Here at “Borderstan People,” we like to profile local movers and shakers who are spicing up the neighborhood in a variety of ways. Recently, we caught up with two new-ish neighborhood D.J.s who are bringing back the ’80’s in a modern-sort-of-way.
Khelan Bhatia and Adam Koussari-Amin are the two musician masterminds behind BreakfastClub, an ‘8o’s remix dance party held at Duplex Diner. This Friday, October 26, Bhatia and Koussari-Amin will host a Halloween-themed Thriller dance party at 9 pm.
Luckily for us, we had a chance to catch up with the D.J.s before the big night to discuss BreakfastClub, their favorite music and the District D.J. scene.
Borderstan: How and when did you guys first get into D.J.-ing? And when did you start working with each other?
Khelan: I started by creating playlists for myself and friends. Before long, I was my friends’ go-to-guy for providing music – usually through my iPod — at parties and other gatherings. I D.J.’d my first set about two years ago at Duplex Diner on a Thursday evening, their busiest night during the week. In all honesty, I was a nervous wreck. I thought I was going to screw up pretty badly. Well, I must have managed to do OK because they keep inviting me back! Adam and I met a few months ago through mutual friends. We first worked together in mid-August at a party called CTRL, where Adam is a regular D.J.
Adam: My experience began in college where I was part of a hip-hop dance troupe at UVA. As a choreographer, we had to cut and edit our own music for our shows. In terms of live performances, beyond friends’ parties, CTRL was my kickstarter at the beginning early this year. I had been watching my friend Jeff Prior perform some great sets at bars and clubs in the area, and we decided to throw our hats into the ring for a monthly party… And I am so glad we did, because its ongoing success has given me a lot of opportunities, including connecting with Khelan.
Borderstan: One of your main D.J.-ing events is BreakfastClub – How did you come up with the concept for this event and how frequently do you host it?
Khelan: After I guest DJ’d at CTRL, we lamented that DC doesn’t have a regular 80’s night…at least, to the best of our knowledge. After going through a few ’80’s-inspired names, Adam and I both thought that BreakfastClub fit pretty well with what we wanted to convey, especially as we wanted to host it at Duplex.
Adam: In order to make sure it stood out, we had the idea to incorporate remixes of ’80’s songs, in addition to the originals. Not only does it ensure that our catalog of songs never gets stale, it also puts a fresh feel on a ton of songs people have heard before. Songs that were once “head-nod” worthy only are now “break it down on the dance floor” awesome.
Khelan: We’ve only had one BreakfastClub so far, but due to continued interest, we’re going to try to make it a monthly event. The next one is this Friday, October 26th. Since Halloween is right around the corner, it’s going to be Thriller-themed. Costumes more than allowed (hell, they’re encouraged!).
Borderstan: Where are some of your favorite places in DC to D.J.?
Khelan: Duplex, obviously. They’ve got a great vibe and a wonderful staff. Kevin Lee, the owner, has been incredibly supportive. I’ve also D.J.’d at Dahlak, Saint-Ex’s Gate 54, L’Enfant, and most recently, at Town.
Adam: I have to give love to Dahlak on 18th and U. It’s where CTRL is hosted. The staff is super friendly, the drinks are strong, and the space is intimate, which lets me and the other D.J.s stay ground-level with the crowd and really interact with them. It’s also got a lot of history in terms of events that have started there…and a lot of great memories for me of being on the other side of the booth.
Borderstan: What is your favorite thing about D.J.-ing?
Khelan: To be able to contribute to the mood of a party… and make people dance.
Adam: The crowd reaction, bar none. The minute you play a song that everyone instantly loves, or even just gets that thumbs up or scream from a random person for a more obscure song, it’s an awesome feeling.
Borderstan: What is your favorite music to play and how do you go about making a playlist for a party? Can you tell us a bit about the process? How long it takes, how it evolves, etc.?
Khelan: I love electro, synthpop, hip-hop, french house, ’80’s pop, indie…you name it. If it’s got a beat, I’ll find a way to work it into a set. Putting together a setlist can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks — it all just depends. I try to guess, in advance, the mood of the party or event and tailor the set to the best of my ability. Before the first BreakfastClub, I started putting together the set a month or so before the event. Mostly because I’m a blend of a type A Washingtonian and nervous wreck.
Adam: Khelan’s a bit more methodical than I am… blame it on being a New Yorker. I usually start a week in advance collecting three times as many songs as I need and cram up till the last minute, whittling them down into something that the audience will hopefully appreciate. Timing is super important for playlists…things that get people jumping after midnight when they’ve had a few cocktails might actually turn them off if you play them at the beginning of the night. I’m pretty happy playing everything except country – sorry country fans – so long as it makes people dance. I’ve been told I tend to shy from top 40’s — even remixes — and play slightly more obscure songs, no matter what the genre. I want people to discover new music for themselves when they go out.
Borderstan: What are some of your favorite things to do, or favorite places to go in the Borderstan area?
Khelan: Borderstan is definitely the best part of DC. I love just wandering through some of the side streets with a coffee from Peregrine in hand and my iPod on full blast (at this rate, I’m probably going to be deaf by my next birthday). Long-time Borderstanis know that I love fashion and live music. Rue 14 is still my favorite boutique but I love going to vintage stores like Treasury too. For live music, 9:30 club is easily the greatest venue in the country while U Street Music Hall is the greatest club. And I’m (not-so) patiently waiting for the re-opening of DC Noodles… best comfort food. EVER!
Adam: I’ve been in the city for five years, but moved to the 16th and U area about two years ago… it is such a fantastic place! I love working out or laying out in Meridian Hill park, grabbing weekend bottomless brunches — Masa 14 is life — and catching local comedy and improv shows at Source Theater and other local bars. Most importantly, I live to go out dancing with my friends… especially if it involves us on the speakers at DC9. I’ve also been told I have an unhealthy addiction to Lauriol Plaza and have dragged almost every friend I’ve had there.
Here at “Borderstan People,” we like to profile local movers and shakers who are spicing up the neighborhood in a variety of ways… And Shea Van Horn is doing just that.
From entertaining crowds as a D.J. in Seattle during his undergraduate days, to building one of the District’s premiere pop-up dance parties through MIXTAPE (which he co-hosts with Matt Bailer), Mr. Van Horn has worked hard over the years to help Washingtonians cut loose and relax.
This Saturday, MIXTAPE will celebrate its fourth anniversary at the Howard Theatre. Luckily for us, we had a chance to catch up with Van Horn before the bash to discuss the history of MIXTAPE and how it’s grown over the years throughout the community.
Borderstan: You started MIXTAPE in 2008. Can you tell us a little bit about this? How did you get into D.J.-ing? Why did you start MIXTAPE?
Van Horn: My first D.J. gigs were back in 1995, when I was in undergraduate school in Seattle, but that only lasted a of couple years. I picked it back up as a novelty in 2007 as a way to promote my seasonal variety show (CRACK), which I host as my drag persona, Summer Camp. Back in 2007, there was an alternative dance party called Taint that was held at DC9. Since CRACK was also held at DC9 (and drew a similar audience), I would guest D.J. as Summer Camp. Eventually, I started D.J.-ing more and more as myself (leaving the wig and heels for the stage).
Eventually I was asked to D.J. a Taint party and Matt Bailer was the opener. That’s where Matt and I met, and we realized that we had a lot in common when it came to musical tastes. When we looked at the large crowd that came out on a Saturday night to dance to alternative music, we decided to think about creating a new dance party in DC. We met often to discuss what kind of party we wanted to throw, what to call it and where to host it.
We threw around a bunch of potential names, and eventually landed on MIXTAPE because we didn’t want to be too limited in the kind of music we could play. The toughest part of creating MIXTAPE was finding the right venue. We looked at a number of options, and eventually we landed at Dahlak, an Eritrean restaurant on the corner of 18th and U Streets NW. Daniel, the owner, is a great guy, and was very willing to give us a chance. It worked — and after four months of throwing our parties there, we were faced with the need to find a bigger venue.
Our initial plan for MIXTAPE was simply to throw a fun dance party for our friends. There wasn’t a grand scheme to grow it into a popular monthly party that could play at the Howard Theater, but I’m so happy and proud that we were able to grow it into that.
Borderstan: How has MIXTAPE evolved over the past four years?
Van Horn: Over the past four years, MIXTAPE has grown from a party with about 50 guests to upwards of 1,000. We’ve hosted MIXTAPE at numerous venues around DC including the Warehouse Theater, EFN Lounge, DC9, the Rock & Roll Hotel, Black Cat main stage, Town and now the Howard Theater. Despite growing in size, we try to stay true to the original intent of the party: play fun music that makes people dance. There are very few bells and whistles (we sometimes throw in a fog machine and a couple lasers), but ultimately, it’s just about dancing. We definitely welcome everyone to come and have a good time. Our hope is that the party continues for years and that people keep coming and having a good time.
Borderstan: How long does it typically take you to build a playlist for a party? And what goes into the process of building the playlist?
Van Horn: When I first began D.J.-ing and throwing MIXTAPE, I’d spend hours listening to every song and practice the transitions. Now, I play it more by ear. Since the party is monthly, I usually create a bucket of songs that I want to play. I throw them onto my iPod and listen to them while walking to work or working out at the gym.
If it’s a song that adds a little pep to my step or makes me work out a little harder, I usually add that to the “should-play” list. But when I get into the venue for the night, it’s more of a “figure it out as I go” kind-of-approach. Also, I’ve got Matt Bailer right there by my side. Every MIXTAPE is the two of us working together to create a night. Sometimes a song he plays jogs my memory, and I’ll pull out a track that I’d forgotten about. We usually split the night up with 45 minute sets; playing in shifts. This allows us each to act as “host” while we’re not spinning. And we always finish each party with a 45 minute set where we play together.
Borderstan: Do you have a favorite venue for MIXTAPE?
Van Horn: That’s a tough question because each party is a lot of fun and takes on a different feel based on the venue. I have a nostalgic soft spot for the early parties at Dahlak. I also loved the few that we threw at the old Warehouse Theater in early 2009 because that was completely DIY; down to the fact that we had to bring in our own sound system. There was something pretty cool about dancing in a blackbox theater. I loved playing at the Rock & Roll Hotel with its awesome sound system. We’ve sort of settled into a nice rhythm of throwing it at the Black Cat and Town. Hopefully, after this Saturday, we’ll be able to add the Howard Theater into our regular rotation.
Borderstan: How do you balance being a D.J. and a full-time job? (I imagine D.J.-ing keeps you out pretty late.)
Van Horn: It’s tricky. About two years ago, I cut back on my full-time job, so I only work about 80%. In addition to D.J.-ing MIXTAPE, At the time of this decision, I was also creating and D.J.-ing other parties like RAW [at COBALT], Maison, and recently I added GUIL-TEA to the list (in addition to my seasonal variety show). So in order to not die of exhaustion, I cut back on my day job to allow a little time to create, promote and manage my D.J. gigs and other events… not to mention, building in some time to hang with friends and go to others’ parties and events (where I get inspiration).
Borderstan: Who are you currently listening to?
Van Horn: Some of my favorite artists right now are Azealia Banks, Bright Light Bright Light, Charli XCX, Niki and the Dove, Die Antwoord, Ellie Goulding, Gossip, SSION and Grimes. Plus I always have a major soft spot for Kylie Minogue and Robyn.