I Was the First DJ in North Korea
Brian, AKA DJ BO, with one of the many handlers that followed his every move as a DJ in North Korea.
[Eds. Note: When we think about North Korea, three things come to mind: prison camps, blanket human rights abuses, and form-fitting military chic outfits. What we don't think about are down-and-dirty DJ dance parties, but all that changed a few weeks ago, when we hopped on the phone with Brian Offenther, a native South Floridian and former manager of a Mongolian Elvis Impersonator named Nargie Presley (look him up, he's for real). This August, Brian, who spins as DJ BO, snuck into North Korea on a local tour company to DJ a one-night-only performance at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang. He named the night "Shake Your (m)Ass Games" to coincide with the Mass Games in North Korea, where over 100,000 performers dance in strict rows and lines in the capital city. We called Brian up and demanded that he tell us what it was like to be the first DJ in North Korean history. Photos by Abe Deyo.]
I moved to Darkhan, Mongolia in 2007 for the Peace Corps, and got involved with this Mongolian Elvis impersonator named Naranbaatar Tsambahorloo. After that I moved to a town called Ulaanbaatar and opened up a venue called the Cross-Eyed Gypsy, which I named for the girlfriend I left when I moved to Mongolia. After moving around a bit, I landed in Shanghai, and worked as a DJ. I met a bunch of promotions companies, and became involved with one called Koryo Tours, which is probably the biggest North Korean tour company.
They hooked me up with a tour to North Korea, and I realized that there'd never been a DJ night in that country. I like to do things first - I'd already hosted the first 80s nights and 50s nights in Mongolia, why not be the first DJ in North Korea?
The official poster for "The First Real DJ Party in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea"
I remember entering the country through Beijing. As an American, I couldn't take the train, so I had to fly from Beijing. Since the US has a diplomatic presence in North Korea, I didn't need to have a working visa. I was constantly under the gaze of government officials throughout my entire trip, and there were always at least two or three handlers following me around.
I DJed in the karaoke room of a big hotel in Pyongyang. It was extremely tacky, decorated with a bunch of re-production paintings on the wall, fake sculptures, and some plants I had to move out of the way. The sound system was shit, it really couldn't get loud at all. It was totally inadequate by US standards, but obviously, the options were pretty limited. There were a few ex-pats in the audience, and they all had to pay 15 Euros, because foreigners can't handle North Korean currency.
We started when the room filled up - there were about 100 people in the room. There was a weird mix of people: foreigners on tours, an ultimate Frisbee team, guys from Yale saying "this is cool," middle aged Romanian diplomats requesting obscure Romanian disco. Then there were the North Koreans, who were either really scared, or just really curious.
The North Koreans were acting like they were at a seventh-grade dance.
The North Koreans had never danced outside of choreographed performances in their lives. There's no such thing as a disco in North Korea, and they didn't know how to dance. I told them "you sort of just have to move!" It was like Dirty Dancing, or Footloose or something.
It was like Dirty Dancing, or Footloose or something.
I started out with a Little Richard song called "Get Down With It," and at first the foreigners were dancing, but not the native North Koreans. The acoustics sucked: You could hear the music, but it wasn't really moving anyone. I grabbed a microphone and started walking through the crowd, grabbing people and dancing with them, missing a few transitions in between.
The North Koreans just kept standing around, like they were at a seventh grade dance. So I started playing music I don't normally DJ, typical top 40 pop stuff. At one point I played "Makes Me Wonder" by Maroon 5 and the Europeans started going nuts, grabbing North Korean girls and showing them how to dance. I threw on a bunch of Chuck Berry, Janet Jackson, the Village People. "YMCA" went over great, because it was a choreographed dance, and the North Koreans got it instantly. The same thing happened with "The Twist."
Europeans started going nuts, grabbing North Korean girls and teaching them how to dance.
During the course of the night, the power went out twice, so I would just start shouting things while we waited for the power to come back on.
I don't think people were ready to jump out and dance in the streets, but they got it. There was an understanding. I was just playing stuff from like, Now That's What I Call Music! and shit, but rock doesn't really exist in North Korea. There's no pop music either. Let's put it this way: There's no Internet, and there's no radio, so what are they going to do? I wouldn't say that the night reached a point of ecstasy, but I do feel like I cracked the door in some small way.
Follow Ben on Twitter - @b_shap
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