Connection Through Disconnection:
Adventures of a Bootleg Instagram Live DJ
By Ryan Warnberg
Illustration by Ashley Peña
When D-Nice started Club Quarantine, my first thought was “I can do that.” I had two ancient turntables, a mixer, a microphone, 700+ dustyass records, and some time to kill.
I like to DJ. As an introvert who trained himself to be an extrovert, I like knowing my place at parties. I like having a “job.” Behind the turntables, it happens, is a happy place for me. It gives me somewhere to hide when the social anxiety hits hard and fast.
Not that I’m very good. I’m not especially skilled, I’m just willing to be there. I started DJ-ing horrific gabber and hardcore techno at confused high school parties all over my hometown in Minnesota. I ran radio shows in college, worked Friday nights playing LMFAO songs for drunk college kids in the East Village, and DJ’d my own house parties. I even did a wedding once. I was told my performance was wildly adequate.
So, inspired by D-Nice and other great DJs who’ve excelled at the IG Live format, I attacked my record collection and got to work. What followed was a beautiful struggle between being “connected” and “disconnected.”
For so long, the records in my home were mostly alien to me. I’m not some obsessive collector with a well-curated cross section of the major moments in music history. I have a mountain of explicit 2000s-era rap singles, a scattering of dusty albums left behind by past craigslist roommates, some Record Store Day releases purchased to “ethically” scratch a consumerist itch, hundreds of old dad rock records gifted to me by a friend, promo records from my time in the music business, and a copy of the Ferris Bueller/Twix Commercial song that I literally found on the ground in Bed-Stuy.
It’s a lot. I felt disconnected from this collection in my home, knowing that there were worlds to discover in those shelves but not knowing where to start. Until New York went into lockdown, that is. Finally, I had the time. I was the guy in the Twilight Zone episode with all the books, only my glasses didn’t break. So I started DJ-ing by genre. A classic rock set here, a “History of Heavy Metal” set there, a dirty house party rap set late one night, and a LOT of 80s New Wave. Slowly, connections formed. I was no longer daunted by my own possessions. I fell in love.
I noticed other people going through the same things during quarantine. If we’re looking at it in terms of data, “things I ate and cocktails I drank” content on Instagram took a nosedive while “things in my home” Instagram was skyrocketing. It was a buyer’s market. People were home, they were ready to listen, and if D-Nice’s numbers were any indication, they were ready to do it on Instagram Live. But even in the early days of quarantine, I had heard that Instagram was tough, that their robot lawyers were swift and mighty, and that I should avoid pissing them off.
Instead, I started with something I heard was safer—Periscope—my first step into the weird world of playing other people’s intellectual property on the internet. Periscope doesn’t forbid it explicitly, thanks to a built-in workaround. It goes like this: Randomly, the audio and video quality on your Periscope broadcast will swiftly degrade to being unlistenable/unwatchable, sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for a few minutes. This is their way around the music industry’s robot lawyer algorithms. The algorithm crawls for actual waveforms, so Periscope’s solve was to simply break the waveform. They can’t get you if they can’t recognize the song being played, and they can’t recognize that Rick James song if it sounds like shit.
“They can’t get you if they can’t recognize the song being played, and they can’t recognized that Rick James song if it sounds like shit.”
Still, that wasn’t quite working for me. I brought plenty of my own inconsistency to the table. I didn’t need a platform to do it for me. I sought something more stable.
Audio-only DJ software is great, and there are countless tools like Spreaker or Mixlr that will let you go live without any interruption or copyright issues. So I did that. Boom. But the human connection was missing. I wanted to connect with real people in real time and so, throwing caution to the wind, I went live on Instagram.
It was the best. In a sea of Mondays, we finally had a Friday. A social event where me and my Wife could drink, dance, play music, and bump into some friends. And because the guest list consisted of the far-flung people I knew on Instagram, we had a crew just as motley as my record collection. Over the weeks, a list of usual suspects arose. My parents re-connected with my old high school friends; former co-workers I hadn’t talked to in years became regulars; the lovely couple who shot our wedding never missed a set; people I had been fighting with on Facebook just minutes before were there requesting music; my Dad had some health issues and got to turn up from the hospital; my friends who are parents sent me videos of their kids dancing to Talking Heads or headbanging to Metallica. So many kids listened that I had to stop cussing on the mic. It was great.
But every 20 minutes or so, warnings would pop up. Weirdly worded warnings that I might be playing someone else’s music and I could keep doing that if I wanted to but I would probably get kicked off. So I started enacting my own workarounds. I had an audio stream going all the time on Mixlr that never kicked me off. So when the IG inevitably went out, I told everyone to meet me in the audio stream.
Between sets, I did some homework. According to some nice British YouTubers, the best way around the algorithm was to interrupt the waveform by talking. That meant lots of shoutouts and forced babble over the music. So I did that. I was Funk Flex without any of the talent or cool race car noises. It also meant using effects like delay and reverb. I had a multi-effects pedal that I plugged in and summarily ruined an entire set of British classic rock, turning it into an experimental noise set that no one liked. And though these methods bought me some time, I still got kicked off the platform. Luckily, Instagram never deleted my account, they just developed new ways to tell me I was in trouble, like a countdown timer that turned me into Ellen Ripley rushing through the corridors of a self-destructing Nostromo. YOU HAVE T-MINUS 20 SECONDS TO STOP PLAYING THE TURTLES YOU BOZO.
But how could D-Nice do it? Or Mannie Fresh? Or DJ Paul from Three Six Mafia? Well, D-Nice was so good that he could just pick up the phone and tell Facebook to chill. Mannie Fresh turned everything from Akon to A-ha into a bounce record, so the robots were too busy throwing that ass in a circle to do their jobs, and in the case of DJ Paul, it was clear that even Silicon Valley knew not to fuck with Memphis, lest they draw the ire of Gangsta Boo.
I’m being facetious, but that is true of D-Nice. He had a conversation with Facebook and got some kind of “whitelist” approval to do whatever he wanted. But I didn’t have clout like that, I wasn’t good enough to turn everything into bounce music, and Gangsta Boo hasn’t returned my tweets. I was just blending dusty vinyl and drinking beer with dozens of people. It seemed I was alone in my struggle against the Instagram lawyers. Just me and Swizz Beatz.
Swizz Beatz and Timbaland founded Verzuz, a weekly-ish Instagram Live series where you watch rap, R&B, and dancehall music legends restart their routers. It’s incredible. It gave us RZA saying “I’ll react physically and it’ll be bong bong” and it has been the second best thing about quarantine. But it seems that despite hundreds of thousands of viewers, even Swizz struggled with Instagram’s algorithms to the point where he had to tell Bounty Killer to stop playing a Bounty Killer song that Swizz Beatz produced.
The music industry has always been suspect when it comes to approaching intellectual property and sample laws. It’s an industry that has been comfortable to decimate the catalogs of countless rap records through byzantine sample policies; and I say that as someone who worked for three different major labels in their darkest post-Napster downfall period. Being charitable, I suppose the majors have a difficult job, ensuring that creators get paid pennies while creators-inspired-by-other-creators get sued for millions.
And that job gets doubly difficult when the musicians themselves are litigious. I referenced The Turtles earlier, who notoriously sued the ever-loving shit out of De La Soul for sampling one of their songs on an interlude. I played about ten seconds of their song “Hot Little Hands” before the warnings started flying.
I also had issues with Meat Loaf, but that might have just been because I insisted on playing all eight-and-a-half minutes of “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and the robots just wanted it to stop.
But no one got me dinged faster than the man with the most strained and complicated relationship to intellectual property and the music business in the history of music. That’s right, His Royal Badness himself, The Purple One. When he was alive, Prince was extremely controlling about his music, image, words, and thoughts. He didn’t allow his music to be up on Youtube, didn’t allow reporters to take notes during interviews, and struggled with streaming services. It was only in death that the floodgates opened and the rain came down.
Being a native Minnesotan, (and a human being with two ears and a pelvis) I had to play Prince. It was my duty. So I tried. The opening moments of my favorite Prince song (“Baby, I’m a Star”) played and the warnings just lit up the screen. I tried remixes and live versions, more warnings. And it wasn’t just Prince originals, it was anything he touched via Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. I got through about four seconds of Janet’s “Control” before my phone broke, all my passwords changed to SUX2BU and Morris Day and Jerome kicked down my door and forced me to confront the apocalypse in their little mirror. The sky was all purple and there were people running everywhere…
So I stopped playing Prince on Instagram. And I stayed connected for longer periods, but never without getting kicked off multiple times. Eventually I just gave in to the rhythms and realities of the algorithm. My dozens of listeners got pretty used to cueing up the audio stream on their laptops so they could mute their phones and just use IG Live to roast me for playing too much Rod Stewart until I was booted again.
And despite the disconnections, the connections were always worth it, supplying that growing need for structure and human “contact” in a time where those things had completely disintegrated.
Neither Connected Nor Disconnected
Speaking of disintegration, one night in particular sticks out to me as existing in a space between being connected and disconnected. During the week George Floyd was murdered by police not far from my hometown, the day after the third precinct burned, I reluctantly did a set. The week had lit a fire under me personally. George was murdered mere blocks from my first (very bad) techno DJ set in Uptown, sparking a fresh parade of pro-cop, anti-protestor rhetoric in a few corners of my hometown Facebook feed. So I tried to communicate the week I was having through the records I played. It was a mess because I was a mess. I played a lot of great Black music, angry rap songs from Minneapolis, George Floyd’s DJ Screw tape verses, lots of Prince, protest songs, I dedicated Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” to the third precinct. It was sloppy, but it did accomplish something. It was an opportunity to party in the darkness.
That night, I encouraged anyone listening to screengrab and DM me any donations they had made to causes that support Black lives, with the promise that I would also donate (not “match” because I’m not rich) and support however I could. And over the course of three hours, a dumb DJ set started to feel like it didn’t just belong to me, like it wasn’t just some navel-gazing exercise in cataloguing my own records. Money went to some good causes, music got played, conversations happened in the comments.
And, still, I got kicked off numerous times.
It was the experience of “having a platform” in miniature. I wasn’t big enough to keep the robots off my back. But platform size doesn’t matter, we’re all big enough to communicate something, even if it is a confused and sloppy something. And communicating something (no matter how sloppy) is a hell of a lot better than saying nothing right now.
So I’m going to keep at it. I’m going to keep making rambling statements through music (I just upgraded my Mixlr subscription, so look out for five hour sets in the near future) because it’s keeping me sane. And no matter what phase of re-opening we’re in, I’ll happily keep battling the algorithm, Prince’s ghost, Mark Zuckerberg, Jim Steinman, whoever I gotta fight every week to keep the Other Other Other Club Quarantine going, because fighting for something you love is too damn important right now.
For anyone who is interested in DJ-ing, I’d highly recommend an audio-only service like Mixlr, and if you want to go the route of Instagram Live, take all of the above not as a warning but as a guide to the pitfalls. And, of course, do it all at your own risk.
Connect with me via the following links, until we get disconnected.
My Mixlr | My Instagram︎