Q&A: I DJ’ed Barack Obama’s Election Night Party: A Chat with DJ Mel
Not every DJ can say that they were asked to play a party for the President. A few days before Tuesday night’s tension-filled election night, Austin-based party maestro Mel Cavaricci aka DJ Mel happened to get one such request: to play music at the Barack Obama campaign’s official Election Night Watch party, the same one that would be broadcast to millions of people watching worldwide.
Music took a back-burner to the results for most of the night, but the moment that Mr. President was re-elected for his second term, that same election-night party seeped into bars, clubs, and homes of Obama supporters through their televisions. (We did the twist alongside the thousands of people at the McCormick Place rally headquarters in Chicago ourselves.) As the night stretched out in the wait for Romney’s concession and Obama’s victory speech, DJ Mel took over party-rocking duties with a mix of soul, funk, and inspirational sentiment. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Obama’s walk-on song, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” were especially poignant. As was his campaign supporter Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care Of Our Own.”
We talked to Mel about his song selection, the Obama camp’s input, and what it was like to be the president’s DJ on one of the most important nights of his life.
STEREOGUM:What was the vibe there when Romney wouldn’t concede?
DJ MEL:When the room started to get full and they were kind of starting to show the results and they were announcing which states each candidate won, you could tell that people had a very positive attitude. I didn’t want to say, “OK, he’s gonna win,” but after a while he just gained all this momentum and started winning all these states and the crowd started getting crazier and crazier.
STEREOGUM:You played through the results?
DJ MEL:Yeah. Well, how it happened was that the Obama camp gave me a list of about thirty or forty songs — I can’t remember exactly how many. They were like, “These are the pre-approved songs. Playing these would be good.” There was a schedule and you can imagine that the timeline for the event was run like the military. So those pre-approved songs ended up being kind of low background music for the most part.
DJ MEL:It was pretty all-inclusive stuff. It was like the stuff that Obama approved of. You know like Earth, Wind, and Fire, Jennifer Hudson, U2, Raphael Saadiq. Stuff like that. There wasn’t any party music or anything, but more things they could play in the background because you’d never know when they’d announce a result and the producer would cut me out.
STEREOGUM:Did you have songs selected for when certain states won? Or when Obama won a state?
DJ MEL:No, no, nothing like that. I’d be playing a song and then the producer would tell the sound guy to tell me to fade out to CNN which was playing on the screen. Yeah it was kind of weird, it was like that up until around 1 a.m. when they finally announced that Obama had one and the whole room went crazy.
STEREOGUM:What happened then?
DJ MEL:The thing is that by that time I had already gone through the list of pre-approved songs. They had already come to me and been like, “If you run out of songs just go ahead and play things that you think are more or less fitting. Be mindful about what you play.” I mean, obviously, you can’t just play anything there. You think like that when you’re DJing at a club — you just play what you want and it’s gonna be fine if it’s fun. And this was fun, but you’re also thinking that you could play the wrong song and it will reflect on the president. Right behind me was the press, they could see everything I was doing. I was kind of afraid that if I messed up, they would be like, “Why the hell is he playing this song?” and then immediately take to the Internet and be like, “You won’t believe what Obama is playing at his party.”
STEREOGUM:Can I rewind and ask how you got this gig?
DJ MEL:I played the California Democratic Convention last year and then I played the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte earlier this year. I have a friend that works for the Obama camp. He and I are really, really cool and he’s seen me DJ before — not in a setting like this one, but in clubs and stuff — and he was like, “This guy doesn’t suck!”
STEREOGUM:When did you find out about this?
DJ MEL:A couple nights before!
STEREOGUM:How did you prep for that?
DJ MEL:As far as preparing for it, I really didn’t know what to expect. To be honest with you I’ve been talking to people about this all day and I don’t have an answer except that I didn’t know what to expect at all. When I was asked I was like, “Oh cool!” but then immediately started trying to figure out the logistics about how to get to Chicago and all that stuff. It wasn’t until I got there and got my credentials that it hit me. I was like, “OK. Wow. This is serious stuff.”
STEREOGUM:You didn’t have any pre-gig anxieties?
DJ MEL:I didn’t prepare for it at all! The only thing that I was prepared with were those pre-approved songs. It didn’t hit me until I walked into that empty venue and the press was already there and there were tv cameras everywhere. I just looked around stunned. That’s when it hit me.
When I ran out of the [pre-approved] songs was right around the time they announced that Obama had won. It just happened so quickly and I was so happy — I was jumping up and down and the whole room was going apeshit. I couldn’t even think. Even though I was there working I was so worried that the dude was going to get robbed or that we were going to have to wait for a week for a recount or something. So while I was jumping up and down, I just spur-of-the-moment grabbed and decided to play “Twist And Shout.” The room went bananas and the sound guys were looking at me, telling me that the producers were giving me a thumbs-up. I was honestly just standing there so happy, thinking about how crazy everything was around me. And then it dawned at me that we were in Chicago and Ferris Bueller took place in Chicago — that song “Twist And Shout” played such a big part in that movie. I remember that the crowd in that movie was just as diverse and it was just this scene of joy. It reflected what was going on in that venue on that night, too. That’s when I decided I should just wing it for the rest of the night. I was like, I should just do what I do and really think about what I’m playing. I immediately thought of really uplifting, soulful music. Songs that people knew or didn’t know — the cool thing about it was that they were all songs that I really, really love.
STEREOGUM:Are you happy with your selection looking back at it now? I saw you tweet about how that George Benson song makes you cry.
DJ MEL:Yeah, definitely. I was looking at my set earlier today and listening to some of the songs again, and the lyrics really work with the feeling that came across that night, too. It’s fitting. “Second Time Around” by Shalamar, for example. These are songs that are still relevant and fitting. Based on the crowd reaction it seems like it worked. I had no idea how big the crowd was while I was working but looking at video from it now is crazy. I had no idea how massive that crowd was.
STEREOGUM:Were there any songs that were important for you to play? Songs both significant to you and the election night?
DJ MEL:That George Benson “Love X Love” song for sure. Shalamar’s “Second Time Around” for the obvious reasons but also because that song is meaningful on so many levels. “Twist And Shout” just because of the movie and being in Chicago. “Square Biz” by Teena Marie. The Maze song “Before I Let Go,” too. It was just perfect for that crowd and that moment. I was looking at my music before and thought, “There’s no way that any of this would have gone over as well at a Romney event.”
STEREOGUM:From working these types of Democratic Party campaign events, do you get the sense that it’s important to them to be portrayed as culturally hip and aware?
DJ MEL:I mean for sure. Absolutely. You can tell from the type of songs that they approved from the get-go. Classic-sounding songs with a lot of soul and good vibes.
STEREOGUM:Jay Z and Bruce Springsteen going out with Obama on his last day on the campaign trail was a reminder of the support he’s gotten from musicians. But also a lot people misinterpret the Boss’s lyrics to be super pro-government at times. I guess I’m wondering if you sensed that there was an overarching theme or specific message that the camp was trying to send out through their song choice.
DJ MEL:Yeah, you know that the Boss was pre-approved too, though. “We Take Care Of Our Own” was the song I was told had to be played after Obama finished his speech. But yeah, I feel like there’s definitely an understanding among his camp and in general about the music and musicians that he aligns himself with. Like I said, I would never have been able to play the same stuff at a Romney event. That divide is kind of crazy because of how all-inclusive the Obama camp was with my list of music. Or, at least, I thought it was all-inclusive. Whether it was a Stevie Wonder song or whatever, I think what made a really big impact on that night — at least in that venue — was the music. What it was and where it was placed.
STEREOGUM:So did you get to meet the President?
DJ MEL:No, no. After I was done I was like, “Is there any chance I could meet him! I want to meet him so badly!” My buddy was like, “Dude, not tonight. He’s going to be the president for four more years and you will definitely have a chance but tonight’s not the night.”
STEREOGUM:Was there a plan if Obama lost?
DJ MEL:That was funny. It was so weird. I can only speak for myself and a handful of people I had to deal with but, dude, it was this unsaid thing. No one even mentioned it to me. I don’t even know what would have happened had he not won. I had no idea what I would have done! Obama would have had to make a concession speech and then no one would have been in a party mood. Yeah, no one even talked about that over there.
STEREOGUM:How do you feel about being part of such a historical event now that a few days have passed?
DJ MEL:I’m still wrapping my head around it. I’m kind of blown away by the response on the Internet too to be honest. When I was there, there was no coverage at all. You couldn’t check your Twitter or email or anything. When I cleared out, my phone went nuts and my Twitter had blown up. There were so many people asking who was DJing and then friends of mine replying to them. Mark Ronson was like, “Whoa! Who is DJing these songs at the Obama party! This is nuts!” Questlove said something like that too and then my friends who follow them put them on to me. I think a lot of DJs were amazed that there was a DJ there at all, and that I was playing that kind of music. That was really cool. I’m stoked. I’m not expecting to be famous or anything. It’s funny that I just played this and then will go back to my regular Friday night gig in Austin to just a handful of people. [Laughs.] No, really, I am still wrapping my head around this.