On a humid Friday night in Manhattan, Sean Paul’s “Temperature” can be heard blasting on an East Village street every time a door opens. The source of the 2006 Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper is Phoenix, a neighborhood gay bar.
Inside Phoenix, it proves to be a challenge to squeeze, dance, and maneuver from the bouncer through a packed dancefloor to the DJ in the back. Standing tall — and next to a pool table conveniently pushed aside to make more room for dancing — Phoenix’s resident tastemaker for Friday nights, DJ Erol Sabadosh, prepares his cue: Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter” and Migos‘ “Bad and Bujee” are up next. Five songs later, Icona Pop’s “I Love It” fades into Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” A customer walks up to Erol, shows their phone’s tracklist and then proceeds to request Iggy Azalea’s new song “Switch.”
Erol understands the importance of variety, but that particular request wasn’t fulfilled — he didn’t have time to download all the new music released that day.
Throughout the night, Phoenix’s crowd turns up to an eclectic mixture of music. Rap fans of the new school, old school, and femcees aren’t disappointed. The standard “my fav is better than your fav” debate always arises when current and former top 40 is spun. And those seeking vintage gay anthems try to make it to the bar’s 4 a.m. closing time, when the last 30 minutes transform into a Madonna– and Cyndi Lauper-fueled heaven.
Across the nation — at various safe spaces for LGBTQ nightlife — other DJs stand in the same position as Erol, balancing their personal tastes with the demands of their audience. Ultimately, these DJs are responsible for setting the tone for others’ night out as well as honoring the vibes their hosting venues wish to put out. It’s not easy, but all can agree that a dancing crowd is a sign of a happy crowd.
Billboard spoke with seven DJs from across the nation about the songs and artists they enjoy spinning — as well as the ones they’re sick of — and their personal observations when assessing their crowd’s musical tastes.
Spinning Billboard Hot 100 Hits
The same night DJ Erol received a request for Iggy Azalea’s hip-pop single “Switch,” the pop world had one of its more interesting days. In less than 24 hours, Camila Cabello released her first solo single, “Crying In The Club,” since departing Fifth Harmony, and Katy Perry followed up her Witness release date announcement with a new single featuring Nicki Minaj, “Swish Swish.”
Jon ALi — a DJ who runs his own music blog and makes appearances at the Barracuda Bar in Manhattan as well as various parties in Hell’s Kitchen — was surprised to inform Billboard that “Swish Swish” was the most requested song of that weekend. He believes the song was successful with his crowds because of its old school house production and modern qualities (Nicki Minaj, trap), diagnosing it as a case of “the nostalgic and the new.” He noted the older crowds “really like” Perry possibly because of her surrogacy for Hillary Clinton, and her new sounds serve faint reminders of the disco revolution. He says the older crowds also favor Bruno Mars.
On the other hand, DJ Begbick — who has weekly residencies at three Boston spots, Club Cafe, Alley Bar and Machine — revealed “Katy Perry hasn’t really been hitting” the Monday after the singer finally released Witness. Begbick claims “many are criticizing the timing” of Perry’s righting of her past controversies, although he personally finds her efforts “sincere.” His final thoughts on the matter: “So far, her singles have been interesting, but not outright bangers.”
Aside from the constant “Swish Swish” demands, ALi says that the pop diva consistently passing his signature “when everyone has their hands up in the air” test is Ariana Grande, particularly when he plays her smash “Into You.” And songs from Britney Spears’ Glory still receive some of ALi’s best crowd reactions. As far as the new crop of Top 40 is concerned, DJ Barry Harris — a Juno Award winning artist and producer from Canada, who DJs at various events and nightclubs in the U.S. as well — noticed Halsey is “garnering the biggest attention world-wide right now.” And when it comes to his gigs, DJ Erol knows “Beyoncé and Rihanna almost unanimously unite the dance floor every time.”
Spinning Hip-Hop… Or Not
On a separate Friday night at Phoenix, DJ Erol had been in the middle of a hip-hop set featuring Azealia Banks’ grimy “212,” Lil’ Kim’s black Barbie-repping anthem “The Jump Off,” and the classic Foxy Brown and Jay Z duet “I’ll Be.” The moment was not unusual, as female hip-hop has earned a spot in the LGBTQ Musical Hall of Fame. But the bouncer comes up to Erol with a request to tone down the hip-hop; he witnessed a more straight-presenting crowd coming to dance, but not buying drinks. The request — although motivated by financial concerns — was uncomfortable and perplexing.
Dawna Montell — a resident DJ at Los Angeles’ The Abbey, a club the receives appearances from Elton John, Adam Lambert, and Sam Smith — argued “it doesn’t create a really good energy if you play only trap all night long. You have to play a little bit of house and other genres,” before admitting, “maybe I’m just not ready to play a five hour set of trap music.” She’d been annoyed by the influx of younger Abbey customers flocking to the dancefloor whenever she’d spin Iggy Azalea, but leave for the bar when the disco classics of yesteryear come on.
Someone who’s actually capable of spinning trap all night long is DJ Tina V — the promoter and resident DJ of Phase One, a lesbian bar in Atlanta that primarily plays hip-hop. Sometime when she DJs in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio — just five hours away from Midwest hip-hop exporter Chicago — she notes they’re behind on the hot songs she’s long introduced to her southern clientele. All her crowds gravitate towards New Jersey club mixes and twerking, love Chris Brown, show equal love in the Remy Ma vs. Nicki Minaj beef, and go crazy over Migos’ “Bad & Boujee.” When asked if Migos’ seemingly homophobic remarks affected their rotation in LGBTQ bars, Tina cast their words as harmless: “I don’t think that matters unless it’s something really serious where it’s just downright degrading to our community.”
DJ Begbick called into question why “gay white men [were not] staunch allies for other oppressed minorities.” He “conceded” that hip-hop’s lyricism can be problematic for the LGBTQ community, but argued that gay people are still a part of the hip-hop movement, as they are able to relate to a central feeling of oppression. He categorized the genre as “fun party music” alongside standard Top 40 pop and gay anthems. On the idea of “fun party music,” DJ Erol believes “a lot of people consciously or subconsciously choose to ignore [a rap song’s occasional homophobia] because they [simply] like the beat or hook of a song.”
Supporting Other Queer Artists
JD Arnold — a British DJ living in Houston, Texas — expressed that “it is important to support artists that are out and proud or at least reconciled with their orientation, and help others come out.”
Interestingly, most of the DJs interviewed replied that it shouldn’t be an obligation to play other queer artists. DJ Montell was frank in her explanation: “We’re in the business to make money and a lot of times if you only play gay artists, you might not make a lot of money.” She finds this reality “unfortunate,” attributing it to mainstream and radio’s lack of promoting queer artists. DJ Begbick added a lot of music from queer artists is “very personal” and intentionally “niche” therefore it clashes with the general mood of “folks who just want to sing along and get stupid.”
Still, these tastemakers listed mainstream queer artists that they regularly spin. DJ Tina V and DJ Erol shouted out Young M.A while Montell plays Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” whenever she gets a chance. After complimenting his eyebrows, Arnold recommended Leon Else for his “amazing voice,” Tyler Glenn of the Neon Trees for his “club friendly remixes,” and Bright Light, Bright Light, a Welsh singer who has collaborated with Elton John and The Scissor Sisters. Openly proud emcees like Cakes da Killa and Mykki Blanco did not make anyone’s list.
On The State of Gay Anthems
A gay anthem is considered to be a song with an uplifting message, powerful vocals and a grandiose chorus — and it makes you want to dance. DJ Arnold — who is also the creator of the remix team Dirty Disco — says gay anthems should “inspire” and “take you on a journey that stirs emotions.” For Pride celebrations, his go-to anthems are Kim English’s “Unspeakable Joy,” Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” and Livin’ Joy’s “Dreamer.”
During her interview, DJ Montell became upset when discussing a lack of regard for gay anthem classics such as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Montell believes there is also a decline in the gay anthems of today — something she didn’t expect would happen when she started DJing 35 years ago. To preserve the memories of the disco anthems, she hosts Sunday events for The Chapel at The Abbey, dedicated to playing those specific tunes. She panicked that “there’s no Madonna, no Adele, no Rihanna” gay anthems to play this summer; although later on she acknowledged Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” as a uniter. Montell’s savior at the moment is Lady Gaga’s “The Cure” because of its message. Analyzing the lyrics, Montell finished with this thought: “We want a cure for all our problems. It’s empowering — we should all be each other’s cure.”
Otherwise, ALi — who grew up on the trifecta of Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston — sees Katy Perry and Ariana Grande as the “new curators” for today’s gay anthems. Still “the familiar” is truly what gets the crowd going, with Madonna’s “Vogue” making the top of his requests.
ALi emphasized that during his runs at the DJ booth, he often plays non-singles and deep cuts. He’s not the only one guilty of that.
Dua Lipa came up a few times as the “one to watch.” Arnold described her voice as “unique, powerful, and hypnotic” as it also favors remixes. Montell backed up this belief calling her voice “nice and pure.” Next to Dua Lipa, Arnold brought up Ariana & The Rose and Maty Noyes as other newcomers he’s always excited to play.
Montell noted that acts such as Zara Larsson and Bebe Rexha are gaining traction because of their features on major dance records by A-List DJs. ALi’s favorite in the pack is Finnish talent ALMA — particularly for her neon highlighter hair — and Swedish singer Tove Styrke, who is often requested at Brooklyn parties.
The Songs They’re Sick of Playing
While they might be popular with LGBTQ crowds, a few DJs confessed that they were tired of playing Madonna and Britney Spears. Begbick and ALi both complained that while they love Madonna, their clientele wants to hear “the same two or three songs over and over again”: “Vogue” and “Like A Prayer.” ALi wishes his audiences would be more open-minded to her three-decade discography and give her latest cuts — like 2015’s “Unapologetic Bitch” — a try.
Harris had the most shocking answer of them all — he’s tired of playing his own 2001 gay anthem “Dive In A Pool” which was featured in an episode of the Showtime series Queer As Folk. “I’m very appreciative of the success of ‘Dive In The Pool.’ It’s a very simple track,” Harris tells Billboard. “I’m not sure why it resonates for Pride in particular, perhaps it’s the ‘let’s get this party started’ factor that everyone can relate to. I guess I hit a nerve with the concept.”
As far as Erol is concerned, “I don’t really get sick of songs if they make people dance. I honestly never get tired of seeing a room full of people having a good time — and if that means playing a particular song frequently, then that’s ok.”