Turning the tables as a club DJ
BY COREY LEVITAN
As a music critic, I'm always telling people what they should listen to.
Finally I have the chance to MAKE them listen to it. Club DJs turn people onto fantastic sounds they would never sample on their own.
When Mix, the Santa Monica hotspot, accepted my proposal to spin records during a busy weekend evening, I fantasized about segueing the Chemical Bros.' "Setting Sun" into the identically trance-like "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles, then watching people freak when I informed them what they were dancing to.
I was so caught up in this fantasy that I bought a rave-issue shiny shirt and one of those green glow-sticks that midwestern school kids are banned from wearing because it leads to Satanic dismemberment. (A head shop sold it to me as a "mouth stick" although the foil package clearly states "not for use in mouth." Then again, this was a place that pretends to sell "tobacco" bongs.)
I planned to call myself a ridiculous name like DJ Earwax and back-announce all my songs with a British accent.
As per usual with these adventures, however, my fantasy crash lands like Buddy Holly's plane onto the cold Iowa cornfield of reality.
I arrive at Mix early on the evening of my turntable debut for a lesson from Rob "DJ Robbie" Amar. I ascend a flight of stairs to the DJ booth in the back and introduce myself. A club DJ for 13 years, the shaved-bald 33-year-old was born in France but grew up in Ibiza, Spain. He moved to New York in 1983 and now lives in L.A., where he works by day at a production company.
I take a cursory flip through Amar's music, housed in milk crates and U.S. mail cartons, to see what I like. It is the first time my hands touch vinyl records since my main mode of transportation was the 10-speed bike.
"Careful!" Amar cautions. Actually, my hands aren't supposed to touch these vinyl records. When I pull them out, my thumb needs to be at the edge and my middle finger on the spindle hole. And the records are all in some kind of order known only to Amar. So I need to pull out only the vinyl, leaving the jacket jutting out of the pile. That way I won't lose the place.
These are a lot of rules for someone whose business is called free-styling.
Worrying about how to handle the records I want to play turns out to be wishful thinking anyway. Amar's record collection is like satellite cable TV -- 10,000 choices and none that rings your bell. In fact, none rings ANY bell. Forget the Beatles, I can't even find the Chemical Bros. -- only names such as Nucci Rey-O, Canele and Oakland Faders.
Some records aren't even identifiable. They're in white jackets with white labels marked at most with a single letter. Amar explains that these contain pumped-up mixes of popular songs that weren't cleared by the copyright owners. He picks them up at underground music stores.
"They're illegal," he says. Last year the hottest "white label" was a remix of the Stevie Wonder track "All I Do," from his 1980 album "Hotter Than July." Amar's is marked only with an "S."
"Oh, you gotta know what's what," Amar says.
OK, so maybe I won't pick the music tonight. But at least I'll get to be witty when I address the crowd in my British accent, right? I grab the microphone to give Amar a sample of DJ Earwax. But the metallic object at the end of the snaky, coily thing is a light, not a microphone.
"Oh, there's no mike," Amar says. "Real DJs don't use mikes. Bar mitzvah DJs do."
Hmm. So Beck's "two turntables and microphone" lyric was really about that night he spent working the catering hall at Temple Beth Shalom?
I've got the wrong attitude, Amar explains. Good club DJs aren't about making a name for themselves. They're about pleasing the crowd. I ask Amar to furnish an example of a good club DJ.
"I don't really know them by name," he says, proving his own point. "I judge a DJ by the crowd, not really by what they do."
In other words, the better the DJ, the less known he becomes, until he becomes so great that he gets sucked up into the same vortex of oblivion that now houses that Oates guy from Hall & Oates.
Just about the only element Amar won't rob from my DJ fantasy is the satisfaction of getting a dancefloor pumping, then mixing one song successfully into the beat of the next. He commences our lesson at 9 p.m. in the obligingly empty club, introducing me to two Technics SL1200 MK2 turntables and a Vestax PMC-15 mixer with enough flashing electronic circuitry to navigate the starship Enterprise.
As one record plays on the P.A., Amar explains, you listen with headphones to what's on the other turntable. A pitch dial on the on-deck turntable speeds or slows the beat to match the record on the live turntable, and you fade from one to the other with a sliding button on the mixer.
"Knowing if you're successful is easy," Amar says. "Either the dancefloor pumps or it clears. It's the same as sex. If you've REALLY succeeded, you hear screams." (There are supposed to be screams during sex?)
The crossfade during a mix is slow, and a good DJ will try to keep the fader in the middle for as long as possible, so that both records simultaneously play over the P.A. without losing synchronization.
"But you're not gonna get good enough to do that tonight," Amar says with unwelcome confidence.
We begin with "Lady Hear Me Tonight" by Modjo. I place it on the turntable and hit the 45 r.p.m. selector. Then I listen through headphones to the next record Amar has picked, a white label filled with instrumental house music. The beats refuse to line up, despite my pitch-dial finagling. Whitney Houston, we have a problem.
"You put Modjo on the wrong speed," says Amar, laughing. It is a 33 r.p.m. record. Strangely enough, even after my blunder is revealed, the accelerated Modjo record doesn't sound particularly wrong to me. Perhaps radioactivity is leaking from my mouth stick. Perhaps this music simply sucks.
Amar corrects the speed and I try again. I line the beats up but they keep going out of synch. I feel like an air-traffic controller trying to prevent two 747s from colliding. Finally, I fade across quickly, missing about a quarter of a beat. I am confident that it was close enough for Amar not to notice.
"That's called a train wreck," Amar says, looking up to the DJ booth from the bar, where he downs a tequila in preparation for the hell this night will likely become.
About a minute into the white label, I accidentally bump the turntable while scouring through Amar's stacks again. The needle skips. I hear screams, but they're coming from Amar, not an ecstatic dancefloor.
"Did that skip by itself or because you hit the turntable?" Amar asks after sprinting back to the booth. He's not mad so much as desperate to know. If it skipped by itself, that would mean the record was bad and it might happen again. He's happy to learn the simple truth: I am horrible at this.
Customers begin to fill the club and my practice sessions take on an air of despondency. I decide that I will resort to another style of DJ'ing that Amar has taught me. Much easier than mixing, cutting between songs involves cueing up the on-deck record to the precise moment at which it begins. Five fingers on the vinyl hold it in place until the crossfade, which is immediate.
Amar puts on "Play" by Jennifer Lopez. I pull out something by British dance-funk duo Groove Armada.
"No!" Amar yells. "'Play' is 106 beats a minute, Groove Armada is 130 beats a minute!" Suddenly he is Rainman with the match sticks. I lay Groove Armada aside for later.
Further scrounging produces the first artist my DJ fantasy would genuinely include. I place James Brown's "Give It Up or Turn It Loose" on deck and get ready to turn it loose with my fingers. But Amar would rather I give it up.
"It's too early for that, too," he insists. "You need to play house music or disco first, to get people onto the dancefloor."
"Easy tiger," I respond. "Not knowing the rules can actually make you better at something." Assuring him that the dozen or so people on the dancefloor will remain there, I drop the needle and turn it over to the Godfather of Soul.
"Just watch," I say.
Not only do people leave the dancefloor, some actually leave the club. Godfather, schmodfather. The scene looks more like "The Sopranos" after the Feds raid the Bada Bing club.
"People don't respect your integrity if you switch it up," Amar explains with an I-told-you-so grin. "The night isn't 70 songs. It's one four-hour song." (This statement makes me suspect Amar may be a closet Carlos Santana fan.)
Amar shoos me aside and takes back the reins to try and repopulate the dancefloor using more of his flavorless house music. To protest the blatant censorship, I file Groove Armada back in the pile out of order. He'll never find it again.
"I was totally digging the James Brown," says Theresa Cameron, a pretty blonde from Sherman Oaks who I hit the crowd to interview. "I would have danced, but I didn't have anybody to dance with." (Doubt is cast on the validity of Cameron's claim, however, when I ask her to dance and she says no.)
After a half hour, I muster the nerve for a takeover attempt at the DJ booth. The club's owner, David Teck, said this was supposed to be my night up there.
"Fine, but you need to listen to me," Amar says. "Every song belongs to a particular moment of the night. Otherwise, it's like a jukebox."
A broken jukebox, in my case. I accidentally wait too long before launching "Got to Be Real," causing two full seconds of dead air. Then I overcompensate when cutting into Koffee Brown's "Afterparty," lopping off the final chords of Cheryl Lynn's disco inferno. Call me DJ (Not So) Quik.
Amar covers his eyes with his hands and shakes his head.
"You don't hear it, you FEEL it," he says. "That's why it's music and not songs."
A bigger problem begins to develop during this latest Amar lecture. "Afterparty" is ending and I have nothing on deck. In a moment of inspirational clarity, I ask Amar if he has any Run-DMC.
"Yeah, but it's not time for rap," he says. "Disco is 125 beats per minute, rap is 90-100 beats per minute."
Again with the Rainman stuff.
"Yes, but I FEEL it," I insist, appealing to Amar in his own language. It works and he reluctantly produces Run-DMC's "Peter Piper," confident that my second failure will permanently keep me out of his hair (well, out of his shaved head, anyway).
I meticulously pinpoint the opening raps on the on-deck turntable and try to anticipate the end of "Afterparty," which I do not know by heart. Add this to the list of moments inside of which 5 seconds seems like a lifetime.
"Now Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rocked rhymes!" the speakers suddenly blare as though my fingers had acted without a signal from my brain.
Not only does the 1985 rap tune launch on time and without a hitch, but the people on the dancefloor remain there. I think I may have even heard a scream.
"Good one!" Amar says.
He invites me to remain in command, but my point is proven. Besides, I don't want to stay in the DJ booth all night.
I'd rather get out there and make a name for myself.
Click here to return to home page