For the past several years Melissa Dueñas, also known professionally by her stage name DJ Lil’ Smilely has made a name for herself in the local DJ and music scene of San Diego. As one of the founders and creators behind ‘Sleepwalking,’ a local dance party series that catered to lovers of oldies and old School funk music, to co-hosting ‘Lowrider Sundays’; a bi-monthly podcast series featuring interviews and DJ sets by an assortment of guest DJs to show off rare hard to find oldies music, Lil’ Smiley has dedicated much of her life to playing and showcasing oldies music to a brand new generation of younger music listeners. However, as of late the San Diego DJ has incorporated her love for oldies into a new passion, independent film-making. For close to five years the DJ turned independent filmmaker has dedicated her time to working on the East Side Story Project, a documentary series with the mission of uncovering and documenting the little-known history behind iconic East Side Story compilation albums and the mysterious history of individuals who grace their covers. The compilation series which was initially released on 8-Track tapes as unofficial bootlegs sold at swap meets and by other local independent music vendors in the Los Angeles area featured an assortment of music ranging from Doo-Wop, Soul and Funk music which was immensely popular amongst Chicano (Mexican-American) youth of the time. The compilation series was particularly popular amongst young Chicanos immersed in the lowrider car club culture which was also then quickly growing in popularity throughout California and other states of the Southwestern U.S. Soon, vinyl and cassette formats of the albums began being manufactured throughout the 1970s and into ’80s as the series’ popularity and influence itself grew in turn over the decades. For the past several years Lil’ Smiley has worked tirelessly worked on uncovering the little-known history of these albums which have not only become iconic among lovers of oldies music; but, become a part of the fabric of popular Chicano culture as well. In fact, this passion project has become such an invested, personal endeavor Lil’ Smiley has even begun work on an interactive website for the documentary as part of her thesis project for her Master’s program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Step Off! Magazine recently had the opportunity to speak with the local DJ turned filmmaker to discuss not only the origins of her early life and love for oldies music; but, also delve into the inception of the East Side Story Project, the difficulties and obstacles she’s encountered as an emerging independent, Chicana filmmaker as well as what the immediate future holds for the future of the docuseries.
Step Off! Magazine: How about a little bit about yourself, where are you originally from? You originally grew up here in San Diego correct?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: I’m originally from National City, I grew up there but I went to middle school and high school in Chula Vista and spent a lot of my late teens there. They’re right next to one another so I felt I grew up in both of those areas.
Step Off! Magazine: How were you introduced to oldies music? What music did you listen to growing up?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Oldies music was introduced to me at a really young age, from my Dad and brother in particular; my brother had oldies tapes that I would often steal from him. My brother had a lot of oldies, like Mary Wells Greatest Hits, East Side Story, things like that which I would steal from him (laughs) which he didn’t know. Also listening to the oldies shows on the radio and making my own little mixtapes from those, it was just one of those things that were always around. It’s not something I ever felt like I just discovered one day it was just always around.
Step Off! Magazine: Was it just something that was always playing at the house pretty much?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: More with my Dad really, it’s kind of weird my Mother was a really extreme ‘born again’ Christian when I was in elementary school and she would not let me listen to the radio. I had to sneak around to listen to the radio because she’d be like ‘this is music not of god so I don’t want to hear it’. In retrospect music is very triggering, the older I get the more I understand my mom a little bit more. Music has the ability to make you time travel, so if you have negative associations with certain music it can be very hard to listen to it even if it’s been years, it seeps into you being in that way. At the time I thought my Mom was just being extreme and it really made us butt-heads going into my teen years. Her and my Dad lived a crazy life and my Dad stayed in that life while my Mom didn’t so, for her hearing that music was kind of a reminder of things that she wanted to forget.
Step Off! Magazine: Can you describe a specific moment growing up here in the community when the music really resonated with you? Or was it like you said just something that was always there?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Well like I said, with my Mom, it’s not that she always didn’t want to ever hear the music. There would be times just sharing moments with my family that stick out and it was just really cool. I remember I used to listen to Xavier the X-Man’s Sunday Night Oldies Show and make my own mixtapes from those in elementary school. I don’t know if I can think of a specific moment but I remember the overall feeling of those moments and loved it. It’s emotional music, and some of it is very low and sad but, a lot of it also has an uplifting feel even though the lyrics are sad and I was just attracted to the feeling of it.
Step Off! Magazine: Around what time did you start working on the East Side Story Project and what was the catalyst for starting work on the series?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: I believe it was 2015, I have to check when I started my Instagram account because it was that year that I started it. The years are starting to blend into one another but, it’s been some years now. As for the catalyst, the long-winded answer would be this: My friend Daniela, Xica Soul and I (we use to DJ together as Cookie Crew) we DJ’d this art show opening in San Francisco at Galleria de la Raza and it was called The Q Side. The Q Side was a photography art show that re-imagined the East Side Story covers to include the LGBTQ community. I remember that there was a lot of hate on Instagram that was basically a lot of homophobic hatred. People were saying, ‘why are of these people doing this?’, ‘those people on the covers were gang members’. This was all Instagram commenting wars, people were saying homophobic slurs but, then people were also saying ‘oh who cares? The original people were just models anyways’. There was basically a bunch of people that were acting as gatekeepers to this culture and everyone was saying all of these comments about the original people on the covers but, nobody actually knew about the original people. No one was saying like, ‘Oh, that’s my uncle and I find that offensive’. There was no specific reason why they had any right to be making these calls; and I was just curious like ‘well, how do you know they were gang members on the original covers?’ or ‘how do you know someone wasn’t gay?’. People really didn’t know anything about anyone on the original covers and I wondered if these people knew if their image had become such an icon. It was also then that I realized The East Side Story series has such powerful iconography that subverting it in such a way sent a ripple effect in the community, opening up a dialogue about the Chicano experience and what it means to be Chicano and Chicana. It was then that I realized East Side Story was an icon that people cherished very much and were willing to defend it. I think we have this one view of the ‘Chicano Experience’; but, there’s variations of that. And I think meeting some of the people from the covers and talking with them has illustrated that to me. There’s kind of that cliche archetype if you see somebody dressed in a certain way and you just think they were a gang member at that time when that’s not necessarily true. That’s also just the style of working-class Mexican-Americans at the time in the 1970s and early ’80s. I think that later this certain style became more associated with gang culture but, this was also just the style of the era and it had nothing to do with gang association.
Step Off! Magazine: Why did you feel it was so important to tell the stories of these individuals featured on the covers of these iconic albums?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: I felt that it was important to tell the story of these people because I think that they have been serving as aesthetic, they have been merely just an icon and I wanted to do more to humanize these people. Because, you may have your projection of what these people were like are like, what happened to them, and what their life was like; but, the fact is you don’t really know. And I think that it shines light into the varied experiences of what it means to be Chicano and Chicana, not just then but even today.
Step Off! Magazine: How were you able to track down the real life locations of these iconic album covers? Because most of them don’t appear to be taken in particularly well-known areas. How did you initially go about finding these places?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Initially (laughs) I would just go to someplace like Elysian Park and just drive around in L.A. with friends. I would bring the records with me, park and just look around and try to find where it could be. And some of them you can’t really tell, even by looking at the backgrounds. It was really difficult and that really wasn’t the best method but, I did go on some leads in that way. Really, its been through leads on social media. Followers responding to my callouts not only for the people on the covers but, people would be like ‘oh, that’s there’. The thing is this history has never been written down but, within those communities itself the history is alive. What I’m finding is that if you grew up in that neighborhood these people have all heard that, it’s something that people of those specific communities know and are aware of. Also, people whose family members are on it, this history has always been kept alive within certain circles; it’s just never been publicized. It’s not hard once you find people in those certain circles that are related or grew up around that and they’ve always known, it’s like urban folklore.
Step Off! Magazine: Now there’s twelve volumes in the East Side Story series, were you able to find all of the real life locations on the album covers?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: So far I’ve for sure positively identified ten. One is kind of debatable, volume eleven I have no leads on whatsoever. A lot of people have said volume one is in a certain place but, then there are some people in other families saying that it’s not and that it’s somewhere else so I have to do some fact checking and do some corroboration. But, volume eleven I have no idea. It’s ok for me because even the hunt of having to find where it is, is fun…I’m also not from L.A. so I’m wondering where people that are from these communities think it might be.
Step Off! Magazine: This whole project has really in a sense become your life’s work and been a years long endeavor; what has been the most difficult part of working of the East Side Story Project? And what has been has kept you committed to seeing it all the way through?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: I think that I’ve kind of opened a Pandora’s Box in a way and I have to see this through, there’s been years invested and there are people who have supported the project via Kickstarter. I would say for the East Side Story Project just the business aspect, in general, has been rather difficult to navigate. One thing is doing the film aspect has been a lot harder than I thought. I actually wanted to do my thesis and do more work for the film but it just became so complicated with the music rights. Because they were originally bootleg records, Mr. B was the creator of the concept for the series; but he is not the owner of any of the rights to the music. When I first went into this I didn’t know that the music industry is like the mafia. Even using music for aesthetic reasons costs a lot and these big record companies won’t cut you a break just because you’re an independent filmmaker. Technically I could use some songs under fair use but, that’s not adding to the ambiance of the music. I can’t just use for example ‘Duke of Earl’ as an intro. I would have to pay for that and pay a lot of money for it. Even if something is a cover, it cuts the price in half because I only have to pay one side of the licensing but, it’s still very expensive. I was kind of naive, I had no idea how crazy my ambitions sounded to people who are experienced in this industry. To the community everybody is like, ‘yea this is great! Do it!’ and I know that there’s an audience. But, the whole business aspect of the project has been very difficult for me as a first-time filmmaker just learning the ins and outs. That’s why it’s taken longer to do this because I’m learning as I go. Most people when I pitch the idea to them they think it’s an interesting idea but the financial logistics complicate things. I had to reframe how I think about it, it’s still going to happen it’s just taking a long time. Documentaries, in general, take a long time and people don’t generally follow a documentary from the point of its inception up until the point of its premier. People have been following me since it was literally just this crazy idea, this crazy wild goose chase. Maybe to some people, they’re like ‘oh my god it’s taking so long’ but, you don’t hear about documentaries until there are trailers up and they’ve already been putting years of work. It’s not uncommon for it to take that long; so people before they even pitch their film to be distributed or to get the financing they’ve done research already so that’s been a really big learning experience. Also, women are not represented in the film industry. There’s a lot of research to support that being an independent filmmaker is difficult but, being a female independent filmmaker is even more difficult. Women just aren’t funded in the same way that men are. I mean it’s real, who sits on these committees? Most of them are men, and most of them are white men. Whether it’s the critics or the people that hold high positions, these things are changing and I’m around a lot of my colleagues at school are trying to change this. Not only people of color but, women of color in criticism. Because when you see these works that win awards, well who’s giving these awards? Who are the gatekeepers of the financial institutions that control the film industry? There are a lot of opportunities for grants and whatnot but, those are also a lot of work and very competitive. So it’s just generally difficult but, it hasn’t deterred me since I’ve already put so much work into it. Also, the work is valuable and so many people support it. It’s crazy because there are still so many people that just now finding out about the project
Step Off! Magazine: Why do you think that oldies music and artists from this era have remained so popular amongst people today that didn’t necessarily grow up when it was first released? Some of this music is almost now fifty years old but, nonetheless the music continues to garner and attract new fans. Why do you think that is?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: This music has become like a cultural tradition, it’s not just being passed from parents to children. Now it’s being passed from grandparents or even great-grandparents. It’s something that’s become the fabric of a culture. Even though you think of traditions as being something so old but, it’s arguably already been generations. Most of the people that I talk to and when I ask this question, often people say, ‘oh, I grew up listening to this’. When you grow up with something it immediately gives you the nostalgia of home, of family, of belonging. And if you attach yourself to that identity then you hold that very near and dear to you, and I think in terms of the Chicano and Chicana experience if you identify in that way it’s a culture that was carved out of necessity. From not being fully ‘American’ but, also not being fully ‘Mexican’ either; you’re caught kind of in this weird middle ground and you have to carve out your own space based on your surroundings. What you’re influenced by and this culture is sort of something for people to hold onto as their own and subsequently be passed down to generations as something that is ours. The ironic thing is that most of the music is Black music, it’s made by African-American musicians. But, to me, what is uniquely Chicano and Chicana is the understanding of the music. Because, it’s not all just Soul music that people consider oldies, it’s not even all music from a specific exact era. Because, people will consider something as oldies that is technically Doo-Wop all the way up to the early ’70s; music like Malo, Sun, The Delfonics, etc. So it’s not an exact period either, it’s a specific canon if you will. I feel it’s the Chicano and Chicana understanding of African-American Soul music. It’s a sentiment, this music is sentimental and that is very much tied into experience and family experiences. But, I also know not everyone has discovered this music through family. For some people, the sentiment just resonates with them, but most people that I’ve talked to discovered this music through family and that to me is a tradition.
Step Off! Magazine: What has been the most rewarding aspect of working on this project?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: The most rewarding part of undertaking this project has been connecting with the community and having people just be excited about it because they have seen it. People feel their history is being represented and validated. And meeting people who feel that way, having strangers thank you for doing this is so heartwarming. That makes everything all worth it. Because those opinions do matter to me, these are the people that don’t always necessarily see documentaries that directly reflect their experience. I think a good documentary should be able to resonate with a broader audience in general but, I feel that’s been our whole life where we have to watch something and try to fit it into our lives. You have to kind of see yourself in these characters and narratives and also just see your culture completely dismissed or ignored in history and documentaries. I think that it’s so important for different cultures and different communities to have their stories be seen. That they’re validated but, also so other people can kind of understand.
Step Off! Magazine: We know it’s hard to set a concrete date but, when do you potentially see the project being completed?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Well it’s going to be a web docuseries, hopefully, the first episode can have some public screenings by the end of the year. I’m not sure if we’ll end up putting it out ourselves, it all depends if we submit it to film festivals. When will it actually be available to see? I’m not exactly sure, but the end of this year is our goal.
Step Off! Magazine: So this wouldn’t be one entire film, it would be like one episode per album so to say?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Yea each episode will be a different aspect of the story, it doesn’t necessarily go album by album.
Step Off! Magazine: Just how difficult was it tracking down the infamous “Mr. B”, the creator of the East Side Story series to talk about its inception for the documentary?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Well I didn’t find Mr. B. Mike Noreaga a record label and store owner as well as collector tracked him down. He made that easy for me (laughs). One day I woke up and everyone is tagging me (online via social media) like, ‘look! these guys found the creator of East Side Story!’. I was like, ‘what?! I’ve been looking for him for so long!’. I had been going to all of these places and calling all of these different people trying to find out who Mr. B was. I literally looked up his name on the internet, calling these random numbers (laughs) and then these guys just found him because they were more in touch with the record business. Because he’s a record guy and they were able to access him. Luckily, Mike was nice enough to have me on board and meet him and interview him. But yea, before that it was straight up old school journalism, going to Norwalk Records and asking them what happened to Mr. B? They said they didn’t know what happened to him and they were being weird with me. Then this guy at the swap meet was like, ‘hey, you better be careful asking all of these questions people don’t know what your intentions are. They think you might be an undercover cop or something since they were all bootleg records. Just be careful what you’re asking’, it freaked me out (laughs).
Strep Off! Magazine: What kind of insight were you able to get once you were finally able to sit down and talk with Mr. B?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: It’s funny, the insight I got was that I’m asking a lot of people to remember something that happened forty something years ago (laughs) and that one person is not going to remember everything. I realized that I had placed a lot of weight on meeting him (Mr. B) and having him have all of the answers. And I quickly realized that he didn’t remember everything. He didn’t remember the names of all the people on the covers, nor did he remember exactly where they were taken. These places were not significant to him, these places are significant to the people that were on the covers; these places are significant to the people from these communities and these families. But, he himself just stumbled across people. Just looking for people that looked cool for the album covers; it’s not like they were his friends or anybody related to him as far as he was concerned they were just random people.
Step Off! Magazine: It almost sounds like it was just a job like it’s one of many things they did in one day and they just moved on forgot about it once they were done.
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Exactly! He had no idea that this whole thing had lived on at all.
Step Off! Magazine: Really? He had no idea that East Side Story had become a whole phenomenon and a whole following and subculture had grown around it?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: No, zero idea. But, you put it in a way that’s correct. He made a product, it was a job, it was a business. He liked music, he liked a lot of girl groups and more Doo-Wop but, he was a very, very savvy businessman. He saw a market, he saw what this market liked, he marketed it to this audience and he sold it to this audience so well that it’s still successful today. But, he takes a different pride in it. He doesn’t really have the emotional connection to it like the people from the community. But, he’s proud of it that he made something that’s long-lasting. It’s not like he doesn’t care, but he doesn’t have that emotional, cultural connection to it the same way as the people that actually cherish this record.
Step Off! Magazine: Do you have any closing comments or anything else to say about the project?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Everything is on our current East Side Story Project website, the final one is going to look very different; actually it’s going to look nothing like the current one. But, there you can find all the archives, news and the podcasts that we’ve talked about East Side Story on.
Step Off Magazine: Where’s the best place people can follow the project online, get all the latest updates for promotions, release dates and other events?
DJ Lil’ Smiley: I would say Instagram for now, @eastsidestoryproject until we get the final version of the website up and running. As of now, that’s the best place for now to get all the latest news and updates.
Step Off Magazine: Well thank you Melissa, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and talk to us today; we wish you the best and look forward to seeing the the completed project real soon!
DJ Lil’ Smiley: Of course! Thank you so much!