Marcus Doucette sits at a sidewalk table outside Nomad World Pub drinking a can of Mother's Lil' Helper Pale Ale.
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
He’s talking about hip-hop and reggae and rhythmic mashups from Nepal, music he plays as a midday radio DJ.
“I am continually wowed by all the music out there,” he says, exchanging nods with passers-by along Brady Street. “There’s always more to listen to. I’ll never get to the end of it.”
With a full beard and untamed shoulder-length hair, Doucette is easily recognized in public. He’s mid-sentence when a starry-eyed teenager approaches with her father. She smiles and fixes her eyes to Doucette’s while her father does the talking.
“She’s got an acoustic guitar,” says the father. “She’s writing songs and ready to get into the studio.”
Doucette takes the father’s cue. “Take your time,” he says to the Jewel look-alike, his voice lyrical and encouraging. “You’re still young. You can do what you want.”
With the diction of an English teacher and the vibe of a Rastafarian, Doucette, 36, is a local celebrity. Which puzzles a guy who spends his working days in a windowless 88Nine Radio Milwaukee studio.
“It’s funny that people take that much notice of me,” he says. “I talk on-air, but mostly it’s the music. I just stay out of the way.”
Before radio, Doucette built a following in the after-hours DJ scene performing at clubs around town. He continues to host a weekly show at Nomad on Sunday nights, but 88Nine is his mainstay, his “amniotic fluid,” he says.
Unpredictable and often edgy, Radio Milwaukee is hands-down the hippest station in town. Its staff is young and informed. Its format is tailored to urban listeners who follow Milwaukee’s music and arts scenes and civic projects. And it has managed to carve out a unique niche, forming various partnerships and creating communities with listeners through standard social media outlets. Its reach and overarching eclecticism is, in many ways, the draw.
On “Sound Travels,” which airs weekdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and Saturday mornings, Doucette takes listeners around the globe. He’ll slide from Australian indie pop singer Ben Lee, to English rock-and-soul band Florence + the Machine, to Mexican acoustic guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela, to Milwaukee’s own Semi-Twang. “I don’t belong to a genre,” Doucette says. “I usually leave people’s tastes alone. It’s like controlling the conversation.”
The open-minded Doucette personifies the station’s tag line to the core – “Diverse music for a diverse city.” At birth, he was given the name Guru Amrit Singh by his bohemian parents – “ashram hippies,” as he calls them – who had converted to Sikhism. When he was around 2, his parents moved from Milwaukee to a Kansas City commune, where they taught yoga and followed a strict vegetarian diet. “Living in an ashram was a profound experience in my life,” he says. “Everybody was up at 4 a.m. to do yoga. Everybody learned to play music.”
But when Doucette was 7, his parents left the commune and split up. They dropped his Sikh name and began calling him Marc. He got his hair cut for the first time and had his first taste of meat. Yet the yogic lifestyle remained an enduring part of his life. He
continues to practice today.
As a boy, Doucette alternated between his mother’s home in Kansas City and his father’s home in Milwaukee. He lived with his dad in Sherman Park and then in Wauwatosa, playing Little League baseball and following the Brewers and the Bucks. “Growing up in Milwaukee was like classic rock to me,” he says.
But Doucette was hardly a typical kid. His mother is African-American, his father white. Being biracial – a “neither-nor” as Doucette puts it – was tough, particularly at Wauwatosa East High School, which was predominantly white when he enrolled as a sophomore in 1990. “I broke into a sweat walking into school,” he says. Feeling self-conscious, he became an introvert, reading books in the back of the room during class.
As a child, music at home ranged from Stevie Wonder to Slick Rick, but he didn’t pay much attention. It wasn’t until college at Marquette University, a time to explore, that he began to take notice. He grew dreadlocks, smoked pot and discovered a ton of new music – electronic, trip-hop, G. Love & Special Sauce, Counting Crows, Beck. “It hit me like a bomb,” he says. “I started to dream a little bit.”
Doucette registered for French and theology classes, and switched his major to English. He took a liking to William Faulkner, to American Indian writer Sherman Alexie and, of all things, to Viking sagas. “They’re like soap operas with broadswords,” he says. Inspired by his musical awakening and moved by the power of words, he tried his hand at writing personal essays and poetry, chasing his muse. “I had no career plans whatsoever,” he says. “It was my beginning of trying to live life as fearless