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His name's not a judgment. In fact, DJ Sober can fill a dance floor - and he'll keep it hopping

Will Rhoten DJ Sober
Phebe Schmidt
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Will Rhoten a.k.a. DJ Sober has been the pulse of the party since he was a teen.

At 16, Will Rhoten a.k.a. DJ Sober was already deep in deejay culture. In spite of his age, he never let flashy club life distract him from the music.

Will Rhoten is serious about the music.

DJ Sober, as he's called, has been spinning vinyl in North Texas hot spots and at events for nearly two decades now. If you’ve been out and about, you’ve no doubt heard the sounds that have made him a music scene legend.

Rhoten is a busy man, but we caught up with him for a quick chat about his most memorable gig, how NOT to embarrass yourself on the dancefloor and his passion for music and art.

Let’s just start at the top. What's the story behind your handle?

I was hanging out with the older brother of a kid who went to my school who took me to raves and stuff in the nineties. And I got very interested in deejay culture and learning more about it. I was thrown into being around a crowd that was a lot older and did everything in excess. I was only 16, but a lot of other kids were already experimenting. I would go to the parties and I feel like everyone else was there to get messed up and the music was a secondary thing. I kind of felt a little disillusioned with all of that. I really just focused on the deejaying side of things and stayed away from that.

And so, when it was time for me to be put on the first flier —-the first DJ gig I ever did when I was 16 -- they called me up to ask about a deejay name and I said, “I don't have one.” Somebody before that had told me it'd be cool if you went under the name Sober because you don't do anything. So I kind of just went with that off the cuff. From that point, it just kind of stuck.

I never did it to be preachy or anything. It wasn't to say people shouldn't do this. It’s just I figured out what works for me and I stuck with that. And I think in the long run I made the right decision for myself.

What was your most memorable gig?

That’s a tough one.

Honestly, I've done a lot of big shows and opened for a lot of artists that I've been a fan of and looked up to. But my most memorable show wasn’t just one gig. I did Big Bang Thursdays at the Beauty Bar off Henderson for eight years. And to me, what I created there is what brought me the most joy. I treated that night as like my baby because I built up a sound for the night. It was such a moment in time.

It was just this small space, but for a lot of creatives in Dallas, it was a meeting ground for like-minded people. I haven't had a regular party or anything since then that felt that way with this sense of community.

So it was definitely a special thing for me. It made me a better DJ because I had to be there every week and I had to try to keep it fresh. But it really made me keep my chops up and it made me learn a lot about rocking a party and controlling a crowd.

Assuming they could understand, how would you describe what you'd do for beings from outer space?

Hopefully, what I do is part of the reason that they arrived here. Or maybe my craft is communicating with them.

I think that if I were to try to describe it, I'd want it to be interactive. I'd want to show alien life forces what it is I do or have an extraterrestrial dance party.

If there was a communication barrier, I think that that could be the key. Music could be the universal language of communication, so I would try, as in other instances, to read my crowd and ask myself, “What do I think would move these beings? What do I think would get through to them?” Or just experiment and see what happens.

Yeah. We'd have to have a little dance party.

Spinning records is your day/night job, what's your passion?

Music is definitely one of my biggest passions. So even if I wasn't deejaying, I think I would be an avid music collector. I’m always looking for new stuff to listen to.

But I would say art is my number one passion. I'm also an illustrator and artist, so that's my first love. Even in elementary school, I was always drawing and as I got older, I would just fill pages with doodling. I still draw in some capacity every day. I'm actually about to draw a flyer right now.

 Is there a gallery show in the future?

You know, I would love to put out a book and do a show that goes with all of my fliers that I've drawn since the nineties. I definitely do have some things in mind and in the works for sure as far as that goes. But yeah, music and art are my passions.

A lot of people would say that without the DJ there really is no party.  So, what does it really mean to be the figurative “life of the party”?

Just like the drummer in a band, without the drummer, there's not a beat. I think the DJ is the pulse of the party, and it's your job to keep people moving and provide a soundtrack. You want to pick the right music and tunes that fits the vibe of the event and there's definitely an art and a science behind it. You can lose a dance floor really quick by choosing the wrong thing.

A good deejay thinks multiple steps ahead. If I think that I can get from a certain BPM or a certain genre to another in a tasteful manner, I try to think about how I could do that when I'm at a certain point. Or if I start going this direction and it doesn't work, how can I get out of it and go another route that will work.

Sometimes people come up and ask what's next and I haven't even thought about that yet. I'm in my head thinking, “I could do this or I could do this and do this, which would lead me here,” you know?

So, to your question to being the life of the party, it's a lot of work, and I think that there's a lot that goes into it that not your average partygoer might think about. There's a lot of practice and preparation that goes into to reading your crowd and reading a room.

What's your best tip for not embarrassing yourself on the dance floor?

Uh. Wow. I've seen a lot.

And you've been sober!

I know.

I think if you're dancing, even if it's awkward, that's great. I don't like it when someone's just standing in the dance floor, taking up space for other potential people who would want to move. So even if you've got Elaine from Seinfeld dance moves, I don't think that's embarrassing because at the end of the day, who really cares? As long as you're having fun and you're letting loose, then that's what dancing should be.

Elaine's Dance Moves on "Seinfeld"

But, I would say, being self-aware - there are people who always see deejays complaining about requests. But it's not necessarily their request, but more of reading the situation.

Don't come up and ask for a country song when the deejay’s playing dance music or if it's a hip hop night. Or being demanding with it or entitled like, “Oh, you don't have that song or you're not going to play it? You're a terrible deejay.”

I’ve had people say that kind of stuff. I think that can be embarrassing, but maybe that's just alcohol talking and maybe later they're going to think about it…but then, again maybe not.

Is there one song you absolutely will not play?

There are a lot of songs I won't play, but I think anything line dancy. That's something that could save you embarrassment. Just don't ask for the “Cupid Shuffle” or “Cha Cha Slide” or “The Wobble.” When somebody asks me for that, I literally say, “This isn't a wedding.” Those are typical bad wedding songs.

But yeah, you'd be surprised. You'll be in a cool spot where everyone's getting down and having a good time, and you have some random person that just walked in off the street asks you to play “The Wobble.” So — definitely none of those.

What’s the biggest change you've seen in music since you started as a DJ?

I would say it's a lot easier for anyone to record music. Back in the day, you had to pay tons of money for studio time, etc. Not many people could access making music unless you had money and or equipment. Even a home studio was expensive.

But now, most any laptop comes equipped with GarageBand or so many other things that you could just tap right in and do stuff. From a deejay standpoint, I think the more people who have access to doing something that they might not have had before is cool. You never know, one of those people could be a diamond in the rough that might make something incredible, and they never knew they had it in them.

You can catch DJ Sober Friday, July 29 at Hotel Dryce in Fort Worth.

In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at tpowell@kera.org.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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