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It’s Sunday night around 10:30 at State of the Union, and the two Technics turntables sit idle in the corner. Sam “the Man” Burns is usually here by now. But tonight he’s having the DJ equivalent of a fashion crisis. He wants this night to be great. It’s his 41st birthday, and a lot of friends from his early DJ-ing days will be showing up.
Burns is still at home, sorting through the hundreds of records that fill his basement. “I’m realizing I’m bringing way too many records….I’m trying to whittle it down,” says Burns on the telephone. “It’s kind of like packing for a trip, and you realize you packed too much.”
Half an hour later he arrives at the club, somewhat breathless, with three crates and a shoulder bag of precious vinyl.
“Stand up…and do our thing,” the record commands. Hammond organ chords put the crowd of loyal regulars into a Baptist-church mode. Burns studies the crowd, occasionally swigging from a bottle of birthday champagne someone has given him. Headphones hang around his neck like a surgeon’s stethoscope. His fingers are gentle and precise as he drops the needle on a new record. It’s been only 20 minutes, and already the dancers have reached a fever pitch.
“It’s like a journey. In the early part of the night, no one’s there. It’s like foreplay,” says Burns. “You gotta know when to pick it up and when to peak it. You gotta know how to get people into a frenzy.”
He has what all good DJs must: the power
“Sam never fails to get me open,” says Jason Bulluck, a Sunday night semi-regular. “I noticed he be watchin’ people when he’s DJ-in’. He knows everything that’s goin’ onSam be Yoda-watchin’ muthafuckahs.”
Burns’ casual expression belies his awareness of everything happening in his domain. You can’t hide: Run into Burns the next day on the street, and he may compliment you on a particular dance move. Or call you out about a bump-and-grind you were doing with a certain someone when you thought no one was looking.
II. “You Used to Play for My Father.”
Burns’ career in the club world didn’t start with him on the wheels of steel right away. In 1978, he got a job at the Chapter II club in Southeast, now the Mirage, working the door. His big break came a few months later when one of the DJs, Kenny “Hollywood” Hart, was ill and Burns had to substitute at the last minute.
“When I first started at Chapter II, [the regulars] said, ‘This club is going down. They got the doorman playin’ records,’” Burns remembers. “I wasn’t that good in terms of transitions, but I always played the right record.”
He soon got on the DJ circuit, doing short stints at Washington clubs like the Casablanca, the L.A. Cafe, and Tiffany’s.
In 1983, he moved to North Carolina for six months and opened a club called Jasper’s, but green acres wasn’t the life for Burns. Chocolate City soon called him back home.
“I’ve been playing so long, sons and daughters of guys I used to play for come into the club,” says Burns. “I’ll see some fine girl. She’ll be like, ‘How you doin,’ Sam?’” says Burns. “And I’ll be [thinking], ‘Do I know her?’ Then she’ll say, ‘You used to play for my father.’ At first I feel a sigh of relief. And then I realize I’ve been in the business too long.”
He is tall and athletically trim. His skin is the color of milk with a splash of coffee thrown in. With his close-cropped hair and boyish smile, Burns looks younger than he is, and he shows few signs of slowing down.
“I don’t look back and say, ‘Whew, I’m tired.’ ‘Cause I don’t feel that way,” says Burns. “There are people who used to tell me I’d never make it. I’m still here, and they’re not. My attitude is, I’m gonna be on the front line, and I’m gonna prove you wrong.”
III. Rituals of Long Ago
“The only way is up…” the song exclaims, “I got to reach the crowd….I got to reach the mountaintop.”
“He said he was going to ease me in,” says Tunde Oyewole, sweating and out of breath. “He said, ‘Yeah, if you come early, I’ll play a slow song.’ He lied,” Oyewole says, feigning indignation, before returning to the dance floor.
Except for a red light above the stage, the club is almost dark, like a basement party in someone’s house. The dancers on the stage become a peanut gallery of praise. “Come on, Sam,” they shout. “Yeah, baby,” one exclaims when a satisfying beat comes on.
House music. Its detractors say it’s too repetitive. But there’s joy in repetition: The drums of African antiquity. Africa’s children recalling by instinct and blood memory the dances and rituals of long ago. African trance states. Brazilian capoeira. Carolina ring shouts. Harlem’s Lindy Hop. Melodiesjazzy scats and piano riffs; low, deep Delta voices, grunting and moaning their meaning. Mothership funk, motherland blues.
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“Not everyone understands … house…mu…sic,” a deep voice on the record intones. “It’s a spiritual thing. A body thing. A soul thing.”
“I wanna raise awareness for black people about the music,” says Burns. “As African-Americans, we draw from so muchjazz, gospel, R&B…and if we have some West Indian roots, that’s gonna be in there, too.
“But we’re more than that, too. One night, the club was off the hook and a guy said to me, ‘House music is coming back.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Nigga, it never left,’ just like that. ‘You left it.’ He went to the clubs where all the women is and all the gaming is.”
“When I see people dancing in a circle, I love that, ’cause that’s tradition. Look back at Harlem. [Tap-dancers] Sandman and Honi Coles. They used to challenge each other, absorb each other’s steps,” Burns says. “A lot of club owners want to break it up. I say, ‘No, leave it, ’cause I’d rather see them challenging each other instead of grabbing a woman’s ass or stealing a drink, doing something they shouldn’t.”
IV. An Actor or a DJ
“Put my blues on the shelf/and I made up my mind to get ahold of myself/and eased on down to the disco,” Burns says, quoting the lyrics to the Tramps’ “Disco Is Where the Happy People Go.”
“First time I starting going out, it was to get over a heartbreak,” says Burns. “The song that got me out was the Tramps’.”
Burns, a native Washingtonian all the way, was born at Columbia Hospital for Women and grew up in and around Northeast, though summers in Long Island have given his speech a slight New York accent. “I remember when my sister would take me to the Howard Theater to see James Brown and Wilson Pickett, the Four Tops, the Temps, the Dells. So many good acts.
“I would listen to the radio, buy music, and daydream about what I wanted to do,” Burns says of his teenage years. “In my high school yearbook, I wrote down that I wanted to be either an actor or a DJ.”
He went to the University of the District of Columbia for a couple of years and studied design, but found the business end of it a downer.
Even the club scene had him lowfor a minute. There was a time, he says, when “I got tired of playing in nightclubs. It got to be where I felt like a human jukebox. My background is in the arts. If I can, [I want to] do more than play a record. I want to interpret it.”
V. The Murphy’s Law of Clubland
“It’s so HOT…I’m burnin’ up…” the lyrics prophesy.
An hour after his arrival, Burns sets the stage for another climax. The African rhythms of “The Horn Song” by the Don drive the dancers into earthy, lusty, low-to-the-ground movements. They stomp their feet; their torsos undulate. Burns teases the crowd, keeping the sound levels low. When he finally eases in the full bass, the crowd explodes.
Next he brings in a song that fuses ethereal strings with soprano choir voices. The crowd sways in the post-climax calm. But soon Burns begins the petting again. In what seems like only a few minutes, a swell of energy rebuilds. When he plays “Horny” by Mousse T., the crowd jumps to its Latin rhythms and lyrics teased out in a Betty Boop voice.
“Man, fuck you, Sam,” shouts a frustrated Weusi Baraka, a few feet away from the turntables. “I’m tryin’ to leave. I’m startin’ a new job tomorrow.” Baraka gets close to the door, but the music’s charisma holds him. Seems like every time you get ready to leave the club, the DJ plays your favorite song.
Ain’t no use trying to look cool. Everybody is drenched with sweat. It’s so hot people use the plastic plates from the birthday buffet as fans.
VI. “You Are All Ministers.”
During the mid-’80s, Burns spun records at clubs like Kilimanjaro and the Ritz, bringing recording artists like Adeva, Ten City, and Tribal House to town to perform. At Tracks, he shared the turntables with some of his favorite DJs: Mandrill, Keith Miller, Jerome Hicks from Paradox in Baltimore, Juan Spencer, DJ Oji, Pope, Curtis Lee. But it was during a five-year stint from 1985 to 1990 at the Clubhouse that he really paid his dues.
For 15 years, until it closed in 1990, the Clubhouse was the place in D.C. “People would ask me why I was DJ-ing at a gay club,” says Burns. “It was the only place I could grow! I learned a lot when I was at the Clubhouse: I learned about DJ-ing; I learned about life.
“They kept me in the back room for a long time, ’cause not everyone could play the front room,” says Burns.
The club’s managers, Aundrea Scott, who died four years ago, and Reverend Rainey Cheeks, had a philosophy that went beyond making money. Each night before the club opened, the staff would join hands in a circle as Cheeks and Scott led them through a breathing meditation.
“Aundrea Scott said, ‘You all are ministers. If you come in and you are in love, the people are going to feel that.’
“What he was trying to explain was how to put the emotional content on the floor,” says Burns, a touch of awe in his voice. “It took me years to learn that.”
VII. Before It Was Called “House”
“And Jack said, ‘Let there be house’… and house music was born….” the voice from the record proclaims in rolling black-preacher tones.
Teacher, preacher, counselor, seeker: “Music is the healing force of the world,” Burns says. “I love making people happy, to see them just smile and sweat. And to see people hug each other. Sincere hugs, where they hug someone and close their eyes.
“Sunday night is like church,” he says. “People there are like family. People hugging and stuff.” Burns presides over the congregation of supplicants as if his own salvation depended on it.
“I think it’s an insult to stand in line and pay $10 to $20 to hear songs you heard on the radio on the way here,” Burns declares unapologetically. “I chose to go in a different direction and go for the people who want an alternative sound. Even before it was called house.”
The term “house” came from people shortening the names of major clubs that played a specific style of post-disco dance music. It originated in Chicago at places like the Warehouse and the Powerhouse, and could be heard in D.C. at the Clubhouse.
“I’m educating people, ’cause you hear things [in the club] that you don’t hear on the radio,” says Burns. “It’s class. It’s school. You get new faces every year.”
Even in conversation, Burns mixes and remixes, cutting from the present to the past and back to the present in the same breath. Thoughts spiralling like a 45, he takes unexpected tangents before returning to his original idea.
“The past will be here the next second we breathe,” says Burns. “Two or three years from now, the records you hear today are going to be classics. I try to be an optimist, to be in the moment, to stay young at heart.”
VIII. So Long as You Keep Your
“Iiiiiii….love to love you, baby,” Donna Summer’s whisper-light voice breathes through the speakers.
Just past 1 a.m., Burns gets into a set of classic disco, following Summer’s anthem with Peter Brown’s “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me.”
“What I’ve always done is to try to make people feel good about themselves. Happy. Free. ‘Cause it’s such a hedonistic atmosphere,” Burns says of the club scene. “I’m just providing the escape for a lot of people. And people need that.”
The free-love days of the ’70s may be over, but so long as you keep your clothes on, anything goes on the dance floor. Grinding bodies press against the walls. Solo spotlight dancers look for adulation.
Then Burns drops a nasty song. “Motherfucker. Oh, sweet daddy,” cry the lyrics of The Sensuous Black Woman, a comic porn recording put out by Rudy Ray Moore of Dolemite fame. “Ohhhhh. Whatcha doin’ to me?” the black woman half talks, half moans.
A couple of baggy-pants-wearin’ drum-‘n’-bass boys leave the jungle scene in the back room to dance spasmodically to Burns’ house rhythms, their fingers wrapped around neon Glow Sticks. Some drunk suburban types hog the floor, spilling beer everywhere and gettin’ rowdy, until a group of dedicated dancers manages to edge them off the main floor.
Burns plays “My Love Is Free,” a sweet throwback to another day and time. Sheba, a regular who’s older than Burns but has the body and stamina of a 20-year-old, hand-dances with a dark-skinned brother whose chiseled bare chest gleams in the dim light. He spins her effortlessly, sends her whirling away, only to catch her hand at the last second. A space opens up around them on the red-lit stage as the other dancers watch, rapt.
On the main floor, everyone keeps housin’, stompin’, and shakin’. One sister is dancing
so hard that one of her braided hair extensions falls out. She tucks it in her pocket and keeps
IX. Honor Thy House Mother Supreme
In the middle of the crowd’s dance-floor orgy, a young woman hassles Burns about a song she says he cut short. Then she has the nerve to ask him for a tape. “Honey, I played it. I got all these records I got to get through,” he replies diplomatically, before attending to the next song.
“I have a lot of respect for DJs, ’cause they take a lot of abuse,” says Burns. “Some people come up to me and say, “‘Man, what the fuck is that you playin’?’”
It’s not an easy job. Maybe in New York it can make you a celebrity, but here in D.C. the best you can hope for is to become a legend among a close-knit family of house lovers. Burns makes sure to give props to the DJs, producers, and musicians who put D.C. on the underground map. “Ultra Naté. 95 North. Deep Dish. B.T. Darren Hymes,” he says, rattling off the first few names that come to mind. “And, of course, District house mother supreme, DJ Sedrick.
“If someone comes and wrecks it, I’ll say, ‘That boy took me to the clinic.’ Or that girl ’cause there’s a lot of good female DJ’s here…Michelle, DJ Tracy, DJ Shorty, India…”
The respect is mutual. Tonight, almost as many DJs as hard-core dancers fill the club. Sam Taylor, a relative young’un at 30, considers Burns one of his mentors. “He inspires us a lot,” says Taylor. “He doesn’t have an attitude. He’s always giving to us.”
“If you look at yourself as an artist, you’ll have a long career,” says Burns. “If you look at it like an athlete, you can forget it.”
Around 2 a.m., the crowd starts to thin. Burns plays one of his favorite songs, Chaka Khan’s “I Know You, I Live You.” When the song ends, everyone stops dancing and applauds him. He smiles, enjoying the ovation for only a few seconds before sliding the fader into the next song.
X. Play One More, Sam
“Keep pushin’ on… it won’t take long… keep on movin’, movin’, keep on movin’ to the top,” a soulful, angelic voice intones.
Some hard-core househeads would stay ’til dawn if the club would let them. But this is D.C. we’re talking about. At 3 a.m., the lights come onwhich usually scares most nightcrawlers away. But as long as the music’s still on, the dancers here don’t stop.
The club is supposed to close now. Burns comes on the microphone and bids the crowd goodnight. They respond with exaggerated sighs of disappointment before breaking into the Stevie Wonder version of “Happy Birthday.”
“Oh, y’all think I’m gonna play another song,” Burns responds. “No. Uh-uh. Get out. Go home.”
But the crowd won’t relent. Three guys from back in the day start naming all the clubs where Burns used to play. He turns around and starts digging in the crates. “This is the first time, ever, since I closed, that I played another song,” he says. “Y’all wore me out tonight. Y’all made me work.
“Tonight y’all made a statement…that my ass is old,” he quips into the mike. “No, but really, there’s an underground dance scene, and I wanna thank you for keepin’ it alive. Tonight, I saw my whole life flash in front of me.”CP