The Ministry of DJ Sam ‘the Man’ Burns, D.C.’s House-Music Legend
His 40-year career turned dancers into parishioners, and partygoers into family
When the clock struck midnight, DJ Sam “the Man” Burns always began his sermons on the decks the same way: “Good morning, Washington, D.C.!” And at some point that night, he would inevitably remind wallflowers of his number one rule. “No texting on the dance floor,” he’d shout.
“He’d just start screaming at people. Telling them to get off his dance floor,” says DJ Carlos Mena, who knew and spun alongside Burns for over 15 years. “‘If you’re standing on my dance floor with a drink, watching other people dance, you can leave. There’s a place across the street where you can do that.’”
Samuel Andre Burns, who died suddenly on March 7 at the age of 63, was Washington, D.C.’s tireless champion of Chicago house music. As a resident DJ at the Eighteenth Street Lounge’s Underground Soul Sessions, he leaves behind a seemingly endless tribe: educating and mentoring countless DJs and artists over his four decades behind the decks, as well as inspiring multiple generations of Washingtonians to dance their troubles away. For me, and countless others, when life beat us down, his music lifted us up. In his house, I was free to express myself without apology.
“Young people will always come to the club to find themselves,” Burns told the Washington Post in August 2017. “So [DJing is] almost like giving them a blank canvas. They decide how they’re gonna express the tune, or the track, or the song. The thing that never changes is that human expression on the dance floor.”
I was one of those club kids in search of myself. Sam started his career DJing in clubs in 1978, but I didn’t meet him until 2010, a few months after I moved to D.C. for work. I never fancied myself to be a particularly good dancer — picture a muppet doing a mashup of hip-hop and liturgical dance — but the happiest I felt (and still feel) in life was when I danced, and that was enough for me.
I became a regular at his weekly Sunday night sessions. I started calling him my…