Vinyl Spinnin’ Strong in DC

DJ (n.) – disc jockey; a person who introduces and plays recorded popular music, especially on a radio or at a disco. At a disco. A DISCO. Okay, so our present-day definition of DJ may be slightly different than the dictionary’s. The rise of EDM and EDM culture has also given rise to a particular persona associated with the modern DJ, one that does not conjure images of disco or coordinated dancing or even Pirate Radio.

But while glow sticks may have their place on a Saturday (or you know, Tuesday) night, there is among many DC nightclub-goers a desire for something more than bumping and blowing out eardrums. More than once over the past month, I’ve overheard a variation of this conversation:

Person A: “I want to be able to go somewhere and like, dance.”
Person B: “Well, yeah…”
Person A: “No, I mean like really dance, not the grinding up on each other kind.”
Person B: “I know, RIGHT? Do they have those places? I want to go there.”

Yes, there is an alternative. Enter the vinyl spinners.

Sure, America may have a love affair with nostalgia, but that doesn’t make showing up at Showtime Lounge for some Patrick Swayze-style dirty dancing (minus the space for “the lift”) with DJ Baby Alcatraz any less legit. Baby Alacatraz, like her compatriots Soul Call Paul (Showtime’s owner), Mad Squirrel, Nitekrawler and others, totes a collection of vinyl classics to DC’s dimly lit dives and dance spots, and breaks up the bass pound by spinning it old school with rhythm and blues.

“I started collecting vinyl because of the treasure hunt aspect, and also because you couldn’t find anything you wanted instantly on the Internet at the time,” says Alcatraz, who has developed a following that flocks to her all-vinyl dance party nights. “I’m still surprised at what information I can’t find online about many records and artists. Sticking to vinyl is a way for me to keep things fresh, and an excuse to play the records I love and collect.”

Along with Showtime, other smaller local venues, including favorites Velvet Lounge, Slash Run and Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar, have also started catering to the crowd that wants to get down to vinyl, and offering space to the DJs that bring it. For Sean Hissey, a.k.a. DJ Mad Squirrel, vinyl is all about daylighting forgotten gems.

“I grew up with records, so I’ve always enjoyed and collected vinyl,” Hissey says. “There’s something nostalgic about hearing that needle drop and the rich, full sound of the song – even with the occasional pops and crackles – blaring out of the speakers. Not only are you enjoying the wonderful recording of the musicians, but it can also bring back memories of where you found or first heard that record, and all that happened around it. The most exciting thing for me since I mostly DJ and collect 45s is that I’m constantly discovering great songs I’ve never heard.”

Hissey points to local record shops like Som, Smash, Joint Custody and Red Onion as places where DJs and collectors can find and share music, stories and projects. He is currently working on a compilation of rare 50s and 60s girl groups and female-fronted songs with friend Paul Vivari, which they hope to release on Vivari’s label.

But despite the steadily reemerging market for vinyl collecting and listening, and with “support groups” like DC Vinyl Headz that promote vinyl DJ events popping up, spinning vinyl is, according to some, still somewhat of a niche undertaking. Kevin Coombe spins both vinyl and electronic as DJ Nitekrawler, often at Little Miss Whiskey’s, where his Moneytown night is popular.

“The percentage of DJs regularly spinning vinyl sets is certainly on the low end these days,” Coombe says. “I wouldn’t necessarily say there is an exclusivity about it, nor is there a general camaraderie. I think everyone is just out there doing what works best for them.”

Of course, what works best is bound to vary, and while their styles and perspectives may differ, vinyl DJs are all offering DC something those of us keeping the needle in the groove are craving – a little soul. 

DJ Baby Alcatraz: On Twitter and Instagram @babyalcatraz
DJ Mad Squirrel:
DJ Nitekrawler:


Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She has called D.C. home for long enough to now be considered a “local”. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the co-founder of D.C. literary reading series and writing community, The Inner Loop. She listens to a lot of music and sometimes even tries to make it. She writes a good deal about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Her dog, Rembrandt, features prominently in her life and work.