radios, college jams – it is a service they are giving us all. Tony doesn’t look at himself any differently.
“If it brings me joy, then I know it will for other people,” he says of spinning tunes for not only steppers but for all. “If you open up your mind to the music, it can touch your heart. I truly love this stuff.”
Thanks for sharing your talents and time with us, Tony James! I implore Gallion’s Stepper Chronicles readers to check out James’ remixes, you won’t be disappointed.