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In Pandemic Isolation, Father And Son DJs Spun Music Into A Community

Jo and Chad Vill in Brooklyn, N.Y., this month.
Nathan West
Jo and Chad Vill in Brooklyn, N.Y., this month.

Last year, fear and death swept New York City when it became an early epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

To lift spirits, father and son DJs Jo and Chad Vill took their musical talents and a single speaker to the street in front of the Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone where they live. The idea has since grown into a block party that they say has brought the community closer.

Jo, who started mixing music back in the 1970s, passed on his passion to his 32-year-old son.

But, as Chad told his dad in an interview with StoryCorps last month, it didn't start out that way.

"I used to see you doing it all the time and the equipment was always around but it's like, that's my dad's thing. I'm not doing that," Chad said.

Even so, he began messing around with his dad's turntables as soon as he could. Jo remembered when his son was about 5 years old.

"I came into the room one day and I saw you putting the record on a needle and scratching," Jo said. "I was like, 'Oh, no, you can't be scratching up my stuff.' "

So he got Chad his first record — the soundtrack to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

"You scratched that thing to death," Jo told his son. "And it turned out that you had a natural talent. It made me proud that you were able to kind of follow my footsteps."

At two years old, Chad Vill was already reaching for his father's turntables.
/ Chad Vill
Chad Vill
At two years old, Chad Vill was already reaching for his father's turntables.

Chad started DJing as a hobby in high school. Around 2012, in his early 20s, he began to pursue it seriously.

But when the pandemic hit, clubs and music venues shut down across the city, and they both lost gig opportunities.

"In the back of my head, I thought, you know, this isn't going to last too long," Chad said. "This will probably be a couple of weeks and I'll be right back."

But soon, the gravity of an unrelenting outbreak set in.

"It was kind of eerie at first because all you heard all night long was an ambulance going by," Jo said. "And so, that was like a signal that somebody else is sick."

As the death toll climbed and when Jo's cousin died of COVID-19, he said, that's when "it got real."

The streets emptied and fear was in the air of once vibrant boroughs.

"People felt like they were locked in, isolated, alone, afraid," Jo said.

In April, he got the idea to haul a speaker out into the street, where people could enjoy music in a safer environment.

"Every day we would come together and try to choose what would be the song for the day," he said. "And then it stretched out to two songs. Then the neighbors would make suggestions for a song."

Neighbors dancing at a Saint James Joy block party in August of 2020.
/ Niikai Wells
Niikai Wells
Neighbors dancing at a Saint James Joy block party in August of 2020.

The block party, which the pair called "St. James Joy" in honor of their street, grew: from one speaker to two, then six.

"The next thing you know, we had a street full of people," Jo said.

Neighbors they had never met came out to get down to the music.

"Black, white, straight, gay, Asian, Spanish — everyone was there. The melting pot that they say New York is," said Chad.

But the threat of a pandemic uptick lurked around the corner, despite the lively atmosphere. People wore masks as they grooved and Gail Bryan-Vill, Jo's wife, ran around spraying people's hands with sanitizer when she saw them getting too close to each other, said Jo.

Chad said, "We wanted to make other people feel better."

"And it worked," Jo said.

If only for a moment, passersby couldn't help but get in on the fun.

"We've had bus drivers drive, stop at the light, open the door, dance a little bit, wave to us, keep going," Chad said. "We've seen the mailman drive by and everybody clap for him."

The family has lived on the block since 1989, the year Chad was born. But it wasn't until their music became a local fixture that more of their neighbors started greeting each other by name, Chad said.

"People would walk by and not say anything, and now, people say, 'Hey, Chad. Hey, Jo,' " he said.

Jo said he feels that his neighborhood is more of a community than it was before the pandemic.

"You reap what you sow," he said. "You sow love, you sow love, you get love back. Not always back from the source that you think you're going to get it, because I sure didn't think it was going to come this way, but it did, and I'm glad it did."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jo Corona. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jo Corona