• Record Collector: DJ Mel

    Mel Sandico thought he was about to get his big break. Twenty years ago, the young Austin-based DJ was approached on 6th Street by a few intimidating characters who propositioned him to soundtrack an upcoming event — with an impressive paycheck to match. Mel and his buddy took the gig, a house party in a rough part of town. It was the ‘90s and Austin was different, but Mel was eager and had dollar signs in his eyes. 

    The party came to an uneventful close and Mel collected his payment. It was the most money he’d ever made DJing — until he went to cash the check. It bounced.

    “It was one of those things where you can’t go back to that dude and be like, ‘Yo man, your check bounced,’” Mel remembers. “I was just like, I’m not going going back to that guy and complain because he was scary, and I’m a small dude and that guy was huge.”

    In the two decades since, Mel has gotten more than a few more high-profile gigs. He’d earned his stripes behind the turntables in Austin’s nightclubs, hosting a weekly hip-hop night since the mid-90s. In 2009, he befriended John Liipfert, who produces some pretty large music, cultural and political events. John booked Mel to perform at the California Democratic Convention in Sacramento, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, President Obama’s election night party in Chicago in 2012 and, eventually, his 2013 inauguration. Since then, he’s set the tone for every White House Easter Egg Roll, performing for the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce (and Blue Ivy) in the process. 

    This election season, John tapped Mel again — this time to be Bernie Sanders’ house DJ. In Iowa, New Hampshire, Mel would work the turntables at the candidate’s campaign parties. 

    “The press went crazy because all the people from the networks were like, ‘Who is this guy … this is crazy that Bernie Sanders has this dude playing,’” Mel says. “It was pretty cool, man.”

    Before he was rubbing shoulders with political heavyweights, Mel took to music as a fan, memorizing every element of a song, the guitars, the horns, the key changes. From there, he began collecting records, admiring the album art, the subtleties on each physical LP. 

    Here, Mel shares the romantic mindset behind his collection and how it applies to DJing political events. 
    Photos by Becca Morris

    When did you start noticing you had an interest in curating sound?
    I’ve always been drawn to music, Even way before I ever thought about being a DJ. Whenever my parents played music in the car, whether it was on the radio or whatever they had, I felt like I just had this weird memory when it comes to music. Way before I started playing instruments or way before I wanted to start DJing, I was always memorizing everything about songs, guitar solos, changes in the songs, chord changes, I would memorize all the lyrics, whatever it may be. Whether it was a rock song, whether it was a country song. I just had this thing about music and being able to memorize it. 

    Does that help you technically with transitions or determining what songs would pair well together?
    I think that and coupled with being a band geek and studying music theory, you had to memorize all your music. You had to memorize like 15 songs front to back. Having that kind of memory and having this ability to mix and match songs to where they work well together just based on feel, it’s a huge deal. You can physically mix records and you could actually do the part where you beat match two records, you can mix a rock song with a rap song and it can be seamless, but hearing a person who can actually DJ who knows which song would actually compliment the other song that’s another thing. The physical part is easy. It’s the other part that’s like either you have it or you don’t. I think that with DJs, especially with club DJs who have to play for four or five hours a night, and they have to play multiple genres, being able to do that for that long is a real talent. So, I think music memory and being musically inclined and really knowing music really helps. 

    What about record collecting drew you to it?
    It was so much more than the actual music on the record, especially with album art back then. When you bought a record, you looked at everything. You looked at the front cover, you looked at the back of the cover, you looked for who did the art, you looked at the track listing, you looked at the liner notes of the record. The crazy thing about records, there’s a label in the middle, there’s that black area between the label and the actual music. Sometimes the guys who would press these records would write fun messages on the record. They would write either their name or something kind of like cryptic, or something really funny. To this day, when I buy records or just thumbing through, I’ll look for that. I bought this one record, it was an old disco record and this album had a ballad on it. So when I bought it, took it home and opened it, this girl had written with a sharpie this really long love letter to her boyfriend about the song and how she felt about him and just basically about the summer they spent together and what the song meant to her and them. I still have it. It’s stuff like that. There’s the music and the digging for records, but it’s stuff like that where you find random drugs or you find a random polaroid, or you find that letter that this girl wrote with a sharpie on an album cover. It just kind of shows you how powerful music is in more ways than just one.

    It allows you to imagine the person who had it before you.
    It’s amazing that you bring that up because I think about that with these older records — who owned it? And maybe they played it in their home all the time and maybe had a party at their house in the summers or this was a record that this person used to play all the time, or maybe this was a record that this person used to play all the time when they were sad. You just don’t know. It’s kind of parallels living in an old house, you don’t know who’s lived in that house before. You can only imagine all the things that have happened in this house, good and bad. I think with mp3s you don’t get that. You can’t hand that down to someone else.

    What were some bands that you didn’t know anything about but you needed to know more about? 
    Nirvana is a good example, Just everything that was on Sub Pop or anything from the North West, it was kind of a gateway to a bunch of stuff. Wu-Tang Clan, when 36 Chambers came out, I was all about that record, but for me being that young, I didn’t know that The Genius or the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan had records before 36 Chambers ever came out. And then you have Nas, all the guys who produced his first record, and you start delving into these guys whether it’s DJ Premier or Q-Tip and then that just branches out to a whole other stuff, like A Tribe Called Quest or the affiliates of A Tribe Called Quest like De La Soul or the Native Tongues and it just goes on forever and ever. I liked it. For me, personally, once I get into something I want to know everything about it. I have that personality, whether I’m into music or something else or I want to know everything about this. 

    Do you feel like you're taking that eager-to-learn mindset into when you perform at political events?
    I think being musically deep helps. It’s kind of like those music supervisors that pick the music for movies. It’s kind of like that but for me just having all these musical phases and me loving music so much, I’ve applied that to playing for Obama and recently with Bernie Sanders. I have acquired a certain amount of depth and knowledge where I could apply that to those settings. I think I’m smart enough to know that I’m not going to play a dirty version of a popular rap song at Obama’s inauguration. But I do know Stevie Wonder  has a lot of songs that are about working things out and there’s George Benson songs about going through bad times and just getting through. I think that being around music for that long DJing, you just acquire, you just have that feeling, that knowledge to where you’re like “You know what? I have the perfect song for this situation.”

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