"What the hell am I doing with my life?" That's what I'm asking myself over and over as I reluctantly cue up the "Cha-Cha Slide" on my turntable deck.
I certainly didn't set out to play tunes like this when I started DJing five years ago. At that time all I wanted to do was share my music collection with the people of Indianapolis. I'd amassed a huge quantity of funky, psychedelic records from South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and it seemed shameful to keep all these incredible sounds to myself.
Back then, my DJ sets were filled exclusively with long jazzy cuts by artists like Mulatu Astetke, Jorge Ben, Sabu Martinez, R.D. Burman and Fela Kuti. If someone had put in a request for the "Cha-Cha Slide" then, I certainly would've laughed in their face. But a lot can change in five years. I now make my living playing music, and that often requires me to take jobs where I know I'll be playing music that I don't believe in. Like the "Cha-Cha Slide."
Recorded by Chicago producer DJ Casper the "Cha-Cha Slide" failed to crack the American Top 40 chart at the time of its release in September of 2000. But the song has lived on to become a perennial crowd favorite at wedding receptions, school dances and other large social gatherings like the one I found myself DJing on this night. Along with "Macarena" and "The Wobble," the "Cha-Cha Slide" is one of a handful of oft-requested line dance songs that are the bane of many DJs' existence. I avoid these songs like the plague, but when an audience rejects all the material I've selected, I'm sometimes left with no alternative but to spin them.
And now I'm transitioning to the "Cupid Shuffle," asking myself where it all went wrong. When did I go from spinning the music I love to playing songs to satisfy the worst elements of popular taste? Have I sold out?
I'm pretty sure the me of five years ago would answer yes.
Before I started working in music I had a very different concept of what selling out meant. As a teenager caught up in the punk rock scene, my friends and I would constantly debate about which bands had or hadn't sold out. For many years I believed the act of selling out was born from a deliberate decision to compromise artistic principles in exchange for commercial success.
But I've since discovered that selling out happens in a far more subtle fashion. It's not so much about making a conscious effort to be commercial as it is the process of losing touch with the flame of inspiration that initially prompted an entry into the arts. It takes a lot of courage to follow that flame of inspiration, to step out in front of friends, family and strangers to create, sing a song, paint a picture. It's a risk that offers great odds of facing the humiliation of failure.
After working several years in the arts, I've come to realize that artists who've failed or sold out have put as much blood, and sweat into their work as the artists who've succeeded. I now understand that it takes as much effort to flop as it does to make a masterpiece. So I try not to judge struggling artists too harshly, and I hope I won't be judged too harshly either for the worst moments in my work.