Making the music spin in New Orleans
1st August 2016 · 0 Comments
By Michael Patrick Welch
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of The Louisiana Weekly’s spotlight on just a few of the many famous local Black DJs.
Having moved to New Orleans from Virginia at the age of six, DJ Leo “Slick Leo” Coakley, now 59, has in some way influenced every New Orleans disk jockey and radio personality, from DJ Chicken to the king, Mannie Fresh.
“In the late 70s and early 80s I was traveling as a DJ between New Orleans, where I’m from around D.C., and New York, all when rap first came out,” says Leo when asked to explain his importance in the evolution of New Orleans music.
“I was there for Sugar Hill Records in 1979. I was meeting with the rappers, all the East Coast hip-hoppers. At the time, New Orleans wasn’t aware of rap yet, they were still in the soul and R&B and rock. But I mixed hip-hop with jazz, techno, house, trip-house, R&B. I am into K Doe, I’m into Kraftwerk, I’m into the Romantics, I’m into Tower of Power, I’m into Incognito…all demographics of music that has the mainstream dance beat. I’ve always mixed all my textures together into one show, so that you never know where I am coming from.”
Slick Leo says he grew up with a mother who owned all the music he could ever want.“She had 45s, and then I started collecting LPs. Plus, I always had the best stereo equipment that my brothers used to bring home from Vietnam: the Samsung, the Fishers, and the Pioneers. I had the belt-drive Pioneer turntables way before the 1200s came out. My PA was a Peavey 600 with the knob controls, before the slide pots came out, with the 400-watt amp built in it. I also had four Peavey two-by-twelves with the tweeters. Later we started moving into Peavey bass cabinets, then 18-inch JBLs,” Leo said.
Leo started DJing as a teen at house parties. “The funky music started coming out around 1973, 1974: the Bar-Kays, Cameo, all this kind of stuff I was spinning when I was 16, in nightclubs playing with stage bands. Back in those days the bands had six musicians and they’d get $300 — and at that time they were using my equipment, my sound system. Then the disco era came out and I realized I could make $300 a night myself.”
As a veteran of Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios, Leo says, “I come from live music, when DJs were artists. I always play with two copies of the same record, and I take all the labels off and just write which side was instrumental, and I’d even write the song’s keys on there, because DJing is more than just BPMs; it’s about keys and chords structure. Modern-day DJs often haven’t been exposed to stuff like that. But I can put a vocal track on another song’s instrumental and record a remix live on set and sell it to the record companies. I introduced all these jocks to this style of turntable trickery and all this different types of international-style music.”
With progressive notions about what it takes to be a real DJ, Leo was often forced to retrofit his equipment to meet his hip-hop and funk needs. “To play 45s, we had to use those turntables with the spindles that would automatically change the records. These days you got machines that loop, but I been doing that long before that was invented, by buying two or three copies of each record. I used to have to take that spindle out and use a corndog stick: break it in half and use that as my spindle, and then you’d have to take the tone arm and break it so it bent all the way backwards, so it wouldn’t automatically change the record, and you could back-spin the records without making it reset.”
Slick Leo’s first major club residency was at the Bottom Line on North Claiborne, owned by schoolteacher Lester Johnson. “From there I went from music school, to the Broadcasting Institute of America, while still working as a DJ in the Bottom Line. Mr. Lester even helped me pay my way through there.”
He eventually found his way to sporadic radio jobs. “My first time on the radio was at WRNO 99.5 FM as an intern. After 9 o’ clock they would give you an hour or two to do your show, if you were the top of the class, it was Led Zeppelin, it was Heart, Steely Dan, it was basic rock back then. After two years being in there, I went to WXEL, which had turned into a more contemporary station; they had white kids listening to Black music and Black kids listening to white music. We were playing The Romantics, Yes, Hall and Oates, and that.” Leo would go on to work at WXOK in Baton Rouge, WYLD, and Q93.
“B97 was a disco station then, called Disco 97, when I was on air,” Leo laughs. “My last radio show was a mix show on Old School 106.7 KMEZ with Frank ‘Mr. Quiet Storm’ Nitti.”
But live DJing — and personally curating the music — was always Slick Leo’s passion. He famously DJ’d live on-air for WAIL 105 FM from the Famous Theatre Disco, where he became known for his unique style. “At the time, all the DJs were talking over records, but I didn’t have time for that,” says Leo, “I was too busy talking with the records: I just cut the music and made the records say whatever I wanted to.”
But Leo is especially proud of having helped start some of New Orleans’ most important, and most integrated, “record pools” for local DJs. “At first it was called the New Orleans Disco Association,” Leo recalls. “When I came in it was no longer disco, because I had the jockeys playing all kinds of music. They all linked together under the name, New Orleans Association of Professional Programmers. That was the first record pool that split the barriers between Black music and white music: dance music, house music, disco music, everything catered to all jocks no matter what they played. Even rap and hip-hop, even the rock ’n’ roll jocks, we all got the same records every week when we went to meetings, back when DJs were allowed to pick the music we put in each particular show.”
As a result, says Leo, “I was responsible for some artists selling a few thousands or millions of copies of their record, maybe enough to get a subsidiary label interested — like No Limit would be a subsidiary of EMI Records to get major record deals. I was responsible for a lot of that. And that’s when the music started changing in New Orleans.”
Currently, you can catch Slick Leo live and in person at Paradise NOLA, the St. Roch Tavern (Tuesdays), Circle Bar (Wednesday), Legends Café (Fridays), and Sportsman’s Corner (a club owned by rapper Mia X) on Saturdays.
This article originally published in the August 1, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.