RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer
After performing for thousands of people, you wouldn’t expect DJ Troy Sands to get nervous easily. But his nerves are a jumble as he gets ready for his close-up.
Back in the day, he was quick to shed his shirt for a little beefcake snapshot. Not so much anymore. Sands is re-learning to be comfortable in from of the camera after a bout with cancer that affected his mouth and face, including a complete bone replacement of his jaw. But Sands compensates with a renewed vigor that is about to put him back in the game after a five-year absence.
“I really was about to throw in the towel,” Sands says. “But the things that are happening now tell me it’s for a reason. I’ve been given a gift and I’d be foolish to waste it.”
For most of the last decade, Sands has been virtually invisible in the club DJ scene. He built a name in Dallas spinning regularly at the old Brick and had high-profile gigs such as opening for legendary DJ Junior Vasquez at Club One and hosting T-dances at Liquid. He developed a reputation as a guest DJ nationally before that trend had really taken off, remixing and producing music for the Hot Tracks and Direct Hit labels. In dance music circles, the Dallas-based spin doctor was a pretty damn big deal.
Sands’ DJ career had hit its stride by 2005, with him on the cusp of achieving his personal goals. Working with high profile artists and keeping his nationwide gigs regular, Sands was getting the name recognition he wanted and even needed for a long career as a DJ — it was also wearing him down.
Then came Christmas 2006.
Sands felt something inside his mouth that seemed off. He dismissed it, but his partner, Morgan Millican, ended up taking him to get it checked out.
“The day after Christmas, I got news that squamous cell carcinoma showed up on my biopsy [in his mouth]. It was devastating,” he says. He had had two previous cancer diagnoses, but that was 10 years earlier. And this was a lot more serious. (It is similar to the cancer than has afflicted Roger Ebert, though Ebert’s is more severe, Sands says.)
Sands was in good physical shape and health, despite being HIV-positive, but with his compromised immune system, this cancer was back with a vengeance.
“I knew something was wrong and I had to do something,” he says. “I hadn’t been taking any antivirals and I didn’t have insurance, so I got scared. I didn’t think I had any choices, but Morgan kicked me in the ass to look into it.”
Initially, doctors at Baylor Hospital decided severing his tongue to eliminate the cancer was the only option — and even with that, they gave Sands only a 25 percent survival rate. But the doctors who had treated him for cancer in 1997 stepped in and moved him to Parkland.
“I was hesitant to get into their system, but I found out that people shouldn’t be afraid of Parkland,” he says. “I didn’t have any choices. They became my saviors. I almost died in 2007. I normally weigh about 165 and had lost 45 pounds. But if you look at me today, it’s thanks to Parkland.”
Still, it was the hardest road he has ever taken.
Sands worked his last gig in February 2007 in Akron, Ohio, at the Hearts on Fire circuit party before undergoing chemo and radiation treatment on his face and neck throughout that spring. Although he kept his day job at the Knox-Henderson branch of the Apple store through November 2008, the radiation took its toll — and was also liquefying his jawbone.
“I worked through my treatment, and I was very happy at Apple,” he says. “But I had to leave to get focused on my health. It wasn’t until almost a year later, that I was diagnosed with osteoradionecrosis, where the jaw bone is dead.”
Sands had jaw replacement surgery in May 2009. You could literally say his leg bone’s connected to his head bone: A medical team connected a portion of his fibula to replace the missing mandible. Then he learned that the cancer had been incubating in his lungs.
“I thought I was cancer free, but it was found in the upper left lobe of the lung and I had to have that removed [last] October,” he says.
Sands had a long tenure at the Brick when it was located on Maple Avenue, building up his name there. When the club was closing and regular DJs returned for a big farewell bash, it broke his heart that he could not attend. He did return eventually to the club in the new space last September, but his optimism was outweighed by self-imposed pressure.
“I was depressed not to be part of the closing party, but I look back and it would have been foolish to do it,” he says. “When I played the Brick this last time, I had mentally gone to a dark place. My skill was rusty and I was nervous. I was trying to be what they remembered and tried too hard.”
Local DJ Blaine Soileau stepped in to help get Sands back on track, but in his eyes, he was merely returning a favor.
“Troy was my inspiration to move forward with my DJ/production career and into the circuit realm,” Soileau says. “The face of music and touring has changed dramatically since his departure from the scene.”
Sands was there helping Soileau get his career off the ground and he credits him with lighting a fire under him to now get back into the game. Soileau loaned him equipment to tinker with and pushed to have him play at the Dallas Eagle, only this time, Sands feels ready.
“Blain told me that the Eagle was interested in talking to me,” Sands says. “I used to be the one trying to help people and now Blaine was working to help me get back. The crowd and staff seem excited and [owner] Mark Frazier has been awesome. What they are going to hear from me is not your typical circuit fare, but definitely appropriate for the club. This is giving me my life back and I have Blaine and Chris to thank for that.”
Chris refers to famed DJ Chris Cox, who owned the Hot Tracks label Sands worked on and who has now gone on to international fame. To Sands, Cox has been an inspiration and hero. That was reaffirmed when Cox performed at the 2010 Austin Pride in front of thousands and requested Sands as the opener.
“I think his passion for music is partially responsible for his fight to live,” Cox says. “I knew he still had it in him but he needed to be sure. When he was on at Pride, he totally nailed it. I’m so happy to see he’s come back. This is beyond surviving the cancer. He’s living again.”
Sands now finds himself with a resident gig at the Dallas Eagle twice a month, calling the night “Troy Built.” He loves the name, but is more in tune with the shirt he has on from Apple. Across his chest is blazoned the motto: “Completely remastered.”
“It’s a magical feeling when you connect to the crowd and Dallas has allowed me to take them on a musical journey,” he says. “I’m lit again and figuratively and physically, I do feel remastered.”
As only a DJ would say.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 21, 2011.