Steve Masters has many memories of partying and performing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, including a New Year’s Eve spent with Nicolas Cage. In addition to sharing that story with us below, the former Live 105 host and DJ reflects on his heyday as a time that was “…about the music and having fun and not going in excess on any one sort of thing.”
Today, Masters prefers to spend his time concentrating on his video game marketing business and family, but can still be found occasionally behind the decks sharing his extensive record collection amassed over his long musical career. We got a chance to speak with the former VJ, radio host, and DJ about his early career, memories of Sound Factory, and his favorite jams of the past and present. He DJs this Thursday, [8/18] for Class of ’84’s 18-Year Anniversary at the Cat Club.
You’ve held many jobs such as MTV VJ, Live 105 radio host, DJ, and entrepreneur. Give us a history of how you got into the nightlife/DJing side of your career?
It’s weird. I used to bring records to parties when I was a teenager and play song by song on one record player just for fun. I would sit by the record player and play the best songs from albums. I started young just like that. From there, when I was in college, I started beat mixing on 88.9WERS at Emerson College. It was a fairly easy shift to get because I was on Saturday nights from 10p.m. to midnight when most of the other college kids would be out partying. Then I started beat mixing on the radio and I think I was one of the first people to do this in 1980. From there I started doing a couple of clubs around Boston.
Then when I made the move out to California, the first sort of residence gig I had was at The Underground at 9th and Howard. It was a really cool place to DJ and I was there from 1985 and on. From there I started beat mixing on the radio, and I would beat mix from 9-9:45pm after my radio show called Modern Mix every weeknight and Saturdays. That got me hired at City Nights, DNA, DV8…I basically DJ’d at every nightclub in the Bay Area from the late ’80s to the late ‘90s. I’ve DJ’d every single club in the Bay Area at least one time.
So I started at a young age playing and picking songs people wanted to hear. DJing is not just about beat mixing. Well technically it is, because if you can beat mix and choose the right songs, building to a crescendo, that is the ultimate of the art of vinyl DJing. But also the song selection is more important in the mainstream clubs, because you want to get as many people as possible to scream when they hear the first hook that they leave. The success I’ve had is based more on song selection than beat mixing ability.
Because you’ve said song selection matters a lot for you, what goes through your head when deciding the next record or song? Do you read the crowd more or is it more based off the previous song played?
It’s a combination of the two things. If I’m beat mixing and I’m at 117-120 BPM (beats per minute), the next song can’t go much higher than 123 BPM. I also have to look at the crowd to see what’s going on because you’re right there in front of them. It’s not like DJing on the radio; you don’t need them to dance. But in a club setting, you don’t want to clear the club with a crappy song even if you think it’s a great one. Especially for people in the retro club scene, there’s songs from the ‘80s and 90s people want to hear. I just want to make sure I’m beat mixing properly but also playing a song that will make people excited. But it’s mainly the crowd, to answer your question.
Since you’ve had such a long history DJing in the Bay Area, what would you say was one of your favorite memories of DJing in the ‘80s?
I think the NYE shows were by far my favorite nights. I did a bunch of them at City Nights and as I got older and my crowd got older, I did them at Sound Factory. Half of the club closed at three or four in the morning. I remember a night where it was me, Nicolas Cage, my friend Ben (who was my driver at the time), and Dave the owner of Sound Factory. We were all sitting there drinking the most expensive liquors and kicking back in one of the offices. That sort of thing happened every year. The Halloweens were great too. The two big festive let’s-all-go-out nights were the most rewarding.
Nicolas Cage, that’s pretty cool.
Yeah I don’t mean to name drop, but lots of famous people would come and hang out after the clubs closed, especially Sound Factory back in its heyday.
Speaking of which, without naming names, what’s one of the craziest things you’ve seen at Sound Factory?
Well, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary as far as drugs. No one dove into a huge pile of cocaine or anything like that, not that I ever saw. It was pre-molly and rave drugs. I was just getting into the rave scene in the late ‘90s when I started concentrating on my videogame business so I slowed down DJing, but that’s when all the psychedelic drugs got involved. But back then, it was booze, blow, a little a weed, no one was tripping out. I wish I had a more exciting story to tell you, but it was just good times with great people, and people pretty much kept their act together. It was all very safe and sane.
That actually sounds like the ideal club experience, safe and sane.
Yeah the thing is, people think these guys are going nuts, but all in all, for the most part in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was about the music and having fun and not going in excess on any one sort of thing. In my crowd, anyway, no one got out of control or got arrested. It was a good thing.
Touching on the ‘80s, you’ll be playing the 18th anniversary of Class of ’84 at Cat Club. What do you think the current generation should know or take away about ‘80s music?
First of all, you got to tip your hat to Dan and Damon, and the other partner at the Cat Club that have been keeping this going for so many years religiously without a break. They keep it alive. They deserve a lot of credit for the popularity of that music still existing in the nightclub scene today. I want to give them props for what they do on a week-to-week basis. It’s incredible.
As far as the music is concerned, that music just has that sound. From The Smiths to the Cure to New Order…I know I’m giving the cookie cutter bands, but there are a million of them that go above and beyond. There’s so many one-offs too that make the format and genre so unique. It just has that ‘80s sound. You just know it when you hear it. It makes people happy when they hear it. Even though somebody like Morrissey, whose lyrics were depressing and morbid, the uplifting sound The Smiths created made you feel happy for some weird reason. The mood and the sound of that era just has that uplifting, fun, “I’m going to enjoy my life” sound.
Which song of that era, although you probably have plenty, holds the most significance for you? When you hear you know it feeling?
It’s so impossible to narrow to one song. Crates and crates and crates! Well one of them that really stands out, not only because it had an incredible beat for its time period, but it also had some actual global war power significance in its lyrics, is called “American Soviets” by CCCP. It had a real hard-hitting electronic metallic beat to it. And with Gorbachev and Reagan doing the vocal track at the beginning…it’s just one of those iconic ‘80s songs. The massive sound just blew everybody away at the time and crossed over to the Top 40 mix shows just because of its unique hard-hitting rhythm. Put it up on your big speakers!
Of all the jobs you’ve held, which has been the most challenging for you?
When they asked me to go back to Live 105 to do mornings. I was unfamiliar with the corporate nature of how the radio evolved into a CBS corporate thing. When I was there in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a smaller company, who let us do whatever we wanted, owned it. It was a small group of people making the decisions, and it was really free form. As long as you played the main songs, you could go off and play whatever.
Coming back and trying to incorporate current music with the music from my collection…I wish I did a better job at it, but it was really difficult. They gave me a one-year shot, and we had a couple months when we were doing fairly well, but there’s a lot that goes into a morning show. I was a fish out of water and wish I could have done better.
Do you think you’ll ever return to radio?
There’s a possibility, but I’ve been really successful in the videogame marketing business that I started back in 2002. It’s been going great and I’m really enjoying time spending time with my kids. I’m focusing on my personal life now and I think everybody can get to a point where I’m at and so comfortable with what I’ve been able to do with my life. Now I’m enjoying the fruits of my labors.
Last question, what three songs are currently rotating on your personal playlist?
Oh my gosh, I don’t really have any songs rotating on my playlist right now (laughs). Can I call you back? Hold on; let me look through my records. Okay, I like “Piccadilly Palare” by Morrissey, and there’s this song on the radio right now with Harris or what’s his name and that girl?
Calvin Harris and Rihanna?
Yeah! Oh is that her? It goes “you..you…you?” Anyway, it’s going to burn out quick though. Do you notice the songs you like burn out really quick but the songs you don’t initially really burn out slower? The third song… let’s go with “LFO” by LFO. LFO stands for Low Frequency Oscillator. And this isn’t the ‘90s boy band. It’s an amazing song. It’s came out right at the beginning of the rave hype music. It’s got the lowest bass ever put on vinyl. They used to have warning signs at their shows about if you were pregnant or had a pacemaker you were not allowed to come into the concert because the low frequencies of the bass could damage your tissues or knock out your pacemaker. It was so cool they were a great act!