Riz Rollins got out of the hospital on Feb. 8 — just in time to celebrate the evening portion of his birthday.
The longtime Seattle DJ had been at Swedish Hospital for three days, fighting a high fever — and begging the staff to let him loose.
“I told them, ‘You people don’t understand. I’m important!’” Rollins said with a laugh.
You laugh along, but the truth is, he’s right.
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Rollins, now 59, has been part of the Seattle music scene since the day he got here in 1980. He’s worked in record stores, sat behind the mike at several radio stations, including an almost 25-year run at indie station KEXP. (“Expansions,” from 9 p.m. to midnight every Sunday night).
But “Papa Riz” may be best known for holding court behind the DJ stand at clubs and events all over town, from private parties at the Chihuly Boathouse to the Capitol Hill Block Party.
His latest gig has him happily installed every Sunday at Club Q, on Capitol Hill, where he DJs from 3 to 9 p.m. — the time for “tea dances.”
“It’s an additional gay thing,” Rollins began. “It’s when you had a weekend of revelry and you weren’t quite ready to stop it but you had to go to work on Monday, so you would go out in the afternoon.
“A tea is a double reference to the time of day, and the things we were up to.”
“I am a talker,” Rollins cracked. Another laugh.
There are tea dances at gay bars all over town, and Rollins has played a lot of them. The Cuff, The Timberline, where there used to be lines around the block to get in.
But his favorite is “the city’s tiniest tea dance,” at Pony.
“Those are the real-people gays,” he said of the Pony crowd. “There’s not a respective age, fashion or style. The more you are you, the better you fit in.”
His goal is to make the Tea Dance at Q just like that.
“We don’t have a drunk, drugged-out crowd,” he said. “It’s a safe place and people are starting to discover that they can be themselves there. It’s not pretentious. The princesses don’t reign the show. It’s the rabble.”
So where does he fit in?
“I am the duchess,” he said. “I run things.”
Deejaying, he said, is like being a lunchroom monitor.
“You walk in and you see a crowd of people,” Rollins began. “And the longer you look, the more you see how different they are. The fairies. The disco queens. The straight women over there. The lesbians over here. The black gays who want Whitney and Beyoncé.”
So, stay back from the DJ stand. Papa Riz doesn’t take requests. No offense; it’s just that he knows better.
The other day, Rollins was playing a set of gospel house music for a friend who was celebrating not only his 40th, but the fact that he survived a drive-by shooting.
Someone came up and wanted Rollins to play Diana Ross.
“So of course, they got the side-eye,” Rollins said.
“People think they speak for the floor,” he went on. “I want to make people happy, but I want people to understand that they are responsible for their own happiness … They say, ‘Make me dance,’ but I can’t make you do anything.”
Ask him what music he loves, and you better get yourself a chair.
He grew up “a baby homosexual” in Chicago, where his mother took him to his first concert: A soul review featuring Dionne Warwick, Gene Chandler and The Temptations.
He still listens to that kind of music. But also hip-hop. House. Gospel house. Disco.
“There are so many songs by old artists that a lot of us haven’t heard,” he said. “If you can’t go forward and discover new music, you can go backward.”
For now, he’s not really moving forward.
“If a Fun. song came up and slapped me, I wouldn’t know what it was,” he said. “I came home last night and looked at the list of the Grammy winners and I thought, ‘I don’t know any of these people.’”
Thankfully, the music culture here in Seattle is rich enough that it doesn’t matter what you know. It’s what you love.
But bring up Britney Spears, and he’s not so happy anymore.
“Oh, now you’ve stepped in it,” he told me.
The pop diva makes him mad. She’s conservative, by all accounts, and she hasn’t supported the gay community.
“Beyoncé? Get it. Madonna? Get it,” he said. “You don’t have to have a perfect life — Hello, Joan Crawford! But you have to connect with us, and Britney is far from it.”
He’s been married for four years to Rob Green, a nurse at Harborview who, like Rollins, is a DJ. It’s how they met.
They want to marry again, now that the state allows same-sex unions, or elope to Mexico.
“Only in America,” Rollins said. Another gravelly laugh.
At home, he prefers trashy TV — Judge Judy and Springer — to playing music.
He likes to cook, “which maybe is what put me up in Miss Swedish,” Rollins said, referring to his hospital stay.
“It’s not the cooking; it’s the eating.”
He drinks (“Whatcha got?”), but never after a gig.
“It’s a sober thing,” he said of playing music. “But when I do, I hit it.” (Currently he and Green are “investigating rum.”)
“We’re regular people,” Rollins said. “Doing this thing and being gay, you tend to have a responsibility toward fabulousness. But I never have been.”
You could spot him a mile away until about a year ago, when he shaved off his signature, resplendent dreadlocks in honor of his late grandmother.
But he’s still at his usual haunts: Rebar for Sunday’s “Flammable” night and Tuesday’s Spoken Word Night. And now at Q every Sunday afternoon.
“There’s happy and there’s joy and to see people walk in and go to joy,” he said, his voice softening. “I choke back tears, watching my friends scream and holler and spin around and dance.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org