This is Damon Alston. Here is how he lists his jobs/hobbies: DJ / mountain climber / scuba diver / Ironman / firefighter.
So running into burning buildings, saving men, women, children and pets…he doesn’t start with that.
Humble Harlemite he is.
“I responded to a car accident at 145th and Lennox,” Alston recalled a young man nodding to him, “he knew me as a DJ, ‘He said ‘Dame, is that you? He saves lives in real life and on the dance floor. No one knows that you’re a hero.’ The lieutenant was breaking my chops later on in the firehouse.”
Not everyone knows he occupies both spaces.
Alston is a PADI certified diver, and a 22-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York City, at Ladder 28 in Harlem.
“I love what I do.”
When he is not on the job, the firefighter explained, “I just want to play music—whether it is a bar or club or in the laundromat.”
A man of an ever increasing skill set, Alston said that he began his DJ career at the age of 15, spinning at house parties in the Bronx and Harlem. By the age of 19, he was spinning records professionally with residencies throughout the years including The Den Harlem, The Apollo Cafe, Corner Social and establishing Friday nights at Red Rooster.
Meanwhile, in 2008, he ran the New York City Marathon, and in 2019 he completed an Ironman Triathlon in Cambridge, Maryland.
The born-in-the-Bronx Harlem-raised father of four upon hearing friends talk about the idea of climbing a mountain: “I thought that sounds exciting. I like challenges.”
On Jan. 9, 2021, he bested his own athletic prowess as he successfully summited the 11th highest mountain in the world, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.
Setting the college graduation gift bar literally mountain high for parents, the phenomenal, vertical African journey was a gift for his 21-year-old son Jabril.
How do you train for how to climb a mountain whilst living in Harlem, USA?
“We did some endurance training, calisthenics, strength exercises—light weights, squats, lunges and running stairs.” To help acclimatize to the high altitude father and son were set to experience there are booths in the city, which Alston said are used as altitude chambers of up to 13,000 feet, where they were able to bike and use the stairmaster.
Working with Tanzanian government officials to coordinate the trip, Alston said, “We were in the height of the pandemic so they weren’t doing big groups. We hired a trekking company. We had a 12 man team. You can’t get up there by yourself, because there is so much stuff you have to bring, food every day…equipment. You can’t build fires on the mountain. After you get to 12,000 feet, the dead zone, there’s no wood to burn. Just rock. On the ground it is about 80 degrees, but this is the highest point in Africa. The higher you go up the weather is very volatile, it changes every few minutes. I am a triathlete. I have run the marathon. I did the Ironman two years ago, and that training was hard, but nothing like this. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. We both got sick, but we made it.”
While he said his son “did make a mixtape for the trip, I read on the plane. It is a 14 hour flight to Tanzania.”
To climb Mount Kilimanjaro from base to summit took Alston and his son seven days. His son created a mixtape for the hours of the steep climbing, whilst Alston said he focused on the technical side of things as they approached the summit. “I was totally prepared for that mountain. The music gives you that energy, especially on the cold, cold nights. It was very, very dark, no wood to burn fire. Then we did listen to some music. We had conversations for life. It was a wonderful experience, that’s what life is all about.”
On a hard reset now, just a few weeks after the amazing trip of a lifetime, Alston is back at work with the FDNY, and looking forward to DJ-ing to a live crowd of people just as happy to be back to a new normal, as he shall be spinning again.
He played in Harlem’s Red Rooster for six weeks in 2020, just before COVID shut everything down. “I am going to be grateful to be out playing the soul, funk, house, rock and R&B.”
Smiling he said, “I might pay some Jets and Menudo. Those tracks are not really corny. People remember the lyrics of these songs. They enjoy hearing them again. I play music that no other DJ will. I read my audience, but I am a risk taker.
“I don’t have a contemporary list, it is timeless. I don’t have to play the top 10 songs that a Black or white crowd already know. I move them out of their comfort zone, and give them some of what they want, and then something that they need.”
When his son plays music at the house, Alston said, “He’s the DJ, and I am the audience, and I like it because it expands your palate.
“My son taught me that many of these artists sample older tracks. I’m playing vinyl, and many people in the audience know the records, but don’t know that it is the original.”
Don’t be surprised when the outside opens back up again, to hear him “adjust on the fly. I might do a Steve Wonder track, or a George Benson, Chaka or Donny Hathaway…but not the track or the version that you are used to.”
And then there are the contemporary artists: the Neyo’s, the Migos, the Mary’s and the H.E.R.s.
His job and his hobbies are separate, but equal. “The only connection is that they both have crowds who can be different, and I have to adjust to the community that I serve.”
He recalled a fire on St. Nicholas Avenue where he won a medal for saving a child. “We have saved many more women and babies, and that doesn’t get a medal day.
“I am a DJ, I’m also a father, and I throw my cape on when it is time to go to work.”
When the call comes, Alston said he is “very alert, on high alert, looking at it as if my children were trapped behind the fire. There was a fire and we knew they were trapped because we heard them yelling. Smoke was coming out the door, and you are sure that you are forcing the door. You are concentrating on getting in and making the search safely. The lieutenant was able to get two or three children, I was able to get the mother and the 5-year-old. Everything gets very small. Your training kicks in.”
As the FDNY has responded over the years to calls for increasing Black and Brown members and more women to be recruited, Alston said that the COVID crisis and subsequent economic crunch has led to a freeze in test taking and recruitment drives. At the same time though, he said that many firefighters will be looking to retire when the current pandemic-created social, economic and medical crisis finds its level where life can back to a close-to-normal reality.
Right now if a house gets hit with a virus scare or actuality, it has to “go-offline and quarantine, and other firefighters can no longer do inter-borough assists because of the economy. Everything is halted, everything is on freeze because of priority.”
It’s personal, too.
“My son was taking the test. I was on the lieutenant’s list, there was supposed to be a class coming in…but everything is halted.”
The year 2020 has changed many trajectories.
“A lot of guys are retiring, including me. They froze the list for about a year…there’s no test. A lot of people got sick, if it comes to your firehouse that’s a problem.
“Man power has been at a premium. That’s why overtime has been so high.”
Meanwhile, as he looks forward, firefighter Alston said there is something morbid about the term “bucket list,” and he does not have one per se, and “adventures you can pick and choose—it is a matter of stamina and endurance.” His pursuits are more cerebral, pondering he said, “Maybe I’ll get better at chess, or learn another language that I can speak fluently.”
The “If last night a DJ saved my life” was a person, Alston told the Amsterdam News,
“I’m still in the lab. I am missing the turntables, the people and the whole in-person DJ-ing energy. My highs for me come from the music that I play, that gives me that energy from the crowd that I am playing for.”