If you told DJ Mel—who, among other things, has been the official DJ for the University of Texas football team—ten years ago that he would perform one day for President Barack Obama, he wouldn’t have believed you. The Austin-based DJ has played at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, as well as the Tour de France. But when he got a call four years ago to perform at Obama’s inauguration in Chicago, that felt like a dream. He’s been DJing events for the Obama administration ever since.
DJ Mel has continued to perform in the political world throughout this year’s presidential election, doing events for Bernie Sanders while he was in the race. Less than a month from election day, we caught up with him to talk about what it’s like to play for Barry, how to read a crowd, and what songs he would play for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—if they ever asked.
TR: How did you start DJing for Obama?
DJ Mel: Working with politicians was never really my goal. I have a friend who’s on President Obama’s advance team and he helps produce a lot of the president’s events. When we became friends, I would jokingly say, “Hey, I would love to meet the president... I’d like to shake this guy’s hand. I have to. Barack is an amazing person, I have to meet this guy.”
He’d laugh it off. But then I performed at the California State Democratic Convention in 2011, and the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and that was that. My friend called me while I was still recovering from the DNC and I’d slept in and was still in bed. And he was like, “What are you doing on Tuesday? Do you want to play at Obama HQ on election night?”
TR: Oh my god.
DM: Next thing I knew, I was in Chicago. Even though it’s been four years, I haven’t grasped the enormity of it.
TR: Did they give you a specific list of songs to play? Or tell you how many?
DM: They gave me a list of 60-something songs. On election night, as the results from each state came in, I’d have to stop playing. They would put CNN on the screens instead. I cycled through [their list of] songs, and then it got to the point that it was clear [Obama] was going to be re-elected... My buddy, he looked at me and said, “Do what you do. Be mindful of what you play.” So I looked at the room, and I thought, “Alright, I’m going to do my thing.” And the whole place went bananas.
TR: I read that your first off-script song was “Twist and Shout.”
DM: Yeah, that’s from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which takes place in Chicago. It’s one of my favorite movies. If you remember, everybody in that scene—rich people, poor people, people of all races and all walks of life—one thing they have in common is that they love that song. They know all the words to it. It’s such a great scene. I thought, “I’m gonna do this. I don’t know if people are gonna get the connection, you know.” But I played it and it went over.
After that, it was game over. Little did I know that while I was DJing, the internet was going nuts. When you’re in a big room like that, there’s no cell service. It’s impossible. So as soon as the room cleared, my phone was [blowing up]. I went back to my room that night, and I sat there, and my Twitter followers had increased by 2 thousand or 3 thousand. It was crazy. Mark Ronson and Questlove were like, “Who is this guy DJing?”
TR: I want to revisit something you said earlier. When your friend told you “be mindful of what you play,” did you get any advice? Was there a mood you wanted to create, or songs you stayed away from?
DM: No. I’ve been DJing for so long, and I’ve played in so many different settings that I kind of know what people want. Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of times when I wanted to play one particular song. But I read the room and decided not to.
TR: Which song?
DM: There’s this song called “I Choose You” by Willie Hutch. It’s a guy singing about how the woman stood by his side, and how she’s always been there for him. But I wasn’t going to play that song on election night—I was going to play the song that sampled it, UGK’s “International Player’s Anthem.” I was like, “Should I do this? I’m from Texas. I have to play one Texas rap song.” And then I was like, “No I can’t. I just can’t.” In my head, it made sense—being a music nerd—but it would go over folks’ heads [in Chicago] because it’s such a regional thing.
TR: Would you say there’s a difference between playing a political rally versus playing a sports event or a bar?
DM: Yeah, there’s a big difference. A perfect example was the inauguration. I played Obama’s inauguration, and there was the presidential ball and the staff ball afterwards. They turned off all the house lights after I played, and I didn’t want to leave yet. I stopped and looked around. I felt the same way at the Easter Egg Roll in April. I had to stop and take a deep breath and look around and go, “Dude, this is not going to happen again. You could be the last dude ever to DJ at the White House on the lawn.” You know what I mean? Considering who could come into office now, I just don’t think that’s going to happen. What are the odds? I mean, this past April Jay-Z and Beyonce were there. There was Silentó. You’re never gonna see people or someone doing the nae nae on the lawn in front of the White House again. What are the odds of that ever happening again? Never! I don’t think it’s going to happen. Not in the near future. So I really took it in because it is a big deal. I’m really proud of it. If you would have told me 10 or 15 years ago that I would be DJing at the White House, I would’ve said, “You’re out of your mind.” Like that’s nuts.
TR: You’ve also DJ’d at events for Bernie Sanders. What was different about playing for Obama versus Sanders?
DM: It’s hard to compare a sitting president to someone’s who running for office. I did notice that everyone in Bernie’s camp was really young and energetic. I was still very careful with what I did, but I relaxed a little. I played some hip-hop records, but they were innocuous. [I played] Rob Base’s “It Takes Two” and Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache (Jump On It).” Just some middle of the road stuff to get the crowd amped. It was fun. It reminded me of election night, but on a smaller scale.
TR: Can we ask you to pick five songs for this year’s candidates?
DM: Oh man, can you give me a second? With Hillary, that’s a really good one. Maybe an Alanis Morrisette song. I think Daryl Hall & John Oates’ “Maneater” would be completely inappropriate. With Trump, it would have to be something obnoxious. It would be something you’d hear at a WWE Monday Night Raw event. Maybe metal? Like bad rock. I don’t know, it’s so weird—I can’t connect a genre to this dude. It’s kind of that way with Hillary too. If I had to play a song at her rally, I’d probably be a song from Pat Benatar.
TR: Like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”?
DM: That’s a good one. She should totally use that on her campaign. With Trump, it’s so hard because there’s nothing soulful about the guy. I know Luther Campbell from 2 Live Crew went to a Trump party, and said it was so crazy, he left. If I had to pick an artist for Trump, it would be 2 Live Crew. I think that’s perfect for him.
TR: What about a song that encompasses the election?
DM: Bill Conti’s “Going the Distance.” Once you hear this, you’ll get it.
TR: Who would be your dream person to play for? Who’s on your bucket list?
DM: You know what I’d really like to do? I would like to play for Barack with just him and his close friends. And Michelle. That’s it. I kind of have an idea of what he’d like to hear. Me, the first lady, Barack, maybe the kids, and his friends. That would be it. There’s something about him, how he just loves music, you can tell. That it plays a huge part of his life. Absolutely. That would be the dream.