It's 11 o'clock on a Saturday night and Willy Joy is working one of the most simultaneously sweet and difficult gigs in the city: opening for former Kanye West DJ A-Trak. The gig confers some prestige, but the crowd is full of Kanye fans who seem more interested in group beer chugs than dancing. Joy seems intent on getting their attention. He bounces around behind the decks, knocking back drinks and spinning everything from big-club techno to Police remixes, looking for a reaction. Eventually the combination of his selections and his infectious energy gets 'em moving. By the time he drops a heavily tweaked remix of Lil Wayne's "A Milli"—with the song's original loop replaced by a chopped-up sample of Dr. Evil's blackmail scene from Austin Powers—they're downright rowdy.
Joy has inhabited a number of music scenes over the past decade or so—he cut his teeth spinning records at underground raves as a teen in Minneapolis before moving on to clubs in Providence, Boston, and now Chicago—and all of them have influenced his style as a DJ and producer. "At this point a lot of DJs would look at you crazy if you said, 'I'm a something DJ,'" Joy says. "It used to be so accepted that you could say, 'Oh, I spin house,' but now it's like, 'And what else?'"
But even on the post-Diplo landscape, Joy stands out as a particularly omnivorous selector. I can't remember ever having a conversation with any other dance party DJ about the Dutch avant-punk band the Ex, for instance. "I went through phases the same way anyone else does," says Joy, who's 26. "I did the raver into the metalhead into the backpacker to the drum 'n' bass DJ to whatever it is now. A million other people had that exact same progression. I think it's just that I'm more or less grown up at this point in my life and it's enough that I can at least do something interesting with the music I'm into."
For some insight into the breadth of Joy's taste, check out last year's mix tape Fly by Night Vol. 1 (mashit.com/2007/11/19/willy-joy-mixtape), where Pitbull's reggaeton jam "Ay Chico" segues improbably into They Might Be Giants' "Don't Let's Start" and Dirty South MC Petey Pablo and dancehall maniac Elephant Man bookend dour 90s rockers Live. "I'm definitely trying not to be ironic," he notes. "Pretty much everything I play or put on a mix is something that I really like."
Fly by Night shares its name with a party Joy's been promoting since moving to Chicago three years ago from Boston, where he'd burned out "fielding requests from jerks and trying to please middle management" by night and languishing in cubicle hell by day. "I kind of wanted to hit the ground running when I came here," he says, "because I was really fed up in Boston and I had a lot of pent-up energy that I wasn't using, except to watch movies and eat Cheetos at night."
Fly by Night generated a decent amount of buzz with guests like Dude N Nem and Baltimore DJ Dave Nada in its first three months at the Underground Lounge, but turnout was modest. Joy had traded e-mails with local artists like Flosstradamus and Matt Roan before coming to Chicago, but he didn't know enough about the city to understand that the crowd he was trying to attract doesn't really do Wrigleyville. "Tops, a hundred people were there," he says. "But they were really excited."
Joy took the party to Empire Liquors in Wicker Park and then, this spring, to the Debonair Social Club across the street. He spins to a packed house the third Thursday of each month and drew a fairly sizable crowd at this year's Lollapalooza, where he opened the dance stage. He got that gig through Roan, E6, and Zebo, some of the city's best-connected DJs, who were tapped to book local dance talent at the festival.
The fact that Joy made the cut is testament to how he's been embraced by the local underground dance scene. The feeling is mutual: "Chicago to me is the first place that I've lived since I've moved out of my parents' house that actually felt like a home," Joy says. "Providence was cool, Boston was really not cool, but both of them felt like I was just spending time there. The second I got here it felt like a place that I wanted to stay."
It's a good time to be here, with people all over the world taking their cues from artists like Flosstradamus and Million Dollar Mano, who've stayed in Chicago and are happy to turn the spotlight on their friends. Though he hasn't toured much and has barely any product, Willy Joy was included in a 2007 Urb feature on the Chicago scene and then made the magazine's 2008 "Next 100" list. "Everyone in the scene here is supportive, and we're all working towards more or less the same goal, but it's not as cutthroat as it is in other places," he says. "I think for the most part we're legitimately happy to see people do well, and the people who do well are trying to look back and help more people."
Currently Joy and fellow Fly by Night fixtures Capcom—DJ duo Dylan Reiff, who went to middle school with Joy, and Carlos Mercado—have a limited-run vinyl EP called Fly by Night: The Prequel for sale at Turntablelab.com. Joy is also contributing a track to Zebo's upcoming record, where he'll be featured alongside the likes of Bird Peterson, Dave Nada, and Tittsworth. Then he'll start work in earnest on his first full-length of original material. His goal for the next year or so is to "step my production game up in general," specifically in collaboration with locals who aren't so well known outside the city, like foulmouthed party rapper Mic Terror. "There's so many people doing so much cool stuff here," he says. "It hurts as much as it helps, but it wouldn't be Chicago any other way. There's a bunch of people that, thinking about it, I should probably call up, but then again I'd much rather listen to Mic Terror rap about sex again."v
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