Keepin' On

“It’s cool to make people happy – that’s a
big part of house music.”

Amidst a sea of hip-hop and the diverse demands of four residencies, how does St. Louis house DJ Steve O stay hot?
By Kevin M. Mitchell

I only started this for fun, and that’s still why I do it.” It’s a balmy evening in a coffee shop in St. Louis’s trendy Central West End, and DJ Steve O is getting reflective. “After 11 years, I still play for hours by myself. By myself for myself.”
He pauses, looks down into his iced mocha, and lets loose with one of his trademark infectious laughs. “How I got this far and turned it into a living, I don’t understand!”
Recently named the Gateway City’s best club DJ by the alternative weekly Riverfront Times, Steve O is a St. Louis institution, and the vast majority of club hoppers understand why, including Alison Sieloff, who covers the scene for the tabloid.
      “I think the fact that he’s everywhere all the time is what’s most amazing,” Sieloff says. “You can hear him play every night of the week. He appeals to those new on the scene but also people like myself who listen to a lot of DJs. [We] appreciate his skill and mastery of the turntable.”
      All the more impressive is that Steve O (aka Steven John Franks) got into DJ-ing relatively late, at the age of 27. But the former union construction worker has deep musical roots, and through a long, passionate journey, he’s now coming into his own. It’s been bumpy, of course: He barely survived a failed club venture in the late 1990s that left him $50,000 in debt, and an “artistic” journey to Germany that sent him home 30 pounds thinner with a mere five dollars in his pocket.
      “I’m almost down to zero,” he says of his enormous debt he’s worked to pay off. “And you know, zero’s a good place to be.”
But it’s obvious that refers only to his financial status – not his talent, nor his rising acclaim.

The room isn’t where you want it, and there is a lull. What do you do? What’s your “trick?” It depends on the room and the culture I’m playing for. But bar none, the old song will get you a big response. Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire – make sure there’s a vocal. If you can get them singing, then you’re turning the corner!
The younger crowd likes the harder house stuff. Vocals move a gay crowd, for sure. Although it’s not like one song makes a night when you’re playing house. It’s the combination.

How would you describe your style? I have a straightforward Chicago style, and I guess I’ve evolved into who I am now by pushing the personal envelope and building on those who came before me: Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, Steve Hurley, and others. I’m also influenced by the new school, like Derrick Carter.

What makes Steve O Steve O? Out of the “house music pie,” I pretty much play it all: Latin, jazz, funk, disco, soul, acid, and any combination of it. My style is to mix in and out of each one.
I do constantly change the beat programming. I remember people in the 1980s thought the music was cool but that it had “all the same beat.” I would think our job is to actually mix up the beat! The more you can do that, the more energy you can create. Yes, they are on the floor, moving, but throwing in a little bit of a different beat all the time gives them another way they can move.
I do make left turns in the middle of the night, like on a dime. I don’t even know what I’m going to play next most of the time! I also pay attention to what key the songs are in — I’m a big key freak, and am conscious of the different keys and how they mix with the drum programming. I try to create moods. And the most fun thing I do now is mix jazzy tracks with Afro-Cuban tracks.

What’s the St. Louis scene like? What’s the St. Louis scene like? [long pause; laughs] St. Louis has been really good to me! It’s diverse, but small. We have a strong gay population and a Bosnian population [in the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration relocated upwards of 50,000 Bosnian refugees to St. Louis]. We have clubs for straights, gays, blacks, gay blacks. I’m one of the only white DJs to play the Blacks Against AIDS benefit show. In the lounges, I do play to everyone. I’m not playing a Latin club yet, but I’d like to.
Are you the only one in town scratching a living? As far as guys behind the turntable, counting the hip-hop guys, there are maybe 30 out there eating and paying the rent doing this, although a lot of them are also doing production. But in my genre? Making a living at it? [pause; smiles] I think it’s just me!
A Week in the Life of
Steve O

Sunday night gig starts at 1 a.m. at the Cherry, and I get home at 6 a.m.
Monday is my crabby day. I try to stay away from humans. [Laughs]
Tuesday I do some studio work. Try to get a home cooked meal.
Wednesday night is at the Aquarius, a Bosnian club in South St. Louis. That club holds about 300 people, and has a killer sound system, which I helped decorate. Four 18” JBLs on the bottom, two 15” JBLs fills in the another corner, 4 EV Terminators double loaded with the horns on top. All Crest and Crown on the bottom. Then there’s a digital room analyzer running on it. It’s really sweet.
Thursday I’m at Faces, an after hours predominately gay club.
Friday it’s a late night at Cherry, and occasionally I do an early upstairs lounge gig.
Saturday, it’s Rue 13, which is a nightclub but also a lounge/sushi bar. Been playing there almost two years now!
At 2:40 a.m., Sunday, I run out of there like Batman, drive over the bridge [to East St. Louis], and have to start playing at Cherry’s. Not only to I have to get there, I have to get my stuff upstairs and ready to go. I follow a drag show, and usually just as the queens are saying, “make sure you stay for Steve O!” I’m literally just turning on the turntable and am completely out of breath! Then I go for three or four hours.


When did you start DJing? I started as a promoter. By the early 1990s I was working the night shift doing construction, and would spend my days picking venues for raves. Then I got behind the turntable and by 1992, I was able to quit construction and focus on my music.

What made you take up spinning? I was surrounded by good DJs. The scene was such that there was no need to bring in out-of-town DJs. We had good homespun talent: Terry Mullan who is now in San Diego; Mark Buxton, who is now in Chicago. They were all a big part of the rave scene back then.
It took me a long time to say I was a DJ; before I was comfortable with that. An artist? That’s for other people to say. That’s too much pressure! [laughs]

Let’s talk about your music background. From age eight to 17 I studied piano the whole thing theory, doing recitals, etcetera. I really liked ragtime back then. It was syncopated; it was black! [laughs] I sang in choirs for the four years of Catholic high school, too.

What attracted a white Catholic suburban boy to the underground scene? It was the culture, I guess. It wasn’t greed – none of what I do is money-driven. My friends and I had a little sound system in the early 1980s that we used to drag around like traveling minstrels. We were just trying to turn everybody on to the scene. We were always dance-oriented.

What kind of gear did you have in the old days? [laughs] I had a pair of Peavey black widow bass cabinets, and a horn that would rip your ears off! Remember those? You’d have to take a lot of horn out with the EQ. I bought those from Terry Mullan, now that I’m thinkin’ of it!

You tried Europe for a while. How was that? I was in Germany, mostly Cologne, for nine months in 1999-2000, and I felt a natural connection with everything. The lifestyle, the social scene. I totally did the starving artist thing. But I played a New Year’s Eve party in Cologne for 500 people. That was an honor. I might have had a better chance in Hamburg or Berlin; but then again, Berlin is like trying to break into New York City.
When I came back, though, I was in better shape artistically. The experience had heightened my consciousness.

Your tools of the trade? At home, I have my Pioneer 500 Mixer. The Rane mixer is the best-sounding board. That thing makes a record and CD sound the same. I don’t know how. But personally, for the way I play, the 500s are the friendliest. I’m bringing faders up and down constantly – I can’t get my sound with knobs. So give me two channels that work, some EQs, and I’m cool!

Do you feel you have to leave St. Louis to further your career? I’m not leaving. I owe a lot to the artists St. Louis is known for, from Scott Joplin to Miles [Davis] to Ike and Tina Turner. But I want to get two Saturdays a month playing other cities. After all these years doing it here, I feel I have something to share. I’ve done without a lot of things to do this, but I’m not complaining. I chose it. I love and I’ll do it if I’m getting $2,000 for two hours, or if I gotta put a hat out on the street to do it.
I’m not looking for that big mainstream success thing. The good feeling will be from the work. When I lost all that money and gear when the club went under, I was playing without confidence for years. In the last 16 months, somehow I feel a weight has been lifted allowing me to be more creative. The club going under humbled me, just like Germany did.

Next big goal? It’s cool to make people happy – that’s a big part of house music. But what I really want to do now is make them cry. [Laughs] That’s the big thing for me now. All the greats have done it. To pull every emotion out of a person, to get them to stop and go, “Man, I can’t believe he played that!” That’s tricky, to purposely draw a tear. I want to see how far I can push a person emotionally.[Pause; grins] Don’t worry, I’ll snap them out of it 10 minutes later!

Copyright 2003 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2003 TESTA Communications