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DJ Mel spins for the president and his party

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Did you know DJ Mel played President Obama’s election party?

Which election party? In town somewhere?

No, the election party last week in Chicago, the one many saw on TV.

The jubilant crowd dancing at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago was breaking it down to the sounds of one of Austin’s top party rockers.

“It was kind of a big deal,” Mel Cavaricci said, describing his surprisingly nonchalant response to landing the gig when we caught up with him Thursday night. Back in town for less than 24 hours, he was finishing up a day in the office at the massive local production house C3 Presents, where he works as a talent buyer. In addition to DJ gigs, including his well-loved Rock the Casbah series and a hip-hop weekly at Nasty’s that’s been running for more than 15 years, he helps with electronic dance music and DJ stages at festivals such as Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Music Festival. Last week’s gig dropped in his lap a few days before election night. He has a friend who worked for Obama who was pulling for him to play the big event. He was hired on the strength of two prior political performances, at the California Democratic convention a year ago and Democratic National Convention earlier this year.

Though he thought it was “pretty awesome,” he didn’t freak out. It was just another gig.

The magnitude of the event didn’t strike him until he arrived at the venue. He was handed his credentials and went on stage to sound check. And then he saw the press corps.

“I had never seen anything like that before,” he said. “To actually see all that made me realize the enormity of what was about to happen. At first I was just like ‘OK, I’m going to go and do my thing and it will be like the DNC’ or whatever and then I just walked into that room and I was like ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ What was crazy was to see all those cameras, all those reporters, from all over the world.”

The campaign gave him a playlist of about 40 pre-approved songs to cycle throughout the night. He was explicitly instructed to usher the president in with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and to send him out with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘‘We Take Care of Our Own”; other than that it was pretty open. The appropriate swagger of the Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now” that was playing as CNN projected Obama’s win in Ohio was a case of Mel pulling a song from the approved list at exactly the right time.

It was also around that time, as Obama’s ultimate win became evident and the crowd began to go wild, that Mel realized he had run out of songs on the playlist. Before the event, he had talked to the producers about what to do should this happen. He could repeat songs, but that felt weird. His instructions were to “do his thing, but just keep it old school and be mindful of what this is.”

As the race was called, Mel decided to go with his gut. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to repeat these songs. I’m just going to do what I do and I’m going to play the right songs and just do it.’”

The screens in the auditorium lit up with CNN’s breaking news alert. Obama had won. Mel dropped the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”

“When I played it I realized that we’re in Chicago,” he said. “And this is a (pivotal) song in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and I remember the crowd in the movie being just as diverse as the crowd in the venue and they were all singing along to it and dancing. After that it was just one crazy party.” He freestyled, sticking to his old school faves, striving to play what was appropriate — Shalimar’s “Second Time Around,” George Benson’s “Love X Love,” a slew of “really uplifting songs that you could just dance and sing along to.”

“All the years that I’ve been DJing, the songs that I was playing are songs that I’ve always played and loved,” he said. “I was able to apply my experience to that night. I remember just standing there and saying, ‘Yeah, these are the songs that I really, really love and everyone else in this room, they’re loving these songs too.’”

Back in Austin, it’s all still sinking in. He had no cellphone reception throughout the event, so it wasn’t until afterward that he was bombarded by friends and fans congratulating him. His Twitter follower count increased by 1,000 in an hour. He was happy to represent for DJs on a national stage. But he’s not expecting an overnight change in his career. Three days before he left for Chicago he played to an empty room at Malverde. He understands that will happen again and he’s all right with it. He’ll still spin hip-hop at Nasty’s every Monday night and he’s not anticipating the line to wrap round the block.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” he said. “I’m not expecting to be famous or whatever, but I’m really thankful for the experience. It’s pretty crazy.”