Mixtape No. 50: DJ Sober

Mixtape No. 50

DJ Sober

Back in early April, Fort Worth singer Leon Bridges found himself home after a long stint of touring and in the mood to celebrate. When producer, illustrator, and friend DJ Sober texted him to ask his plans for the night, he replied: “No plans. Let’s throw a party.”

Three hours later, the Art Moderne-style lounge at Dallas’ Belmont Hotel was packed wall-to-wall. The party went ’til dawn, with Bridges spontaneously taking to the mic. “It was the most perfect night; it was magical,” says Sober. “The next morning people were hearing about it and sad they missed out. And we’d only had three hours to make it all come together.”

The truth is, that kind of impromptu fête doesn’t actually happen in three hours. It’s the result of decades of working, hustling, playing, and partying in the local music scene. Sober’s network doesn’t just run wide in Dallas — it’s deep. He earned his reputation as a DJ thanks to The Party, a collaborative event with fellow DJs Select and Nature. Formed in 2006, The Party hosted nights that were groundbreaking in their genre-bending, bringing together fans of House, Electro, Hip Hop, you name it. The Party wasn’t part of the scene in those years. In a large way, it was the scene.

“Right before that time, I’d decided to quit my job doing marketing at Red Bull to pursue DJ-ing full-time,” says Sober. “I thought if I didn’t do it then, I never would.” DJ-ing had not been the original career of choice, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a love-at-first-sight situation. Sober’s energy shifts when he reminisces about house parties he attended as a kid and the first time he watched a DJ live and up-close. “I was exposed to a lot of music because of my brother and his older friends. I started going to underground raves when I was 16 and would be completely enthralled by the DJs. Immediately, I knew I wanted to do that, too.

In that era, the hurdles to becoming a DJ were higher. It entailed money, large equipment, a serious vinyl collection, and hours to devote to learning — no software shortcuts or apps for that. But Sober was all in. He threw himself headlong into the craft, practicing for the first four years in his bedroom. “There are so many people who buy a camera or download Photoshop and call themselves photographers and designers,” he says. “The same thing is true with DJ-ing. I’m not against technology; I use Serato, too. You can’t always be traveling with crates of records. But I think it’s important to hone your craft and take it seriously.” (Sober still does all-vinyl sets from time to time, like a recent one in honor of Record Store Day)

That devotion to music has, at times, left Sober an outlier in a scene immersed in drinking and drugs. “For me, it was entirely about the music and I started to feel disillusioned. I didn’t want to drink or get high; I wanted to focus on the music.” Along the way Sober made his commitment literal and the nickname stuck — first as a graffiti moniker and then as a DJ. (“A friend was creating a flyer and needed my name in a pinch,” he says.)

A passing teenage interest in graffiti surfaces today as a true talent for design and illustration. The parties Sober hosts are heavily branded and smartly marketed. Promotional art and mix tape covers are more like band posters than club flyers: graphic, hyper-colored, and visually evocative. His merch is clever, too. At Satin Sheets, his smooth R&B party, guests picked up branded condoms and cherry lollipops as favors. “The creative and branding elements give me balance as an artist,” he says. “I get just as excited about those elements as I do the music.”

His artistry has found another outlet in Say It Ain’t Southern, a zine devoted to train yard monikers and the artists, railroad characters, and hobo culture behind them. Inspired by Sober’s longtime love of trains and some markings he encountered on a solo Christmas Eve walk, the zine is currently in the production phase of its fourth issue.

The Party ended in 2009—but only after it expanded to rotating nights in Dallas, Houston, and Austin and established Sober’s name statewide. The almost decade since has been a series of highs: touring with the rap group A.Dd+, opening for bands like Cut Copy and The Flaming Lips, and DJ-ing alongside ?uestlove. He bounces from his weekly Big Bang! residency on Thursday nights at Beauty Bar to private parties, fashion events, and art happenings like the opening of the KAWS exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, FADER’s Boom Basel block party at Art Basel, and the opening of the Garrett Leight store in Dallas.

Events have ranged in size from intimate affairs, to large parties for the likes of Erykah Badu and Dirk Nowitzki, to Cowboy’s home games at the massive AT&T Stadium. “It’s not about the size though,” he says. “It’s about energy. You can have an amazing party with 30 people.”

These days are busy ones for Sober. In between all of the above, he’s collaborating with artist Sudie on an upcoming EP under the name Tommy & Linda, hanging with his dog Herby, and working on the next big project on his horizon: a very soon to be announced record label.