The night the avant-garde German theater group performed at the Roxy Klub in Prague between the sets I was DJing, I knew it would get weird.
When the troupe lit an explosive, and it went off in the center of the dance floor, it caused several chunks of the plaster ceiling to rain down on the heads of the audience. After my ears stopped ringing, I cued up a song and spun some Groove Collective. Dancers filled the dance floor, gyrating around the hole left in the old cement floor by the performance artists’ dynamite.
It was another Saturday night at the Roxy in 1995.
I moved to the Czech Republic in January and was enrolled as a student at Karlova Univerzita in the mass communications department. Rather than go to class, I’d hang out with my professor, Cyril, who discovered that I was a musician and that I loved literature. He introduced me to the gang at Yazzyk Magazine.
Yazzyk was a periodical specializing in publishing East European authors and poets translated into English. It was run by a Canadian named Douglas and a Mexican-American named Tony. They hired me to be in charge of marketing and promotion.
I was 22 years old, and my Czech was at the toddler level, but quickly I was sweating through business meetings all over the city to convince Bohemian film studios and tattoo parlors to buy ads in the magazine. Then, under the dark shadows created by Prague’s gothic spires and lingering post-Communist paranoia, a door opened that allowed me to become a club DJ.
“Is all this yours?” Tony said with his intellectually dry and academic voice.
“Yeah, I brought all that with me from San Francisco,” I nervously replied, eager to impress him.
He smiled. Though maybe only 30, Tony had terrible teeth, a thinning hairline, and was remarkably intimidating and smart. He asked, “What are you doing tonight?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re DJing with me tonight at the Roxy,” he instructed.
I didn’t pause; I just said, “OK. What time?”
“Get there at 9:00 PM. We start spinning an hour later.”
The Roxy was a very old theater transformed into a club. The walls had a musty, ancient smell and the ceilings crested up to 60 feet high. The smell of spilled beer, wine, and rum mingled with a thick layer of cigarettes and hashish.
DJs spun in the upstairs, far right corner. That was where royalty used to sit. When you were a DJ, you looked out over the dance floor like the ghost of a duke or duchess listening to Vivaldi or Mozart.
On my first night, I was asked to begin by playing accompanying music for a silent, independent film. I dug out all my ambient music, twisting knobs so that Brian Eno blended with composer John Adams.
As the film ended, Tony said, “OK. Good job. I’ll do a set to get the floor moving, and then it’s up to you.”
I had passed my audition.
When I stepped up to play my first dance set, the crowd below me was a hip mixture of young Czech ravers, skaters, punks, and hipsters, moving in rhythm with the melange of European and North American scenesters.
My set consisted of Massive Attack grooves, Portishead remixes, and jazz-funk by the Brooklyn Funk Essentials. I mixed in hip hop by the Digital Underground, Miles Davis’ Doo-Bop album, and even some straight ahead Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from Henry’s Dream. I lit the club on fire that night, and I was elated.
That began the DJ residency of the Voodoo Mambo crew at the Roxy.
Tony, me, and occasionally Douglas from Yazzyk would spin from 10 PM until 6 AM on weekends. Tony was the salsa specialist, Douglas played hip hop, and I was the youngster who played acid jazz, trip-hop, dub, funk, and jungle.
When an English speaker approached the DJ booth to request a song I didn’t have or didn’t like, I acted like I didn’t speak English. But I tried to always appease the Czechs.
Anything could happen on a night at the Roxy. We’d never know when we’d be asked to start spinning because other acts would be on the bill. One night we didn’t start playing until 4 AM because a Hungarian noise metal band was stamping out electronic drums and screaming guttural vocals.
Another night, Magyar, the infamous dissident poet, began throwing glass pints of beer down at the dancers from the balcony. That shut everything down until he was subdued, and the broken glass was cleaned up.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman also appeared once while Cruise was filming the first Mission Impossible movie, but they stayed in the shadows.
If Voodoo Mambo worked the Roxy only one night of the weekend, I would spin at a smaller club near the main train station called the Apart Klub on the other night. When solo, I went by the name DJ Kočka. That was the most uncool and ridiculous name I could have. Kočka meant kitty cat in Czech slang, which meant the equivalent of calling someone a chick in American slang.
It didn’t matter because the clubs were mostly collections of teenage and 20-something Czechs and various Euro-trash high on beer and E and hashish and Czech speed dancing like mad people to my musical whims.
I might start a set with MC Solaar spitting French hip hop and finish it off with Zion Train’s hash-induced dub. The whole time I teetered at the edge of sanity, my nagging chronic pain filling my back, but also at the brink of ecstasy as I lived inside every twist and turn of the pulsing dance music. DJing was my job and my therapy.
Yazzyk’s next issue release party was scheduled for early July. It was decided that it would be held at the Roxy, and Voodoo Mambo would DJ after a set by a live Romany gypsy band called Věra Bílá and Kale. Věra was a large-framed and larger-than-life singer, backed by Kale, four tall, tan guitarists.
I had just been sent to Amsterdam by the magazine to sell Yazzyks. To save money, I hitchhiked there and back. My trip to Holland was solo and nearly got me arrested by the German police, so I returned to Prague as a duo with my Dutch buddy Sacco.
At the time, Sacco was a DJ who spun at Radost, a well-known Prague club that played house music. We celebrated our successful and safe return to our Czech home city with a night out, quaffing shots of absinthe and mezcal on a Vltava river bar boat, then danced all night to punk rock at the Bunkr Klub.
The sun was coming up when I stumbled along the uneven cobblestones back to my fifth-floor flat. Douglas rang my phone only a few hours later to tell me we had to drive out to a village somewhere to pick up kegs for the magazine release party that night.
By the time the sun dropped behind Prague Castle, streaming its last light over the city, I had managed to overcome half of my hangover. But I was still weak-kneed and spinning when I walked in the club’s front door to set up.
In addition to DJing later that night, my job was to be backstage manager, which meant I managed Věra Bílá and Kale. The band arrived early in a minivan and began loading in. Their native language was Romany, and mine was English, so we spoke in Czech.
Before their gear was completely inside, Věra stood backstage and demanded in broken Czech, “You! Bring me champagne and pizza! Box of champagnes and five boxes of pizza! No pizza…no champagne…no music!”
My own Czech words came out slow and sickly, “OK. It is possible. Moment.”
Racing down the street, I ordered the pizzas and then got a case of sparkling Moravian wine at the Kmart grocery around the corner in the basement of a shopping mall. I wasn’t sure if Věra would stick around; she seemed hungry, mean, and impatient. But Ms. Bílá was gleeful when I returned with everything.
The band poured themselves all hefty glasses of alcoholic bubbles — including me — and we all hoisted toasts of “Na zdraví!” Then, the concert began. Backstage.
As the venue filled to the brim with people, an incredible party began that the partygoers could only faintly hear through the stage doors. I was jubilant, filled with bubbles, and music poured out all over the green room backstage. I was pleasingly lost in a gypsy caravan.
When Tony came backstage, he had a shocked, bemused, and irritated look on his face. He pulled me out onto an already full dance floor. Douglas was DJing some low-key music to keep people entertained, and Tony glowered, “You…you need to keep the band sober enough to play. You…are the stage manager.”
“OK, OK,” I stammered. “Yes, OK. But, can we get them on stage now while they’re warmed up?”
“They’re not warmed up! They’re playing a full show back there,” Tony hissed.
“Let’s get them on stage then. Introduce them, and I’ll get them out there.”
Tony sighed and nodded. I bowed my head and disappeared backstage to rouse the gypsies.
Kale walked out in their black and white vests, and Věra appeared a minute later. Her belting voice was magnificent, and the band continued what they had begun backstage with lightning-quick guitar strumming. The audience loved it, the energy in the club sparkled, and no further drama ensued.
Tony started DJing just as the band finished, sandwiching classic soul between 70s funk and then tied that together with salsa straight from Los Angeles. It was after 3 AM when I started playing, and most everyone was plastered drunk, including me.
I was expected to make a splash with an earth-shattering set, but I fumbled between Jamiroquai, Jhelisa, and Dreadzone. I played Jazzmatazz, then rolled into United Future Organization and mixed in deep bass grooves from Jazz Con Bazz. Sometimes, I hit the right song, and the dance floor became exuberant. Other times, I missed, and the dancers sent angry glares up at me in the DJ booth.
It was a schizophrenic set, and by 5:30 AM, when even the party fiends no longer wanted to get down on the dance floor, I played a Portishead dirge to get everyone to crawl home.
My flat was close by, so I decided to leave all my music and pick it up in the morning. Five hours later, I woke with an anxious jump realizing that a cleaning crew would already be at the club and my music collection was probably not safe sitting on its own unattended. Losing my music was not an option.
I pulled on my clothes and meandered in a fog of misery and sweat down the few uneven streets to the club entrance. Wanting to get everything and get out quickly, I pushed into the front door. It was open, and I fell inside, rushing forward.
I rapidly realized I was sliding, skating across the cement floor, losing my balance, and landing on my hands and knees in a large pool of chunky, white vomit.
From above my head, I heard the low rumble of an older man’s voice asking in English, “OK? OK, you?”
I looked up, and it was Magyar, wearing a pink, frilly apron, carrying a mop bucket looking down at me. I felt like a sad hipster in a zoo, down on my hands and knees like an animal, submerged in an inch of milky, thick puke.
After my music collection was safe in my arms, I went home, stripped off my filth, and took a much-needed disco nap.
I flew to Istanbul a day later and spent two months in Turkey. I dried out from the river of booze I’d been consuming in the Czech Republic while I looked for mermaids on the Aegean, rode in the back of a chocolate truck, and was nearly swept out forever by a smack of jellyfish on the Black Sea.
After my Turkish life sleeping on rooftops and exploring Cappadocian caves, I returned to Prague. The Roxy and Voodoo Mambo waited for me. I was back DJing that autumn, now booked both in and out of the Czech Republic.
I would spin some of my best sets in the late-night clubs of Berlin.