Sony dropped him from the label. Lady Gaga, Céline Dion, Chance the Rapper, and Ciara deleted him from their songs. Spotify will soon allow the average morally inclined listener to mute his music entirely. Many have heard and known of R. Kelly’s abuse habits for years, but it has never been easier to just remove his existence, and his music, from listeners’ ears.
“After the documentary, it’s just a wrap,” says Nick Catchdubs, a DJ and founder of the independent record label Fool’s Gold.
But is that also true for, say, wedding DJs who are beholden to the couples who hired them? Or event DJs who spin to the demands of their corporate bosses? Are R. Kelly’s horrors, and the fans who stand by him demanding the music be separated from the musician, putting DJs in sticky positions by requesting “Ignition (Remix)”?
The answer is mostly no, they won’t willingly play his music, and it hasn’t much affected their careers. That’s because public perception has just about made its full turn away from the singer. Of the 17 DJs we reached out to, 4 responded. Those who were willing to talk tended to be more critical of Kelly’s music.
Mick Batyske, also known as DJ MICK, played Miguel’s wedding this summer and regularly DJs events for luxury clients like Cadillac, HBO, and Sotheby’s. He’s never been an R. Kelly fan, so he hasn’t historically played his music that much anyway. Still, “sometimes at the end of the night, someone will request the ‘Ignition (remix),’” Batyske says. “But at this point, it’s morals over money.” And if someone was insistent about that request? “I would probably try to talk them down from that ledge.”
The shift away from R. Kelly didn’t just start with the documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, which fundamentally changed the conversation around the artist. The journalist Jim DeRogatis had been reporting on R.Kelly’s abusive behavior in the Chicago Sun-Times for years before his July 2017 report on the singer’s “cult” landed at BuzzFeed and brought the allegations national and viral attention. That’s when things started to change among DJs.
“I stopped playing R. Kelly’s music years ago, and have no problem explaining why if someone wanted to talk about it with me,” says Kenan Juska, another wedding DJ. But that’s just R. Kelly. As discussions around problematic artists have become increasingly common, there’s a longer list of musicians to consider, Juska says: “It’s no secret that other great musicians and producers have had problematic personal lives. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Spector, to name a few. I mean, I used to play the Bill Cosby record where he covers ‘Sunny’ all the time.” He doesn’t anymore. Cosby is, at this point, an extreme case, but for Juska they’re all under reconsideration.
As far as if it affects the jobs he accepts and the money he brings in, Juska says, “I don’t want to work with anyone who would insist that I play an R. Kelly record. I’d be comfortable letting someone know that I didn’t think it was a good fit, the same way I’ve turned down invitations to DJ at Trump-owned properties.”
Lindsey Caldwell, a.k.a. DJ Lindsey, has a different approach. She does weddings, has DJed for Prince, and used to play an early ’90s party in New York City called the Hump. She thinks about her club appearances and wedding gigs as existing on different planes. First, she has a go-to trick for turning down requests, “I just tell them I already played it and that usually ends the exchange,” she says. “But in 2019, honestly … nobody is requesting R. Kelly in the club all that much anyway.” She adds, “If you are saying you can’t live off of DJing if you have to stop playing ‘Big Chips’ then you need to do something else for a living.”
When it comes to weddings, Caldwell always discusses a “do not play” list with couples beforehand. Over the years, she says, more and more people have put R. Kelly on the list.
But what if they don’t? “If I have a couple who wants me to play R. Kelly, I explain why I prefer not to support him by playing his music, but if it’s their wedding and they want it, I will reluctantly play the song,” she says. Caldwell offers two explanations. The first: The way she sees it, at a wedding, most people understand that it’s the couple who chooses the music, so the playlist won’t reflect poorly on her personally, even as the DJ. And the second: “There are two songs by him that get requested the most for the weddings that I’ve done: ‘Ignition (Remix)’ and ‘Step in the Name of Love,’ both of which I already own,” she says. “Like so many other people, I spent a lot of years ignoring the obvious issues with his behavior in his private life and purchased his music.”
Since she already owns the records and isn’t actively sending R. Kelly money by playing the songs again, she’ll do it. “To me streaming and purchasing his music is giving him money to help him pay off his victims in secret and pay lawyer fees. I just really don’t want to be a part of that, and it sucks that I ever contributed to his ability to finance his lifestyle.”
Catchdubs, the Fool’s Gold DJ, brings up a pure disgust factor that’s developed when even encountering R. Kelly’s music in public. He sent along a tweet posted by Jensen Karp, the former rapper, writer, and DJ on Los Angeles’s KROQ station. In it, Karp posted an image of “Bump n’ Grind” playing on SiriusXM’s Fly, the satellite radio’s channel for R&B and hip-hop from the ’90s and 2000s. Karp captioned it, “C’MON!?!?! FOR REAL?!?!?” SiriusXM declined our request for an interview.
As for Catchdubs, he doesn’t play R. Kelly during his sets because it makes him feel gross, and he doesn’t have to. But, he says, “I think it’s more of a story for people putting ‘Best R&B of the ’90s’ compilations together. Does this change how they approach their job? Do you edit Space Jam?” With a sequel to the movie in the works, that question might just start popping up.
But when it comes to radio stations, it’s not always the DJ on the bill who’s deciding what to play. “Looking back, when I worked at a commercial R&B/hip-hop radio station in particular in the early to mid-2000s, I had no choice but to be complicit and polite, as they had a structured, programmed playlist that probably would have had him coming up anyway. I was a DJ doing my job,” says Nick Puzo, who has a radio show called “The Looseness with NICKFRESH” that airs every Wednesday on 92.7 the Beat in Jacksonville, Florida. When he was just starting out, Puzo wasn’t the program director or the music director, and those are the people who generally set track lists and playlists that radio DJs must abide by during any given set.
But now he’s made a name for himself and sets his own rules. For the past year-and-a-half, since that DeRogatis BuzzFeed report, he hasn’t played a single R. Kelly song. Not on his radio show and not at the two clubs, corporate events, and weddings where he regularly DJs.
“I come from a place that is very cognizant that we cannot erase history, only learn from it,” Puzo says. “As far as R. Kelly is concerned, if he (and to a certain degree, his camp) deems himself untouchable, then I reserve the right to feel that he is unplayable.”
Puzo tells the story of a recent night he was DJing at the Shim Sham Room in Jacksonville when a woman at her bachelorette party requested “Ignition (Remix).” This was about eight months into his self-imposed ban, and he told her he wouldn’t.
“Well, why the hell not?!” she said.
“Because he’s a shitbag, and you can do better,” Puzo replied.
In the end, she agreed.