The styles of music are constantly changing. When I was a lad, there were some DJs that had a name, but mostly they played music, going from song to song. These days, DJs are often the producers of the music and are as big a draw as the headliners.
DJ Stephen Durkin is known for his sexy Rehoboth beach parties like Rouge and MANdance — hosting close to a million people in its nine-year run. He’s back at it July 3 with a Distrkt C party called “Balboa,” guaranteed to knock you out.
PGN: What’s the origin of your last name?
SD: Mostly Irish, a little bit of Scottish, a little bit of Welsh.
PGN: Tell me about the family.
SD: I come from a small family. Three kids, my sister and I, who were both separately adopted, and an older brother who was the naturally born kid from my parents. I’m the youngest.
PGN: What was your favorite style of music as a kid?
SD: I was into hard rock mostly, but I had a soft spot for acoustically driven artists like Tom Petty.
PGN: When did your musical style change?
SD: I was on the boardwalk in Ocean City and I heard a Donna Summer song and literally everything changed from then on. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
PGN: How did you get started as a DJ?
SD: I always had a musical background. I’m a classically trained pianist, and I played saxophone and cello; pretty much anything with strings came easily to me. I was always experimenting with music, making mix tapes with multiple tracks using two cassette recorders. Once I found that Donna Summer song and dance music, it just kind of took off. I had a one-room apartment at Ninth and Pine and I practiced at home for two years, so when I hit the scene I was ready. It was crazy; from the minute I got started, I was hired and worked seven days a week for almost five years. I worked for several years in Philly and then started doing parties in Rehoboth.
PGN: What about being a DJ brings you joy?
SD: It’s the connection with the crowd. There’s a flow of energy that happens with a crowd that’s almost impossible to describe. When you’re doing it, especially as long as I have, you have a sense of the feel in the room at any given moment and can tune into that. When the energy is flowing, it comes in from the crowd and flows through me and back out into the crowd. It’s my job to know when the mood is changing and to make adjustments to keep the energy going.
PGN: When I was hosting karaoke, I would cringe when someone would ask to sing “Dust in the Wind.” What song is an energy killer for you?
SD: [Laughing] Anything by ABBA! But if I get requests for songs I don’t really like, I just try to remix them in a way that’s more creative and club-friendly so it will fit into the rest of what’s playing. I put my own spin on them.
PGN: What’s the most outrageous party you’ve played?
SD: I was the DJ for a Grace Jones concert at the pier on Delaware Avenue. There was a crowd of about 5,000 people there. Grace had it in her contract that she was to be paid in cash before the performance. The management somehow forgot that or thought she wouldn’t hold them to it, but she refused to go on without it, so I had to stall the crowd while the manager of the bar who was sponsoring the concert had to go out and get cash to pay her. She came and hung out in the DJ booth with me until it was taken care of. She was really sweet with me, but she wasn’t playing when it came to business.
PGN: I was at that concert! I got to go to her dressing room after and she was really lovely. Do you know that giant picture of Grace Jones that used to be at Sisters? I have it in my house!
SD: Oh, I DJ’d at Sisters and I remember that picture! Yeah, that was quite a night.
PGN: What was your best celebrity encounter?
SD: Mick Jagger. No, wait — Mariah Carey. I was a Billboard reporter for a number of years. A couple of us really helped launch her career because we were reporting on her music when she was still considered a dance-club artist, so when she broke through, she invited us to her first concert at the Spectrum. We got to sit and talk to her and hang out; it was very nice.
PGN: What was the most disastrous gig?
SD: Oh boy … OK, so a friend of mine was having a party for his grandmother’s 89th birthday and asked me to DJ. They wanted all oldies from the ’40s and ’50s. I’m not familiar with that music so I took a crash course and borrowed some CDs from a friend’s parents. Grandma walks in and I start to play the first song as everyone yells, “Surprise!” The CD starts to skip, so in a panic I grab the closest CD and throw it on without looking. Next thing you know, the speakers start blasting, “That’ll be the day when you die.”
PGN: Ouch! I read that your DJ style was “unmistakable.” What makes it so?
SD: I remix about 90 percent of what I play. I edit songs or completely rearrange things and build my own remixes from top to bottom. I’m not the guy who just sits and plays the radio version of the songs.
PGN: As a DJ, do you have to have good rhythm? Do you dance?
SD: [Laughing] No! I can’t dance. Don’t ask me. I’m a horrible dancer, but I have unbelievable rhythm. I’m known as a human metronome, but I can’t seem to connect that with my feet.
PGN: When did you have the first inkling that you were gay?
SD: When I was about 5 years old — I always wanted to play doctor with my friends. There was always a problem they had that needed my attention. It sounds goofy but it was all innocent. But I knew I was different.
PGN: Was the family religious?
SD: We were Catholic and at some point I realized that being gay wasn’t something that went along with Catholicism. I spent a lot of time praying that the feelings would go away. Somewhere along the way I heard or read that it was normal for boys to be attracted to other boys but that it went away after puberty. So I kept waiting for it to go away, but it never did!
PGN: When did the family find out?
SD: My older brother was Michael Durkin, and he was an active member of the gay community. He was involved in Dignity and other organizations. He died of AIDS in 1992. He was my parents’ only natural-born child, and he was the model kid. Not that he was loved more than us, but he did everything perfectly — college graduate, etc. So when he came out, it was rough for a minute but then they accepted him with open arms and that made it easier when I came out. And to add another twist to the story, my father came out to me 10 years before he died.
PGN: Woah! Now that’s a movie.
SD: Yeah, out of the five of us, three of us were gay. All the males.
PGN: How did you come out to the family?
SD: I ran away from home. I had a friend who confided in me that he was gay and I told him about me. He had an apartment at Cape May Point and a job hookup, so we ran away to live and work there, which was probably the worst place in the world to come out. There was virtually zero gay community there!
PGN: If the family was cool after your brother came out, why did you run away?
SD: I was running more because of my friends — probably because I was in the closet. I had a lot of girlfriends, but I never took it very far with them. I wasn’t really attracted to any of them, but I played the boyfriend part. At some point, some of the exes started talking to each other and noting my, let’s say, lack of enthusiasm in the romantic area. I was mortified that all my buddies knew about it and a lot of them gave me a hard time about it. I felt like an outcast, so I ran to Cape May.
PGN: How did you learn about your dad?
SD: There were little clues growing up. Every summer, we were forced to go to Ireland for six weeks. No place cool like Dublin; we were in a lonely cottage in the middle of nowhere. Because my father worked, he would only stay for two weeks and when we got home, I would find random Playgirl magazines stashed in the house. Of course I was thrilled to find them, so I never said anything. I was too young to remember but I later found out from my uncle that he’d been caught red-handed with a neighbor, and it was a big scandal that was kept secret. He’d also take these clandestine trips with friends of his to New Orleans and other places. His way of coming out to me was when he was retired, he’d take the train into town and we’d have dinner at the Venture Inn, and he’d be thrilled to be around other gay people. He’d shove an Au Courant and PGN into his briefcase on his way out.
PGN: Did he ever officially come out and say he was gay to you?
SD: He did. He never officially came out to my mother, his wife. I don’t know why, but he chose me. He never told anyone else in the family. I told my brother in secret but he didn’t confront him. He wanted to give our father the opportunity to say something if he wanted to, but he never did.
PGN: What impact did your brother’s passing have on you?
SD: It was horrifying and terrifying. He was almost 10 years older than me, and he was a great big brother. He went to college and then started working, so we didn’t have a lot of contact. But when I came out, he was the one who took me to all the gay bars in Philly, and we would do that once or twice a year when he came home on Thanksgiving eve or for family functions.
PGN: Did you ever want to find your birth parents?
SD: I wasn’t interested, but my dad did the research to find out about them in case I ever decided to. It’s a long story where my sister and I posed as a married couple looking to buy a house in the area so we could scope out the house where my birth mother lived. It would take a whole column to tell that tale!
PGN: OK, I’ll wait for the movie! Your most unique talent?
SD: I forget nothing!
SD: Pickles. [Laughing] And no, I’m not going to explain why.
PGN: Any pets now or as a kid?
SD: I love this question! Dogs are my family. Currently there is Buddy Durkin (the one and only) and, formerly, Sandy Durkin, Sam Durkin, Rusty Durkin and Dody Durkin. Rainbow Bridge baby!
PGN: If you could choose a theme song for yourself, what would it be?
SD: Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn.”
Catch Stephen Durkin at the Distrkt C “Balboa” party July 3 from 9 p.m.-2 a.m. at Concourse Dance Bar, 1635 Market St. For more information, visit distrktc.com.