The foundation of a successful trip to the strip club isn’t the strippers. Surprising right? It’s actually the DJ. They set the mood and the overall tone of the entire experience. DJs don’t just spin music and introduce the dancers on stage. They control the lighting and timing. To me, they’re like gods, but after speaking with CJ, a strip club DJ for over 30 years, I might have been wrong. They may be worshipped or feared like gods by dancers sometimes, but they are still at the ultimate mercy of the club owners and managers.
Born in New York, CJ started as a DJ for house parties and school dances while still in high school. He wasn’t old enough to work in nightclubs. When he moved to Colorado where his father was stationed in the Army, he found that the laws were a bit different than in New York. In the mid-80s in Colorado Springs, you couldn’t buy alcohol, a car, or a gun on Sundays. And on Sunday nights the bars turned into teen dance clubs, and one of them just happened to be within walking distance from his house. He DJ’d for these teen nights all through high school right up until he joined the Navy. But after serving, he came back to find that things had changed.
“The bar that I had made the most money at, when I got out of the military, it had been bought out by Déjà Vu. But all the same people still worked there. They had turned this bar into a strip club.”
Déjà Vu is a national strip club chain with an unfortunate but well-earned reputation of exploiting labor and independent contractor laws and, by proxy, their dancers. He started as a parking lot guy, then moved up to bartender, but one night, the DJ just walked out. Because the staff knew his history as teen club DJ, they tossed CJ into the DJ booth. Back then, he was actually spinning vinyl records.
Many people, myself included, assume that DJs simply play the music. But the actual job is much more involved than that.
DJs move people, and not just to dance, although they obviously do that too. But unbeknownst to their audience, DJs manipulate the crowd with carefully selected tracks. Their intention is to usher the patrons from the floor to the bar and back again in a regular club. In a strip club, the objective is to get the patrons to the stage. It’s a clandestine mix of psychology and art that when done by a professional the club patrons don’t and shouldn’t even know it is happening. The strip club environment is an inherently illusionary one. The dancers present a fantasy; the DJ provides the backdrop. The ideal result is an immersive and seamless fantasy.
DJs in a regular dance club when CJ started in the late 80s were paid based on bar sales and cover charges, typically $1 or $2 for every cover charge and about half of a percent of the bar sales. Now it is a flat fee for the night and whatever tips they get. So, there was a financial incentive to move the patrons to the bar. In the strip club, they get tipped by the dancers based on the money they make. Working at the bar prepared him for the strip club in that way. It takes talent and experience to work a crowd and make it lucrative.
In the strip club where the DJ makes most of his money from the dancers, a good rapport with the entertainers is key. The entertainers are what drive the clientele to the club. It is the DJ’s job to make them look good. So the girls are motivated to keep the DJ happy as well. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The DJ doesn’t just play whatever song a dancer asks for, but rather picks a song that is going to get guys up to the stage. The dancer tips based on her profit for the night, so the relationship between dancer and DJ is ideally a mutually beneficial one.
If an entertainer isn’t tipping her DJ what he considers fair, there are DJs who find creative if not passive-aggressive ways to express their displeasure. If you’re in the strip club and you hear That Smell by Lynyrd Skynyrd or Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver by Primus, there’s a good chance the lady on stage has pissed off the DJ. CJ doesn’t play this game, however.
The ultimate say about who plays what and when still goes to the club owner or manager.
“If you play fucked up shit for a girl who doesn’t tip you’re hurting everybody in the club. Think about it, you’re in the back dancing and a polka song comes on, that’s the end of your dances.”
Eventually, Deja Vu made CJ a manager and then sent him to Michigan to learn how to establish new clubs. CJ traveled around the country opening new Déjà Vu locations. He became a corporate employee. Like most established strip club staff, he came to see Déjà Vu and its dubious business practices as a blight on the industry. Rather than give control to its staff and entertainers, it follows an exploitive business model and has entrenched its malicious practices throughout the country. The club he works for now and for most of his career doesn’t use the same tactics.
But back in the 80s and the early 90s, the money was flowing so fast that there weren’t any complaints. Clubs charge their entertainers a stage fee, similar to the rent a hairdresser pays for their station. Sometimes clubs will charge a dancer per lap dance. But they are not allowed to charge both. More recently, Déjà vu has been sued multiple times for their disregard of labor laws. Today, most Déjà vu clubs have machines that the customers put their money into and the girls are paid out at the end of the night. Tips are still paid in cash. This encourages the entertainers to do things outside the rules in order to earn more tips to offset the double dipping of the club. And as that bar gets lowered, competing clubs become pressured to conform to the new boundaries.
“This was the 80s, no one was looking at this shit. Those girls back then were all driving jags, beamers, and benzes. The results of all the lawsuits are why you see the machines and why the girls have to wait to be paid out.”
Coming out of the Navy made transitioning from a teen dance club to a strip club pretty easy. Traveling around the world on a ship, CJ saw plenty of strip clubs and so was ultimately desensitized to a hypersexualized and party atmosphere. But he never viewed the club from a sexual perspective. It was a job, and one that he was good at and enjoyed, but influenced the way that he views women. He says it made him look at women more realistically. He almost became desensitized to flirting and sexual overtures. When you are immersed in a hypersexual environment, you can become blind when women are flirting, specifically in the strip club and with the entertainers. And because of the perceived power that DJs in the strip club hold, the dancers can sometimes use sexual overtones in an effort to gain preferential treatment.
“I think that you can tell when a woman is being more genuine or when they are using their womanly ways to get what she wants out of me.”
Like many industries or professions, there is a kind of community that forms within. But as a strip club DJ, CJ says that he is often looked down upon because he works in the strip club. Despite having thirty years of experience and attaining status as one of the best DJs in the market he works in, he is dismissed by those who work in more mainstream clubs or on the radio. The same talent and skill that is required for success in a regular dance club, which is arguably almost as sexualized as a strip club, is ignored or disregarded simply because it involves nudity. In most cases, the only real difference is an exposed nipple.
CJ experienced this when he attended a private birthday party where a local and very popular radio DJ was spinning records. CJ went up after his set to talk to him.
“I was trying to talk to him and he blew me the fuck off. Like I don’t know what the hell I was talking about. Dude, I’ve been doing it twice as long.”
These kinds of experiences and stigma make him relate differently to the rest of the world. Like the other staff and dancers, it is hard to explain to people outside the club what actually goes on. CJ doesn’t really have any other friends outside the strip club. He doesn’t often tell new people that he DJs in the strip club. He is skeptical of men who may only want to be his friend because he works there. The stigma cuts both ways.
CJ has built a reputation as one of the best DJs in our region. He has attained an almost celebrity status because of his professionalism and talent. And yet, his experience and expertise are only acknowledged within the strip club community. It can be hard to imagine how someone can work for thirty years, and still not be recognized for their accomplishments simply because the business they work for is a sexual one. This may be the epitome of how our society’s hang-ups about sex and sexual expression do a disservice to otherwise talented and dedicated professionals.