When I was younger, I was so certain about so many things, my opinions rigid and inflexible in the way that only someone who didn’t know how much change was lurking on the horizon throughout their 20s could be. Naturally, those rock solid truths extended to the world of music, where it seemed as though my tastes had been set in stone, ready to echo through the rest of time.
Of course I was wrong about that, just like I was about pretty much everything else I thought I’d figured out at that age. The older I got, the more flexible my thought patterns became, and I began to let go of ideas and concepts that had anchored me in the past. This included a sizable spectrum of my musical preference.
Specifically, I began to explore the softer side of music that I had shunned in my university radio DJ days. During that period I was drawn to the hardest beats, the loudest guitars, and the most aggressively-framed messages I could find, whether that was in hip hop lyrics, industrial riffs, or blaring synths. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the dynamics of loud/quiet/loud, or that I didn’t still love the less militant jazz and classical that I had been raised on, I just didn’t seek it out so much in other forms of music.
I was also kind of a jerk about modern R&B. As a huge hip hop fan, I fully bought in to Public Enemy’s Chuck D when he said “You singers are spineless / As you sing your senseless songs to the mindless / Your general subject love is minimal / It’s sex for profit.” Of course, I didn’t catch on to the fact that Chuck was using hyperbole to make a point, not expressing a life-spanning credo, because I was 20 years old and every new nugget I discovered musically was shiny enough to block out dissenting opinions. Sure, I could engage with harder-edged stuff like Blackstreet’s “Fix” remix, or D’Angelo’s “Lady,” inescapable chart singles like “On & On” from Erykah Badu, or poppier British imports like All Saints, but I was never curious enough to get more than puddle deep about what might be lurking behind the top 40 playlist.
And so, I missed out. I missed out on perhaps one of the best eras of R&B, that golden age between new jack swing in the early 90s to the beginnings of Beyonce’s reign roughly a decade later. It was like losing a language, not being able to tie in the pop and hip-hop that surrounded me to the lexicon of soul and R&B singers who fed its emotional side, pushed its sampling trends, and reshaped radio playlists across the continent.
It wasn’t until 2004 or so that I fully realized the error of my ways. My father frequently picked up lost and forgotten items on the lawns of the apartment buildings he rented out to students in my home town, and he slid a copy of Toni Braxton’s “More Than A Woman” across the desk at me one morning while I was visiting his office, rescued from a snowbank that week. I’d been obsessed with Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough” a couple of years beforehand, playing it endlessly on a loop, but because of my rigid musical blinders that was where it began and ended for me, and I didn’t explore her catalogue any further.
Needing something to listen to in my car (which, for the first time in my life, had a CD player), “More Than A Woman” went into heavy rotation—and I absolutely loved it. It’s a fantastic album that slinks into your ears and coils around your cerebellum, with Darkchild’s production serving as the thin wedge that pried open my newfound passion for Braxton’s incredible voice.
It was then that I realized I was wrong—not about much more than R&B, but hey, it was a start. I started to hoover down Aaliyah, Nelly, and Brandy, and dove into the deeper works of artists I’d only experienced as singles in the past. Suddenly, a whole new world had opened up to me, but only because I’d been ignorant enough in my preconceived opinions to have not noticed its existence in the first place.
I got a lot of good-natured flack from friends of mine who had already made the transition into appreciating the genre, and was often teased for listening to “soft” music that I wouldn’t have touched with someone else’s ears a few years beforehand. But I regret how long I was a stick in the mud about R&B, about dismissing amazing acts like K.C. and Jojo and Boys II Men as being nothing more than the purveyors of slow dance schlock from my high school dance era. I was wrong.
How does any of this relate to the characters in Dead Air? The 90s-era versions of our DJ characters are locked in the same certainty that plagues nearly every passionate person at that stage in their life, as they sit on the verge of striking off into a world that’s going to have some very harsh lessons to teach them. When we encounter then 15 years later, we see just how the weight of change, combined with the strength of experience, has altered their lives.
In writing these characters, I tried my best to draw from the vitality and energy of my own university DJ days, but I made sure not to overly romanticize it. Yes, I had a blast—but I was also oblivious to the storm of change that the next decade or so was going to bring, and ultimately unprepared despite feeling like I had it all figured out. The tension in Dead Air’s pages is pulled from precisely that in-between period—and from figuring out just how wrong I was about what the future held.