DJ Mel—born Mel Sandico—is a decorated veteran of the war on wallflowers, and he’s determined to make you dance. He’s spun soul and hip-hop for the NFL draft, for President Obama’s 2013 inauguration, and again opened for Obama during this year’s South By Southwest Interactive conference, on DJ Mel’s home turf of Austin, Texas. There he also handles hype duties for University of Texas basketball games as the arena’s turntable tech.
This year the 40-year-old also began DJing for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders—his tasteful, hip, mood music deftly matching the unguarded, heart-on-the-sleeve optimism of the campaign. After Sanders’ near-victory at the Iowa caucus, DJ Mel played the candidate out with David Bowie’s “Starman.” It became a thing.
By phone Mel spoke to the Kernel about the scene, the craft of DJing, and his second act as a campaign fixture.
You’ve already had a whirlwind few months to start 2016. How’s your travel schedule like these days?
It was pretty hectic for a while. I pretty much went in thinking I’m going to focus on UT athletics and do my part for the university and that’s it. But just like with President Obama, the political stuff was such a last-minute thing.
You have years of experience; you’re in the Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame. Now that you’re kind of a godfather, what advice do you have for younger, aspiring DJs who are trying to elbow their way into a crowded city that has limited residencies? How do you manage the Austin boom?
I don’t think of myself as, you know, being this kind of like elder statesman. In my head I’m where I was 10, 15 years ago—still have that mindset like I’m crawling my way up like everyone else is. DJing is such a mainstream thing. I think that back in the day or whatever you had to make a commitment. You had to invest a lot of money and equipment and a lot of time looking for records.
Now with technology, it’s made DJing a lot easier. People who are going into DJing with the hopes of blowing up or becoming a star—then, in a way, you’ve defeated the purpose of DJing to begin with. Just like with anything else it’s about learning: It’s learning about music, discovering yourself through music, learning the art of it. Learning about the people who came before you, doing right by the folks who book you.
“I love nightclubs but there has to be this progression—something a little bit higher because we’re all getting older.”
How do you draw the line between a real DJ and the guy who has a SoundCloud account and a Twitter handle?
That’s definitely some millennial stuff. Times are just different. But you can’t change change.
DJs are taking over the festival circuit. Especially with EDM becoming such a force at places like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. What do you think about these Internet-fueled genres that stem from Macbooks?
I’m not mad at it. It was just a matter of time. But in Europe they’ve been doing it forever. People want to have a good time. I don’t really have an opinion.
The whole EDM thing is something that was planted many, many, many years ago with underground parties and DJs… in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s with the underground raves. You’re seeing it come to fruition and [become] a mainstream thing. And I have no problem with it, and it benefits DJing in general. I remember back in the day when DJing was not a mainstream thing—now there’s indie rock dudes from like the early 2000s that are EDM dudes. But I think there’s this trickle-down effect for the greater good: It helps everyone else.
But you’re a good DJ. An award-winning DJ. You’ve made award-winning mixes. What goes into that?
When you DJ, especially a party where people are ready to dance, your job is to put your foot on their neck and keep it on their neck until the end of the party. It’s kind of like a game: What can I do to keep all these people dancing to where they can’t even go to the bathroom? It’s about reading the crowd and trying your best to make a connection with them.
Photo via DJ Mel/Facebook
What prompted your interest into doing these political rallies?
Whether it’s you writing or me DJing, there has to be this progression—I can’t grind it out in the club four or five nights a week anymore. I love nightclubs but there has to be this progression—something a little bit higher because we’re all getting older. Granted I have this Monday night [residency] that I’ve been doing forever.
I have a friend in the political world. I never had any intention to do anything with the president. In 2012, he just started hitting me up, “You want to play at the California convention?” A couple of years later he was like, “Hey do you want to go play the DNC in South Carolina?” It was just like any other gig. Then he calls me up before election night and he’s like “Hey do you want to play for the president in Chicago?” The rest is history.
It wasn’t expected, but I’m really grateful that it came about because I needed that progression in my life. DJing is a tough job. It’s not like a typical job where you have an evaluation at the end of the year and there’s a chance that you might get a raise. You take whatever comes to you.
Speaking of progression, you go from playing events of a sitting president to affecting change this year. You’re on a campaign trail, you’re influencing voters. How did you wind up supporting Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton?
I’ve always liked Sanders. Whenever I would watch an interview online, I always liked what he had to say. And I really like the fact that he’s never been a pandering person. But I didn’t really make a choice, I liked both—whole thing with Sanders is, like, my friend who works with the president happens to work for Sanders. He was just like—same thing with Obama—he called me and was like, “Hey, we’re going to need you in Iowa in two days.”
“I can’t make a call on Hillary. I would love to see what her iTunes is like.”
The night of the Iowa caucuses you dropped “Starman” by David Bowie, and people clung to that all over social media. Did you feel like that was going to be a thing, a moment? Were you surprised that it seemed to resonate with so many?
No, I really didn’t. I think that music, regardless of your political affiliation—everyone loves music. When you got to a concert you don’t have one side of the auditorium be Republican, the other Democrats. Playing “Starman” or playing a Parliament song, I don’t do it with the hopes of the Internet blowing it up. It kind of did—both in Iowa and then New Hampshire. People were like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m hearing this at a political event.”
The whole political process, the whole voting process shouldn’t be this serious thing. I hope future candidates and people who run for whatever know that music is a big deal. You can connect people through music.
You’re a hip-hop expert. You’ve played Rob Base at rallies. Where’s the line between wanting to drop knowledge, dispense taste, and not wanting to alienate or offend some older listeners?
I was even leery about playing Rob Base. It’s such a harmless song but maybe not to some people. I play a lot of corporate events where you have to be very mindful of what you play. I’m used to it so it’s not a stretch where I have to navigate a minefield. I just know that I’m not going to play a Young Thug song.
I look at everyone there and I’m like, “OK, what I can I play to connect with these people?” It takes a minute to figure it out but once you’ve got ‘em, you got ‘em.
Let’s say Hillary winds up being the nominee, she beats Sanders, and beats the Republican candidate. You’re in to play the inauguration?
I don’t know. I’m all for the greater good. What’s on the right, man, it’s so terrifying. Whether it’s Sanders or Clinton I’ll be happy. I honestly don’t think her camp would ask me. I also don’t think it’s like that with them—with President Obama you just know. You know what he’s all about. It makes sense having a DJ playing soul music and celebrating. He oozes that vibe. Hillary to me doesn’t ooze that. But with Obama you just know he loves music—I mean the dude is singing Al Green in front of the camera. He loves the people that are going to perform at his inauguration and you know the artists that are performing really love him.
I can’t make a call on Hillary. I would love to see what her iTunes is like. I’m not a Rubio fan by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that he says that he likes N.W.A.—I don’t know if he’s pandering by saying that—but it’s like, “Whoa, Rubio likes N.W.A.? I like N.W.A.” It’s like, wow, he’s cool.
We’re on the eve of another SXSW. You still interested? What are your plans?
Honestly, I wish I could blink and it could be the weekend after South By.
Illustration via Max Fleishman