Seconds after 1 a.m., in an off-campus apartment at the top of a steep and claustrophobically narrow flight of stairs, there’s a pitch black room whose air and walls are shaking with sound waves. I’m bracing myself against the back wall behind a 700W subwoofer, whose peak volume is barely lower than that of a small jet aircraft taking off, and I realize the only light sources are the faintly gleaming white grid of a Macbook keyboard, four green dots forming a constellation across a mixing board, and above them, an orange circle that’s persistently flashing, an unheeded warning.
Beside me is Brian Waswani Odhiambo ’12, a Political Science and African Studies major from Nairobi, Kenya, hunched over his controls. He bobs slightly forward in a state of constant motion, his gaze so certain and stoic, his mouth so closed that it’s hard to imagine when he’d ever choose to speak.
Brian straightens up and surveys a crowd that is packed to the walls and appears to be seething, like boiling water. So many voices are yelling the words to the song that there’s a whispering above the roar. Brian holds a hand up and then points his fingers down as the first beat of the next song takes effect. He expands his arms and tilts them back and forth, as if he were flying.
A girl leans over and mumbles into Brian’s ear. “Why aren’t you dancing at your own party?”
Brian tries to brush it off. “I don’t know.”
But she persists: “Why not?”
“I’m DJing,” he yells over the crowd. “There’d be no party.”
Most weekend nights when Brian was 14, he would spin records in the 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. slot at a dance club in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania that had two separate floors overlooking the DJ booth. By the time he was done, an emcee would have hyped a crowd of around 100. Brian would turn over the decks to the resident DJ — usually a radio star across East Africa — and he’d stand off to the side with his father, a board member of East African Television and Radio, who managed the club. Then Brian would watch and watch. Over several weekends, the resident DJs gave him their mixtapes and taught him how to spin. “In retrospect, it sounds pretty cool,” Brian says. “But I had nothing else to do.”
After four years at a competitive all-boys school in Nairobi, Brian narrowed his choices to Yale and medical school at the University of Nairobi. But even before he started applying, Brian’s father was telling friends that his son was heading abroad for school. “That was my dad,” says Brian, whose father has since passed away. Of his decision, Brian says, “I guess a factor was being sentimental and fulfilling my dad’s dream. He wanted me to come abroad, and be some serious person, do some engineering … something big.”
Did that future include DJing? Brian’s father never bought him DJ decks. Brian remembers, “He was like, ‘I’ll take you out … but that’s not your life.’”
In 2008, Brian arrived at Yale, bought DJ decks and two black shoebox-sized speakers off eBay, and mixed songs in his dorm room, alone.
One year passed.
Then he spent weekend after weekend scouting out Yale’s parties. At each one he stood by the DJ booth, checked out the equipment, and mentally measured out the moments when the next song dropped. He’d gauge the crowd’s response. He took notes on his phone.
He spun for free at his friends’ birthday parties in a Timothy Dwight single, where a dozen-plus people would cram themselves in without removing the furniture. On one of those nights, someone Brian barely knew leaned in and offered him a compliment — and in that moment, Brian could suddenly see the unfolding potential of a future, just as uncertain as it was dizzying.
Through the spring of his sophomore year, the parties graduated to a more spacious common room in Timothy Dwight. While Brian was playing, a friend of a friend asked him if he was getting paid. That took him by surprise.
By then, things were speeding up even faster. Brian DJed for another friend’s birthday party at Thali Too, his biggest venue yet. Someone talked to someone else, and a student group organizing Calhoun’s Trolley Night contacted him, offering to pay him $150 to DJ — even though Brian had been thinking he would do it for free. He ended up spinning well enough to roll the party almost half an hour past Yale’s 1 a.m. cutoff, without complaint.
This fall as a junior, Brian started a Facebook fan page, cautiously upped his price, and played for student group parties in the basements of restaurants like Bespoke and almost every club in the Crown Street area. He accepted an invitation from a student group at Colgate that paid for his plane flight, food, and performance at their campus pub. He realized he was the only unaffiliated Yale DJ who performs often at paid parties on campus.
When Brian was spinning at a student group party on Crown Street, the club’s resident DJ showed up and told Brian to keep playing. An hour went by, and then another — the students were gone, and the club was now filled with people Brian had never seen. But he was still playing. At midnight, the resident finally took over. He shook Brian’s hand and gave him his card.
Somewhere in between all of this, Brian’s friend Dezzy Ogakwu ’12 started to invite a large circle of friends to Brian’s apartment once a month via mass text message. And there he plays, in his words, “until the cops come” — or until everyone goes home. But the cops tend not to come, and so the ending times have ridden out the rising of the sun, with friends waking up on his couches, only feet away from where they danced.
“I still think I could make it really big here,” Brian tells me. “DJing has become so attached to my persona … [people] think that I want to do this with my life. When people introduce me they’re like, ‘This is Brian — he’s a DJ.’”
Brian thinks that after graduating next spring, he might take a year off — before attending law school or graduate school in Political Science, as his father would probably have wanted — to DJ professionally with his cousin and a few friends in Nairobi. He says his family will be fine with the idea: “as long as I can convince them that I am not leaving school, and this is not it. It’s basically how you sell it, really.” DJing, in Brian’s mind and in his family’s opinion, isn’t a pragmatic or promising career. “I’m probably one of the more successful people [in my family] in terms of coming abroad,” he says. “So me being a DJ who’s uncertain — like, I’m not certain that I could be a resident DJ at some huge club — is bad.”
Back inside the rattling walls of Brian’s apartment, a police officer in a blue beanie and parka opens the door enough to poke only his head and torso in, as if he were sorry to be taking up our precious time. When Brian cuts the music and dashes through the crowd to face him, the officer says, “Just keep it down, all right?” Total darkness returns, and the music thunders back up to the same level as before, if not louder. The roar of approval from Brian’s next bass line is so loud that the shouts sound windy, like I might be inside a long, reaching wind tunnel.
And now that the party has hit a teetering height, Brian disappears. He ducks out from the DJ space that he’s formed for himself, and he edges through the crowd while the music blares on, unattended.
For a DJ, Brian enjoys being invisible. One week earlier, I watched him spin at a formal birthday party for two Yale students on the second floor of The Union
League Cafe. In the first 10 minutes, not one of the couple dozen guests in suits and ties even glanced at him, hunched over in the far corner.
I saw a microphone next to his turntables, pointed at it, and asked, “Are you gonna use that?”
He shook his head and responded, “I don’t talk.” He paused as if he wasn’t going to say more, but then added: “I don’t have the persona. It takes a certain type of person. And voice, also.”
Later on that night, a Union League employee leaned over the speakers and told Brian he’d need to instruct the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday.” Brian’s eyes nervously scanned the ceiling. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him look off-balance. He leaned toward me and shouted, “Can you find a girl named Eva? She can sing ‘Happy Birthday.’” I didn’t know who Eva was — but I wanted to know what was holding him back from picking up the microphone. He was the master of the loudest and most visible machinery in the room.
In Brian’s apartment, as the party has reached its most frenetic peak, Brian has stepped away. But where could he possibly want to go? I try to squeeze through the spaces Brian leaves in his wake as partygoers thump him on the back. Across the room, I see him lean on the narrow arm of a couch beside a girl. They chat without raising their voices. I get distracted by the light from a cell phone, which seems to twist around in the dark like a searchlight, and when I look back, Brian has reappeared at his controls across the room, the light from his keyboard faintly giving shape to his stern, focused face.
“[When] you’re tired by 1 [a.m.], you still have to keep going,” Brian later told tell me. “If you end it at one, then it’s just another Yale party that ends at one. And you’re not any different.”
It’s 2 a.m. now. An extra-large Monster can stands open by his equipment. I ask Brian how long he thinks this could last.
“I’m just gonna push it,” he says. “See how far it goes.”
More people stream in, 40 minutes drift by, and Brian’s roommate hands him a foil-wrapped bacon and egg sandwich from Gourmet Heaven. Brian eats it slowly, looks out at the crowd, and leans toward me. “I’m out of ideas,” he says. He taps a red button over and over again and takes a swig from the Monster. “I’m gonna slow it down. So tired … I have work at 12 tomorrow.”
But in the very next breath he wags his index fingers up and down while bobbing. He pounds his fists together softly, repeatedly. “People will stay,” Brian’s roommate, Kevin Moore ’12, tells me. “It just depends on how Brian feels.”
At 3:15 a.m. the lights come on. The dozen or so that have stayed search through a coat pile. The last one leaving pulls the door resolutely shut.
“I’m happy,” Brian says.
Though only two of his roommates and I are left, Brian leaves the speakers rumbling almost as loudly as they have been all night. We sit silently, spread out across the common room’s void. Through the speakers, a rattling drumbeat blends into an airy bundle of voices. The song Brian is playing calls for energy that no one here pretends to have, and it all sounds just as dizzy and shell-shocked as my own brain. Brian downs the last of the Monster.
“Would you have done anything differently tonight?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Though back home, you’re never DJing four hours straight.”
“But here it happens.”
“Yeah. You gotta do what you gotta do.” He pauses. “To keep up your reputation.”
And then he adds, “Hopefully people are happy.”
When the birthday at The Union League Cafe ended the week before, Brian and I paced down the stairwell just after 1 a.m. and walked into a silent winter. I mentioned how quiet it seemed, after all that noise. He grinned and spoke looking straight ahead, as if to the air: “It could be the most amazing party ever, but then, at the end, I’m just here with my backpack. Walking home.”
Right now, as I trudge back alone from Brian’s apartment, the empty streets and dark facades seem freezer-preserved. An abandoned minivan sits glued into the side of the road, its driver’s side and back doors left wide open. A snow-plough growls by, its flashing red taillights giving off a wry, useless warning.
At close to 4 a.m., in the silence of my suite, my ears are ringing with distant sirens. Some part of my ear canal is slowly dying, as if the ringing were the sound of time, running out.
And as I crash onto my bed, I wonder, does Brian hear that ringing too?