After almost two decades dominating D.C.’s turntables, DJ Celo has decided to make some room for the next generation.
DJ Celo constantly nods his head. Even when there are layers of distracting noise, such as the audible confusion of the Crossroads nightclub’s Wednesday-night Liquid party, Celo jostles his head about ever so slightly—almost imperceptibly. He nods at the bar as he waits to place his drink order. He keeps the beat in the club’s connecting hallway, where the reggae from the front room and the hiphop from the back merge into a cacophonous boom. His perpetually bobbing dome sticks out in the crowd, towering over the less-active heads of the college students in attendance, until he finally disappears somewhere behind the DJ booth.
But Washington’s premier hiphop turntablist, the man nicknamed the “Supafunk Regulator” for his seamless mixing and precise scratching, isn’t on the decks as much as he used to be. Tonight, he’s just stopping by the booth to support DJ Exclusive—his young radio colleague who is responsible for providing the beats that are making his cranium bounce.
After 18 years of paying dues, Celo has joined the ranks of DJs who have transcended mere record-player status to become bona fide personalities, capable of packing a nightclub even when they’re not spinning. So the 29-year-old club and radio veteran is content just to host the Bladensburg, Md., nightclub’s weekly event. Tonight, he walks around and talks to patrons while giving other jocks a chance to showcase their skills.
“I’ve got love for every DJ,” Celo says. “A lot of younger guys will come up to me and say, ‘You’re the reason why I’m doing this.’ I didn’t realize how much of an impact I had, just doing what I love to do. It makes me feel like a million dollars. That’s all I ever really wanted: to have an impact on people’s lives, let them see the music the way I see it.
“Nobody cared about a DJ when I first started,” he adds. “It was like, ‘Yo, man, can you turn that off and put that [Rare] Essence tape in?’ Now, the same people I grew up with come up to me and they’re like, ‘Yo, man, I just wanted to let you know how proud I am of you.’ [They] are telling me, ‘I didn’t even like that DJ shit until you came along.’”
Celo started introducing his friends to the art of cutting and scratching when he was growing up in the Taft Terrace neighborhood of Northeast and still answered to the name Leon Carlos Ferguson. He stumbled across his career path in 1984, at a family reunion.
“I saw the guy DJing, mixing my favorite records together—I didn’t move from that spot the whole day. I didn’t eat, I didn’t play with the other kids,” he says. “My mom was like, ‘Why don’t you go play?’ I was like, ‘Naw, I want to watch him.’ From that point on, I told everyone, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Celo’s inaugural performance was a few months later, at another family function: an aunt’s wedding in New York. “A guy was DJing at the reception—I went over and was talking to him. When it was time to party, he played 10 records and then let me play five after that,” he recalls. “The whole reception just went crazy. The first song I ever played was ‘Automatic’ by the Pointer Sisters.”
After the 11-year-old Celo returned home to D.C., he started practicing on an uncle’s turntables, hooking them up to a $24 Radio Shack mixer. “My mom was telling me, ‘Why don’t you go outside and play with the other kids?’” he remembers. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Celo was soon working the school-dance circuit. By the time he was a junior at McKinley Tech High School, he began trying to break into the nightclub scene as well. “I went to Chicago’s in Dupont Circle,” he says. “Me and my friends used to catch the train down there every Sunday night and my cousin was the bouncer, so I could get in even though I was too young. I kept begging the promoter, ‘Let me get on, man, please! I’m good!’ They finally let me get on, and I rocked it.”
That job led to stints at bigger clubs such as Kilimanjaro, the Ritz, and the Opera, where Celo was given the opportunity to open for legendary New York DJ Kid Capri.
“I was playing mediocre records,” Celo says of the gig. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful and play all the good records in the first hour, and I know this man’s about to come on and play for three to four hours. He came in and saw that, and came up to me and said, ‘Man, I’ve been here for like an hour, and I just wanted to thank you, because you didn’t play any of the hot records. It’s like you were waiting on me to get here.’ He gave me big love for that.”
The decision also impressed the party’s promoter, who offered Celo a weekly spot at the club. “At the end of the night,” he recalls, “I’m packing up my records, heading out door, and the promoter yells, ‘Yo, Celo, come here.’ He handed me an envelope with $400. Four hundred dollars back then, especially for me, was amazing. I knew I was on the right track from that point on.”
In 1992, while working at the Opera, Celo met Carmen Finley, the then-music director at D.C.’s WKYS 93.9 FM, who offered him a position in radio. “She heard me rock and told me that I should try DJing on the radio,” he recalls. A week later, Celo began doing Saturday nights at the station once a month. “It wasn’t live—it was recorded on a tape and played,” he says. “The first record I played on the air was Chi Ali’s ‘Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.’ I’m still in high school, I have the radio spot, and I’m DJing at bigger clubs, like the Clubhouse.”
But the thrill of working at a large radio station turned out to be short-lived. “WKYS started going through ownership changes. They wanted to get away from the hiphop format, so that’s when I left,” Celo says.
So in 1994, the DJ called local radio personality Albie Dee about coming to work at his station: the Infinity Broadcasting-owned WPGC 95.5 FM. At the time, the station was trying to switch from playing Top 40 to an urban-radio format—and beginning to vie with WKYS for the No. 1 spot in the D.C. market.
“It’s like I had to start all over,” says Celo of the move. “I did overnights from 12 to 3 in the morning, and we didn’t get paid unless we had a sponsor for those hours, which we never did.”
By 1995, Celo had transferred into a more agreeable time slot hosting an evening-drive-time show with Dee. “I started the 5 o’clock mix shows,” he says. “When you listen to those shows on 93.9 and 92Q—we were the first ones to do it on a consistent basis.”
But despite the success of his and Dee’s 5 o’clock broadcast, Celo was getting restless. He was also dissatisfied with the money he was making.
Meanwhile, Radio One founder Cathy Hughes had acquired WKYS and was reinstating the station’s old hiphop-and-R&B formula. So in 1996, Celo set up a meeting with then-WKYS Program Director Steve Hegwood and Hughes’ son and business partner, Alfred Liggins. “I went in with the wrong attitude,” Celo says. “I told them I was the tightest DJ in the city, that all other DJs were copying my style. I would never say that about myself today. It was a mistake.”
His cockiness paid off, however: A few days later, Celo received a call from Hegwood. “He said, ‘Let’s work up a contract,’” the DJ says. “It was the first contract of my career.
“When I went back to WKYS, it had been owned by Cathy Hughes for two years, but they had never been to No. 1,” he adds. “They were in sixth or seventh place. Three months after I got there, the station went to No. 1.”
Just a year later, though, after changes in WKYS’s management and a contract renegotiation, Celo resigned—and then got in touch with WPGC program director Jay Stevens, who rehired him. “He brought me back, and I’ve been here ever since,” Celo says.
In retrospect, Celo regrets getting stuck in the middle of the stations’ battle to be the best. “I was playing both stations against each other,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing at the time—I was just a kid. But I said to myself, ‘You know what? There are two radio stations in this market. You have options.’”
“The mistake they made was showing me all of this,” he says of the radio-ratings system. “I would’ve never known. Steve Hegwood showed me everything about radio. I was DJing my ass off, but he showed me that radio is all about ratings.
“[WKYS was] No. 1. They never said it was because of me, but they didn’t have to tell me that: They showed me the ratings.”
At Crossroads, Celo spends most of his time watching his friend Exclusive. Whether from inside the DJ booth or the rare quiet corner, he listens intently and monitors the crowd’s reaction to each record being played, raising one hand in the air and pointing to his man whenever an especially hot track is thrown on.
Occasionally, he walks the floor of the club—as always, bopping his head up and down and delivering soul pounds to guests, security guards, and bartenders alike. They all tell him the same thing before releasing their grips and walking away to resume partying or working: “Keep doin’ it.”
He smiles and thanks each one for the love, even though much of what he’s doing these days is looking out for up-and-coming talent. As WPGC’s mix-show coordinator, Celo has placed Exclusive in the 5 p.m. time slot that propelled his own career, leaving himself with just three weekly sets: Friday afternoons from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Friday nights from 10 until midnight, and Saturday nights from 9 until midnight.
In the meantime, Celo has decided to branch out: He will soon be DJing the first alternative-music mix show at WHFS 99.1 FM. “I listen to that type of music, but there aren’t really mix shows on alternative stations,” he says. “I just want to do it for a little while, to open a door for alternative DJs.”
Even though he usually moves to the sounds of hiphop and go-go, Celo says that his eternally bopping head can adjust to any beat: “I can mix country, slow music, whatever. As long as there is a tempo, I can blend it.” CP