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A sneak peek at the Second Set e-book

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2013 - Last year, I wrote 52 pieces for the Beacon under the weekly title of Second Set. The stories attempted to knit together the music and entertainment cultures of contemporary St. Louis with those of the past three decades; in essence, roughly time in which I’ve been consuming local culture as both avid fan and reporter.

In 2013, the pieces shifted to every-other-week, still coming out on Thursday, but published under the title of Encore. The concept’s essentially been the same, updating readers on new projects from familiar names.

By the end of the month, a collection of these writings will be released by the Beacon, again under the title of Second Set. This will be an e-book, edited by the Beacon’s Donna Korando and adapted for the web by Beacon presentation editor Brent Jones. The work has taken some time, with 13 original pieces from the Beacon (trimmed) joined by two-to-three additional articles per piece, creating small chapters that revolve around the original, published piece. The bulk of these pieces, about 35 of them, will be exclusive to the e-book.

Today, though, we’ll flip our usual approach to these, offering the long version of one of the e-book pieces on the Beacon. It’s about an individual who works plenty hard, but during hours that most folks sleep through.

Up All Night With DJ Big J of Pop’s

On the night (well, morning) I visit with Jay Crafts at Pop’s, the last question I ask him is about his real name. He seems a touch reticent, not because of any nefarious reason, but because his life is intrinsically tied to his work, as a full-time employee at Pop’s Nightclub and Concert Venue, the East Side’s legendary, all-day-all-night party room. There, Big J -- known to friends and fans simply as J -- spins music from Wednesday night through the wee hours of Sunday morning in marathon shifts that usually begin around midnight and end after the sun’s risen.

Through big chunks of the year, Big J starts his sets just after the night’s headline musicians finish their concert sets. On the weekends he keeps the crowd energized between that set and the cover bands that play from roughly 12:30 a.m. to dawn. But on the night I visited him, just a few days after the New Year, he was setting up for one of the real tests: a full shift, unbroken, from midnight ‘til 8 a.m.

During that time, he’s expected to not only keep the crowd dancing, but to get on-mic every 15-or-so minutes, reminding the crowd about shot specials and upcoming concerts and promotions. And, through it all, patrons (virtually all female) approach the DJ booth, requesting today’s hits and classic party jams.

Dropping by the room around 3 a.m. and staying for about 80-minutes, I’m exhausted just watching his pace, but it’s a routine he says he’s perfected in the few years he’s worked for the Sauget family. First came two years at the neighboring Oz; for the last year-plus, he’s manned the overnight shift at Pop’s.

“I’ve been doing this 20 years, on-and-off,” he says, while never breaking stride with his set. “For most of years I had a day job. That was tough.”

There is something of a rough transition between Sunday morning at 8 and his check-in at the club on Wednesday night. He has to readjust to family, kids, a normal sleep schedule (“the day life”). But he gives the sense that it’s all worth it because he’s doing what he loves, not only playing records for people, but playing with the emotions of hundreds of people in a busy, active, partying room.

Listen to Big J's Rock Mash Dance Mix | Soundcloud

The trick when he spins on a normal weekend night is to fit in sets during the relatively brief half-hour breaks taken by the cover bands. He says that among peers “a lot of guys ask how you can play for half-an-hour. Well, for those 30-minutes, you just kill it.”

Big J relies on a lot of current hits to kill, but he’s also mastered “mash-ups,” blending two songs, usually from vastly different eras and feels, to create an entirely new track. At Pop’s, mash-ups are like manna from heaven, with the crowd marching out to the dance floor as if they’re been ordered.

His rig allows for as much creativity as he’d care to bring to any night’s work. He has an Apple, filled with thousands of cuts. And there are two turntables, though they’re not used to play old-fashioned wax; instead, his mp3s run through a midi-unit, which he says “tricks the turntables into thinking that they’re playing the tracks.” That way he can cut and scratch on the turntables, as if playing with actual vinyl. Another device allows him to loop beats, bring the beats-per-minute down, or otherwise alter the source track. As stated before, his years of experience at the style allow him to carry on full conversations with patrons while beat-matching, or cueing the next cut.

For effect, he looks over at me at one point, both of us jammed into the wooden box that serves as his portable DJ booth, he’s looking at me, scratching the left turntable, then simply drops a finger down. As he does so, the track pulls up to halt. The audience pauses for a second, but, back on the beat, he lifts up his finger and the track continues, the couple-dozen dancers right back to action.

On this night, Big J’s working the “small stage,” and the audience is only a couple hundred deep during the golden hour of 3-4 a.m., when the room’s usually at it’s most lively. But as a veteran of the game, he knows that the year is cut into different cycles, and the weeks between New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras are about the slowest of any year.

“A lot of young guys, who are new to the business, get nervous at times like this,” he says. “I just know that it’s how it is.”

The crowd, while not huge, is engaged. As said, there’s a steady stream of women coming up to the booth, and he’s charming all of them; some are pretty much regulars, others he doesn’t know as well. Requests are honored as long they’re within reason. Big J admits the makeup of the Pop’s crowd is its blessing and curse: it’s black and white, Latin and Asian, old and young, a little bit country and a whole lotta rock’n’roll.

“The bigger the crowd,” J figures, “the more variety.”

As I tell him that I’m wearing down, figuring that I’ve got about 20 more minutes of Pop’s left in me, Big J invites the ladies onto the stage, where they’re “welcome all night long.” I snap a few pictures, the dancers up there enjoying the hip-hop, just a few minutes before he plays the eternal wedding staple “Shout.” What’s amazing is that his transitions work so well. Undeterred by the quick breaks in decades and sound, the crowd keeps dancing, especially coming to life when he tosses in a slide, or a sing-along.

Those moments, he says, those moments make a night more than just a job.

“I love it when it gets busy,” Big J says. “There’s nothing better than when you play something and the crowd’s singing along. As a DJ, you know that you’re doing your job. I look at it like this: when 70 percent of the night, the dance floor is half-full, I’m doing my job. And if sales and tips are good at the end of the night, then everybody’s done their job.”

Having worked an eight-hour DJ shift for just a few weeks, I know that what Jay Crafts is doing is a job. It’s work. It’s tough. And watching him perform for even a sliver of a shift, it’s obvious that he does it very, very well.

Update on Big J

A few weeks ago, I dropped by Pop’s at around 1:15 with my friend Amy. Before entering the club, though, we were greeted by Big J, who was standing next to a Sauget municipal police car, a vehicle that works the Pop’s lot all night long. He remembered us from a few weeks before and waved us into the venue; we were cover-free and appreciative of the gesture.

The ‘80s cover band Cold Shot, a Pop’s staple, was grinding through its retro set, entertaining the still-arriving crowd. As their first set ended, J slid into his wooden booth and blasted out a signature, 30-minute mix, blending new-and-old, rock-and-dance, rap-and-oldies. Customers from every corner of the room filled the dance floor, seeming to outnumber those who weren’t moving along to the beats.

Daring Amy to put something onto the chalkboard surrounding his booth, she did just that, creating an aquatic scene on the quick while partially surrounded by dancers: suddenly, a worm bobbed from the end of a hook, deep under some fast-drawn waves. Big J popped out of the booth, took a look, then invited “all the ladies to come up and do what this girl’s doing,” and within seconds, a half-dozen women were sketching out messages on the chalkboard; mostly they were birthday greetings or nods to so-and-so being hot. Just as quickly, they dissipated, the chalkboard nearly filled with text and images.

He’s a DJ and emcee. He’s a master of his form of entertainment. And he’s a little big Pied Piper.