We All Have Songs We’d Rather Avoid Playing at Our Events—Until a Guest Offers a Tip.
According to Arizona wedding DJ Robert Starkey, he will never play “Watch Me (Whip/Nae-Nae)”… even if a gun were held to his head.
“I played it one time for a four-year-old’s birthday party at the request of the birthday girl,” recalls Starkey of Havasu Entertainment in Havasu City. “It was then requested again at another public function by another child, and I told the parent I would see if I had it—but still didn’t play it, even though I did have it.
“The parent didn’t know any better. I refuse to play that song at any public event; no money can pay me to play that song in public.”
But he’s not the only DJ who has contempt for a particular song. Just ask Brendan Fitzgerald of Rhythm Makers DJs in Tampa, Fla.
“I don’t know,” he muses, “but every time I have to play ‘Hit the Quan’ [by iHeart Memphis] a little piece of me dies on the inside.”
Adds John (DJ Double J) White of Dubuque, Iowa, “‘Wobble’ [by V.I.C.] is another one that sucks, along with the ‘Cupid Shuffle’ [by Cupid].”
In fact, the desire to not have our ears (or those of our guests) exposed to certain songs or artists or genres is even felt among party audiences.
“If I was a DJ, no amount of payola would be enough for any songs by Celine Dion, the Princess of Wails,” says non-DJ Rod Langum, of Concord, Calif.
I’m sure we all have those types of tunes in our non-play list, songs that remind us of a fingernail scraping down a chalkboard, or that we might even refuse to play, based on our own private standards. So, we asked DJs from all over North America: Which songs would you absolutely refuse to play?
Otherwise, at a private party, do we accept financial incentives if someone asks you to play their song next?
How do we determine which requests we honor at a gig? Do we take requests? Other than at a private function (wedding reception, birthday party, family reunion, etc.), are there times when we would absolutely refuse to ever play something?
Earlier this year, an 18-year-old was arrested for threatening those party-goers with a gun—merely because the DJ at a house party would not play his song request. And according to magneticmag.com, a DJ in India was shot to death earlier this year after refusing to play a song at a birthday party.
Over in Lansing, Mich., Corey Vowels of Beagle Mobile DJs says playing a request largely depends on how well it will impact the dancefloor—though if a song is requested often enough he’s likely to break down and play it.
“For example, in my part of Michigan ‘The Electric Boogie’—even if it’s requested—clears the dancefloor,” says Vowels. “I can play ‘The Macarena’ and every other group song will work, but in my years of DJing I’ve grown to detest that particular song.”
In fact, Vowels says ‘The Macarena’ has been a strange issue for him for years. “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone on this one, because it’s always been on the top playlists nationwide,” he says. “But in the end, if any song is requested enough, I’ll play it because that’s what I’m there for.”
Because after all, Vowels says, even a seemingly odd request can sometimes actually pack a dancefloor. “About a year and a half ago, I had a person ask me to play ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins, and I gave them that ‘Seriously?’ look. But after some investigating, it was a song they all loved, so I played it.
“I can’t let my feelings about any song—even if it’s offensive to me—play any part in my programming decision. Although if a song will not work, and I know it won’t work, it will take the person who hired me to play it, or have a real good reason explain why I have to play a certain song.”
Because in the end, explains Vowels, if any tune clears the dancefloor it’s his fault, not the fault of the one requesting it. “For example, I would not play a lot of songs I normally would play at a kids party,” he says, “or for a crowd I know would be offended by a certain song.”
Adam Tiegs of Adam’s DJ Service in Seattle, Wash., says he typically has a really good idea of what his clients want musically, especially for weddings.
“I do my best to help create a soundtrack that not only conveys the bride’s and groom’s interests, but their family and friends as well,” says Tiegs. “One of the suggestions I give to my clients is to ask their guests for specific input ahead of time on their RSVP cards: ‘Songs You Will Dance To.’ Otherwise, I tell them I’m going to mix random tunes based on the crowd’s energy and take requests on the fly—of course, keeping them within the clients’ overall parameters.
“I really can’t stand playing the same song twice in a night, so sometimes I’ll play a different remix or edit if that comes up. I’m not a big fan of modern rap for some reason, or really old country for that matter, but I love and appreciate all music for the most part. I’ll play whatever gets the crowd going and gets me going.”
As for overall requests, Tiegs says he would play for free any songs he knows for a fact guests will dance to. For line dances, if someone really, really wants it, he’d maybe request a monetary tip, along with requests for playing a song next (especially if it sucks).
Then again, he admits there are times when he would absolutely refuse to play certain songs. “For example, if I’m at a wedding and grandparents and kids are on the dancefloor jamming to some disco and rock-n-roll and a very drunken friend of the groom steps up and asks if I can play some E40 and is swearing at me and wants to fight, I’ll turn off the music and get on the mic to ask my client to remove this guy from my area.
“But otherwise, I love most music, so I’m happy to work in a good, positive, fun, upbeat, awesome song if someone wants to hear it. But when someone just wants you to play something to look stupid, or to hear a song they know nobody else will appreciate, I won’t play it.”
The same goes for Canadian DJ Ken Bromley of Sound Choice Entertainment in St. Catharines, Ont., about five minutes north of Niagara Falls.
“Yes, anything inappropriate for the event,” Bromley says. “As an example, I would never play a 2 Live Crew or any Screamo crap at a wedding, regardless of the number of requests. After all, it only takes one offended guest or venue employee and a DJ may lose many, many gigs in the future, and I’m not willing to take that risk.
“Although if it was at a private party, such as a bachelor or stag party, with no children present, I may loosen the reigns a bit, and I would never charge for a request.”
Bromley, who has been DJing for over 30 years, most of them working for other entertainment companies before he started his own recently, says that as an entertainer a DJ must understand that whatever they refuse to play at an event is just as important as what they do play.
“As an entertainer,” he says, “the DJ must understand that the crowd they are playing to, especially at a wedding, could range in age from five to 105. Even though it’s next to impossible to please every guest at an event, we can work on not offending anyone through the music we play.
“If you wouldn’t play a particular song at a middle school dance or at a 13th birthday party, then maybe it shouldn’t be played at a wedding either.”
Then again, Bromley is quick to note that the United States and Canada can be very different in respect to music charts and interests. “Canadians tend to be more conservative and, for a wedding, they tend to stick to the tried-and-true songs, with very little rap or hip-hop,” he explains. “As a matter of fact, I’ve had many wedding couples specifically request absolutely no rap or hip-hop.
“Rap and hip-hop are an American thing, by and large. We like our rap also in the Great White North, but when I see gig logs from American DJs I’m blown away by the amount of urban music being played. And this is also true for country music—even though country music is popular in Canada, Canadians tend to gravitate towards Canadian artists versus American artists.”
According to Mark Haggerty, operations manager for the San Francisco Bay Area’s Denon & Doyle Entertainment, DJs are part of the “service industry.”
“It’s not much different than a bartender or waiter, wherein our clients or their guests order up a certain kind of party and we are paid to deliver,” Haggerty reminds us. “If a particular request goes against the good of the dance party, we can choose to act as the filter.”
Haggerty says he never promises to play a request from an audience member. “I use words like, ‘I’ll try,’ or ‘Let me see if I have that,’ or ‘I might be able to fit that in,’” says Haggerty.
“Of course, if a bride and groom have a do-not-play list, I’ll tell that person that their request will not be played. As an example, if someone asks if I can play the ‘Y.M.C.A.,’ I might tell them it’s on the do-not-play list.”
Haggerty says he also has songs that are definitely on his own do-not-play list—“gun-to-his head” songs, as he describes them—and those are non-danceable songs that would clear any dancefloor.
“I avoid playing some songs like the ‘Y.M.C.A.,’ ‘The Chicken Dance,’ ‘The Macarena,’ ‘We Are Family,’ ‘Celebration’ and ‘The Bunny Hop’—basically corny, cheesy and overplayed stereotypical wedding songs,” he says. “Though, if the client tells me ‘The Chicken Dance’ is a family tradition for them, I will play it—along with an announcement that gives the client 100-percent credit for the selection.”
Haggerty says he would never accept money to play a song next, although he does accept tips. “If a guest will tip a dollar to maybe $20 to play a song next, I’ll typically hand it back to them and simply say, ‘I can’t promise next.’ Many times, they’ll still give me the money and say, ‘Please play it when you can,’ and at that point I’ll play it as long as it doesn’t land in one of those categories I mentioned before.
“And many times a client will tip me at the end. For example, after last Sunday night’s wedding at the Fort Mason General’s Residence in San Francisco, my client was thrilled with the job I did at their wedding and reception, so the groom handed me a $300 tip as an extra thank-you.”
Across the nation in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., Scott Goldoor of Signature DJs says he’s had a policy regarding tips and requests from the beginnings of his company.
“First, with regard to taking a request for money, tips or financial incentive, I’ve always instructed my guys that this is a no-no,” he says. “Sometimes a guest, family member, whomever, will simply drop a $5, $10 or $20 behind our DJ façade, while making the request or once it’s played, but if they hand it to us we respectfully decline it and basically say, ‘We’ll do our best’ or ‘I’ll try, but I have some more requests from the bride and groom, or another member of the wedding party.’
“As for refusing to play a song, if a customer wants an explicit version of a song, or if the lyrics are extremely inappropriate, I’ll remind them that grandparents, aunts and uncles may be present, and there may be young children in attendance as well. Many newer and contemporary artists put out very suggestive songs, and which are lyrically inappropriate. Think Katy Perry on the softer side, and basically every Nicki Minaj song she writes, produces or sings.”
Meanwhile, Adam Weitz of A Sharp Production in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., concludes that respecting requests is always a balancing act.
“When it comes to the mobile industry—not clubs—we have to be humble and play what’s expected of us,” says Weitz. “If we’re at an event, during which the parents wanted to walk into ‘Celebration’ by Kool & the Gang as their grand introduction, we had to play it. This particular grand intro song was from their wedding—and now a spoof 15 years later for their kid’s mitzvah—so it was funny and it had meaning.
“So, are we playing the music for you, or for our clients? We’re here to serve, so if we have the luxury of playing whatever we want to then so be it, and I’m sure we’ll knock it out of the park.
“However, it’s still an experiment to watch what works with the energy of the room. Once you’ve found that harmony of music and rhythm of the crowd, you stick with it regardless of opinion or ego.”