Throbbing bodies and heavy bass alone do not the life of a DJ make. When money is the object, the profession takes the musician to venues near and far to deliver an array of services. The following is a snapshot from 72 hours in the life of DJ RQAway, a rising star on the New Orleans club scene.
Friday, 6:30pm, Dent Hall, Dillard University
“Do you have any Kenny G?”
The Homecoming 2011 Mr. and Miss Dillard Coronation Ball is about to begin and the event organizer has a few last minute requests. She’d like to hear “mostly classical,” plus a particular version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.” Perched on a catwalk above the gymnasium floor, RQAway nods patiently and scans his laptop. Eventually, he calls upon YouTube, and the G’s “Forever in Love” plays on a loop for 30 minutes as well-dressed guests filter through cream and blue curtains to their seats on the parquet.
“You sign up for a lot,” says RQAway. “Some people don’t care. Which is very human. As a DJ, you’re a teacher, event planner, caretaker, a security guard, depending on what’s going on, how intimate. Sometimes I help the doorman. It’s more than just show up, play some songs, and go home.”
Over the last year, he’s worked multiple gigs at Dillard, none quite like tonight. Onstage, two young ladies announce this year’s representatives from extracurricular organizations. Wrapped in sashes for everything from Mock Trial to Commuters’ Club, the awardees take their turns waving to the audience. Then Mr. and Miss Dillard 2011 are announced and seated on large thrones. A succession of their fellow students performs musical tributes: an a cappella “I Believe I Can Fly” followed by two dance routines and a rendition of Jill Scott’s “Golden.” Cued by the frantic event planner, RQAway plays the backing tracks and modulates the volume, no easy task with the gym’s finicky speakers mounted in the rafters, a basketball court length away from the stage. He handles it flawlessly, shuts down at 11 p.m. and heads off into the night.
Saturday, 1:30 a.m., Handsome Willy’s Bar & Lounge
Among the objects hanging on the red walls: a hook rug Snoopy, a sombrero, an Olivia Newton John record, a sign advertising “Big Daddy Kane” punch. A puny disco ball twirls above a cramped dance floor in front of a ground level DJ booth. Two bartenders slide from one end of the bar to the other, filling glasses for a crowd of stylish twentysomethings who preen, text and laugh, glad to be at the Tipping Point.
In its third year, the Tipping Point is RQAway’s baby. The weekly party begins at 10 p.m. and often goes until 5 a.m. It reflects the unique personality of its creator, who confesses, “I have a very large appreciation for the fact that the world and I think differently.”
That difference emerges as an eclectic soundscape, the result of a fundamental curiosity about music history and the world.
“I grew up in the projects,” he says. “When I went to UNO, it was such an amazing thing. I’d walk from one building to another and I’d pass 10 Asian cats, somebody from Alaska, somebody from Afghanistan, this cat from Zimbabwe, somebody over here speaking French. I enjoyed that kind of thing, and that’s how I DJ. I like to bring a lot of different things together if I can.” A typical mix features Run-DMC, M.I.A., Cannonball Adderley, Roscoe Dash, plus “Love and Happiness” over a Triggerman beat. After one hundred or so Fridays establishing an intimate connection with this room, RQAway carves out sonic contours according to his mind state.
“It’s like a journal for me,” he says. “I’m trippin’ off a chick, it’s going to sound different. I’m happy about a chick, it’s going to sound different. So thank you for coming in to listen to me do what it is I do.”
He does this from a cockpit-sized booth, which offers just enough space for a DJ, two Technics 1200s, a Rane Mixer, his MacBook Pro, and whoever shows up from RQAway’s Awayteam crew. The party takes its name from a 2004 album by the Roots, itself named for Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the moment when an idea gains critical mass and affects large-scale change. The Awayteam chooses an issue as the theme of the evening. “Food drives, clothes drives with John Lacarbiere, a book drive with 2-Cent, leukemia, autism. If you’re going to be around us, you’re going to hear about it,” says RQAway.
The mission is awareness. “A simple conversation when you’re both wasted on Friday might make you wake up on Sunday and go under the bridge and feed somebody dinner that night. All it takes is a word or a step, a piece of paper. You’re having a good time dancing on those speakers over there? We’re raising money for autism. What’s up?”
In the wee hours, music begets fever, a collective, sweaty body joined in bass and alcohol. When Beyonce’s “Party” brings critical mass to the dance floor, RQAway cuts the vocal and the crowd becomes a chorus, singing in dreamy unison: “Top down with the radio on / and the night belongs to us.” In three years, there’s only been one fight.
Saturday, 11 a.m., Gentilly Gardens, Dillard University
Impeccable weather blesses the homecoming tailgate. Barbecue smoke drifts through great oak branches as a wolf mascot disappears into the gymnasium, giant head in hand.
Six hours after the Tipping Point party ended, RQAway spins from a sun-baked patio of the quad. Snares and hi-hats echo off the buildings, Rick Ross claims Tony Montana status, and a returning alumnus throws up softly behind a shuttle bus. Students relax on benches waiting for the afternoon’s basketball game. Every few songs, two or three edge onto the patio to dance. The braver ones attempt a freestyle or perform spoken word. Some make requests.
In the digital era, requests present an interesting dilemma. Everyone believes the DJ owns every song, can access the web, or can simply plug in an offered iPhone and fulfill the request. Time, place and general logic dictate receptivity.
“When I do events at Dillard, I tell people to tweet their requests. These people are paying me a whole lot of money to be here, why the hell not? I’ve had people make requests that were up on my screen at the time and people make requests that I didn’t think about. That’s dope. But the average request, you’re playing Sam Cooke ‘You Send Me’ and somebody requests [Waka Flocka’s] ‘Round of Applause.’”
Things wrap up around 1 p.m. as students head to the game. RQAway loads his gear into a borrowed cargo van. As he’s about to leave, a player from the lady’s basketball team asks for his card. “Here you go, ma’am.” A campus worker needs help with the gym’s PA system. “No problem, brother.” The work continues.
Sunday, 7 p.m., Cafe Istanbul, The New Orleans Healing Center
Purple light bathes a sold-out Fringe Festival audience awaiting director Davida Chanel’s “Hip Hop is Alive”. On the balcony, RQAway opens the evening with a set culled from four decades of hip-hop history.
A series of sketches dramatizing the lyrics of artists like Outkast and Kanye West, the show features several up-and-coming performers, including Q93’s Nicole Collins, comedian Mark Caesar, emcee Lyrikill, and actor Gian Francisco Smith. RQAway’s role requires pre- and post-show sets and filling in the set changes with selected cuts.
“That play demonstrated a very serious love,” he says later. “A really good example of love and music. When she first told me about it, I was like, ‘You’re picking me? And you got who playing?’ [Veteran DJs Raj Smoove, EF Cuttin, and Tony Skratchere participated on earlier nights.] I was nervous as hell.”
When the play ends, Chanel appears onstage in an #AWAYTEAM shirt and introduces cast members for encores, finishing with the DJ.
She describes first meeting Jevon Thompson at Whole Foods, where he worked as a cashier. For weeks, she’d see him in the checkout line and he’d tell her about his party. Finally, he mentioned the name, the Tipping Point.
“I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I heard they got that fire DJ, DJ RQAway.’ He said, ‘That’s me. I’m DJ RQAway.’”
The theater fills with applause.