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Spinning Society

by Dave Roberts

In a large black open space, a crowd of Ns made of faint blue light dances an immaculate waltz, clustering at the center of the floor only to burst apart like a million stellar lives played out in miniature. On a massive screen on the far wall a succession of post-adolescent, would-be pop divas shake their goods in music videos intended, one suspects, to arouse and inspire the male and female members of the crowd, respectively. It’s party time, and the N Club has just opened for business.

At the moment, however, very little is actually occurring. It’s only 11 p.m., after all, and a Wednesday at that. DJ AC is dropping a fairly standard rotation on the sparse patronage. They are too few, and perhaps too sober as of yet, for any of them to feel comfortable dancing. Aside from the occasional blast of fog from the DJ booth, nothing too steamy is happening.

Undeterred, AC moves to the next song, one of many “mash-ups,” an industry term for blending the elements of one song with those of another. For example, the lyrics of Gwen Stefani’s “Holla Back Girl” are currently being set against the backbeat to Linkin Park’s “Numb.” Shortly thereafter, Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” lines up behind Carlos Santana’s voice on “Oye Como Va” paired with the beat of the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” “Low” by Flo Rida and T-Pain transitions to “Superfreak,” which gives way to Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina.” By this time the club has attracted a respectable crowd, and the Ns on the floor are no longer alone in their dance.

Knowing next to nothing about the club scene except that they’re loud, full of gorgeous people and difficult to have good conversations in, a question keeps popping up this first night of research: Do DJs matter? Could a prearranged playlist of mass-produced mash-ups achieve the same effect? What does the DJ actually accomplish? One can dance anywhere. One can hear techno, hip hop, etc., in far cheaper venues, even from a home computer. Why would people pay $10 covers to buy $5 drinks?

The grinding figures on the wall are logical extensions of a dance club’s ultimate purpose: providing a highly charged sexual atmosphere. Dance clubs are not in the business of music, at least not primarily; they are selling a mood, one conducive to hooking up, where people can display their genetically desirable traits without the judgment of the repressed. Be it their bodies’ symmetry, socioeconomic status or physical coordination, everyone here is presenting his or her wares on the floor of a DNA commodities market; though here the cacophony is provided not by traders but by our subject: the DJ. It is his job to keep people moving, to help them release their inhibitions – a task he bears in concert with the bartenders.

In spiked hair, a T-shirt and ripped jeans, Matt Owen, better known as DJ 818, stands out from the Calvin Klein types congregating around the bar. In his booth under the stairs at Much, instead of the old-fashioned turntable set-up, a brace of touch-pads with a sleek black surface respond to his fingertips. A trio of screens conveys information: the two tracks playing, those on the way, the sound levels of each. It requires the multitasking abilities of a head chef in a five-star restaurant: One dish is boiling while the prep work begins on another. The pre-made tracks, a marinade prepared the night before, can still burn if left unattended. All of this must be accomplished without a sous chef and a team of line cooks to carry out the more mundane tasks.

But technology has made this balancing act far easier, as 818 explains. His set-up utilizes the program Serato Scratch LIVE, which displays the tracks being played and a set-list below them. All he needs to do is click the one he wants. It’s simplified his work considerably.

“Before I’d have to carry crates of records in to have like a very wide variety,” he says, “plus two books of CDs. This, it’s all MP3s and I can break it down to what kind of music it is, like seventies, eighties, nineties rock, stuff like that. Pretty much it’s the cutting edge of DJ-ing right now. It makes an okay DJ sound good; it makes a good DJ sound great; it makes a great DJ sound exceptional. You can do a bunch of different things with it and plus I can carry like ten thousand songs on my laptop.”

In addition to being able to multitask, he needs a comedian’s sense of showmanship, constantly adjusting to the subtle responses of the crowd.

“I go with the flow,” he says. “It’s all kinda improv. I always read off the crowd. Sometimes they’re feeling older hip hop and sometimes they’re feeling newer stuff. Sometimes crowds are feeling old seventies and eighties. This all depends on being able to read the crowd and seeing what they like. You play something they don’t like and you don’t realize it, next thing you know everybody’s gonna walk on off. I’ve known many DJs, they go out somewhere and they get shook. Like they’re at the plate and they got Roger Clemens pitching at ’em.”

Just as they are dancing with each other, he is dancing with them, sensing their reactions, leading but still responding, keeping them moving, stimulated, a seduction of the senses.

The clientele is just as eclectic. Ages range across decades as virtual nightlife embryos in tank-tops sit across from would-be cougars in their early 40s. One of the former, a girl in a blue tank, sits cross-armed and humorless, feigning interest in an NCAA game of little importance on the flat-screen monitor, even as her friends implore her to cheer up and join in the fun. Later on, curious as to why I’m sitting in the middle of a club on a Friday night scribbling furiously in a notebook, one of her friends strikes up a conversation, during which I learn that the unhappy girl has recently broken up with her boyfriend.

It would seem a daunting task to find music that appeals to all of them, younger and older, carefree and broken-hearted. Yet as the first strains of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” swell from the speakers, it brings such a reaction of adulation from the crowd that 818 lets it stand unmashed on its own for two full verses – more of a spotlight than he’s given any other song tonight – before “Love Rollercoaster” shoves it aside, to be similarly replaced by upstart reggaeton. Then House of Pain’s “Jump Around” dances with Eminem’s “Without Me” mated with Britney Spears’ “Gimme More.” Asked to name the strangest mash-up he’s ever concocted, 818 pauses a moment before answering confidently:

“I was playing at Arizona Pete’s and I did the vocals of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ with the beat of ‘Bossy’ by Kelis,” he says before turning his attention back to the boards. “It actually kind of worked.”

Much’s decor is similarly schizophrenic: Exposed brick walls and ventilation pipes on the ceiling smack abruptly against faux rocks, tiki torches and other jungle miscellany. Christmas lights intertwine with vines above and along the banister leading upstairs where curtains of virginal white soak up the shifting colored lights behind them. Glass orbs of variegated hues hang suspended in mid-air.

Is that the intention, or at least the result? To bombard the mind with scraps of tantalizing recognition, snatching them away just as it reaches to grasp them, leaving it punch-drunk and receptive to suggestion, an audio intoxicant supplementing and/or substituting for the kaleidoscope of liquors flowing from the bar? Whatever the answer, the girl in the blue tank top who had carried a dour look for the better part of the evening now bounces joyously with her friends. The weight that had burdened her before has been lifted.

At Club Heaven, a strip of rooftop measuring 20 by 100 feet, black and white curtains stretch from the high wall on one side to the ledge on the opposite one buffer the February winds, though not entirely. If not for the heating lamps strategically placed every 10 feet or so, this would be a most unsuitable place to relax and dance. As it is, patrons cluster around the blazing gas lamps on the floor and the small torches on the wall that provide much of the ambient light. It seems ironic that Heaven is lit entirely by flames.

Inside the booth it is claustrophobic. Rayvan Murphy, or rather DJ Frenzy, is filling in for DJ AC, who has the flu, and DJ Spinny, who missed his flight out of Florida. His set-up (or rather DJ Spinny’s, as it has his name on a white label on the side) looks at first glance like a traditional pair of turntables, but there are no actual records on them. Though there’s a needle running on the faux grooves, the tables are essentially the same devices as 818’s touchpads from the other night. The design is touching in a way, reverent of the technology of the past, like a joystick on a Harrier jet or a crow’s nest on a freighter’s radar tower.

“There’s no one out there,” Frenzy says to 818, who’s assisting his friend and mentor this evening, “This is terrible.”

It is a bit slow so far, but the night is fairly young. The crowd has a somewhat older mix than N Club or Much, though they are similarly attired. There is an entire cow’s worth of black leather jackets at the bar alone. It’s cold enough to merit beer cozies for a few of the ladies, nonetheless there is an impressive display of flesh on the part of the female clientele. One woman sports a red blouse the neckline of which plunges to her abdomen, revealing a pair of paw-print tattoos on her right breast. Within an hour or so the place has filled up nicely and a crowd has formed in front of the DJ booth, the temperature forgotten as they move to the beat.

By now, Frenzy is deep in his set and the origin of his chosen moniker becomes apparent. The motions of his hands as he switches tracks and levels, scratching here and there for emphasis, are fluid, instinctive, with no interlocutor between thought and action, as spontaneous as a pianist or a juggler, at one with his machinery. An apparatus of incredible complexity, the DJs mixing board and turntables require as much skill as any traditional musical instrument, if not more. Imagine, if you will, running two stereos at once: The songs must bleed seamlessly into one another and at the same time be adjusted for optimum sound, a bit more treble here, a bit softer on the base there; on top of that come the scratches, fully improvised. Like speed chess, the pieces must integrate as one cohesive unit in the mind of the player to be truly effective, but with even less time to consider the next move and no margin for error whatsoever. If the transitions are off by even a second, the flow is lost and the mood of the crowd violently disrupted. All this must be done while the offers of drinks and stunningly attractive women distract you.

The seeming effortlessness with which Frenzy operates comes from experience. He’s been doing this for five years, and while he prefers the feel of old-school turntables, he too acknowledges the impact of innovation on his field and changing tastes.

“With technology, a lot of people who couldn’t DJ before can DJ now,” he says. “It’s a lot easier for novices to do it. As for music, dance music is more popular than it was. When I started, hip hop was a lot more popular; but now we’re seeing a lot more up-tempo stuff.” His strangest mash-up is even more incongruous, yet perversely apt lyrically: Edie Brickell’s “What I Am Is What I Am” with Snoop Dogg’s “What’s My Name?”

Serendipitously, he addresses unbidden the primary question that has haunted this investigation. Asked about the future of DJing, “If it keeps going the way it’s going we’ll probably all be out of a job and it’s probably going to be an iPod up there.” He says. “Unless you can do something that an iPod can’t do, like scratches and stuff, you’re probably going to be out of a job.”

He’s being modest, or perhaps he’s just so accustomed to it after so many years that it no longer impresses him. More than just an iPod with a pulse, the DJ is a kind of emotional and musical alchemist, creating more than just new variations on familiar tunes, but rather blending and swirling melodies as a chef pairs seemingly incompatible flavors into something wholly new: ham and pineapple, strawberries and balsamic vinegar, oysters and cranberry stuffing. Who could foresee these being appetizing any more than they could foresee that the king of rock and roll would mesh comfortably with the singer whose milkshake brought all the boys to the yard, or a lounge singer with the Doggfather?

There is no other entertainment venue that engages so many instincts as the dance club. A bar hasn’t the pumping blood of exertion; a gym lacks the spontaneity; concerts don’t possess a tenth of the sexuality. Only clubs combine all these and more into one dizzying cocktail of visceral experience.

Whatever we are as humans – philosophers, poets, warriors, craftsmen – long before we were any of these things we were dancers and lovers, even if some of us have forgotten it. There is not a culture on Earth that does not move to its music. And no wonder: Dancing requires stamina, coordination, musculature, adaptability and most of all confidence in one’s possession of these traits. No wonder then it leads to so much romance. What better demonstration is there of ones genetic gifts? And no wonder it is so universal: Any gene that blesses its carrier with dancing skills will be assured of its passage to the next generation.

To an extent, the DJs are gatekeepers to that passage (one of many, to be sure), holding the fortunes of hundreds of people’s evenings in their hands every night. How many hook-ups occur because of them? How many first encounters leading to long-term relationships? How many marriages, children and grandchildren will come about because they played just the right song at just the right time? In the pond of causality, they wield some heavy rocks that cause far-reaching ripples.

For the moment at least, the DJ provides these hard-working, hard-playing people some much-needed release. The inhibitions that hold sway at the dancers’ nine-to-fives, their law firms and ad agencies, real estate partnerships and other button-down establishments have no power here. Here they have the freedom to let loose, at the very least, a fraction of the animals they were born as, the creatures we as humans have spent a lifetime learning to restrain in exchange for the considerable privileges of living in 21st-century civilization.

Here, instincts can be followed. We can scream with joy, flirt with abandon and rub ourselves against total strangers without fear. Here we can be bawdy, adventurous, untoward, express those last vestiges of the cavemen and women our genes carry within us.

The DJ is the midwife to this primal freedom’s struggling, screaming birth, coaxing it out of us as the bartender administers the epidural. They are as vital then, not only to the club but to the smooth turning of the gears of society, as the teachers, the police or any other profession that might be represented here among the patronage. All those professions need their release, for the containment of the id cannot sustain itself indefinitely. The boiler must vent. Looking out on the undulating field of bodies, one can almost hear the whistle of the steam valve, just enough to keep from boiling over for another week.

Comment on this story at yesweekly.com.

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