On April 4, 1968, the day a gunman shot the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Riz Rollins was a middle schooler in Chicago. In those tumultuous years, not unlike our own, Riz said, "Rioting was a part of the fabric of daily life." As for what would happen in the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination? "I thought the sky was going to catch on fire."
Today, Riz Rollins is a Seattle cultural treasure who you can hear every Monday evening on KEXP from 4-7 pm and occasional Sundays nights as one of the rotating hosts of Expansions, the electronic music show that is every discerning audiophile's ritual to wind down the weekend. This Sunday, the eve of MLK Day, will bring the 21st edition of an Expansions tradition, one that can't be stopped even by a pandemic that has put nightlife as we knew it in survival mode: the MLK Unity party.
KEXP will dedicate six hours to the life and legacy of Dr. King, starting at 6 pm with Sunday Soul, hosted by DJ Supreme La Rock, and continuing through until midnight with Expansions' mind-altering quintent of radio jocks, Kid Hops, Sharlese, Brit Hansen, Alex, and of course Riz, who will each contribute a mix for the occasion.
As January approached, however, Riz was on the verge of calling the whole thing off after inventing the concept over two decades ago. "There was a Monday holiday and nobody was celebrating it party style," Rollins explained. "We celebrated it with walks and marches, but nobody was out singing and dancing and communing with each other." Over the years, the Unity party meandered from the Baltic Room to the Northwest African-American Museum to Neumo's to Chop Suey to the Columbia City Theatre to last year's home, Clock-Out Lounge.
The Unity party thrived not only on the potency of a live broadcast direct from the club, but also the spontaneity between DJs as all of Expansions' hosts were under one roof for a single continuous broadcast as opposed to their usual weekly rotation. The live element engendered opportunities like b2b sets, where two DJs alternate tracks, each one unsure what the other is going to play and then returning the volley with their own selection.
But then the election happened. "When Biden got elected, I recalled the ones we did during the Obama years and then the one when Trump was inaugurated. We, KEXP, took a stand with programming that day: the Bed-In for Peace," Riz said. "For the last 12 years, it's been highly charged right around this time of year and we have been bringing that energy to those parties and now we have to bring it to the broadcast."
To translate live club energy to the airwaves, Riz is relying on a hefty dose of DJ telepathy. He won't preview the mixes his co-hosts send to him beforehand and will seek divine turntable inspiration when he hears them for the first time, just like you will on Sunday night. Riz, of course, is a DJ's DJ with an intuitive feel for how music and mood interact. Last year, he opened his headline set at Clock-Out Lounge with Stevie Wonder's "Love's In Need of Love Today," a downtempo selection that came to him right before he took the stage. "I choked up listening to it," he said. "But here we are, it was perfect."
A love conquers all mentality is likely to infuse the spirit of this year's Unity broadcast, which could not come at a more fraught time: a deadly pandemic, a renewed spotlight on racial injustice, a far-right insurrection at the Capitol. "There will be no mournfulness," Riz said. "I'm celebrating, personally, and we're winning, period. Whatever struggles we're having now, we've had for as long as I've been on this planet. Police violence—Black people getting strung up on trees—I was born with that."
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement going mainstream last year, KEXP made a bold move in July when it rejiggered its on-air line-up to amplify more BIPOC voices in both on-air hosts and the music they play, a decision that involved hard choices seeing as there are only 24 hours per day and 7 days per week for a radio station to broadcast live. The move brought KEXP more in line with the expansive vision, pun intended, that Riz and his co-conspirators have cultivated on Sunday nights for years. The result, which means I'm more likely to hear new-school Jamaican reggae and old-school boom-bap hip-hop during the daytime hours, has also upped my KEXP consumption quotient tenfold.
"If you had told me that was coming two years ago, I would have slapped you in the face," Riz said. "But they had a vision and I think it's exceeded their wildest dreams."
By the time he takes the air on Sunday night, meanwhile, Riz can celebrate vanquishing at least one of our collective foes. This week, Riz rolled up his sleeve and received his first vaccine dose. That injection signals the end of an elaborate dance he and his husband, a nurse, have negotiated since the pandemic began. "One of the parts of that dance is that we couldn't kiss," Riz said, joking, "We've been having prison sex."
We may be struggling to save the National Archives, but rest assured we're going to save Riz Rollins so we can celebrate MLK Day 2022 in fine in-person style.