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The real life of an underground DJ: Part II

From back-to-back travel and navigating unknown places, to the thrill of peak time raving and the low of the next day, touring DJs lead lives that can feel extraordinary and mundane. Away from the glamour of social media, what does a touring DJ really think of their hectic lifestyle? Below, Rebekah, Man Power, and Cinthie share their stories 

My previous DJing career took me all over the world in the early ’00s. Back then, I would always go to the after party — to be honest, the after party would start five minutes before the end of my set. I would call out, “Right, who’s got the drugs?” and I would take something before I even got off the decks. It was that kind of mentality - leave the after party, pack my bags at the hotel, then fly somewhere else. 

I remember this one time I was in Hong Kong airport, crying my eyes out because I was on a comedown and just wanted to go home. It was right in the middle of a tour and I was trying to change my flight. “Can I get a flight to England?” The check-in lady said, “No, you’re flying to Indonesia.” I said, “No, I don’t want to go, I just want to go home,” having a breakdown.

When I finally got on the flight to Indonesia I found myself sat between two sweet girls, who just held my hands while I cried. It was absolutely ridiculous — and that’s the sort of stuff I did quite regularly. Another time, I had to be wheelchaired through customs because my hangover was so severe. But the worst were the hotel room comedowns — they were so depressing, you would really start to question your own sanity.

You get so many drugs given to you while you’re DJing. Promoters can hook you up way before you even get to the hotel. It’s a normal question — “What do you want tonight? Do you just want drinks?” It always starts out as innocent and fun. Your inner voice tells you, “This is going to be a great time,” but I didn’t have an “off button”. I could never could say no and that got me in a lot of trouble.

There’s also the peer pressure of not wanting to disappoint a promoter because they’re all partying, or people who want you to hang out with them after the gig, so I saw partying as an easy way to knock down the barriers between myself and others. I felt like you had to socialise to get more bookings, and it's a lot of pressure in that sense. Delivering a great set and creating a great atmosphere in the club should be the priority, not spending hours talking bullshit to hopefully get another gig.  

I come from the UK, where most DJs were clubbers before they were DJs, and it becomes a habit. Your “place of work” becomes a recreational experience and when you put those two together, you are fighting a losing battle. I had to work really hard to separate that association. 

I’ve met many a DJ who can stay up all weekend — play the main party, the after party, play wherever — and then still function in the week, go to the studio and be inspired. But for me, it wasn’t like that. I’ve toured a lot in South America. In Bolivia, you can buy a huge amount of cocaine off the street, which is probably the strongest I have ever taken. I managed to do the gig but I can't remember anything about it. On the way to the hotel I remember seeing a sign advertising a message for Narcotics Anonymous. The signs were already there. You know: please, you need help. 

I woke up one day and had that conversation with myself: “Do you really not love DJing and music enough to do it without drugs?” I did some cognitive behavioral therapy and Narcotics Anonymous, which is very much based in spirituality and, in the end, worked for me. But I also need to intellectualise everything, so I studied psychology and learned about my own behaviour, and having this understanding is what has kept me clean.

My first sober gig came about six weeks into my sobriety. I must have drank five cans of Red Bull as an alcohol substitute to calm my nerves (and obviously, Red Bull is not a good choice to help with anxiety). The next day, after I had successfully played without using alcohol and drugs, and managed to get some sleep, I remember waking up with the sunshine coming through the windows, and I had this lightbulb moment — you do not have to do take drugs ever again. You are free. And since then, I truly have been. 

I’d been playing out regularly for seven or eight years before starting as Man Power, so it’s not like I’d been air-dropped into DJing. But all of a sudden it went from having a few projects, to things coming together quite quickly in a very short space of time. The fees I was paid then were around 10% of what I’m being paid now, but they were also 10 times as much as what I was used to getting, so I was like, “This is amazing! It almost covers the cost of getting there!” 

When I arrived in Madrid for a gig, and they told me they could only reserve a nice hotel for one night, and the second night I’d be staying in a shithole, I was like, “There’s a hotel? And you’re paying me? Wow!” I got into DJing because I like music, drinking, and taking drugs. I can get paid to be at the place I'm going to be at anyway, and I get to choose the songs? — that’s the job I want to do. I took my music seriously, but there’s no thought of, ‘Oh I’m going here to be the serious creative guy.’ 

Before I went to Madrid, the only people I’d encountered in the rave scene were Brits abroad. The Brits have a distinct way of spending their leisure time, which mostly involves getting obliterated as fast and as hard as you possibly can. The further north you get, the more true that is — I come from Newcastle, the most northern city in England — so I assumed that this global fraternity of like-minded house music hedonists were all the same. I wasn’t prepared when six really sweet house music loving, 19- to 20-year-old Spanish kids from Madrid picked us up. 

They were like, “What would you like to do?”, thinking they were going to show us all of the sites in Madrid, and I was like, “Is there an Irish pub?” and made them take me on a pub crawl that none of them were prepared for. We got to the gig and one of them is warming up, and you can see that he’s green around the gills. He’s probably never played drunk before and I’ve just got him bladdered.

It makes me sound as though I was a complete caveman, but anytime you take someone out of their natural environment, it looks so incongruous it’s unbelievable. Dragging these poor kids out on a pub crawl made me realise that some things just don’t always translate. I ended up back at some random house party, and then made it back to the hotel with just enough time to pack before heading to the next hotel. 

I checked in to the second hotel and passed out till around about 4pm. I woke up hungry and sick, and I realised that I hadn’t eaten since I left Newcastle. I stumble out of the room, went to the nearest shop, bought a litre of water, and practically showered myself in the street. I rolled back into the hotel and the electronic key for my room wouldn’t work. This happens a lot — when you put the key next to your phone, it often demagnetizes it — so I went back to reception and made vaguely intelligible hangover noises till they gave me a new one. 

After about five hours of intermittent snoozing, and nakedly sweating alcohol into the mattress, I got up to shower — the young promoters were coming to collect me soon, to show me Madrid. But when I went to the vanity area, none of my stuff was there. Shit. It seemed as if one of the maids had been to clean up the room. The clothes I’d thrown on the floor were there, but the rest of the stuff was gone. I must have been sleeping heavier than I thought. 

Suddenly, I notice this plastic thing next to the sink. It reminded me of a soap dish of some kind, or a gum shield holder. So I put that down, and went to get my clothes out of the wardrobe, which is full of dresses in polyester animal print — old women’s clothes. Slowly, slowly, the penny drops. The plastic thing is a false teeth container.

My original room key did work. I’d been trying to get into a room on the floor above mine — a room that was occupied by some sweet old lady currently exploring Madrid, oblivious to the fact there was a sweaty, hungover, naked man watching television in bed. I ran out of the room in my underwear, in a panic, with my clothes and boots tucked under my arm.

I barely do drugs now and I’m not advocating for getting trolleyed. What changed is that DJing was a passion — I wasn't making very much money for it, and it took me a while to realise that when I was getting paid, that meant DJing came with responsibilities, and one of those responsibilities was to be the best version of myself that I possibly could be both on the decks, and for the people who are tasked with looking after me. 

Before I became more well known as a DJ, I’d been throwing parties in Berlin since 2005. One of those nights will always stay in my mind. Although the parties were illegal, we often tried to get legal access to a property by asking the owner if we could have it for one weekend, for an “exhibition with some music in the background.” It still makes me giggle to think back to that, and I’m still surprised we got away with it. 

One time, we got this amazing old coin factory close to Alexanderplatz. The building was old, empty, and run down — exactly what we needed. No electricity, but no problem. We got the building from the City of Berlin and could get electricity from the house next door. When the guy from the electricity company came over with the convertor box, he said, “Look, in case you lose power, press the right button and it will come back.” Being super busy, I only listened with one ear, but I thought, “What could happen anyway?” 

We protected the windows and sound-proofed the building with old mattresses. The toilets came, the bar came, the drinks came. All good, ready to go. But we suddenly realised — did anyone tell people where the location was? Remember, this was pre-Facebook, and MySpace was not the right place to advertise it. We had a website, though, and one hour before the party, we remembered to update it with the address. 

The party started and we soon had a full house, with a dance music floor and a live band floor. Everyone was happy until suddenly — it went completely dark! The electricity had switched off, right as I was having another tequila shot with friends. I ran downstairs to fix it, and I’m telling you, it’s not that easy when you already had a few shots. Everyone wondered what was going on while I was desperately trying to remember which button I to press.

I eventually just pressed just any button, and the music slammed back on — everyone was screaming. “Ha, that was easy!” Two seconds later, everything switched off again. I hear people screaming, it’s dark again — obviously I pressed the wrong button. Well, it was a 50/50 chance. I pressed the right one and everything came back — the kick drum started hitting again and everyone is freaking out. I still get goosebumps from it. 

The party was going well but at around 7am we were running out of coins at the bar, so I had to go out to get some change. I went around the corner, where the Chinese embassy was, and — “Wait, what is that noise?” It turned out that the noise went from the house down into the cellar, and out of the back door, which we didn’t soundproof. The police officer that always stands in front of the Embassy asked me if I knew where the noise was coming from. I, of course, said that I had no idea, and made sure to escape as soon as possible. Thank god they were too lazy to investigate it further.

The party went until 1pm and it was fantastic. While cleaning up the next day, I found a megaphone that belonged to one of the live bands and took it home with me. I contacted the band and we arranged to meet up at Watergate on a Wednesday, so I could return it to them. Watergate was fun, but the band didn‘t turn up and I was left with the megaphone. The later it got, the more friends arrived at the club and the more shots we had.

Since it was always very loud, it was hard to order drinks unless you were screaming your order to the barman. “Wouldn’t it be fun to order drinks with it? Let’s try.” I ordered the first shot, and everyone was laughing and clapping their hands. Then again, and again. I guess at some point it got too much. That was the first time that I was forced to leave a club. 

Want to read more? Check out the first installment of Real Life Of An Underground DJ here

If you are struggling with addiction or burnout, you can find a selection of useful contacts here. Read the cover feature from our Mental Health issue here.

Chandler Shortlidge is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here