Making the music spin in New Orleans
16th May 2016 · 0 Comments
By Michael Patrick Welch
Part one of The Louisiana Weekly’s series on famous, Black New Orleans DJs looked at the careers and accomplishments of deceased radio and recording pioneers DJ Dr. Daddy-O and Larry McKinley, both of whom cleared a path for African Americans on local and national radio.
In part two, we speak with two DJs who benefitted from that cleared path and are both—despite tumultuous corporate takeovers of their local stations—still on-air today, with a combined 71 years experience between them.
DJ Papa Smurf
Gregory John Vigne, now 62, first started DJing as a kid inspired by local radio legends like Larry McKinley, Shelly Pope and Sherwin Saul. “I loved Moses Case Jr. on WWNR on Saturdays. And listening to certain guys made me think I could develop a certain flow of my own that would work well on radio,” says the DJ known to today’s Old School 106.7 FM listeners as Papa Smurf.
While still a young man working as a bank teller, says Papa Smurf, “I would drive around listening to DJ Sister Love. Finally I just had to stop by the station and go up the stairs to the booth and holla at her. She answered all my questions about how to cue up records.”
Not long after, radio industry lifer Brut Bailey started a radio DJ class, for which Vigne signed up. “I got to ask him, ‘How do you get on radio, and do what you do?’” Finally, Vigne’s ambition led him to an apprenticeship under Cham Clark at WBOK in the early 70s, which then led to his first paying radio job hosting the gospel show at 940 WYLD, then a Black-owned AM station.
“Back then you had to cue an albums up. Now there aren’t even CDs,” laughs Vigne. “Before it was albums and cassettes, even. Now it’s laptops. Back when it was vinyl, you used to have to really keep focus, but now you have so much free time. Even CDs, you didn’t know if it would skip before, so you had to pay attention. Now you have freedom to multi-task.”
Papa Smurf spent most of his radio career in one market, late night, on his award-winning show for “grown and sexy” New Orleanians, called Mellow Moods. “People tell me all the time that I am responsible for half the population in New Orleans,” Papa Smurf chuckles. “They tell me they had sex to my voice, or they just talk about their boyfriend in high school. Someone the other day said he wants to send his child support bill to me, cause he says it was my fault.”
After Katrina, Papa Smurf lost his job at WYLD. “Inter Urban Broadcasting, the Black company that owned the station, was bought out by ClearChannel. Now they are owned by IHeartRadio. Anyway, I lost that job.”
Papa Smurf has plied his trade these last eight years at Old School 106.7. “LeBron Joseph hired me to do middays,” says Vigne. “It was a big difference going from one company to the next.” Smurf’s schedule on 106.7 has him all over the board: “I do the ‘At Work Network’ show at 9am, then at noon I host “Old School Café until 1pm. Then we take requests, or have Blues on Mondays, or Two for Tuesday, Thurs Throwback or Feelgood Friday. Sunday from noon to three I do The Breeze smooth jazz and cool grooves show.”
On Wednesdays Papa Smurf falls back into his default position with a version of his Mellow Mood show. “But it’s not like it used to be where I’d get to pick all the music,” he says. “Now there’s a guy, a Program Director who picks the music. I may change the music up here and there, but music is put into the computer. I used to have leeway but now it’s all about ratings. If you pick the music and then the numbers aren’t how you want em, they can blame you. I used to have the opportunity to just flow, and make a beautiful painting. And once it was complete, children were conceived… Now I am just glad I have a job in radio. In the end, I work for a radio station, I don’t own it.”
Off the air, Papa Smurf has a chance to return to his roots as an event DJ, and at Tuesday night “Seafood Night” at Caesar’s from 7 to 10 p.m. Regardless of what position they have him playing, Papa Smurf claims, “I love radio, I really, really do. I just love being personable. I love talking to people. And a lot of ladies just love the voice—especially my slogan when I go off air: ‘Love is the answer…who cares what the question is?”
Now 41 years old, Kenneth Joseph Williams Jr. was taken by his Grandmother to his cousin’s graduation up north at the age of 12. “And they had turntables,” remembers Williams. “My cousin’s step brother had a setup in his room, with the big LL Cool ‘Radio’ lights, and he had the turntables hooked up to it. Man. After that I begged for two years…”
At 14, Williams was ecstatic to find two belt-drive turntables and a Realistic mixer (“with no cross fader…”) under the Christmas tree. Not the fanciest gear, but DJ Chicken was officially in business.
“When I first started I had only about five or ten records,” laughs Chicken, now 26 years into his career as one of New Orleans’ beloved curators of recorded music. “I used to always practice scratching on the song ‘Mr. Magic’ by Grover Washington, while on the other table I’d have “La Di Da Di” by Doug E Fresh. I didn’t have pitch control to slow down or speed up the records, so my records would get worn down in the middle from me manually slowing them down with my thumb and two fingers. The labels on the records were all missing.”
At the time Chicken drew inspiration from DJ Slick Leo. “I’d watch Leo on TV!” Chicken remembers. “When the Famous Theatre show—which later turned to Club Sensations—used to be broadcast live from TV DJ Leo would have that club going down boy! Then I got a chance to meet him, and he showed me some tricks about scratching and mixing. He has always been just awesome.”
Chicken a McD 35 grad, continued to learn and also purchase better equipment from the Full Pack DJs crew. “They went on to produce a bunch of New Orleans hit records from Pimp Daddy, Partners N Crime, 5th Ward Weebie,” says Chicken. “That big 90s wave was their music, it was the Full Pack sound.”
In 2007, Chicken started the Definition DJs clique while living in Dallas after Katrina. “It’s now hundreds of DJs nationwide,” says Chicken, whose proudest accomplishment has been helping share New Orleans music with new audiences. “I am responsible for spreading bounce around the world as one of the first to spin bounce in London. On the Power Posse’s morning show, I played bounce at 8am in the morning! All stations are driven by their morning show, so the fact that I was able to play bounce at 8 a.m. and spread it to a bunch of people who wouldn’t otherwise hear it was great.”
It wasn’t until 19 years into his career that Chicken finally landed on the radio in 2009. “I started doing WYLD 102.9’s throwback lunch mix with Big Abe. Then Big Boy got fired from the morning show and they gave it to Abe, who begged me to get on there with him. At the time, I was an intern at 102.9 and had been doing the lunch mix for nine months —, that’s right, after being a DJ for 19 years I still had to intern.”
While at 102.9, Chicken also credits himself with breaking the bounce mix of Adele’s “Rollin in the Deep” [Dj Money Fresh and J Dog].” That bounce remix got so popular it started replacing the original at a lot of New Orleans stations. Sony finally called us and asked why we quit playing Adele’s song. We played them the bounce version and they sanctioned it, put it into their system. It became the first bounce remix to play on all the radio stations. That mix blew up all over the world.”
But eventually, Chicken says, he was replaced just as swiftly. “After they got syndicated, there was a corporate merger and cuts. I was straight fired, escorted out of the building in fact. Rickey Smiley replaced the Power Posse.” Luckily for New Orleans, two years later, 102.9 brought DJ Chicken back, if only on Saturdays.
Despite his career’s ups and downs, Chicken says, “I am teaching my two sons to DJ. I bought their gear on Christmas. Same as me.”
This article originally published in the May 16, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.