Tonight, Roland Tolbert has his work cut out for him.
An aspiring DJ, he likes to practice in the backyard of his fiancée’s home in the James Creek Housing Project in Southwest. Just about every Friday night, he unloads his small stash of CDs from a black suitcase, unpacks his mixer, and sets up his speaker and subwoofer next to a empty shed and a broken basketball hoop.
The idea is to transform this sleepy alleyway near O and 1st Streets SW into a dance floor and get his mostly aging neighbors to move their feet. As the first bars of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” float out through the chain-link fence, Tolbert’s audience is a clutch of men sipping Hennessy along one wall, a mother and three kids tossing a ball in their yard, and a woman everyone calls “E.”
Tolbert’s son Ronald, 28, tries to get things going. In an extra-large SpongeBob T-shirt, he rocks and pops between two Supercans, mouthing the words of one soul singer or another to his dance partner, a can of Steel Reserve.
A skinny old woman stumbles on through the alley. She’s here for a cigarette. But soon Tolbert’s golden oldies get to her, and she starts dancing in her short navy dress. She bends over and shakes what she’s got.
The men on the wall roar, hiding their eyes, and try to wave her off. But she’s staying as long as the music’s good. One of the men eventually gets up and hand-dances with the woman to Marvin Gaye’s “Pride and Joy.” Gaye is an obvious favorite—he grew up in the neighborhood.
“Yeah! Party people,” the DJ bellows from the mic. “You better believe it—Strolling Roland!…We respectable DJs!”
Tolbert, 44, has been spinning on the block for five years. It’s no easy task in a neighborhood where the competition for air time is fierce.
Tolbert’s mentor, Donald Covington, 40, who is known as both DJ Sho’ Nuff and Disco, breaks down the DJs and their audiences by block: two brothers who run 1st and P and 2nd and P, DJ White Ice, who spins at 3rd and R and 3rd and Delaware.
But Tolbert is gaining the most renown—mainly because he will play on any given weekend. “I definitely have that part locked,” he says. “I have my own little crowd.”
Tolbert has built up a following by filling a void. There are limits to the things you can do on a Friday night in James Creek, a small grid of town homes and apartments just a few blocks from the new baseball stadium. Before he started spinning, his eventual audience killed happy hour with a six-pack of cheap beer and a debate over whether ketchup-flavored potato chips are a good idea. The energy level peaked during a discussion of whether Earth Wind & Fire had a woman in the group.
But an hour into his set as “DJ Strolling Roland,” he’s started to capture anyone older than 35 and younger than 10. A couple and their children dance on a stairwell across the alley. A silver-haired woman lingers in her backyard, shyly dancing on her own. Farther up the block, two women wiggle in plastic chairs. Each patch of yard, separated by fence, is bouncing to the same beat.
Amid the time warp, Tolbert’s fiancée, DJ Chocolate, demands—and gets—her own short set, as does Covington. “If you play the right music, if you play good music, you wouldn’t have no problems in the neighborhood,” Covington says.
That’s a rule that goes back a few decades, before the area’s DJ roster was as complicated as Parliament’s late-’70s lineup. James Creek’s DJ set started with just Carl Holley and his four speakers.
Holley, now 55, still remembers the system: a Sanyo four-channel receiver, two Jensen speakers, two KLH Model 6 speakers, two Technics turntables, Al Green and Stevie Wonder on vinyl. “It was a party for my mother’s birthday,” Holley recalls of the first time he introduced the neighborhood to some high wattage. It was the mid-’70s, maybe ’77. “I just took the speakers outside and ran the wires through the window. And basically that was my DJ spot. That’s when I started playing outside.…I don’t remember anyone else doing it at the time. I remember people having boom boxes. I think I was the first one to have actual speakers.”
Holley says that even when he was just spinning tunes in his second-floor bedroom on O Street SW, residents would queue up on his lawn or across the street to listen. “‘Carl’s going off!’” Holley says neighbors hollered down the block.
“I would say they were kind of excited because it sounded so good,” Holley says. “They were used to hearing the music, but it might have been on a cheaper system…not hearing the actual balance. They would ask me questions—how do I set it up, what amplifiers do I use, what types of speakers do I get?”
“For real, to me he was [the first] in about ’75,” says Artis Burns, 55. “He had the baddest system in Southwest at that time. A lot of guys picked it up from him.”
After Holley got married and moved to Cheverly, other DJs took over, spinning at barbecues and organizing local cabarets. Tolbert got his start performing for his mother’s card parties. At about 8 years old, he and his godbrother would imitate the most popular soul singers of the day. “He would do James Brown,” he recalls. “I would put the cape on his back. A coat or jacket. They were tickled to death.”
When he was old enough to drive, Tolbert loaded a DJ-quality stereo into his ’82 Grand Prix and took to entertaining on the road. He says he’d just pull up in front of liquor stores or wherever there was a crowd and start spinning. “Everyone would come up, and it would become a block party,” he says.
Marsha Crews moved to James Creek in 2000; she feared her outsider status would make for a lonely existence. But she says Covington made her welcome. “The first night they had a party here—from that day on—they said I’m family,” Crews says, dancing from her seat in front of her house at 1366 1st St. SW. “I couldn’t believe it. We’re just like family.…This is the best place I ever lived.”
By 9 p.m., everyone expects the police to pull up in the alley and tell Tolbert to lower the volume. But this night, cruisers zip up and down 1st Street and ignore the music. Tolbert puts on some classic Michael Jackson and go-go, and the crowd tires out on its own. The alley begins to resemble any dance floor at closing time—a single guy, a group of giggling girls with a last good beat, and one last good boast from the DJ.
From behind his mixer, Tolbert hollers out to his neighborhood: “Dropping the bomb in the Southwest corridor!”
VIDEO: Wasington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis investigates dueling backyard DJs in Soutwest D.C.