How great is that? It was a nod to house music’s often-maligned spiritual source and a winking rejection of taxonomies altogether. Plus, whenever Burns graced the DJ booth, “deep” wasn’t adequate anyway. Studious and perceptive, he made house music feel broad. It wasn’t just a sound to fall into. Deep house could make the world feel bigger in every direction.
The breadth of Burns’s vision touched generations of local party people who were shocked to learn on Saturday that the legendary DJ had died at age 63. On social media, they swapped memories from the clubs where they had danced to his sumptuous sets, creating a historical map of the city’s nightlife: Chapter II, the Roxy, the Ritz, Tracks, the Insect Club, State of the Union, Red, Dragonfly, 18th Street Lounge, U Street Music Hall. By 1998, Burns had already been DJing for 20 years, and he joked about his longevity in a profile in the Washington City Paper. “I’ve been playing so long, sons and daughters of guys I used to play for come into the club,” Burns said. Prophetically, the story also noted that “he shows few signs of slowing down.”
Behind the turntables, Burns always kept the party moving, but he was sensitive, too, watching the room as closely as he was listening to it, trying to decode secret messages in everyone’s body language as he steered the night toward delirium. His commitment was total, and most of his peers couldn’t keep up.
“I realize the importance of me staying with it,” Burns said in a 2009 interview filmed at DJ Hut, the Dupont Circle record shop where he once worked. “I hate to see a bunch of old folks sit back and talk about [how] their good times ended prematurely.”
Instead, Burns followed house music’s four-on-the-floor pulse as far as it would take him. He wasn’t a revivalist or a die-hard. He just wanted to continue, welcoming whoever might step onto the dance floor next. “Young people will always come to the club to find themselves,” Burns told me in 2017. “So [DJing is] almost like giving them a blank canvas. They decide how they’re gonna express the tune.”
Even by house music’s utopian standards, that’s a generous philosophy to live by. Whether you spent a few hours or a few decades dancing to the records he was spinning, this man thought of you as his collaborator.