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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Overcast
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DJ Nick Nice spins tunes and fights Gov. Walker
The artist as activist
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Nice (with Maceo at left): 'This is about people's health, people's lives.'
Nice (with Maceo at left): 'This is about people's health, people's lives.'

Dedicated protester by day, in-demand club DJ by night: It might strike some that Nick Nice is living a double life. He's even got the Clark Kent glasses.

The longtime Madison-based DJ won't make any superhero claims, though. Nice has simply found a way to balance - and even mix - his love of music and art with a newfound commitment to activism.

Nice has been a staple on the Madison DJ circuit for years. Since all hell broke loose after Gov. Scott Walker announced his anti-union budget repair bill last winter, however, people have become just as likely to recognize him as the powdered-wig-wearing, vuvuzela-blowing, infant-son-toting activist who was at the Capitol almost every day during the protests.

He still seems in awe of everything that's happened in the state since Walker took office and introduced his controversial measures. "Before, it didn't feel like, 'Oh my God, we're under attack,' like everything that you hold dear about Madison and Wisconsin was under attack," he says. "I think that's the thing. We felt like we had to be at the Capitol every day because it was urgent."

Up until the birth of his son Maceo in 2010, Nice traveled across the country for gigs. Now he and his partner, Jen, mostly stick closer to home. It was Maceo, too, who provided much of the motivation for Nice to get so involved in the protests.

"I would have been hardcore into this no matter what," explains Nice, "but I think, because of him, it makes Jen and me that much more [involved]: This is his future. We want him to be able to go to public school and not have it be some horrific environment. On the one hand, he makes us fight harder. On the other hand, he keeps me from being down there 24/7."

Maceo, frequently dressed in a baby blue thermal bear suit, became a regular sight at the rallies. Once, Nice found himself and the baby in the front row behind a Fox News reporter doing a live broadcast by the Capitol. In the footage, the host is talking about the "open revolt" visible behind him - and there's Maceo, bouncing up and down in Nice's arms, the ears on his bear suit flopping back and forth.

"Afterwards, when we were inside the Capitol, my friend, DJ Amos, sends me a text message: 'Just saw you and Maceo on FOX News - HILARIOUS,'" Nice recalls. "I made sure to get a copy of the video. It's our first big father-son moment, and it's on national Fox News."

Nice beams about an encounter that happened months later in the Rotunda, on the day he brought his son for his first unassisted walk through the building.

"I'm pushing his stroller, and Maceo's out walking in front of me. We're heading for the State Street doors, and I notice Sen. Glenn Grothman walking right by us on his phone. And when Maceo walks, especially in the Capitol because he likes the echoes, he makes these crazy high-pitched squeaking sounds."

The right-wing Republican was walking about five feet in front of the toddler. "They get to the revolving doors, and I go to bring Maceo back. Grothman stops on the phone, and I hear him telling the person on the other line, 'Oh, I'm really sorry, I was being followed by a protester.'"

Nice's Facebook audience - which, already large before his involvement in politics this year, has swelled to nearly 5,000 - found this story particularly funny. "I can't wait to tell Maceo someday that on his first walk through the Capitol he harassed Glenn Grothman," Nice laughs.

A very serious streak runs through Nice's good humor. Maceo was on BadgerCare until recently, when Nice's partner landed a full-time job with benefits. Nice says he still has many friends who rely on the state program for medical care, and many of them are likely to lose all of their coverage under looming cuts.

"This is about people's health, people's lives," he says. "People will either get sick or people could die as a result of that particular issue. That's scary."

It's through art that Nice maintains his optimism. "Art always endures," he notes. And for the DJ, naturally, it's all about the music. He missed many of the earliest rallies while spinning at a series of events called Kid Disco (it was what it sounds like), but he soon found himself in demand as one of the go-to protest accompanists.

"I got sick of hearing Twisted Sister, Survivor - since when did these '80s, kind of mediocre songs become protest songs? It just didn't make sense to me."

Nice turned to the music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, of the Black Power movement - artists like James Brown and the Isley Brothers. He discovered a number of tracks that he'd never considered protest songs before, like the O'Jays' "Love Train" and Madness' "Our House."

"I was playing 'Love Train' for Kid Disco when I heard these really timely lyrics, about telling all the folks in Egypt, too, and thought whoa, this is perfect!" says Nice.

One of the most powerful moments came when Nice DJ'd the "From Memphis to Madison" rally on April 4. He says hearing the firefighter bagpipe band joining in with singer Michelle Shocked and local disco band VO5 was a highlight, but it was Rev. Jesse Jackson's speech that really made an impact. It also made him nervous.

"I'm like, what do you play before Jesse Jackson's about to deliver a eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr.? What's the opener? I ended up playing Sharon Jones' cover of 'This Land Is Your Land.' Which, thankfully, worked out really well."

Paying attention to politics is not new to Nice, 42. His father was a professor at the UW during the Vietnam protest era, and he and Nice's mother had been involved in the civil rights movement. Nice mentions a tie that his dad kept from the day of a big protest on campus. It still smells like tear gas.

Nice went to college at the UW. He saved up and spent his junior year abroad living in Paris, and he liked it so much that, after graduation, he moved back to the city and lived there, working as a DJ, for three years. "It's not a city to live in if you don't have a ton of money and you're trying to get by," he admits. But he has no regrets about his time there.

It was the early 1990s, and the rave scene was just taking off in France - a year behind England, but years ahead of the United States. Nice ended up landing a gig as a regular DJ at the nightclub Queen, which holds a piece of prime real estate on the Champs-Élysées.

Eventually, Nice decided to head home to Madison. He missed his family, he had done much of what he'd set out to do in France, and he was tired of dodging police.

"I was living illegally," Nice adds ruefully. "I was living under the table, and then there was a subway bomb that happened in '95. I was actually on the train that the bomb was on and got off about one stop before."

After that, he explains, security in the country got incredibly tight. There were checkpoints everywhere, and police were asking people to produce their papers - which Nice didn't have. "A lot of times I'd have the taxi drivers take the back way into the Queen so I could get to work without hitting a checkpoint. I started wearing a Cubs hat, dressing like a tourist."

Through everything, Nice says he's encountered almost no backlash for his public, unabashed support of the protests, and now the Walker recall. Back in the beginning, there was one death threat directed at both Nice and the owner of Merchant, where he frequently DJs. Aside from that, Nice says his interactions with fellow Wisconsinites, even those who disagree with him, have been civil.

He makes a point of not emphasizing politics when he plays at bars. "I'm just out playing music. I'm not out politicizing. Even with recall petitions, I'm not pushing them on people. I just say if you want to sign, I have them and I'm here."

Mostly, Nice remains impressed with how peaceful and festive the protests were and continue to be. He remembers being present for some of the largest demonstrations in French history and marveling at the parade-like atmosphere, the mobile hot dog carts and camaraderie between people from all corners of the country.

"I never thought I'd see that here. I used to joke that there were more people protesting Dotty Dumpling's Dowry being forced to move by the Overture Center than there were the Iraq War at the time."

The past year has done a lot to change Nice's mind, and his life.

"There was a Monday night when they first closed a lot of the doors at the Capitol. There was a light snow, and I'd forgotten Maceo's mittens that day. But this woman drives up, stops her minivan, jumps out of the car and says, 'Here, there's still two hours left!' and gives me two little hand warmers."

It was "a total rave moment, of people doing something small to help each other out." There were, Nice says, "so many of those little moments."

DJ Nick Nice's top 11 songs to play for a protest

  • 1. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, "This Land Is Your Land"
  • 2. Public Enemy, "Fight the Power"
  • 3. Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On (Double Dub Edit)"
  • 4. Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"
  • 5. The O'Jays, "Love Train"
  • 6. The Clash, "The Magnificent Seven" (UK 12")
  • 7. Arcade Fire, "Rebellion (Lies)"
  • 8. Michael Jackson, "People Make the World Go Round"
  • 9. Rage Against the Machine, "Killing in the Name"
  • 10. Bob Marley & the Wailers, "Stand Up Jamrock (Ashley Beedle Remix)"
  • 11. Madness, "Our House"

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