On The RecordJun 23, 2023 01:06PM ● By William Rischling
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
From vibrant highs to serene lows, music conveys the spectrum of emotion in its purest form. So strong is this allure for Joe Benson—an Omaha teacher, farmer, and DJ—that it extends to every aspect of his life.
On the length of his career, Benson said, “I started about 10 years ago. But I’ve been into music my whole life. The way that DJs play on the radio is kind of how I think about playing music.”
Performing weekly at the Kimpton Cottonwood Pool Club and at Benson First Fridays, his intimate understanding of theme and melody lend coherence to his sets.
“When you can blend sound you can make a continuous thing. It’s a little different than a jukebox, for instance, where there’s one song and then it’s over, and then the next song plays and then that song is over. It’s more like a soundscape,” Benson said.
The skills required to mix and present music onstage are more complex than simply pushing buttons, twisting dials, and spinning discs; the interplay between DJ and audience entails a fine-tuned ear and a talent for showmanship. Thanks to Benson’s eclectic tastes and active lifestyle, he’s developed a wide pool of inspiration to draw from.
Elaborating on what it takes to be a DJ, he explained, “Math is important; understanding timing, reading the crowd—kind of being a psychologist, if you will. Telling stories, listening to stories, stuff like that. I’m interpreting it.”
Benson’s myriad know-hows stem from his openness to experience and diversity of lifestyles he’s led.
With a reminiscent smile, Benson recalled, “I’ve had lots of jobs. I spent two and a half years basically living on the road as a Tibetan tour monk. So they fly here, they go to work, visa, etcetera. They do monk stuff, and we travel around. And I basically was like a roadie, if you will, for the Gaden Shartse monks.”
Benson absorbs something new from each career pivot.
“It depends on each job,” he illustrated. “Like in a kitchen, you get really mindful of sharp things. You don’t want to cut your finger off. You start noticing how chemistry works as a chef, so you have to be mindful of how you blend things, just like as a DJ, you’re blending things together. It can be two totally different things but sometimes odd combinations work.”
Benson speaks with an air of spirituality, and a fascination with the daily, even mundane, aspects of life.
“Having experience with so many different things, you just kind of blend everything together, just like us,” he said. “My name is Joe, but what does that mean? I’m everything that’s ever existed. Same with you. We’re gold, silver, and space dust. We have receptors for sound and taste and all that. So we’re part of those things.”
Benson’s personal connection with music is illustrated by his staggering vinyl library— approximately 3,000 LPs and several thousand 45’s, ranging from well-known classics to obscure, underground cuts.
“It could be from somebody in Russia or from somebody in Finland or Iceland or whatever like that. Everybody has something to say,” Benson noted of his expansive collection. “I have this really interesting 7-inch record. I can’t even remember the name of it, but it’s really dark and it’s nothing that I would have ever found on YouTube or anything. I would have never ran into that. So that’s where having records are really important because you can discover something somebody made in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1984, and now I have it here, and I can share it with people.”
Benson doesn’t amass records to boast, as he ends up selling many of them. In his eyes, music is as necessary to existence as any vital commodity.
“It’s essential. As much as water or anything else. Seeds, food? Nourishment, just like the sun. Sometimes you can put on some music that will make you feel better. You know, the sun comes out. I think it’s so important,” Benson exclaimed. “When I was transitioning from a difficult time in my life, that’s one thing I said to myself, like, ‘I’m gonna kind of dedicate my life to music.’ It gave me something to do. Because at first, it was like a little tiny light, like, ‘Okay, I need to go there.’ And then it became apparent music was something I was passionate about.”
Between all three of Benson’s current professions, he injects this into everything he does.
In regard to his teaching position, Benson explained, “About the first four weeks I had a student spitting on me every day. But again, some of the things I went through with the monks [taught me] compassion and patience. I try to take myself out of my [own] point of view. Even then, we were kind of taught to just keep teaching, to keep our attention fixed on something else.
"That’s actually a secret amongst teachers is none of us know what the hell we’re doing. Obviously we do to some extent, but we go to work every day not knowing what’s going to happen. Just go because you want to be there. Enrich people’s lives and teach them about something. Like when I can teach them about a piano player, like Thelonious Monk—[or musicians like] James Brown and Miles Davis.”
At the core of his love for music is its capacity for human connection—a rhythm, a heartbeat, that binds people across time and space.
“It’s like a little bit of time that was recorded, so you can hear it. I don’t know, I just think it’s really cool to hear something that happened so long ago, just as it happened,” Benson explained, grinning. “It’s kind of like folklore in that way, it’s from a specific time and place. A record is a direct transfer, usually from a magnetic tape, as the music was heard at that time.
“It’s awesome—it makes you feel connected to older generations.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.