Bump and Grind

Strip-club disc jockeys spin to the beats of different drummers

At Roxy's, anytime before midnight is early.

Caught a few minutes before the start of a nine-hour Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning shift, Don Barnett eyes the room, taking in the relatively sparse house. It's not too busy, but he's not worried. All good club DJs know their rooms, and this DJ knows his venue better than most. If anyone in Roxy's is constantly studying the clientele, checking the pulse, it's Barnett, who's worked as a DJ, de facto security man, needling emcee and all-around party master at the venerable East Side strip joint for a remarkable seventeen-year run.

In a little while, Craig -- one of "the younger jocks," Don says -- will relinquish control of the two compact-disc players, the light show and, most important, the microphone. With a smallish crowd to play off, Craig's winding down without much extra fanfare, suggesting that the gents slide on up to one of the three stages (the fourth opens later in the evening); maybe, he adds in the warm tones of a hit-radio jock, they should even come back for drink specials next Wednesday. (The steady, soft sell of a future event is one of the mainstays of any DJ's shift.) Craig mixes in some surefire fare associated with any strip club, including a last-second track by Poison.

But Barnett would bristle at the thought that his nine-hour shift is predictable. He's got a point: No radio station in the country would program a shift with so many whiplash-inducing twists.

He allows that "it's very mainstream music." But from there, things open up in a peculiar way: "These are songs that everyone knows, whether it's a 40-year-old guy or a 21-year-old guy. You're expected to play a wide variety of nonoffensive music, from classic rock to classic R&B. Fun music. Toe-tapping music."

The overall philosophy? "I want to take the party to them."

As he heads into his tiny booth for the start of another marathon shift, Barnett begins to put the philosophy into practice. Though strip clubs are actually some of the most desegregated rooms in town, on this night a mostly white clientele is gathered, many of them huddling near the small entryway bar and away from the tables. The crowd also shades older, with just a handful of young bloods in the room; typically the audience gets a bit wilder, a lot younger and more mixed -- racially and in gender -- as the clock ticks.

"To play music," Barnett offers, "you look at the people. The DJ's job is to read people. Maybe it's a night when the races have just let out, or there's a Rams game in town, or you've got a bunch of guys in suits. This group, it's guys in their forties. You look at them, and I'm sensing what's gonna work."

And what won't. "Some songs that're popular right now might never get played here," he admits. "You're not going to play music that's popular with the fifteen-year-old girls.

"I come in here with everything from Frank Sinatra to the Ramones. Now, I'm not going to always play those acts, unless I get a wild hair. But I will switch it up. High-energy music works, like C&C Music Factory, AC/DC, the Chili Peppers."

Because of the makeup of the room on this night, he delves into the rock & roll, liberally sprinkling '80s acts, from Bob Seger to the Vapors, atop more modern-rock fare. Acts you'd expect to be played -- Stone Temple Pilots, Nickelback -- slide alongside acts you wouldn't -- Barenaked Ladies and the Smithereens. Barnett will mix in a touch of hip-hop and soul, though he admits that the other, primary DJ at the club -- the hilarious, dulcet-toned Stan -- is more likely to pull out the Nelly CD. "He's the soul DJ," Barnett says, "and I'm the rock & roll DJ."

Barnett's also willing to play to a particular dancer, especially if she's got some seniority at the club and a talent for drawing customers. For Alexis, that means a three-song set of Social Distortion. For Kendall, it's an unlikely run of Dave Matthews Band.

A comely, curly-haired brunette, Kendall admits that getting a good vibe with a DJ is essential to making the night work and the dollars flowing. "They hold the power," Kendall says, noting that Don's usually happy to work with her. "He's the man. Don's awesome. If you're good friends with Don, he'll do anything for you."

Asked to list some bands that get her psyched when they come on the sound system, she says, "Every genre: Dave Matthews, J-Lo, Linkin Park. Music I can feel and relate to, I'll dance to better."

Songs that she'd never like to hear again, especially while at work? "Anything by Ozzy Osbourne. That is not sexy music." To her dismay, Ozzy is played -- a lot.

Other dancers have their own picks and pans: Carmen likes hip-hop. Hunter doesn't like Alice in Chains. Tai is fine with just about anything.

Alexis, named Illinois Entertainer of the Year in 1999, prefers a harder-edged set, with tracks from White Zombie, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit. She realizes, though, that there's got to be a blend to hold the audience -- and, in the case of this club, an audience that's looking for something a little different than at other rooms on the East Side. Roxy's isn't a fancy room, with its dark walls, single TV and inevitable focal points of the stages and, sometimes, the well-known shower.

As Alexis breaks it down, "Diamond [Cabaret] is definitely geared toward being a high-end gentlemen's club. The Sports Cabaret is sports-oriented -- and I definitely don't want to work in front of big-screen TVs. If you give a guy a choice between looking at football or tits, they'll always choose football." And Roxy's? "This," she says simply, "is a party club."

Sure enough, the DJ's role at Roxy's is part music director and part sideshow pitchman. The DJs pitch each set of dancers as they come to the stage. They pitch each dancer between songs, coaxing the customers up to the stages. As bachelor and birthday parties roll in, the DJs determine how far they go in bringing the honored guests into rather dishonorable positions. (If two or three guys don't wind up pants-less and spanked on a weekend night, it's just not Roxy's.) But even at moments such as this, a degree of professional courtesy is involved.

As Barnett says, "If a guy's 300 pounds, I'm not going to say he's fat. You will talk to the guy's buddies and get every bit of information you can, on all the stupid shit he's done. You might say that he's hung like a fruit bat. But you won't say, 'Look at this guy's fat ass.' You don't want to hurt his feelings."

At some clubs, the DJ is even more involved. On the night of our first visit with Barnett, a crew of DJs at PT's Sports Cabaret calls the entire dancer lineup onto the stage, where they perform a complicated, time-consuming (and, to paraphrase Kendall, "not sexy") routine. Lots of talk, lots of stoppages. At other rooms, such as the Washington Park venue Dolly's Playhouse, there's no DJ at all; the dancers control the vibe by simply putting another dollar into the jukebox. Down the way, at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club, there is definitely a DJ, and his role is geared much more toward selling private dances and trips to the on-site adult shop. His call-and-response is constant.

At Roxy's, though, it's no-frills. It's a small room, overseen by Craig, Stan and Don from their tiny raised bunker on the back wall.

Though he's had shots at working rooms all across the country, Don Barnett keeps coming back to Roxy's, working vampire hours one week, a more traditional noon-to 9 p.m. shift the next. He'll keep bringing in discs from home to augment the 400 that line the booth. With seventeen years in the business, Barnett remembers when the vinyl took up nearly the entire booth. He remembers a time when 3 a.m. licenses were the rare exception, so audience built earlier. He follows the tracks and trends in the one steady job he's had since earning a history degree at Southern Illinois University and falling into the business on a whim.

With that kind of track record, he's the kind of professional who knows what to do when a lesbian wedding party comes into his room. "One night, there're ten guys in here," he remembers, "and then this party comes in -- a wedding party, but a lesbian wedding party. Now there's, like, twenty women in the room. They're having fun; they're drinking and partying. So I put in some Melissa Etheridge. Now they're all singing; they're all pretty into it. You gotta know how to mix it up. We want you to come back, and we want you to bring friends."

Stories. Songs. Wisecracks. Don Barnett's got a million of 'em.

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