It’s a relatively chill Saturday night at Downtown Cocktail Room, of which DJ Douglas Gibbs is keenly aware. A large crowd has recently left, undoubtedly for the next Fremont East bar, so he attempts to stir the remaining patrons with Marshall Jefferson’s iconic Chicago house track, “Move Your Body.” Bodies don’t move so much as sip cocktails and converse, and when they do that, “I take my foot off the pedal,” he says.
After a couple of subtle underground grooves, he transitions into The Sunchasers’ “Dance for Me,” which features a sample of Mary J. Blige’s per-co-lat-in’ hit “Family Affair,” followed by the familiar keyboard melody and jazzy chords of … Steely Dan. Not what you’d probably expect to hear during a house set, but the casual nods and foot swivels outside the booth—and the natural way it fits the general vibe—suggest it wasn’t a flippant song choice. It reflects Gibbs’ mantra, one he’ll repeat four times during two different chats.
“Music matters,” he says. “That’s my whole thing.”
That DJ intuition explains why Gibbs has held the Saturday-night residency at DCR for almost 10 years, and why he’s enjoyed a 40-year career behind the decks. He got his start in public spaces like Brooklyn’s legendary Prospect Park, where “we’d take power from the streetlights,” he says. He has since played clubs, bars, restaurants, cocktail lounges and celebrity parties during stints in New York, LA and here in Las Vegas, where he’s found creative ways to introduce both mainstream revelers to house music and discerning dance-music enthusiasts to the rhythmic and contextual flexibility of pop music, always with a sophisticated verve.
A Doug Gibbs DJ set can be a musicology class, a sociocultural representation of late 20th century/early 21st century America and, depending on the party, the soundtrack to your life. Gibbs was an open-format DJ before DJs identified as open format, though his version possesses more depth, versatility—and, frankly, soul—than theirs. No matter the night’s theme or the dancefloor’s fluidity, he can execute the soundtrack, always keeping an eye on the crowd—even leaving the DJ booth between song transitions to gauge crowd engagement and energy levels.
“I believe if you look hard enough and are attuned to the [room], there aren’t that many things that are off-limits,” Gibbs says. “You can [play a certain song] in that moment, on that night, with that crowd. You’re not just dropping it anywhere. Sometimes I don’t choose the music—it chooses me.”
Or it’s mutual. Like when he snuck The Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” into one of his many hip-hop/dance sets while serving as a resident at Ghostbar. A visiting manager from the Palms’ larger dance spot, Rain, testily questioned Gibbs why he would drop an old pop novelty during peak hour. All Gibbs had to do was point at the women in the crowd gleefully singing along. Part of it was that he read the room. Its energy didn’t call for a big radio hit or dancefloor banger. It called for something nostalgic and sexy.
Gibbs came of age as a DJ during the heyday of late-’70s/early-’80s NYC clubland: Roseland, Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage, where he watched Larry Levan select his jams according to the vibe and the floor, not the charts or crowd expectations. Levan would think nothing of playing upbeat jazz, salsa or old-school soul during his house and disco sets, and the dancefloor—and those running the club—trusted his instincts.
Gibbs’ stint at Ghostbar would not be the only place he was micro-managed. He helped open The Beatles Revolution Lounge at the Mirage in 2007—where he fielded requests and demands from not only the club, but Cirque du Soleil and those in charge of The Beatles’ music—and once held court at the former Mix Lounge at Mandalay Bay, where he was expected to play the evocative, intimate space like a Top 40 nightclub, even during nights specifically branded for international house music.
“It’s business, I get that,” he says. “But … that artistic love of music and expressing yourself and introducing people to new musicians—challenging them a little bit, screwing it up a little bit but coming back and having it work—for me, it’s who I am. I can’t not do that. So I have to create my own thing. And I’ve done my own parties.”
In 2004, while still DJing for Nine Group, he and current Tao Group resident Jason Lema launched Midnight Snack, a house-centric soiree that incorporated dining, the work of local artists and sometimes fashion shows by Valley boutiques. Gibbs has taken the concept to various restaurants under various names over the years; it’s clearly his passion. “I basically wanted to create something [I’d] hang out in,” he says. But it’s more than a hangout. It’s where he manifests his appreciation for art, creativity and curation.
It’s also where he met entrepreneur Michael Cornthwaite in 2006, which led to Gibbs’ Saturday residency at DCR. There, his hard-earned artistic freedom allows him to keep things fresh, as does booking—and even playing alongside—guest DJs. During the aforementioned Saturday night at DCR, young local DJ GMBT switched off throughout the night with Gibbs, who spoke to his guest selector like an equal but still gave him useful feedback.
What predominantly sustains Gibbs’ enthusiasm for his DCR residency—and DJing in general—is the hunt for new sounds: YouTube, online DJ sets, digital record stores like Traxsource and movies and TV. He gushes over Daughter’s “Medicine,” which he recently heard during an episode of Person of Interest. “Oh my god, I lost my sh*t,” he says. “I found it, downloaded it and played it like seven times.”
A moment of discovery, followed by revelation and rapture. He loves it when that happens for him, and he loves it even more when he can make it happen for you.
“It’s a frequency,” he says. “There are few things as great than looking at [someone] when a song is on and you get that turn [toward you]. It’s like you just tapped them on the shoulder and found something inside of them in that moment.”
Five years ago, Gibbs wound down an already quiet night with “32 Flavors” by folk singer Ani DiFranco. He says he played it for himself, but also unwittingly for a woman in the back room who recognized the song, ran to the DJ booth and expressed her disbelief and elation that she was hearing a DJ play DiFranco in Las Vegas.
It’s why people like her return to DCR on Saturday nights, whether they live here or not. They remember how Gibbs soundtracked their night and connected with them. He sums such exchanges up with another phrase he also uses often: “It’s very much a dance.”