How Greg Corner Became the President's DJ

President Obama's 50th birthday party Wednesday night at the Aragon in Uptown was of course an exciting night for all in attendance, but it had to be particularly thrilling for local DJ Greg Corner.

He's long been a DJ and local musician in bands like Kill Hannah and Dark Wave Disco, but "DJed for the president" kinda has its own distinct ring to it that bragging about playing in a local band lacks.

I called up Corner this afternoon to find out how he got the job and the powers of unexpected networking. It's also a great reminder of why folks shouldn't ever burn bridges -- you never know who can help you out years later.

So how'd you land the gig DJing the president's birthday party?

Greg Corner: I have a friend, Harper, who actually is working for the president now. He's doing IT work for the 2012 campaign.

This would be Harper Reed, Threadless' chief technology officer?

Greg Corner: Yeah, exactly. You probably know more what he does than I do. [Laughs.] But he recommended me to the event planner for this event, and another friend of mine consulting on the event, she recommended me as well. So the event planner wound up calling me and I told them what I'd play and how I'd DJ the event. I said I like to touch on everything and try to represent the main styles of music. I told them I'd start off the night with some indie rock and go on to some classic rock and then play some soul and Motown into some disco and dance and then Top 40 and maybe some hip-hop. They're like, "That's exactly what we're looking for."

They actually came and saw me DJ and liked what I play. I made them my test mix of everything that I play at the events and they loved that too, so they did a background check on me and I cleared, so I played the event a week later.

Did they have you do a special showcase, or did they come and see you at one of your regular nights?

Greg Corner: It's funny. They said they might come to see me, but we exchanged e-mails and I actually put the wrong one down, and she put the wrong one down. So we wound up not communicating. She came and saw me but I had no idea she was there. The following Monday I called her to ask if she got the mix I sent her and she said, "Oh, no I didn't, but I was there on Friday." I was like, "What?"

Did they have special requests? Did they specify songs the president did not want to hear?

Greg Corner: Not really. I had to give basically a list of 250 songs, a playlist, that I'd choose from. They gave it to him and I pretty much picked all appropriate songs. There was only one song where they said, "Eh, I probably wouldn't play that." Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It." Probably because of the sexual content or whatever.

Have you gotten any feedback on last night?

Greg Corner: Everyone seems to think it went down well. I haven't heard any complaints or anything like that. The only nerve-wracking thing was I was only supposed to play two songs before Rahm Emanuel came out and spoke and the president came out five minutes later. I was only supposed to play two songs, which were "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder and "Sweet Home Chicago" by The Blues Brothers, but something wound up happening and they got delayed. They wanted me to play an extra 10 or 15 minutes, and I just wasn't prepared for that. I had to think of appropriate songs that would fit the mood that I had already played earlier in the night. That was an audible but everyone said it was fine.

I know friends of yours mentioned you for this opportunity, but how did you first find out about it?

Greg Corner: I never thought I would ever get it, when Harper told me that he recommended me for it. Which just kinda shows that who you know, and if you have the talent to back it up, what can happen. I'm sure there's plenty of other DJs who could actually do the event, but when you're trying to be well-rounded and have the culture to be able to do something like that, it comes with experience and age. Knowing what to play for a crowd that's anywhere between 21 and 50.

Obviously DJs don't really have resumes, but what do you think you can use this to build towards?

Greg Corner: It's funny because everyone's been like, "Oh my God, this is awesome for your resume." And I'm like, "Well, DJs don't really have resumes." [Laughs.] For me it was an opportunity of a lifetime and it was a really great thing. I hope to get some other work maybe in the corporate world or even being consulted on music for events. I'd love to do that. It's too early to tell what can actually happen from it, but I started getting all these texts this morning that people saw me on the cover of the Sun-Times. I'm like, "What?" It's just kinda surreal to think about. It's incredible. 

Contact Us