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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

The Philly DJ who plays nothing but vinyl

Each month at the Dolphin, David Atlas gets kids swinging to hits from the ’50s and ’60s. The next one is tomorrow night.

David Atlas’ all-vinyl DJ philosophy doesn’t come so much from nostalgia as it does precaution. Does he love retro? Big time — his East Passyunk home has more than one Victrola. But still, he’ll lug a case of 45s that weighs maybe 50 pounds to a party rather than embrace technology like Serato (a software controller). Because in the past, he’s been burned.

“I have this distrust of computers,” he tells me, then adds, “Ironically, I’m a developer by day.  

“I had incidents when I was DJing years ago — probably, it’s gotten a lot better by now I think — like, I’d update my operating system, and then the operating system and the DJ equipment wouldn’t work right, and so it would crash in the middle of a school dance or something like that.”

Thus, Nitty Gritty, his monthly party at the Dolphin Tavern, is one of the rare parties in Philadelphia where the sounds are played from purely wax.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
The records case that Atlas carries along to parties.
Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Fifties and ’60s is the theme. “I’d feel a little out of place at a dubstep night — like I don’t know how to dance to that kind of stuff,” he says. “I feel like everyone can dance to ’50s and ’60s music. Everyone can do ‘The Twist.’ You can twist to anything.” He does special themes within the period too: girl groups, Motown, John Waters. This month is (of course) the Monster Mash edition. It’ll be happening this Thursday at the Dolphin with no cover.

DJing a family friend's party, back in the day.

DJing a family friend's party, back in the day.

Judy Aaronson

Atlas is 30. When he was 9 or 10, his dad hot-wired equipment  together so he could DJ a party for friends and family — that was the start. At 13, he started DJing dances officially. At 23, he started DJing at drag shows. The Venture Inn, where he had been playing, invited him to have his own night in 2012.

Four years wasn’t that long ago, but this was Philadelphia before SEPTA brought after-midnight weekend service back. Plus it was pre-UberPOOL. When it came to accessing nightlife a good distance away car-free, it was basically the Land Before Time. And Atlas could only think of one party that focused on music from the era he adored — the Barbary’s Bouffant Bangout.  So he figured there was a need for a party farther south. That’s how Nitty Gritty got started.

He named the party after a Shirley Ellis song. He plays that for me. He plays another song she recorded, “Whisper to Me Wind.”

You know that slow, building dramatic style that movie theme songs used to have? The vocals on the verses on “Whisper to Me Wind” are like that. The beats are still uptempo, though. The chorus singers mimic the sound the wind cracking. Oh, Atlas is all about that kitsch and that even with its mellowness, how danceable the song remains. But of course, a whole set won’t be chill like that. He actually organizes his records case alphabetically, but also by beats per minute. He aims for blending and beat matching, something that makes for the quite the juggle.

“I thought this could theoretically be done, even though it’s totally insane,” he says. “As you’re probably familiar, most of [these songs] are only two minutes long. So you have very little time to find the next song, cue it up and then match the speed and stuff. They often have really short intros or end just on a note.”

In the basement, where he's got more stacks.

In the basement, where he's got more stacks.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

To a party, he might carry 200 or so records. He doesn’t even have a count on how many are in his entire collection. People know he loves vinyl, so they’ll give him a heads up anytime they see records getting thrown away on the street or sold at yard sales. That’s aside from what he’ll hunt himself at thrift stores, fleas or online. “I’m definitely a record hoarder,” he says.

At the party, costumes are encouraged, but not mandatory. A lot of attendees don’t don their vintage — except on John Waters nights, when the crowd comes decked out, says Atlas. He wishes he could add a South Philly night, but doesn’t like playing an abundance or tracks that aren’t recognizable. “Sadly, I’m afraid that it’s too obscure. It’s so sick because I’m in the belly of the beast here,” he says. Chubby Checker they know. “South Street” they know. But do they know everyone from the neighborhood who wound up on Bandstand? “I’ve thought about calling it Rydell High,” he says. 

Atlas' "library unit." It's not a jukebox; this would've been used in a department store. "I got it from a very sweet woman in Lancaster a few years ago -- her father used to work for a company that maintained and installed them back in the day," Atlas says in an email.

Atlas' "library unit." It's not a jukebox, this would've been used in a department store. "I got it from a very sweet woman in Lancaster a few years ago -- her father used to work for a company that maintained and installed them back in the day," Atlas says in an email.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

He plays some of his favorite songs at the moment. He puts on Brenton Wood’s “Gimmie a Little Sign.” In a club, he tells me, all of this is on another level.

“A lot of this music, if you heard it growing up, it was watching a VHS of Sister Act or hearing it in the car with your parents, and [on a dance floor] it’s like a completely different experience,” Atlas says. “My peers are dancing to the Supremes,” he remembers thinking, “and I can feel the bass of the Supremes in my body?” The best.

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