A new White House administration means Austin-based DJ Mel Cavaricci’s time playing music for President Obama’s events has come to an end. For the past few years, Cavaricci—better known as DJ Mel—has gained recognition as “Obama’s DJ”–he was on turntable duty on the night Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney to secure his second term, and he went on to soundtrack the Inauguration Ball and the past four White House Easter Egg Rolls. Fittingly, he played the afterparty to the President’s Farewell Address at McCormick Place last week—the same venue where he DJed Election Night, his first gig for the Obamas.
Cavaricci is well-known outside of his presidential sets; his resumé includes performances at Tour de France, Lollapalooza, and a gig as the University of Texas’ basketball team’s official DJ. Working for the soon-to-be former president is obviously different, even more so because there’s never been a presidential administration this inclusive toward popular culture.
“With an Obama presidency, the music, as a component, was very natural,” Cavaricci said in a phone interview with SPIN. “It wasn’t like this contrived thing where he’s just gonna try to ‘pander,’ if you will.”
A few days after his farewell address afterparty set, DJ Mel spoke with SPIN about his stint as Obama’s go-to mixer and its significance beyond the DJ booth. Read the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, below.
I read your account about DJing Barack Obama’s Election Night in 2012, and it seems like it was pretty much a celebration. Since this was a farewell, did this gig feel more precious compared to that night?
Yes and no. I didn’t really feel as much pressure because I already had experience doing stuff like this. Back in 2012 on election night, I had—aside from playing the Democratic National Convention and a couple of Democratic party events in California—a very limited experience playing in that type of space space. There was a lot of pressure being in a place where I had limited experience and worrying about what I played. They provided me with a template for what to do in 2012. As soon as he won, they were like, “Hey, you do what you do—just be very mindful of what you play.” And it became like this huge party.
As far as the other night, I didn’t feel any pressure at all. The party was massive—there must’ve been 2 or 3,000 thousand people at this thing. It was a lot of Obama staffers—folks that worked on his campaign in 2008 and 2012. Even though there were a lot of people there, it was a very bittersweet evening for me for obvious reasons. I did my job and many people danced, but at the same time, I don’t think I was in that mindset of, “You know what, we’re gonna turn it up like at a club.”
How’d you curate your playlist for that event?
I recall being told to play a lot of music that was being played in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. When the event started, it took a while for everyone to get in, because everyone was listening to the address.
It was really amazing and it really touched me and a lot of people. I think everyone was still trying to process that speech, so I think just a lot of people being in that room at first talking about it and talking to each other and everything. So while that was going on, I was playing a lot of music from the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and not necessarily like dance music? Y’know, so yeah. That was pretty much the plan.
Last night was something else. You could really feel the love in the room for President Obama. Also for the love of music. It’s not going to be like this for a long time. So let’s stay up. I will forever be grateful and inspired by this man and his family. Salute. #obama #obamafarewell #ofafamily #djmel #djlife #djing #dj #chicago
Did you and Obama cross paths during the afterparty?
No, there was talk about him showing up for the event, but as soon as that speech was over, he was back to D.C.
How did you get the gig as Obama’s official DJ in the first place?
I have a friend works works with the president and I always thought that was cool. He lived in Austin at one point and we would hang out a lot. He’s a total music nerd and we had a lot in common. And we would talk, hang out, go out to eat or something, and I’d always just say casually, “I would like to DJ for Obama one day, because he’s Barack Obama!” He would just look at me and kind of nod and we just left it at that.
One day, it was like a Saturday morning and it was like noon, he was like “Hey, what’s up man? What are you doing on Tuesday?” And I said like, “Nothing, why?” “Do you want to DJ for Barack Obama on election night?” I was like, “Really?” “Yeah, dude” That was Saturday and by Tuesday, I was there.
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I remember you mentioning in that one interview that there wasn’t really a plan if Obama lost. I was thinking about that and Hillary Clinton’s election night. She lost, the staff was gone, and the music died.
I mean, there was no backup plan. I don’t think it was because Obama’s camp was confident thinking it was already in the bag. It was just never mentioned. As far as Hillary Clinton, obviously I wasn’t there, but I talked to my friend—she was the one who told everyone they had to leave after Hillary lost on election night. She said it was really surreal. It was a lot of people crying. I think a lot of people were thinking, “Hillary’s gonna win, we’re gonna party and drink up and start celebrating.” And then boom, y’know? What happened? Donald Trump, president-elect.
I remember White House attendees were swag surfing during a BET event last fall. It felt like the last time we could have that sort of environment in the White House. Do you feel that sense of finality when thinking about the end of Obama presidency?
Yeah, I felt that way at the end of it. First off, I think I’ve learned through the years to really take in any experience that’s really amazing. We’re moving so fast because we’re just so busy, and then six months later, you start thinking about it, and go, “Wow, this was really dope.” So when I was at the White House with the Easter Egg Roll, I did that. I stood there on the stage and was like, “Wow, A Tribe Called Quest.” Phife Dawg had just died and I was playing “Can I Kick It?” I thought, “This is not going to happen again. Maybe it will happen with Hillary if she wins, but right now, I don’t think this is gonna happen.” Silentó—the little teenage kid that did the Whip—performed. All these kids were doing the Nae Nae, and Jay Z and Beyonce were standing like three or four feet away from me. I just remember thinking to myself, “This is never going to happen to me again.”
What else stuck out from that Easter Roll?
[Actor Anthony Anderson] was there with his son. There were lots of actors and actresses and children there. But yeah, seeing all these kids doing the Nae Nae and Anthony Anderson and son doing it. That’s when I remember seeing Jay Z and Beyonce off to my right while that was going on.
How many times did you cross paths with Obama during your gigs?
I think I met him and Michelle during the inauguration. Mind you, he’s a president, he’s a very busy guy. So I’ve gotten in close proximity of him, but it’s only been once or twice.
Well, what was it like meeting him for the first time?
You know how when you meet people you don’t know and you get this amazing energy from them? And it’s kind of contagious, so you just kind of feed off that? That’s how it felt. I remember when I walked up to them because I was told they wanted to meet me and get a photo taken with me. I remember walking up and Michelle was like, “Who are you?” I was like “I’m the DJ. I’m DJing the [Presidential Ball].” She was like “Oh my God, come over here.” I hugged them and took a photo with them and you could just feel … I don’t know, it was just really awesome. You could feel their energy as people. They’re just happy, positive people.
It was funny, because I was waiting in line for this and there was like five people: It was me, then in front of me was the cast of Glee. Remember that show? When that was popping? In front of them were Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz. What was funny with that situation was Alicia Keys with Swizz Beatz geeking out, going “Oh my god. We’re about to meet the president.” It was funny to see them humbled like that. They were normal people.
Alright man, thanks for the chat.
Yeah absolutely man, this week was nuts. I think this week was tripped out for everybody. You watch that speech and you see Trump have his press conference [the next morning] and you’re just like, “What the fuck, dude. How did this happen?”