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DJ Nights
The Milwaukee Scene


Frank Straka

It’s a lazy Tue sday n ight in Milwaukee and I’m trying to figure out what I want to do this evening. I could g o to a downtown nightclub, spend a lot of money on drinks and listen to repetitive, dated hou se m usic or Top 40 hip-hop. Or perhaps I could go to some college bar or sports bar where I might hear more of the sam e with a twist of new rock added to the mix. But you know what ? I’ m not going to any of these places.  I’ve got a better idea. Tonight there’s a great Northern Soul record spin at a The Why Not III featuring some of the best DJs in the city. Tonight, this is the spot. I know the drinks will be che ap, the crowd will be friendly, the dancing will be on and the DJs will be playing the best music in town. The fact is, Milwaukee is loaded with great DJ nights like this.

In my opinion, Milwaukee’s unique DJs and record spins rival those of any city in the country and in many ways set it apart. On the surface, the scene might be dominated by people playing the latest hits via iPod or laptop in crowded clubs scattered about the east side and downtown. While at these places you might hear 30 seconds of your favorite new Top 40 song before the DJ cuts it to 30 seconds of your other favorite new Top 40 song. Or you might hear yet another mash up of who knows what. And this leaves you thinking “Why is this so special, how does this set Milwaukee apart?” But it’s not what lies on the surface that matters, what sets Milwaukee apart is what’s been boiling underneath.

For over ten years, a sort of grass roots movement among local record collectors, geeks and nerds has been growing to create really great DJ nights all over this city. Tired of the typical nightly DJ scene in Milwaukee, these DJs have made it a point to find great vinyl records—rare records, in most cases—to play at bars all over the city. What started out as small groups of record nerds getting together to play their records at small bars and parties has, over the years, grown into some of the most popular record spin dance parties in the city.

Lazersweat at the Redroom.
Photo by John Riepenhoff

Andy Noble, a local businessman and DJ, has been at the forefront of this movement. “When Tommy (my brother) and I started spinning parties the DJ was viewed more as a supposed ‘virtuoso,’” Noble says. “It was in the mid to late 90s and there was this turntablism/scratch-type idea on one side, and this rave/club DJ thing on the other. So if you just went up like we did and played good records, everybody was just like ‘When are you going to start scratching, when are you going to start mixing?’ The only places where I didn't see this attitude was at the house parties and the art-scene parties which were much more open-minded.” Less emphasis on turntable/scratching skills gave other DJs opportunities to begin playing records.

Today, the genres are as varied as the DJs spinning them.  On almost any given night, one is guaranteed to find DJs playing great music. “These days I feel like the ‘me-s’ of the world have won our own place a bit,” Noble believes. “You can hear a crazy variety of music any given night now with an absolute emphasis on track selection and musical quality. That's been a very positive change in my view.” Track selection and musical quality are two criteria that many local DJs feel is most important in setting their nights apart from other nights. Playing really great songs that few people have heard before is one of the goals for many of these DJs. Noble agrees, “Most of the tracks I play I feel are criminally underexposed. Patrons of the events may not hear these tunes anywhere else.” Despite the underexposure of most of this music, there is no shortage of packed sweaty dance floors at any of these nights.

So which nights feature DJs playing rare dance music? There are several: The Get Down, The Chalice In The Palace, The Soul Hole, Lazersweat and The Get On Up and are just a few. These nights offer different genres of music by different DJs. The Get Down, for example, hosted by DJs Andy Noble, Brent Goodsell and Nesh, is a hugely popular monthly rare soul/funk spin at the Mad Planet. The Chalice In The Palace, featuring rare reggae, is also a monthly at the Mad Planet hosted by a crew of DJs comprised of Joe Schoenecker, Steve Watkins, Eltron and Marcus Doucette. The Get On Up, one of the newer nights in town is hosted by DJs Joe Schoenecker and Spero Lomenzo. This night used to happen every Tuesday at the Why Not III and featured rare Northern Soul—Schoenecker and Lomenzo are looking for a new venue. DJs Steven Hawley and yours truly bring you Lazersweat, a crazy disco party held once a month at the Redroom. And finally, Dave Monroe and a rotating cast of extra special guest villains offer great rare soul nights at Burnhearts. Each of these nights have music that isn’t being played anywhere else in the city, and some of the songs have never been played in Milwaukee.

DJ Frank Straka at work.
Photo by John Riepenhoff

What are some of these rare records being played by these DJs? Joe Schoenecker (The Get On Up and The Chalice In The Palace) says three of his favorite records at the moment are The Sheppards, “Stubborn Heart,” Tony Roach, “Big Bout Ya” and the Heptones, “Why Did You Leave.” Schoenecker says, “The Sheppards is a perfect Chicago mid-tempo group harmony record. The Tony Roach is a very rare, hard-hitting late digital reggae 45. And The Heptones, well that's quite simply the sound of Studio One, completely unfadeable.” Studio One is a Jamaican record label formed by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd in 1954. The label recorded some of the most popular Jamaican artists such as Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals and The Skatalites.

Dave Monroe (The Soul Hole) had this to say about what he’s been spinning:  “Answering that question succinctly and at face value would pretty much involve listing Beethoven's Ninth followed by a bunch of Beatles tracks. Instead, here’s a few tracks that I've particularly enjoyed spinning, either lately or over the years, across a number of decades/genres: Annapurna, ‘Everything For Everybody’ (sweat rock); Little Jewel, ‘I Want You’ (soul); and Lou Lawton, ‘Knick Knack Patty Wack’ (soul).” Many of these records are extremely hard to find.

Instead of downloading music from the Internet, Milwaukee’s record-collecting DJs spend large amounts of time researching and searching for records. Some may take months or even years to find, and certainly won’t be found on the Internet. Some of the more serious collectors will go directly to the source of the record—the artist, producer or label—hoping to find that one rare record that nobody else knows about, the record that will pack the dance floor.  And like most other collectable things, rare records can be pricey. It’s not uncommon to spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a single record! Some criteria that determine the value of a record are availability, condition of the vinyl and quality of the song. The more rare a record is the more value it may hold.  An example of a record that costs over one thousand dollars is Jackie Stoudemir’s, “Invisible Wind” 12-inch. Collectors have driven up the price for this record because it’s rare and the song is a perfect disco dance floor monster. For the serious DJ, it’s worth the extra cash. Judging from the attendance at many of these DJs’ nights, their patrons probably think it’s worth it too.

“My favorite DJ nights in MKE are The Get Down and Love Sounds,” Schoenecker says. (Love Sounds, a Disco/Boogie night hosted by Andy Noble and myself is currently on hiatus) “The main reason being the quality of music played at these nights, being able to hear such great and rare music played on a loud sound system to a crowded dance floor, what more could you ask for?” Schoenecker continues, “I think it's very important to have an underground DJ scene in Milwaukee. There are a lot of DJs in Milwaukee that are very passionate about the music they collect, and to be able to go to a bar almost any night of the week and hear these records is quite a treat.” Yet, for all of their efforts to find great records, people are still amazed to find DJs who spin vinyl. It is for those people that this article was written.     

To be sure, there are other DJs in Milwaukee who deserve recognition, or record spins that are certainly worth attending, but the DJs mentioned are a great cross section of some of the talent this city has to offer. These DJs have gone out of their way to create a scene that is fun, exciting and important for not only music lovers, but Milwaukee’s nightlife in general. Without these DJs, many of us might not have any other way of hearing this great music. Dave Monroe, resident DJ at Burnhearts, sums it up perfectly, “What if I'd never heard any of the tracks I spin, or that I hear others play out? My life would be all the less for it. A lot of time and effort and talent and resources were put into these tracks, somebody has to love these records.”

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