Don Welch on the Gwen McCrae Benefit Concert & the Future of House Music

I was alerted to the plight of classic house diva Gwen McCrae by old friend Don Welch of the Underground Network. Ms. McCrae, best known for her smash dance track “Funky Sensation,” suffered a massive stroke in London on June 3rd. She has thankfully survived but is paralyzed on her left side. Her family is trying to get her home to Florida where they can take care of her. A fundraiser has been set up for next Wednesday the 22nd, at Ajna, 25 Little West 12th Street, from 6pm till 4am. The outpouring of support from the community has been spectacular. House legend Colonel Abrams is hosting, and I have been told that Melba Moore will also be on hand. The incredible number of participants is too long to list here so I’ll just post the invite. I am told that new people are getting involved daily. This is one of those must-attend events, not only because of the good that it will do for Gwen and her family, but because that room will be filled with genius and love and that’s hard to find these days.

Don Welch is old-school, old-school. He is one of those quiet, behind-the-scenes people who has shaped the house universe. As briefly as I can I’ll list some of his too-numerous-to-list accomplishments:

Don Welch is a DJ, co-founder of the internationally-renowned Underground Network, former Billboard reporter, CEO of OHM Music & Film Works, and an event promoter. He DJd Eddie Murphy’s wedding at the Plaza Hotel. He received gold and platinum records from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, C&C Music Factory, Crystal Waters, and De La Soul. His Underground Network has hosted relevant events since 1992. Him, along with Barbara Tucker, created the Dance Music Industry Night, with legendary DJ Little Louie Vega doing what he does. The list of promoters and celebrities and DJs that have graced his events is a who’s-who of dance and pop culture. In 2006, Don launched Soul Party NYC, promoting classic R&B events. He’s still throwing that party. On September 8th, at Commodore Park, Barbara Tucker and Don will celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Underground Network.

I caught up with Don as he was getting the word out about that Funky Sensation Gwen McCrae:

It’s amazing how the community has gotten together for this cause. Tell me about the event… who is involved?
Well, I was first told about Gwen McCrae’s condition from singer Colonel Abrams, who was in London on the same show; Gwen fell ill in her hotel room and never made it to the stage. When Colonel came back to the states he told me Gwen was still in London in the hospital after a massive stroke and was paralyzed on her left side. As a DJ, Gwen has brought me and my audience amazing memories of dancing to her music, so I’ve always felt very close to her. I posted her condition on my Facebook page & the love and support was incredible. That’s when I spoke to her family and was told about all the astronomical medical bills and the transportation to get her home to Pensacola, Florida. That’s when I reached out to friends like Louie Vega, Jellybean, David Morales, Rochelle Fleming, Bob Davis, Soulfinger, you, and so many stars in this business. They all said anything they could do to help count them in and I am so grateful for their support. We will feature some of the greatest DJs and classic singers. We have so much talent, DJs might only get to play five songs each and singers only one.  

Tell me about Gwen McCrae.
Here is the biography of Gwen McCrae: for over three decades, Gwen McCrae has been a soul and blues powerhouse singer entertaining audiences worldwide. She started out singing as a child with her mother who played piano in church. With a heartfelt phrasing for the blues and the spirit-filled sounds from her soul, Gwen has entertained audiences in countless sold-out venues and set her music in a Blues and Soul category of its own. Since the early ’60s, Gwen has paid her dues, on tour with the likes of Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross, James Brown, The Temptations, The O Jays, Spinners, James Cleveland, and many more. Gwen’s entertaining has included concerts at The Apollo Theatre, Madison Square Garden, Cow Palace in LA, Disneyland, television shows such as American Band Stand, Soul Train, Midnight Special, In Concert, as well as various venues throughout the world in London, Paris, Germany, Scotland, and Venice, just to mention a few.

I remember house music. Nowadays the electronic dance music scene has grown enormous. Are young people still embracing house or does the energy lay elsewhere?
The electronic music scene is tremendous, but the soulful house music scene is making a strong comeback. It just needs better venues. Lots of club owners love the music but the bar sales aren’t as good as others because no real, true dancers can drink a bottle of Hennessy or Stolichnaya and dance with energy all night.

For a tourist coming to NYC looking for the real deal, what parties or clubs are true to the religion that is house?
The true house parties have become mobile… always on the move until you and I open one 🙂

Will this event, based of course on a tragedy, have the effect of reuniting different members and aspects of the house community, and possibly be the catalyst for future events?
Definitely, but I’ve been bringing different types of talent together for years and will continue to do so… stay tuned.

Young & Desirable: Talking to DJ Price

One of the perks of my new DJ career is working with "real" DJs. I can put a great track on after a great track and so on, but the art form of DJing is, of course, way more than that. I am also a specialist, playing mostly rock and roll, while most gigs require a broader command of genres. Mixed format DJs provide just that; they take their dance floor or table floor through a journey that includes hip hop, R&B, house, pop, rock, soul, disco, and even mash-in or "up" spoken word and …well, it never ends. Even the electronic music  DJs playing in front of tens of thousands are dabbling with mixed formats. More and more DJs are musicians, not just people playing recordings of musicians. I asked someone recently if another term other than DJ is becoming necessary. Although I was told no, I kind of lean toward a term like “dance artist,” or something similar to this. I, of course, would still be described as a DJ. To use the same term to describe what I do with Tiesto is ridiculous. The mixed format DJs are the bread and butter of the small club or model/bottle business. They command high fees and are in constant demand. I am signed with 4AM Artist Management and am easily the oldest and least talented of the crew. At the top of the heap are a bunch of young studs who amaze me every time I hear them. Jonathan Totaro is “DJ Price;” he is a resident DJ at multiple venues in multiple cities. Adam Alpert, mine and DJ Price’s manager, gushes like a proud soccer mom when asked about him. I had the pleasure of working with him one night at Avenue.

We DJ’d together one night at Avenue and you spoke of being a DJ that typically works where bottle service rules. Is this situation challenging?
I don’t consider myself a "bottle service DJ" because it’s the art and music and how it affects people that inspires me, regardless of the venue. It’s the best; every night I have to prove myself and my craft. The job can be challenging, but with the right amount of preparation and experience, it can be immensely rewarding. On top of that, DJs working in these environments need to be confident.  Often times we are forced to change musical directions quickly, and please a large audience. This takes countless hours of practice and determination to your craft.

When we worked that room, our conversations were about music fundamentals rather than the usual DJ banter. You seem to be totally involved with music. Tell me about that and where it will lead.
I take pride in the job and career I have created for myself.  I enjoy working on mixes of my live performances and spending time working on my own personal music projects, from remixes to original tracks.  This summer, I will release several tracks from my personal project: "Avalanche", "Let it Feel," and "Daylight."  Music can take you anywhere.  I never would have thought I’d be traveling the country, playing music to different crowds, and getting paid to do it!  I’d like to take it the next step and bring my personal tastes to their ears – music I have been working on for a year will finally be released!

Most DJs are very image-conscious, with clothing/dress playing a major role in branding and marketing. You have taken this farther; talk about your line.
I have always compared music with fashion, and I am really proud of how my line Reason has matured with my musical tastes. What started as a small hand printed t-shirt line has blossomed into a complete cut-and-sew men’s collection, with a retail flagship store in the East Village. The store, named Reason Outpost, is one of my proudest achievements.  Inside, you can find our full collection of apparel, as well as a carefully curated selection of vintage clothing from the 1940s to 1980s. The Reason Outpost is located at 436 East 9th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, and we are open seven days a week from 12pm to 8pm. One of my favorite interests is marketing and design. I have always thought of DJ Price as a brand; mMusic and live performance was the product it sold. I am committed to expanding the brand and taking it to the next level.

The music festivals feature electronic dance music (EDM) almost exclusively. Is this a form of snobbery ?
I don’t think you can say that festivals have snobbery in the DJ sets. These are the best producers in the world. They are putting out the music that everyone wants at the moment, and they test out and introduce the EDM music fan community with new music at these festivals. They put on a show and they are creative. Even Skrillex will throw a hip hop song on in the middle of his set. Timbaland and Lil Jon will come out during Steve Aoki’s set… so will Madonna and Avicii. These are just some of the things that happened at the Ultra Festival that show how all music types are being mashed together with EDM, such as hip hop, reggae, pop, and rock.

DJ management has become almost a necessity, especially on your level. With so much work coming at you, what have you learned and how else do you benefit from management?
I’ve learned that with someone like myself who is always busy and pushing myself to be more creative and productive, it is essential to have management. Promotion, booking, invoicing, and invoice collecting is a ful- time job. I value the personal relationship I have with my managers and I value the commitment they have to seeing me succeed. The 4AM team is a family, and it’s comforting to know you have teammate DJs by your side. Having management allows me to know that I am not alone in this business, and that I know I will have some time to talk to about my product. With that being said, you only get back what you put in. You need to be giving your team material to work with; that includes constant new mix recordings, remixes, and your own unique sound and music. On top of that, you need to be able to brand yourself and market yourself. You need to find ways to separate yourself from the pack.

Halos, Heartbeats, & Rosewood Land in NYC Tonight

Tonight sees the opening of Rosewood (5 E.19th Street). I’ll be there. I like everyone involved in the project and well…yes, they are paying me. I will be DJing in the lower-level den which the press release describes is for "a more eclectic crowd.” That’s me. I’m opening for the fabulous Kelle Calco, one of my favorite DJs. Upstairs, Danny Rockz and Zeke Thomas provide the music. They had some preview thing the other night and it was a major celebrity fest. The building space has been many clubs, mostly with silly names like Roam and Boudoir. Nobody went to these places, so it will feel real new now. Naysayers and nut jobs will say it’s cursed. Bah humbug! My first of many this season, says I. There is nothing wrong with the space that a little experience, some love, good DJs, and common sense won’t solve.

The experience comes in the form of Redd Stylez who, as Gary Oldman once quipped in True Romance is practically related to me. Redd has been associated with a dozen places over 15 or more years. He is the creative guy; the guy tasked to fill the room and make it sing and swing. He will do just that. Hiring Ruben Rivera to do the door is a great start. Ruben has a great following and a solid eye for what works. Like all great door folk, he is not afraid to say no and also not afraid to say yes. The latter part is something that newbie door folk rarely understand. Creating a mix and letting in that borderline patron and making a club money at the same time is the difference between red and black ink. Redd doesn’t want red ink.

Inside Rosewood will be one of the fastest and, he will tell you, best-looking bartenders in this ‘Burg: Blaise Johnson. Heis fast. There’s some drink he made up called the “White Rose” which I will try after I turn things over to Kelle. It’s Appleton Rum, Chambord, and blood orange puree. Sounds yummy. Rosewood will open Tuesday through Saturday, and I’m hoping they do well.

Saturday night I attended the 4AM electronic dance music event at the Highline Ballroom. I didn’t know what to expect. The place was sold out, jammed with a crowd down the block. When I arrived, DJ Dalton was frenzying the crowd. Promoter pal Cody Pruitt and I discussed how refreshing it is to attend events outside the usual boxes…the familiar clubs. He helped me out at that Dos Equis party at Masonic Hall a few weeks ago. Then, and over the weekend and seemingly always, he brings a great crowd to any party. He is singlehandedly convincing me that promoters, who usually referred to me as the "P-word," are not all bad. Last I saw him, he was going to cut off his long locks. Alas, it was only a couple inches and I feel mislead.

Also of note is tonight’s charitable event Halos and Heartbeats, hosted by the ever-fabulous Tish and Snooky at the new Cutting Room. Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic fame sold me my first pair of pointy shoes when they had their store on St Marks. I ruined them and a brand new leopard-print sports jacket while going over a barbed wire fence one typical night a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They are the most wonderful of people. Their hair dyes are coveted to this day. Tonight’s event features performances by Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. It will benefit Frankie’s Friends foundation, which funds grants for life-saving veterinary services from their Hope Fund to treat pets whose families cannot afford the cost of care. There is a live, silent, and online auction to raise funds. For tickets to tonight’s event, see here.