Closing Up the Rock Box: Q&A with DJ Witnes

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Fans of Proletariat’s weekly dance installment Rock Box, take note: tonight is your last night to get down. Last week, Houstoned Rocks talked with resident Rock Box DJ Witnes about the Pro’s closing, the end of Rock Box and what’s up with his upcoming move to New York.

Houstoned Rocks: Are you nervous? I mean, in Houston it seems like it’s really easy to get a dance [night] started like Rock Box, but in New York there’s a lot of that going on.

Witnes: Yeah. No, I think I have a good network up there. There’s a lot of Texans up in New York, and it’s funny because I’ve been going to New York the past five years and I catch myself hanging out with all Texans. A lot of people in New York aren’t true New Yorkers, you know? And I’m pretty confident that things are going to be all right because nobody is really catering to the Texans up there from what I’ve kind of gathered. This last time that I went, one of the gigs that I was at a lot of my friends from Texas showed up and they were all just dying to hear Dirty South shit. They were like, “Please play Bun B or stuff like that” and I said, “Okay, I will. I’ll get to that,” but I didn’t want to come off instantly straight into Houston music where I was like leaving out the majority because I had to keep it friendly – let me warm them up first.

But once I made that transition to the Houston music, they were just going nuts. And I just glanced beyond the crowd and I saw, I guess, the New Yorkers they were kind of like observing all the Texans having all this fun and acting wild to this music that they didn’t really know about. It’s kind of like when you’re at a bar or a club and you see all these people singing this song and you’re like, “What is this? Why don’t I know this song? Like all these people know this song, what the fuck is this?” So I’m really thinking that’s going to be a niche for me. I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to try and do a weekly or I’m kind of shooting more for a monthly because I don’t really want to have to come in and just immediately have to start doing things.

HR: So give me your thoughts on the closing of the Proletariat. You pretty much had the longest-standing tradition there.

W: I think it’s just the right timing. You know the opportunity that I had with the Proletariat was great – it just took off. I think that kind of sets me apart from some of the other dance nights like Boys and Girls. I think just these last four years – I was at the Pro for four years – I started in ‘04, Boys and Girls had started right before that, and I think that we were really the only ones offering any kind of dance night within the Montrose demographic. It was just kind of something for the, whatever you want to call it, just the scene or the hipsters – just the whole general area.

I was fortunate to stay in the same location, and I have a great relationship with the management because I’m good friends with Denise [Proletariat owner Ramos]. There were never any issues where I had to relocate my night, and with Boys and Girls I think it went both ways where it helped set me apart. I think Boys and Girls had a good thing going on, but that kind of hurt them that they had to relocate. They’ve been through three venues, where I’ve been able to stay at the same one, and I just completely have loyalty to the Proletariat, because at the time when Rock Box was really getting its shine other promoters and clubs were trying to come in and leech because that’s just how things work. They want to get what’s hot.

There are some people in downtown that would have never wanted anything to do with the shit that I’m playing or Boys or Girls now are starting to rethink and be like “well, let’s try this.” I had to turn all of them down when other promoters would be like, “Hey why don’t you come and do your night here,” and I was like, “No. Why am I going to leave? I’m going to have to restart this whole relationship over again. You could end up screwing me over in the long run.”

It really boils down to the relationship you have with the management, and with [Proletariat] coming to an end, I had a good meeting with Denise. Other venues are already asking [me] to relocate Rock Box to the Mink or the Cotton Exchange downtown, and Denise pointed out that was your baby, you started it, you need to end it. If you were to pass it on to Trent [aka Dayta, Rock Box’s other resident DJ], who is my sidekick, and it doesn’t work out people are always still going to associate me with it.

So she said just put it to an end, and that’s it. It’s had its run for four years and that’s it. So Trent and Squincy Jones are doing a Thursday at the Backroom [at the Mink], and they’re calling it Speaker Box so it’s kind of like a cousin or a brother of Rock Box. Hopefully that will be a success for them, because I plan on coming back to play with anybody I can play with when I’m back in town. I want to play at a good night.

HR: Are you surprised Rock Box was able to be successful for four years?

W: Yeah. Well, before I actually named it Rock Box in 2004 when I first started. I was there every other week. Then in ‘05 they gave me every Thursday, and that’s when I decided to call it Rock Box. I just really think it takes a good DJ to understand the psychology – it’s sounds nerdy – but there really is a psychology to being a DJ and reading the crowd and knowing the arrangements of songs and what’s going to work best. You’re God when you’re back there. You’re controlling the energy of the whole crowd. If you play a shitty song that nobody likes you’re going to lose them.

Everything you worked for is to keep them there, and that’s just the way I look at it. A lot also has to do with the PR behind it. I was raised to be nice to everybody and friendly. I think some people lack that, and certain DJs just think that because they know what’s the hottest music that people are just going to come. And there is a culture of that, where people like hanging out with dickheads and snobby DJs – certain people just kind of like that New York attitude – but that’s not the way I work. I think that just kind of stands out. People know I’m approachable and they can just come up and talk to me.

HR: Do you think the dance night scene you’ve been a part of will end with Rock Box and the Proletariat closing?

W: I think everything comes to an end and change is good. People have questioned me and said, “What do you think is going to happen to the scene?” That’s out of my control. I don’t know. The new kids in the scene coming up or the new DJs, the party promoters, they need to look at it as an opportunity. They need to be like, “Well, shit, Rock Box is over” – like who is going to be the next to step up to the plate? I’m not necessarily like passing the torch on to anybody, but my fellow DJs like Dayta and Squince, I’ll highly endorse anything they do. I want to see them succeed, and I would hope that they’ve learned, from me taking them under my wing, how to do things.

HR: Is that a lot of pressure for you? You know, people telling you that you were responsible for something and you leaving is going to be the reason it ends. I mean, if you truly created something valuable then it would last. I think that’s really the mark of a true pioneer. Even after they leave, whatever they created survives.

W: Right. I would hope so, yeah. I think it’s just up to the next people that step up to the plate. If they don’t have what it takes, that just goes to show that they don’t have it. That’s kind of the tricky part too with being a DJ and a party promoter. It’s two different things and it can be kind of distracting. I found it really distracting coming up as a DJ when I started in ’94. Not only was I still trying to become a better DJ, I was trying to handle all these responsibilities as a party promoter. But, finally, here I am ten or 12 years later, and I’ve learned how to like work both of them. I don’t know if that takes a special kind of person to know how to do that.

HR: Do you think that’s kind of what what you do calls for right now? Like there are plenty of people now who are “DJs,” but now you need to not only know how to play music but also how to pull people out. There’s more competition out there.

W: There are a bunch of DJs but I think a lot of them, they don’t work the whole aspect of them giving the people a reason to come out. I think some people assume that I know that I’m good, that I know that I’m a good party promoter, but I just try to keep level-headed. If it wasn’t for all these people who are supporting me there would be no me, there would be no Rock Box. Those people wouldn’t be coming out every Thursday. But I think I’ve just got their trust, you know, that they believe in me and anything that I’m going to be a part of is going to be a fun night.

HR: What was really the deciding factor in leaving in Houston? Was it because the Proletariat was closing?

W: No, I had always had plans to move to New York and this has been going on the past two years, but I was really worried about what was going to happen to everything. I’ve worked so hard to become who I am and get these nights rolling, and if I leave them, what’s going to happen? And I just kept questioning that. It just wasn’t the right timing, I guess. I was scared of letting go of everything that I’ve built for myself down here and this last trip in New York it was just like it’s time, it’s time for you to leave.

When I came back, Denise had immediately told me, “Well, it looks like I’m going to be shutting down the Pro, too.” She was tired of dealing with the back-and-forthness of Metro. So it was just kind of like a blessing in disguise, I guess. It was just perfect timing that she was ready to move on with her life – new goals, personal goals for her – and the same with myself. I just worked out. I had to let go. I can’t worry about what’s going to happen here in the scene. Houston’s been good to me, they’ve supported me, I think I’ve been good to them and I guess I just hit a tipping point where I’ve kind of done as much as I can and this city has helped me grow and evolve in being Witnes and now it’s time for me to pursue [that] outside of the city. – Dusti Rhodes

The last Rock Box goes down tonight at 9 p.m. at Proletariat, 903 Richmond, 713-523-1199. See www.theproletariathouston.com. Free.

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