Arts and Culture
11:50 am
Mon January 21, 2013

Meet the Austin DJ Spinning Obama’s Inaugural Ball

It’s a long way from the sweaty dance floor of a club called Nasty’s to President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in Washington D.C. But it’s a trek Austin’s DJ Mel has made.

DJ Mel, aka Mel Sandico, is a fixture of Austin’s club scene. DJing in Austin since 1995, he’s kept a weekly hip hop night going at Nasty’s for nearly as long. And since 2001, every couple of months he drops “Rock the Casbah,” a musical-mashup of the best the ‘80s has to offer. That’s not to mention gigs at Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and more: “club dates, weddings, in-stores … you name it,” he says.

That schedule’s paid off professionally: about two years ago, Mel was approached to play the California Democratic Convention in Sacramento. That lead to a gig at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, which in turn lead to President Obama’s election night party in Chicago last year. And now, Mel is playing Obama’s inaugural ball in Washington D.C. today.

“I look at every gig just as a gig,” he recalls about election night. “I don’t really look at the enormity of it, I just go in – ‘OK, this is a job, I have to do it.’ But I didn’t realize or see the enormity of the event until I walked into the venue – when I saw the national and international press corps all lined up behind me.”

The Obama camp had given Mel a list of pre-approved songs to play on election night, “all pretty inclusive stuff, a little bit of something for everybody,” he says. But with Obama’s reelection bid more of a nailbiter than his 2008 win, Mel began to run out of pre-approved music – just as it was becoming clear Obama would win another term.

“I didn’t really want to play the same songs again, because I didn’t really think it was really fitting for that moment,” he says. “So I just winged it.”

Without a crowd of dancers in front of his DJ booth, he had to improvise to get the mood of the crowd.

“There were these huge bleachers to the left of me – there must have been 2,000 people in the bleachers,” he says. “And I just saw them all dancing. So I kind of used them as gauge, as far as whether or not people were really into what I was doing.”

Mel’s since posted his presidential playlist online: a mix of crowd-moving R&B favorites and classic electro jams. But maybe the most memorable cut Mel dropped was a little different from the others: the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”

“I played that pretty much right after they announced he had won,” he says, “and the whole place went bananas, you know?”

One of Mel’s favorite movies is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and the centerpiece of Bueller’s day on the town comes when he crashes a parade and starts lip-synching the tune.

“Everyone in the crowd’s singling along with him. And it’s just like a little bit of everybody. Anybody, of any race, what have you – everyone’s just there to have a good time. And the one common thing that they all know and love is that song. So that’s what I thought when I played it that night. And it went over well; I was really happy. “

Mel’s had a busy weekend in D.C.: He played the National Day of Service event on the National Mall on Saturday, before gearing up for the inaugural ball on Monday night.

“It’s not like your typical club gig or festival,” he says.