Dorchester native James Clements, 45, grew up at Peggy O’Neil’s. His family’s pub has long been a popular watering hole in Savin Hill, and he got his start working DJ nights there when he wasn’t spinning at Avalon and Axis. Two years ago, he took over events and changed the bar’s name to Blend, focusing on food and nightlife. Now there are joint events with Dorchester Brewing Company, a partnership with Reign Drink Lab for espresso martinis, and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” screenings. It’s a big job for Clements, who’s also a cardiovascular technologist at Boston Medical Center, treating strokes and heart attacks.
How did you get your start as a DJ?
I was kind of was born in this place, so to speak. I started deejaying in here. My mom was a DJ before me and a lot of influence on my music style and things like that. My mom played a lot of soul music and Motown, and my first concert was Stevie Wonder, which she took me to when I was younger.
So I grew up deejaying here and doing different nights. and then we just brainstormed one night. We threw a birthday for one of my friends, and it went off really well. And we were like, “Let’s just do a monthly LGBTQ-based party.” It just started taking off from there. Then we implemented another Saturday night, and we started doing drag brunch.
How has Blend changed since March, since you rely on group gatherings?
We closed March 14, I believe the date was. I think it was a Saturday. It was kind of scary, because obviously none of us has been through anything like this. Even when I went back to the hospital, I was kind of scared for the first couple of weeks, because I didn’t stop working there. I work in the cath lab during the day. I assist the doctors, and I document during procedures. They furloughed a lot of people there, but because we’re in the emergency response team, we still have to be active.
At the end of June, Blend opened up our patio. We didn’t book inside. We did some interior work. We did new ceiling tiles on the bar side and new drop lighting. And we had a few things to fix up inside because we did a lot of nightlife, so we weren’t really set up as a restaurant, so to speak.
We did some work in the kitchen, which me and my mom and my partner, Luis, came up and did, and a few of my cousins. It’s really a family-run business, so we all help each other out. I have friends who are going to come and paint signs for me outside. We transitioned to making it more restaurant-based. We’ve always been like a party dance bar, so to speak, and we wanted to get away from that a little bit.
What’s your business like now?
We’re just doing food. We host a RuPaul viewing party on Thursday and Friday, which we’ve been doing for a couple of years. So all the boys who came before still come. I put a projector outside, and I projected on the fence, put a surround sound out there, so they like it. They can go out and socialize and do it safely. And I have heaters out there, and we put some greenery out there and dressed it up a little bit. They’re seeming to like having something to do safely.
We only open Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 10, because I don’t know if everybody’s completely comfortable with places being open. We want to implement some takeout and things like that, but we just wanted to try and see how we did, and it’s been going good. It hasn’t been overwhelming and super, super busy, where we can’t handle it, because we don’t have a big staff. I mean, we have one server, one bartender, one cook, and one line cook. I have my little cousin hosting, and she’s doing a great job.
Tell me a little bit about the nightlife scene in Dorchester when you were growing up — and what do you think the public craves now?
Growing up, I mean, it’s obviously Dorchester, and it’s a mix of everybody. There wasn’t really a lot of gay nightlife in the area. I feel like you’d have to go to Fenway or Cambridge. And I always wanted to implement that around here, because there’s a big community here, so it was kind of a no-brainer to do it. . . . And it was rewarding to do things like that and see the community be like, “This is great for around here,” because I feel like we’re in a space in between areas that gets forgotten about sometimes.
We’re in the middle of Fields Corner in Savin Hill, and if you go toward South Boston, it’s hustle and bustling around Broadway, and there’s just so many restaurants. We’ve got a few, and we all support each other up and down, which is great, but we’ve been waiting for Dot Block to be implemented just to have more coffee shops and things like that around here. And I know the old Boston Globe is being turned into a brewery or something like that. So it’s good to see that neighborhood transform. But also, we still have a lot of regulars, so it’s good to see the regulars enjoy it, too.
How has gay life evolved in Boston?
Oh, wow. It’s changed. I mean, when I was coming out, I almost feel like it wasn’t the cool thing to do, but it was kind of on the cusp of gay marriage, and all that was really at the forefront. I don’t want to really use that word, but it was just more accepted, so to speak. So it was nice to see that happen and have it not be a bad thing for people to be able to be themselves. And I think it’s changed a lot, where we can do nights like these, and it doesn’t turn other people away at the same time. I don’t know. I’m trying to think of the right words to say.
So you still have a diverse audience of the old-time regulars.
Yeah. Our age groups are from 21 to 60-plus. I mean, we have older women, older gentlemen who come in. We’ve done a lot of stuff for Pride. We actually worked with Boston Pride last year to network and bring Dorchester to the map when it comes to gay pride. We had a lot of plans for this year for our Dorchester Day and for Pride. Obviously, COVID sidetracked a lot of that. But we’ll see what we can do over the wintertime and see how things pan out.
Right now we’re reckoning with inequality on so many fronts, from race to economic inequality worsened by COVID-19. What about LGBTQ? What work still has to be done?
I think just having conversations about it and understanding that it’s present in the community and just in general, and understanding misogyny, things like that.
I just worked with a drag queen who did a virtual show that benefited women of color in drag. And they raised a great amount of money and awareness. I’m just trying to do my part and learn, obviously, I mean, because there’s a lot that I feel people don’t know. They can just listen and have conversations. Growing up in Dorchester, it was very diverse, but I think everyone still has things to learn when it comes to that.
How has Dorchester changed?
There is a bigger LGBTQ presence here, which I’m OK with. I came out on Pride one year and looked around. Seeing everybody walking around, I was like, “Wow, Dorchester’s got a lot busier!” Everybody’s moving to Dorchester, because the South End is changing and getting really expensive, and they’re hearing Dorchester is the place to be. So it’s nice to see more people out and different customers coming in, because I feel like a lot of people who did live here moved away. I don’t want to use the word gentrifying, but it’s changing a little bit, but not as fast as I’d say South Boston is.
As someone who also works in health care, where do you think we’ll be in a year?
I’m optimistic that we’ll be OK. I think [Governor] Baker and Mayor Walsh are doing the best that they can to get us where we are now. I think Boston did the right thing to slow things down, just instead of reopening really quick. I’m hoping in a year, at least, the restaurant part of it will be back to normal, because there’s a lot of people who really took a big hit during this. I have friends up and down Dorchester Avenue with restaurants, and I try to go to each one since they opened. I’ll get takeout. And I’ve spoken to a few, and they’re having a really hard time staying afloat during this.
What’s your pandemic stress snack?
I would have to say dark chocolate.
Any must-order drink or food at Blend?
My favorite is our nitro espresso martini that we have on tap. Luis makes it from scratch. And our turkey quesadilla is one of my favorite new things on the menu, and the turkey burger. Both are made from scratch. I’d go with the turkey burger.
Go-to song as a DJ?
There’s so many of them. I would have to say Teddy Pendergrass. I’m aging myself! That’s because of my mom. “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose.”