Think there aren't any restaurants open late in L.A.? Residents who work late beg to differ. Nicole Cifani is a DJ, both in clubs and on the radio, and for years her one true late-night love has been Canter's.
Few people epitomize the midnight hour more than DJs -- the voices in the darkness that set the mood for our night at a club, wedding, gallery opening, your friend's insanely lavish birthday party; they even accompany us home on the radio after it's over.
Nicole Cifani is one of those voices. Right after her radio show, Music HiFi, aired on Moheak Radio last week, she stepped out of the darkness to join me at her favorite late night hangout, Canter's Deli.
Nicole: I love this place. When I first moved to LA, we'd come here a lot. Middle of the night. We'd meet here before going to events or after we were done for the night - on our way home and just wanted to have somewhere to get some munchies. We used to hang out in the side bar. We were like Fairfax rats.
Henry: Since you know the menu better, you should probably order for us both.
Nicole: Oh you should order for yourself. I eat like a fussy rabbit.
Henry: What do you mean?
Nicole: I love really simple things. That's why I love this place because you can choose from all sorts of ridiculous-- You can get something as simple as peanut butter and jelly.
Henry: Have you gotten the peanut butter and jelly? Is it good?
Nicole: It's decent. It does the job. What else do they have on here? I always get breakfast. And then the side dishes - they have olives, and you can get sliced tomatoes. That's how I like to eat sometimes - just lots of random things. But they're known for their reubens and their sandwiches because, obviously, it's a deli.
Henry: But that's not what you come here for?
Nicole: No. I usually get a salad or an omelet or something like that. Just because I know I can come here any time day or night and it's always the same thing. They have Thanksgiving dinner here, which is one of my favorite things about this place - that they offer Thanksgiving dinner year round.
It is settled. I order the Thanksgiving Dinner. Nicole picks the white fish salad, and I throw in an order of blintzes for good measure.
Henry: So your show just aired a few minutes ago? Was this the first one?
Nicole: The first one aired last week.
Henry: How did that all come about?
Nicole: I e-mailed TK [at Moheak] and told him what I'd been working on. I gave the backstory, where I worked: at WBGU in Bowling Green and at Underground.FM in Columbus and then WERS in Boston. In other words, I'd done some radio, and this is what I wanted to be doing, and he wrote back like two months later and said, "We're looking for DJs in the new year, so send me something, I'll play it. We'll see how it does on the air."
Henry: How's that work? You send him hour's worth of music, and he just plays it to gauge audience reaction?
Nicole: Yep. He gave me free reign. He said, "Go for it, do what you want." I remember I was out having drinks with people that night, and I came home and saw an e-mail from him that said, "I'm going to put it on the air in ten minutes," and I was kind of drunk, dancing around in my apartment like "what!" with a bottle of wine in one hand. Maybe it was two buck chuck, I'm not going to confirm that by any means.
Henry: You can confirm it. No one's above that.
Nicole: That's true. Especially the Cab. So after the hour ended, he got back to me and said, "I'm going to play it again at midnight." It was really exciting.
Henry: Were you nervous putting together that hour? Or did you just know - this is what it is, and this is going to be great.
Nicole: Yeah, I feel like it was a valve that needed to be released. Like there was pressure building. I needed the outlet. I was training at KCRW for a little while to be an on-air DJ, but it was really bad timing because Nic Harcourt was leaving, and Jason Bentley was coming in, and you know, he's getting hit left and right as music directors do there, but I just kept practicing, and I kept working on it, and I was ready. So when TK asked me for an hour, it just flew out of me. It was like boom boom boom, I knew exactly. You can hear it.
Henry: What was your first inkling this is something you want to do?
Nicole: When I was growing up in Cleveland, the only outlet I had was music. That was it. That's how I identified. I was in the upper middle class, white, blah blah blah, insert sitcom here or whatever Lifetime drama, but that's how I identified was through listening to amazing music that I somehow got my hands on through friends, through going to shows...
Henry: But how did you first get into music?
Nicole: It's funny - when people my age talk about growing up, they're always talking about Nineties rock and pop music, and do you remember these bands? And I don't. I have no recollection of any of those bands. I remember vaguely liking Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but that's because I was listening to electronic music. I was going to raves. I was wearing like silver pants and stickers and visors.
Henry: In Cleveland?
Nicole: Yeah, we were going to warehouse raves.
Henry: Cleveland raves?
Nicole: Yeah, they were really dirty. They have a lot of abandoned warehouses. The post-industrialist sort of fallout happened there and in the Midwest in general, so there's a lot of real estate for a good rave. We would just drive around in these hoopties and just listen. You'd roll down your windows and listen for the bass.
Henry: How old were you then?
Nicole: I was about sixteen. Before then, I was going to gay clubs. My friends would dress me up to look older. That was my intro to dance music.
Ten minutes after we order - ten minutes! - our food arrives. Late night service at its finest. As if proudly boasting its feat, there's even a little flag, emblazoned with the Canter's logo, sticking out of Nicole's white fish.
Henry: Do you always get a flag planted in your food, or is the waitress trying to impress you?
Nicole: I've never seen the flag before. It's a nice touch.
I look down at my flag-less meal. Imagine, if you can, the mashed potato mountain from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" comprised entirely of sliced turkey and stuffing, and then make it a volcano - because it recently erupted gravy everywhere.
Henry: This is the least photogenic meal I've ever seen in my life. This is like communist fashion manifested in food. Can I just get some meat stacked up in a pile? And if you could just pour some stuff over it?
Nicole: It's funny that the cranberry sauce comes in a little plastic cup.
Henry: It's pretty cute.
Nicole: They wanted to keep it separate.
Henry: Makes sense. It would drown.
A few exploratory bites confirm what we already knew: Canter's does a lot of everything and does none of it wrong.
Henry: So do you prefer DJing from a sound booth at the station or in a club?
Nicole: Yeah, I'm kind of shy by nature, so I really like doing the radio thing, where I'm further away, and I can just kind of tell my story. I'm also not that much of a late night person anymore.
Henry: Why not?
Nicole: I don't want to be older and be in the clubs until two in the morning on a Monday or Tuesday night. If I'm told I have to be there, it's not fun anymore. If I want to be there, then that's cool.
Henry: You don't want your job to require your presence at two in the morning.
Nicole: Exactly. I know a lot of female DJs, who are just that - female DJs - and that's their bread and butter, that's what they want to do, but I could never do that. It just seems like it would take away the fun. Also, people coming up to you and putting in requests is really fun, but it can be tiresome when you're doing it all the time.
Henry: I imagine there's an on-the-spot pressure to perform, like you're watching people not dance and what do you do. For whatever reason, they're not into it.
Nicole: There's definitely pressure. You want to get people into the music, but that's also - This is the great part of being a DJ in a club or a gallery or whatever, as opposed to the radio environment - because you see what's sticking. You see what's working. There's nothing like seeing somebody start nodding their head; then they start tapping their foot; then they start dancing a little bit. You want to coax them. You want to seduce them.
Henry: What's the toughest crowd you've worked with? A group that was really reluctant to dance.
Nicole: The people that are hardest to seduce are the people who know music really well. You need to impress them. When there are other DJs in the house, that makes me really nervous. Also, from a technical aspect, when you're playing around other DJs, if there's a technical error, any kind of technical fumble, they'll hear it. Most people in a club won't hear it, but DJs will pick it up like that. They'll be like, "Wow, that's a shitty mp3."
Henry: It seems to me there's got to be a ceiling for age of DJs, where eventually either you don't want to do it anymore or people want to see someone younger that maybe knows more - do you find that to be true?
Nicole: Yeah, I do. I think there are a lot of limitations to being a full-time DJ. But then again, you can still be a tastemaker at any age. Look at some of the Radio One DJs: Annie Mac, Annie Nightingale -- Annie Nightingale is my idol. She championed so many amazing artists, and I would kill to be in a position like that where I champion artists through new media. We can do that now. Bloggers can do that. Anybody can do that. But being able to have a voice - I think that's what's timeless. Gilles Peterson, John Peel, those guys, that's the real deal. Anybody can be a DJ in a club and play music for people. Anybody can learn Serato. Anybody can buy the equipment and go out there, but it's about creating an imprint in culture - that's what counts, and that doesn't happen overnight. It happens over time.
If she's not a tastemaker already, she certainly picked the right place to announce her campaign. The waitress takes away the remains of our eclectic - to say the least - meal: Thanksgiving Dinner, white fish salad, and blintzes with apple sauce. It makes sense that Nicole's drawn to a place like this. A random assortment of items to pick from that somehow all make sense together. Sounds like a great playlist.
Henry: Do you put together playlists based on an overarching idea you want to get at? Are the songs all of a piece, or do you see them as individuals?
Nicole: It's like a puzzle, putting the pieces together to create a larger picture. Chris Douridas (at KCRW) once told me, "It's like you're visiting little islands, and you go to one island, and you're like, 'Oh let's explore a little of that,' then you go to another island and another." Because you don't want the songs to sound the same. Otherwise, it's like you're listening to an album front to back. Usually for me, I approach playlists with--It depends on the season or any events that are happening.
Henry: So you're trying to gauge what listeners want? Not just what you're feeling. Are you trying to tap into what the mood is, generally, in the world?
Henry: Really? Do you look at the news and say, combine that with how LA looked today - not much sun, more cloudy - and do you put those things together?
Nicole: Absolutely. Like during Coachella season, the playlist is always super polished and dancy and like "Yarrrr, this is us in the desert having fun," and then come election time, things get a little more political and thought-provoking and I go to the sixties and want to listen to folk and get people to think more, and summertime, of course, is always "strut records"--
Henry: What are strut records?
Nicole: Anything that has reggae and dub. And in the new year, I always emerge in the new year with things that are thought-provoking and well-polished and kind of cheesy. All about beginnings.
Henry: Have you ever made a mix or had a playlist that's had a profound effect on someone's life? Like they're like, "Oh my God, this led me in this direction."
Nicole: Some people have-- I make a monthly mix tape, and folks have written back and told me it's helped them. Sometimes they'll use examples. I have a friend who works in PR for fashion brands, and he works in New York a lot because of that, and he was like, "One day, you opened with a classical track, and then you went into a song by Estelle, and at that moment, when the beat kicked in, I had just walked to the top of the subway and the clouds parted, and there was sun - there was just this moment." Little moments like that makes it. Done deal. That's why I want to keep doing this.
419 N. Fairfax Ave., 323-651-2030
The beat of Nicole's radio shows kicks in at the times/stations below:
KCHUNG 1630am Chinatown // Sundays 7-8pm Pacific Time
Moheak Radio // Wednesdays 6-7pm & 12am Pacific Time
[Photos by A.Rios/R.E]
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