I was a junior in high school when I got my big break. I went to visit my friend Mike “Hitman” Wilson and ended up doing an impromptu audition for Farley JMF, who was also hanging out over there. Farley asked me to be a mixshow DJ on one of the biggest radio stations in Chicago, WGCI. I went from being a bedroom/local DJ to gigging every weekend. I had quit my day job months before when I was forced into a decision between DJing a local party and keeping my after-school job. I went into work, then decided I needed to play that party and, during my break, I left for good. I never went back. I was in high school when I started doing the mixshow on the radio, and by senior year I was making more money than my dad. It was enough for me to live out on my own.
Touring can be expensive, with flights, driving, hotels, etc. What advice would you give a DJ — who is starting to get out-of-town gigs — to keep expenses down?
Do whatever it takes. Search the Internet for inexpensive flights, hotels, etc. When I first started doing out-of-town gigs, I would take gigs for less money than I could earn in Chicago because I knew it would help break me in new markets. You may not make any money — sometimes you may lose money — but in the end, you are building your fan base, and it's worth it.
Are there any inexpensive ways to promote yourself while you're in those new cities?
Give out as many promo CDs to people at the club and promoters. If you can do radio, that is really beneficial because of the amount of people you can hit at once.
What kind of a long-term game plan does a DJ need to start making a decent profit from touring rather than losing all the gig money to travel expenses?
When you are popular enough to actually draw more paying people — and make the promoter money by having you — you can charge enough to make a profit. Again, this takes time, but by playing a market multiple times, people start to like you (if you don't suck, of course), and then you build that fan base where people actually start coming out to see you.
Do you adapt your style or musical selection at all to cater to the local crowd?
I adjust my music within a very specific range. If it's an older crowd, I may play a bit funkier or soulful, or if it's a younger crowd, I may play a bit harder and more aggressive.
There's probably a lot of competition to get out-of-town gigs in big clubs. As you were coming up the ranks, how did you make yourself stand out from other DJs? And how did you get the bookers at clubs to agree to book you?
I started putting out legal mix CDs such as the Bangin' the Box [Mixed Connection] series, which helped get me noticed nationwide. I would always do my best at every performance, and word of mouth started to spread about me. Promoters then wanted to bring me and expose me to their crowd. The audiences then started to follow and support me, and along with the popularity of the mix CDs, I would be asked to play those markets again.
At what point can you start asking for money guarantees? And how do you work out those kinds of contracts with bookers and promoters?
You can ask for anything, but you can only get what someone is willing to pay you, and if you don't have other offers, it's take it or leave it. I had a rate that I felt I was worth, and if people couldn't guarantee me that, then I am okay on passing on that gig. If after a while you can't get booked at your price (or if you have more offers than you can take), then maybe you need to adjust your price.
As a DJ gets bigger, what's reasonable to ask for on your tour rider?
You can include sound equipment, visual and lighting, drinks (alcoholic and nonalcoholic), food and snacks, private area and private restroom, guest list and a VIP table for your guests.
When is it important to look for a tour-booking agent or manager to help you get the really good gigs? What's key in finding the right person for the job?
It is important to have an agent when you are getting more requests than you can handle. I handled all my bookings for the first few years of my career; then I hired my friend to help me out. I paid him a weekly salary, starting off as part time, and then it grew into full time. Then, when it became too big for both of us, I had to approach a real agent. Let me clear something up: Agents for the most part don't get you gigs. You have to do that with your own promotion or products that you are putting in the marketplace — basically create your own demand. Then the agent can facilitate and handle the contracts and the booking.
Have you made any mistakes or seen any DJs make mistakes in the business that you'd like to see them avoid?
Don't be complacent if you are popular in one market, no matter how big you are in that market. I have seen DJs who were superstars in their one market, and then something happens, like the radio station they were mixing for changes formats or whatever. And then they are out looking for work or back at a day job. Expand, grow, try to get your sound out there in front of as many different audiences, cities, countries, as possible. Oh, and most importantly, have fun!
Look out for Bad Boy Bill's new CD/DVD release, Behind the Decks, Live: The Experience, in early fall.