Yes, times have changed. But where does that leave the pioneers who slaved in the hot sun, laying down those tracks so that overnight sensations like Pauly D could ride into town on their fancy steam engines, play a two-hour gig to the tune of five or six figures and then roll right back out?
For veteran NYC DJ Herbert Holler, it leaves him busy with three to four gigs a week. Holler’s not mad at Pauly D. “Of course it’s natural to feel spiteful when you’re seeing newspaper clippings or TV or press on people who haven’t put in the time,” Holler says. But when Pauly D achieved stardom, “I found myself defending him on Twitter feeds, like ‘good for him. He’s doing his thing.’” Atlantic City bred and New York City-based, Herbert – given name Kenneth Hyman– has been doing his thing professionally since 2002. He and his colleagues host the Freedom Party, the longest running weekly Friday night party in NYC’s history.
Freedom, which began as a one-off boat cruise, now calls Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village home. “We decided to do it weekly on the second floor of the Culture Club on Varick. Those didn’t go well actually. It was a very big, cold space…so we moved to a smaller room,” says Holler. “You need somewhere to build your brand on a weekly basis, particularly because nobody does weekly parties anymore.” After relocating to Starfoods in the East Village, Freedom found its rhythm and “the rest is history,” says Herbert.
History, or historic value, factors greatly into Herbert’s song selection. “At Freedom, we have the opportunity to mix in a lot of different stuff. We sort of skim the surface of everything,” he says. “As long as we play something we feel will stand the test of time or has stood the test of time. The idea of Freedom is to play something that’s either classic, that will be a classic or that has classic renderings.” He uses Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” as an example of a current classic. “Will it stand the test of time? Time will tell, but it definitely has a classic feel to it. It actually sort of samples Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up’ so it’ll get played at Freedom.”
Though he doesn’t consider himself a music snob – he threw away his vinyl a long time ago because it was taking up too much space in his apartment – Holler does find that songs like “Blurred Lines” are hard to find anymore. “Less and less stuff comes along these days…I don’t remember the last time I turned on XM Satellite or the radio and listened to Hot 97,” he says. “The kind of stuff I like is really underground. I like Action Bronson, Joey Badass, Danny Brown; stuff like that, but you can’t really rock that at a dance party in Manhattan unless you have a room full of 20-year-olds.”
Sizing up a room goes hand-in-hand with DJing. Outside of Freedom, Holler augments weddings, corporate events, birthday parties (he played big rock anthems for Jamie Foxx’s birthday celebration at the old Gin Lane, now Scarpetta), and extravagant galas like a Brooklyn Museum event with over 10,000 guests. Each occasion calls for nuance.
“DJs are discriminating. We stereotype constantly. We see you walk into the room. We judge immediately who you are in order to find out what you want to hear without asking you,” says Holler. “If a young 20-something white girl walks in, I’m pretty sure I can get away with playing Rihanna. If there’s a middle-age looking Black woman that walks in, I’m pretty sure I can play Luther Vandross,” he continues. No telling how the approximately 50% Black assemblage of the Freedom Party sizes up the bespectacled white DJ.Whatever the audience, Herbert looks for one thing above all else – a frenetic dance floor. “I want a majority of the people in the room to dance,” says Herbert. “I can’t play for tables and bottles, I have to play for a dance floor. If there’re 400 people in the room, I want to play for 350 of them, not ten of them. My feedback, my battery life is the dance floor. Otherwise, why don’t you just get a jukebox?”
Herbert admits he’s in it for the frenzied rush of a live audience. He doesn’t produce because he can’t stand to sit in a studio for too long studying drums or syncopation or trying to figure out a new piece of software. “I think if I did [produce], I’d probably be on an even larger scale of popularity than I am now,” he says. “What I really like about DJing is the way the music…what it does to people when you spin it the right way. And seeing that and giving people that sort of joy. That’s my favorite part of the whole thing.”
So Herbert’s chosen the role of the curator and collector over the creator. And he plays it to a T. He knows all there is to know about terms like “EDM” and “trap” and “dubstep;” terms that get thrown around a lot without much substance. “EDM is a kind of misnomer because, I mean, Electronic Dance Music? Hip-hop is Electronic Dance Music. People are dancing to it; it’s electronic.”
And on the subject of trap, Holler says “It’s kind of funny because everyone talks about it, but few people really know what it means. It basically is an idea that comes from the hood, like if you were caught in a trap; in a place you didn’t want to be and you’d be lucky to make it out alive. It refers to rap music that’s very aggressive and very violent…if you strip the lyrics from it and you do a little more electronic vibe but you keep the tempo, it’s not trap rap, it’s just trap dance music.” He references Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” as an example.
Today marks the official 10-year anniversary of the Freedom Party and what better way to celebrate than with a Central Park Summerstage dance fest. “We’re going to have Cameo. I think that’s pretty special. Cameo hasn’t performed in NY in years. They’re like the biggest grossing, all time highest selling funk band of all time.” The culminating event goes from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. at Rumsey Playfield. Complimentary admission maxes out at around 5,000 bodies. “That’s about as big as I can do at this point,” says Holler. Adopting his best Obama impression, he adds, “Maybe the President will come calling, ‘Herbert, I want you to be the DJ.’” To loyal followers of the Freedom Party, he already is the DJ.