Older music fans may remember the early days of the electronic scene in St. Louis: Underground raves in warehouses or abandoned buildings were all the rage. Publicity spread not through social media but through word of mouth, with an event's address remaining secret until the day of the show. It was truly underground, and it was what many remember as a golden age for the local electronic scene.
Things have changed since that time. Events have gravitated toward more conventional spaces, and social media has become the most effective way to get the word out. Some promoters in St. Louis, though, are able to successfully combine the old and the new.
Back in July, the St. Louis group Future Ex Wife threw "Southside Viaduct Rendezvous," an underground dance party held underneath the shade of a bridge on I-55. Locals from all over the city came to perform, including Chillin Music DJ Don Tinsley. His set incorporated the usual rhythmic sound of techno with innovative vocals and beats intertwined. Even with the intense heat of the day he kept the crowd grooving.
Tinsley has been doing just that for almost 30 years now. But he's much more than an electronic underground veteran. Serving as a link between the scene's past and its present, he's a former member of the Urban Jazz Naturals, a jazz-house band internationally known for its single "How Can I." He's also a former RFT Music Award winner — sixteen years ago, to be exact. And he's a charitable guy, hosting a yearly event in the winter that also doubles as a clothing drive.
He's done all of that and more for the past 28 years, making him an inspiration. Even more impressive? He's done it all one-handed.
Tinsley was born without a left hand — his arm ends just before the elbow. Attendees of the July event who hadn't seen him play before were amazed at his ability to mix a live set literally single-handedly. For him, it was just another day in the office.
"It's the same struggle for me that everybody else goes through," Tinsley says. "You've gotta go out and work it no matter what it is that you're doing."
From producing music to his day job as a software engineer, Tinsley says his disability has never hindered him, even when he was starting out in the '90s. In fact, he says struggling to break through in the then-youthful rave scene was much more discouraging than only being able to perform with one hand.
"I've definitely seen those moments of failure," he acknowledges. "At first I threw events myself and travelled around doing house parties to expose people to the music. There's been a couple times when nobody shows up, but you just have to keep on keepin' on."
Tinsley's experience is something emerging artists of all genres face. Many times gigs are met with empty dance floors. Yet with an innovative new sound that incorporated techno, tech-house, down-tempo and even funky-house, Tinsley was guaranteed to break through at some point.
That moment came in 1998. A trip over the bridge brought Tinsley to a Halloween party in East St. Louis. He was playing under the name 84 Glyde at the time, a name that became well known throughout the Midwest rave scene in the late '90s. It was a huge party — a couple thousand people were in attendance, and it was Tinsley's job to keep spirits high.
"I was behind my gear looking at a couple thousand people in front of me, and I knew I had to make it as awesome as possible because I owed it to them," he says. "I had recently done a bootleg remix of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller,' and when I played it the crowd went absolutely berserk."
Tinsley cites this moment as the culmination of all he had been working toward — the moment he knew all his effort had paid off.
"I didn't let them down, and that helped kickstart me getting out there and doing it even more," he says. "It was a lot of work getting there, but seeing the joy I can bring people is all worth it."
Almost twenty years later, Tinsley is still making music. His most recent project, The Evanesce, is set to be released sometime before year's end. This down-tempo, Bonobo-esque collection of tracks has been in the works for more than a year and a half now, incorporating various musicians and vocalists.
Tinsley also plays a bi-monthly show at Upstairs Lounge. His next gig there will be this Saturday; he plans to combine a performance with a care package drive for the homeless.
Between performances, producing music and maintaining a day job, Tinsley's work ethic is admirable. His disability isn't something he cares to focus on; he truly believes it hasn't affected his ability to succeed. He acknowledges getting some second looks, but he shakes them off.
"You walk down the street and people look twice at you," he says. "People judge you before they have any idea what you're into, but I've used that as a learning experience. I'm just as interested in others as they are in me."
Instead, what might be Don Tinsley's most marked characteristic is that he has no sense of entitlement — even after nearly three decades, he's thankful to do what he does and to give back.
"The one thing that I can say is that being humble has gotten me further than anything," he says. "It's not about thinking you're too important, but doing what you do as well as possible."