When it comes to music in DC, we pretty much have it all: one-of-a-kind venues like 9:30 Club and Black Cat, and festivals like Funk Parade and Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival. But there’s another music scene in DC that has proved a local staple: retro and throwback cover bands and dance nights. From all-90s cover band White Ford Bronco to Will Eastman’s No Scrubs: 90s Dance Party, anyone can travel back to their high school years and jam to the best music of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. We caught up with a few local cover bands and DJs about their favorite throwbacks, and got an inside look at the DC retro music scene.
Mixes vinyl with a genre-bending style // DC’s unofficial “Princeologist” Spins Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna dance parties
On Tap: How do you mix genres and how would you categorize your sound?
DJ Dredd: I would characterize it as anything goes. If you come to a gig of mine, you can hear anything. What I like to do is find records that may be on totally opposite ends of the spectrum and mix them together. You may hear me mix a Radiohead song with a Rick James song or an Oasis song with a Björk song – just taking things that are polar opposites in a lot of ways and making them work.
OT: What drew you to spinning so much of Prince and Michael Jackson’s music, and forming dance nights around them?
DD: Just my youth. Michael Jackson is probably one of the biggest stars the world’s ever known. Prince was different for me. When I first heard his music and saw him, he looked [and] sounded different. He was playing guitar, and at that time, you didn’t really see black men playing the electric guitar – especially in that way. He was just so free and honest with what he was saying, and it really resonated with me as a kid. He was really the reason I noticed and wanted to play music.
OT: What are your favorite venues to spin at?
DD: I do a lot of one-offs, but there’ still places like the Black Cat that I have a lot of respect for because if I have an idea for something, they let me roll with it. I’ve been doing stuff there since 2005 – I’ve been doing their New Year’s Eve party for about 10 years – and I can try stuff out there. Also 9:30 Club still respects the DJ culture and I do the MJ celebration there, which will be happening in August.
OT: What kind of crowds come out to your Prince, MJ and Madonna nights?
DD: Diverse [crowds] – just like their music. It’s young, it’s old, it’s international, it’s a very accepting crowd. When I have those nights, it’s great because people come, bring their friends, celebrate the art and come together.
Learn more about DJ Dredd at www.djdredd.com.
Spins alt-80s indie hits // Established the Right Round: 80s Alt-Pop dance party
On Tap: What genres do you like to spin?
DJ lil’e: I’m most known for the 80s dance party Right Round, and the artists I spin for that are some of my favorites like The Cure, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees – stuff like that. Not so much the Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna, but more so the weirdo 80s.
OT: How did you get into DJing retro dance nights?
DL: I have been collecting records my whole life, and I was born in the 70s and [my] teen years [were] in the 80s, so that alternative music has always been where my heart has gone. Back when I started DJing at the Black Cat, there really weren’t a lot of alternative dance parties going on and there weren’t a lot of female DJs, so I kind of fit into a niche that needed to happen.
OT: Why do you think 80s music is still relevant today?
DL: There’s so many different ways you can go with the 80s. You can go straight up cheesy or you can go funky. I feel like – at least for 80s alternative – a lot of the music feels really timeless and it’s music that’s really danceable. The people who are really into it were the kind of loners of my generation, so I think it appeals to us in that way. We’ve never fallen out of love with it; it’s stayed relevant.
OT: Do you think dance parties like Right Round have become more popular in recent years?
DL: Right Round is a funny creature because the people who have been coming to that dance night, some of them started when they were in college and then they went off and got married and had kids and now they’re coming back. My crowd is super diverse in terms of age. I just try to throw a really good party that’s not the music you hear all the time. This past Saturday was its sixteenth anniversary as a monthly dance party, which is crazy.
Learn more about DJ lil’e at www.fb.com/you.love.lil.e.
Party Like It’s…
Horn-infused pop, rock and ska band // Covers 80s, 90s and 2000s songs, plus modern hits
On Tap: What is the back story behind the band’s formation?
Guitarist Eric Taft: About four or five years ago, our trumpet player at the time wanted to put together a ska band. There’s a punk band called Me First and the Gimme Gimmes that does punk rock-style covers of all kinds of songs from the 50s and 60s, so our trumpet player wanted to [be] the reggae and ska version of that. He assembled all the musicians he knew from different places and put us together.
OT: Who are your major musical influences as a band?
Lead singer Cathy DiToro: We all really like ska, punk and reggae, but me personally? My main influences are No Doubt and Gwen Stefani.
ET: It’s a pretty wide range. We have a lot of influences from bands like The Police all the way up until punk bands like NOFX. I’m personally influenced by whatever grabs me.
OT: Is there a stereotype about cover bands that you think is all wrong?
ET: You could perceive that there’s a stigma surrounding cover bands; especially in the DC area, it can be incredibly lucrative playing in a cover band. Everyone in our band also plays original music and has other projects, but to have this thing we can offer that sets us apart in this market can be incredibly lucrative. It’s not the reason we set out and that’s not how we see ourselves. But in [the DMV], the cover scene is so strong and dense that there’s demand for it, and we take advantage of that.
OT: How do you put a unique spin on songs and make them your own?
ET: When we decide to cover a song, we take two days to tear it apart and make sure it’s our own thing. That’s what makes this band not feel like a traditional cover band; it puts an element of originality into what we do. Even though we’re playing covers, we’re still doing our own arrangements and there’s an element of creativity and artistic liberty that comes with that. We have a horn section at our disposal, so we might turn a synth section into a horn part or write a part in for the horns.
CD: We work on arrangements and try to make [them] cool or fun or different. That does set us apart significantly from many bands in this area – many of which I know and have been a part of.
Learn more about Party Like It’s… at www.partlikeits.com and catch them at Wonderland Ballroom on Thursday, March 8 at 10 p.m.
Wonderland Ballroom: 1101 Kenyon St. NW, DC; www.thewonderlandballroom.com
80s tribute band // Plays everything from Blondie and Journey to
Cyndi Lauper and Whitesnake
On Tap: How and when was The Reflex established?
Lead singer JR Russell: The Reflex has been around since 2000, but it’s had a bunch of different variations with different singers and musicians playing in it. There have been three male lead singers, four female lead singers, two or three guitarists, and two or three drummers. The only person in the entire band who was in the original lineup is Darron Morfino, who plays bass. I’ve been in the band for about three years.
OT: Why did you guys choose to go the cover band route, and why focus on the 80s?
JR: I think there’s more of a demand for cover music here in the DC area. The 80s [are] pretty cool because you have a lot of varied sounds that have become very synonymous with the decade. It’s where you have legendary artists who have played some of their best stuff. You have your Michael Jacksons [and] your Journeys of the world, your Madonnas and Princes; they all had their hot stuff in the 80s so that’s what we try to do – the best of all of that every time we do a show.
OT: How do you think the cover band scene has changed in DC over the years?
JR: We’ve seen some of the bands from up near Philly or Dewey Beach come toward DC because some of the clubs want to bring in bands that are doing contemporary covers. We’re also finding that some of the clubs that you might have been able to play in the past [aren’t] available anymore. And now you have new clubs opening up, like Club Eclipse [in Gainesville, Virginia]. It’s a changing scene. There’s a consistency with cover bands because people want to go out in this area; they want to hear songs that they have heard and can sing along to.
OT: Have you noticed younger people coming out to your shows?
JR: We have. It’s sometimes surprising because I’m looking at the crowd wondering whether or not [they were] even born in the 90s – let alone in the 80s – when these songs were popularized. To have people who are millennials show up to gigs is fantastic, especially when they know all the words.
Learn more about The Reflex at www.reflexlive.com and catch them at Uptown Alley-Manassas on Saturday, April 28 at 9 p.m.
Uptown Alley-Manassas: 8300 Sudley Rd. A-7, Manassas, VA; www.uptownalleymanassas.com
U Street Music Hall owner // Spins house, techno and disco
DJ nights include No Scrubs: 90s Dance Party and Hot in Herre: 2000s Dance Party
On Tap: What inspired the No Scrubs dance party?
Will Eastman: It was kind of a happy accident. My friends Brian, Billy and I came up with an idea [in 2003]: we wanted to help with [our friend Kylos Brannon’s] theatre group and we sort of had in [mind] a tongue-in-cheek gesture. There were lots of 80s dance parties around at the time and we were like, we love 90s hip-hop, pop, grunge and alt sounds, [so] let’s do a 90s dance party. From the get-go it was extremely popular, and eventually we added the 2000s dance party Hot in Herre.
OT: Why do you think these themed dance nights have become so popular?
WE: We’ve been doing No Scrubs for 14 years and Hot in Herre for eight, and we just launched a 2010s dance party called Can’t Feel My Face. We’ve seen over time that as our parties have gotten successful, people have copied them. It used to be rare to find a 90s party and now they’re everywhere, and it used to be hard to find a 2000s party and now they’re growing. Other markets and venues have seen that this is an event you can do that isn’t super expensive that can work in your room if you brand and market it right, and have the right people doing it. From an audience point of view, it’s fun. It’s a great time.
OT: How does it feel knowing that songs from the 90s and 2000s are now considered retro to millennials?
WE: It’s fun. I’ve always been a fan of music from the 90s, but I wasn’t DJing til the end of that decade; but I was a DJ for a lot of the 2000-2010, era so I have a viscerally strong connection to that party. In terms of retro, I’m not sure [there’s] much of a kitsch factor. It’s curating a great set of songs, culling through a decade’s worth of music and presenting to a crowd what you think some of the best and brightest was.
OT: How has the local DJ scene changed since you’ve been spinning?
WE: It’s changed a lot since I started. These parties are just a portion of what I do as a music professional and they are something I do on the side for fun; I [also] produce music under my own name. I feel like there are more places that have great music today than there were five years ago and five years before that. Hopefully, that trend continues and DC gets on the map as a music lovers’ city, because I think there are a lot of music lovers here and in a lot of ways, DC doesn’t get the due respect it deserves.
Learn more about Eastman at www.soundcloud.com/willeastman and catch him at 9:30 Club on Friday, March 9 at 9 p.m. for his No Scrubs: 90s Dance Party.
9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com