"Radio DJing is really boring," says Kristen Zoller. "You're sitting in the studio by yourself staring at the timer." Zoller, whose DJ father bought her a vinyl copy of the Beatles' Rubber Soul at age 5, spun records on WTUL-FM in stints, but didn't really get into her groove until she joined Matt Uhlman and Mike Hurtt, the DJ team at the Circle Bar's popular monthly Mod Dance Party, five years ago.
DJ Soul Sister, whose Saturday night WWOZ Soul Power show was the last on the air before the station shut down for Katrina last year, also came to live DJing after spinning on the radio for years.
"At OZ, people could be listening and hating my show and I don't know. In the club, I can tell if I need to pick it up or take it down or make it sexier or set it on fire."
A huge part of a club DJ's work -- a good club DJ's work -- is reading the crowd and working with them. And for Zoller, who spins with two other DJs, working with her partners.
"Sometimes if we get excited about it people feel it, and we can get people excited with us. DJ Matty and I have a chemistry together that no one has. We know how to feed off each other. We can almost read each others' minds when we DJ," she says.
"There's two kinds of DJing," says Soul Sister. The wedding type, the type you hire and give a list to, or there's the specialty DJs who specialize in a certain genre and believe in that music, and bring their personality and artistic ability into the mix the way live musicians do."
Soul Sister is a "selector," not a turntablist creating her tracks live, but she knows her collection well enough to make the night a seamless blend. "A good DJ in a club situation takes a person on a journey. Sets the mood, teaches them something, makes them dance and feel good," she says. It doesn't matter, ultimately, whether the set is a lineup of rarities from the vault or straight up hits. "I like classics, and I respect classics, but I'm a nonconformist and I like to play stuff people have never heard before," she says. Soul Sister's three weekly nights -- Saturday and Sunday at Mimi's in the Marigny, and Wednesday at Hookah Caf -- all have distinctly different vibes that she works hard to fine tune.
The ease of interaction in the club can have its down side. At her party, DJ Kristen's turntables are right on the dance floor, and that kind of accessibility can be a boon ... or a problem. "People can walk up and ask questions, or I can walk out and dance with them," she says. "I do get really angry when people [bump into us and] skip records or spill drinks on the records." Or even offer to step in.
"Once, this guy walks in -- he's like, I'm Nick from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and I brought my iPod, can I plug into your mixer and do a set? I probably had this stunned look on my face for about 30 seconds, and when I recovered I was like, no. Not at all. First, no iPods, ever, ever, ever. That's not DJing. Then, I'm not going to have you play some electroclash and lose my crowd. All these people at this dance party, they weren't at your show."
DJs provide an experience and a vibe that, if done right, isn't easily stepped in on -- the community that gets created at a regular party is a unique thing. Mod Dance Party is done entirely on vinyl, and mostly with pre-1970 music, says Zoller. "You have to really love something to search and search for a record instead of just downloading it off the computer," she says. People get used to the idiosyncracies of their DJ's collection, as well. "If I have a record that always skips, it gets so that people wait for the skip," she says. "It's like it's part of the song."
"Sometimes DJs don't get respect because people think we just play the records," says Soul Sister, "but I'm a collector first. I'm doing it because I'm about the music. If you want a set with Depeche Mode and the Cure, I'm not the one for you. You wouldn't go to a Meters show and ask for zydeco music."