Record-setting goals

Oct 27, 1999 at 12:00 am

How often have you scanned your radio trying to find a song you haven’t already heard eight times that day?

Only a few select new records will be played on most stations over any 24-hour stretch, making for redundant radio and limiting the number of new music introduced. In such a climate, the streets are still key to breaking new music – a fact reflected in the existence and prosperity of record pools: groups of DJs banded together with the aims of increasing their collective clout and getting new music heard on the dance floors.

To get new songs heard, record labels send them to pool directors, who then distribute them to the area’s most prominent DJs. In metro Detroit there are three major record pools servicing more than 150 DJs: the United Dance Music Association (UDMA), the Midwest Dance Association (MDA) and Innovative Jocks.

Former CBS record label representative Clarence "Foody" Rome says that he relied heavily on record pools to create a strong street buzz to get airplay for records he was promoting. But, he adds, "there are records that are not touching radio that are outselling records from the big companies."

Yet no one argues that radio play isn’t a major goal. With only one spin on a major radio station a song will reach more listeners than if it was played at 10 clubs. Still, most records won’t get radio play, and smaller labels are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to influencing the record-buying public. In addition to not having an established track record, Innovative Jocks’ pool director LaRodney "DJ La’Roc" Bullock points out that smaller labels can’t afford "indirect payola" in the form of advertising. Pools give these records a chance.

Although some of the record pool DJs spin on the radio, many spin at clubs, cabarets, raves and other outlets that aren’t limited by a playlist. Thus, they can play a wider range of music. Theoretically, more spins for a track, even in these environs, will lead to more sales. Because of their influence, pool members are wooed by labels through invitations to private parties and dinners and given promotional items such as T-shirts and special mixes of songs.

Yet pools are more than just promotional tools. They also serve as an invaluable source of information for DJs.

Strength in numbers

The opportunity to meet other DJs and industry types are among those membership benefits. Sometimes, DJs get leads on lucrative parties, or are asked to do remixes of the very music that they’re being sent by the labels. However, in most cases, the simple sharing of ideas and knowledge is the main draw: From record selection to comparing equipment, DJs can always learn from one another.

"Now you have all of these friends that you can talk to. If I saw or met them on the street, I couldn’t get any information out of them," says Innovative Jock’s member DJ Whip.

"Instead of four DJs who (player) hate you, now you got four DJs that you’re cool with."

Says UDMA director Tyrone Bradley, "the most common question that (we get) from DJs is ‘what should I charge?’"

More than benevolence is at hand when he points out that DJs want to be sure that others charge fair prices so that they themselves won’t be undercut. "There’s some guys who are going to clubs and play for $30 a night for five hours. That’s utterly ridiculous," adds Bradley.

While these serfs pose no threat to Bradley – whose pay scale is considerably more than $30 a night – he’s still very conscientious of the professionalism of his members. After all, the conduct of pool members reflects back on the director. Just owning a set of turntables and a mixer doesn’t make one a DJ. Understanding a crowd and knowing which records to play is the key.

"If you have a crowd of 50-year-old people and your first record is ‘Smack That Butt and Make it Jiggle,’ as opposed to ‘Let’s Get It On,’ then you’re in trouble," says Bullock. While that may seem like an obvious mistake, it does happen.

There has long been talk of the formation of a DJ union that will, among other things, set a minimum pay scale for union members. But the ultimate goal is to elevate the profession of DJing in general. Until then, pools regulate their own members for quality.

In the context of the sometimes shady music industry, conflicts between the pools are rather tame. Innovative Jocks was formed two years ago by Bullock, who had long been a member of the UDMA. As a result, some Innovative Jock members say that they’re looked at as a second-rate pool by UDMA members and some record label reps. They claim that this is due to the pool’s youthfulness and because UDMA has more big names – including WJLB’s Gary Chandler and WDTJ’s Wax Tax ’n’ Dre.

Explains Rome, "(UDMA has) been successful because it’s been a gradual progression. It took over 20 years to get to that point."

Sure enough, during its existence Innovative Jocks’ roster has already attracted the likes of well-known DJs such as Ghost, Ray O’Shea and Babe. Both Bradley and Bullock were diplomatic about any supposed conflict and said they had discussed planning a picnic sponsored by both pools as evidence of their amicable coexistence.

However, according to some members of the MDA, their pool still doesn’t get respect, even though it’s been around for 20 years and has a membership base that includes Billboard reporters and DJ pioneers such as Chad Novak and Stacey "Hot Waxx" Hale. Part of the reason may be that Innovative Jocks and the UDMA specialize in urban music (mostly hip hop and R&B), while the MDA has traditionally focused on "dance" music (which includes mainstream forms such as house, alternative and freestyle).

Musi-cultural expectations

More than simply playing different types of music, the pools also deal with different crowds, cultures and expectations. Sarena Tyler, who often DJs overseas, was very vocal about the lack of respect she felt that her MDA peers received from other DJs. "Most of the DJs in MDA are in high-paying clubs that don’t accept under $200 a night. Others (rates) are so high that clubs can’t book us. (Other DJs) can learn something from us when it comes to accepting peanuts," she says.

Additionally, she felt that some people had a problem with many of MDA’s members spinning in gay and lesbian clubs. "The gay/lesbian/ alternative clubs are the clubs that pay the DJs what they are worth," says Tyler.

Race has also been an issue at times. MDA is often perceived as a "white" pool due to the type of records it services. Interestingly enough, MDA has a respectable urban music department run by Art "Pumpin’" Payne, a columnist in Dance Music Authority magazine and a longtime DJ at Club Topaze. Taking a slightly different stance than Tyler, Payne wonders if some members in the other pools had even heard of the MDA.

Regardless, he adds that his pool was too concerned about its own members and the record labels to worry about what anyone else thought. Concurring with him, one unnamed DJ from Innovative Jocks added, "as long as the record gets played, the labels make money. We as DJs need to focus on being creative and getting some of that money for ourselves."

If you really want to feel of the pulse of the city it’d probably best if you turned off that radio and sought out your nearest club or dance hall. Daniel D. Zarazua is a Detroit-based freelance writer and