When the clock struck midnight, DJ Sam “the Man” Burns always began his sermons on the decks the same way: “Good morning, Washington, D.C.!” And at some point that night, he would inevitably remind wallflowers of his number one rule. “No texting on the dance floor,” he’d shout.
“He’d just start screaming at people. Telling them to get off his dance floor,” says DJ Carlos Mena, who knew and spun alongside Burns for over 15 years. “‘If you’re standing on my dance floor with a drink, watching other people dance, you can leave. There’s a place across the street where you can do that.’”
Samuel Andre Burns, who died suddenly on March 7 at the age of 63, was Washington, D.C.’s tireless champion of Chicago house music. As a resident DJ at the Eighteenth Street Lounge’s Underground Soul Sessions, he leaves behind a seemingly endless tribe: educating and mentoring countless DJs and artists over his four decades behind the decks, as well as inspiring multiple generations of Washingtonians to dance their troubles away. For me, and countless others, when life beat us down, his music lifted us up. In his house, I was free to express myself without apology.
“Young people will always come to the club to find themselves,” Burns told the Washington Post in August 2017. “So [DJing is] almost like giving them a blank canvas. They decide how they’re gonna express the tune, or the track, or the song. The thing that never changes is that human expression on the dance floor.”
I was one of those club kids in search of myself. Sam started his career DJing in clubs in 1978, but I didn’t meet him until 2010, a few months after I moved to D.C. for work. I never fancied myself to be a particularly good dancer — picture a muppet doing a mashup of hip-hop and liturgical dance — but the happiest I felt (and still feel) in life was when I danced, and that was enough for me.
I became a regular at his weekly Sunday night sessions. I started calling him my pastor. I didn’t do so lightly; as someone who grew up in the traditional Black (AME) church, I found praise and worship in his parties. Spanning house, soul, disco, and funk, those legendary sets were as meaningful as any scripture.
I thought about the last time we embraced, the last live set of his that I heard — my orange shirt soaked with sweat, the palpable feeling of love I felt as I danced in the circle of fellow soulbirds, the red lights on Sam’s redbone face as he stood at his post.
One night, soon after I began attending Sunday night service, he noticed his newest parishioner. “We got us a soulbird!” he called out. It was 1:45 a.m., nearly closing time, and although I had arrived three hours earlier, I was still on my feet, lost in the beat. Weeks later, he gestured me over to the platform where he spun.
“You’re a regular, so I want you to come give me a hug when you arrive from now on,” he said.
Until that moment, I didn’t think he knew I even existed. But he saw me. As we hugged — he was such a present, warm hugger — I felt a sense of belonging that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I live in Los Angeles now, so I found out Sam died days after his actual passing. Thankfully, I had visited D.C. over the last Christmas holiday, and had managed to attend his Sunday service two weeks in a row. I thought about the last time we embraced, the last live set of his that I heard — my orange shirt soaked with sweat, the palpable feeling of love I felt as I danced in the circle of fellow soulbirds, the red lights on Sam’s redbone face as he stood at his post. His death still doesn’t feel real to me.
If Sam was ever sick or out of town, I never witnessed it. There were some Sundays that his heart was heavy and others where he was upbeat, but no matter his mood, he always showed up. On federal holiday weekends he’d do his set first, then introduce another DJ to spin until the end of the night, and quietly scoot out early. I was sitting in my car outside the club one of those nights when he snuck up on me to say hi. Love is fundamentally about showing up — and Sam always showed his people love.
“Sam let his records breathe in a way that I’ve only seen from DJs of his generation,” says DJ Rich Medina, who first met Sam more than 25 years ago, at the record shop where Sam once worked. “He would allow the compositions to make their own limits without muddling the messages with tricks like scratching or overusing effects.”
Part of the way he made music into memories was by mastering the art of the drop. At just the right moment, when the energy of the room reached the proper temp, his alchemy of tunes made unforgettable magic happen on the dance floor. When Prince and D.C. go-go music legend Chuck Brown died, Sam dedicated a significant portion of his sets to their music. I specifically remember dancing to “Erotic City” and “Run Joe.” (The night after Sam died, dancer and DJ Russell Campbell did the same for him on the decks where Sam had spun only a week earlier.) At the time I didn’t know either song particularly well, but now those songs are forever etched in my life’s soundtrack.
There are dozens of other songs he taught me to love too: Barbara Tucker’s “Beautiful People,” Louie Vega and Josh Milan’s “Children of the World,” Jasper Street Company’s “God Helps Those (Who Help Themselves),” Gregory Porter’s “1960 What,” and Shaun Escoffery’s “Days Like This.” “He instilled a thirst to keep up with things that have been around for years that people don’t play,” Mena says. “He was a master at that.”
Sam didn’t just play records, he made househeads out of people like me who came to dance — and in the process, he taught us that we were part of a grand musical tradition that went far beyond what was on the radio.
“What I’ve always done is to try to make people feel good about themselves,” Sam told a reporter from Washington City Paper in a 1998 profile. “Happy. Free.” That’s exactly what I felt on Sam’s dance floor — that I was simultaneously the best version of myself, and part of something much, much larger than me.
Dance in power on that baby powder, Sam.