Once upon a time (1997-2001, to be precise), I was a DJ. Before we all get swept away imagining my jet-setting lifestyle (or wedding/bar mitzvah-ing lifestyle), let me clarify.
I was a DJ at one of the top (and certainly the top, for a couple of those years) nightspots in a midwestern town of 50,000. And this wasn’t one of those influential midwestern hotspots with a small cadre of buzzworthy bands erupting from below the placid surface. This was a rather unremarkable western South Dakota town that lay directly at the intersection of “bucolic” and “touristy.”
Putting yourself into my (always) white hi-tops doesn’t seem nearly as “jetsetting” or even “interesting” as it did merely sentences ago. In fact, the whole medium-fish-in-a-draining-pond scenario makes you kind of want to nip around back and do yourself in. And if it doesn’t, let me drop a little more cultural science on you to further set the scene.
There is an Air Force base in town. What little variety in color and ethnicity there is stems from the import of races more prevalent elsewhere in the nation. The locals are heavily dependent on country music. At least, the older locals are. The younger ones are heavily dependent on hip hop, as are nearly all white kids estranged from urban areas. So, the college crowd, sprinkled with some fake ID’ed high schoolers would want to hear nothing but hip hop, occasionally mixing it up with something atrociously “rockish,” like Creed, Godsmack or Limp Bizkit.
The older crowd would say delightful things like “Play some Bee Gees” or “Do you have some AC/DC?” or even (this was more prevalent at the second, more rock-oriented bar I worked at briefly) “When are you going to stop playing this nigger music?” Whee. Good times. (Still thinking there’s a huge upside here that vastly outweighs nipping around back and offing yourself? There is, to a point, and I’ll be getting to it.)
So, I stepped into the DJ booth after a few months of fucking around with it during my nights off and immediately marvelled at the fact that no one wanted to hear anything from my favorite bands (Love & Rockets, the Pixies, Skinny Puppy) and were only interested in listening to an instant replay of their Top 40 radio. I adjusted rather quickly to this not-shocking-at-all fact and swiftly became “The DJ” at the club. The clubgoers liked the fact that I played a ton of requests and I liked the fact that I got free drinks and pretty decent hourly wage to play music.
But being a DJ means you’re also the sort of guy who will sink an entire $10 into the jukebox (and this is back where 25-50 cents a play was the norm) just to have some control over your drinking environment. And as I discovered new music, I quickly foisted it on the customers. They still wanted Top 40 hits, heavily laced with hip hop and the occasional growly rock track (when not insisting in an offensive manner that I completely flip the ratio) and I, being the sort of jukebox-jacker I was, snuck in some not-on-the-incredibly-outdated-radar tracks. And to my surprise (and completely ego-swelling pleasure), some of these tracks took off and became heavily-requested numbers of their own.
FURTHER FRAMING: Heyday of Big Beat. Supposed “techno takeover” of America imminent. Complete lack of “rave music” history with most of the local crowd.
STAY WITH ME. (I appreciate the fact that we are 600 words in and I haven’t even started with the music. Apologies all around.)
Here’s where the breakthrough began. On some sort of prepackaged Top 40 hits CD was the following hidden gem. Bouncy, Latin, fun and completely unlike everything else on it (like say, C’Mon ‘N Ride It, a track which those of us trapped at the club by employment swiftly grew to hate with an unhealthy passion). Whoever the fuck the Mighty Dub Katz were, they certainly threw one hell of a self-contained party, one which sounded completely unlike the Steppenwolf track of the same name.
This took off. And why not? How could you argue with that groove or the good-natured electrofunk? Research was needed because if these Mighty Dub Katz had anything else out there, I wanted it.
The results came in: the Mighty Dub Katz were in fact one man, Brighton DJ and producer, Norman Cook. But what else had this Norman Cook recorded? Seemed to be somewhat of a dead-end (this was pre-everyone-has-an-internet-at-their-house — keep in mind this is South Dakota and in 1997 there were still quite a few rotary phones in use) until it was discovered that Cook had just released an album under the name Fatboy Slim. Better Living Through Chemistry was played to death by me, not that any particular tune became a minor “this club only” hit, but it was an enjoyable way to start amping up the night before giving way to the normal Top 40 fare.
On the other hand, some older rave tracks caught my ear, went into the decks and caught other ears. One, an early track by Moby (released under the name Voodoo Child) became a frequent request, thanks to its piano breakdowns and drug slang that no one on this side of the pond really understood. (It’s ‘X” over here for some reason, despite the fact there’s no “x” in “ecstasy” [unless you let suddenly cuddly rap stars spell it.])
Voodoo Child – Next Is the E
Only a half-decade past its release and it lives and breathes in South Dakota. There’s probably an extended riff in there that David Foster Wallace would handle with aplomb*. Another tool in my DJ kit also called ‘1992’ home, a speedy primal techno track that stood out from the pack of other speedy primal techno tracks with its inclusion of a ridiculously speedy looped metal riff.
*”Aplomb” meaning “shitloads of footnotes.”
Along the way, I discovered the Chemical Brothers, starting with Dig Your Own Hole and working my way backward to their debut, Exit Planet Dust. Block Rockin’ Beats was the obvious selection, but I found that Song to the Siren’s opening bursts of warped female vox was made for interjecting into whatever tune was already playing, priming the pump for the bizarre breakdown that led to some pumping 4-on-4 action.
Between the ChemBro’s second album and Fatboy Slim’s blistering party-in-a-CD You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, it certainly seemed possible that America would become a raver’s paradise, much like the British Empire, which had already racked up over a decade’s worth of experience by 1999. Fatboy Slim’s album in particular was the ultimate gateway drug, with attitude on loan from decadent rock stars and acidic touches on loan from Mr. Slim’s 10+ years in the dance music business.
The Rockafeller Skank was big. Praise You was bigger. But the secret weapon was Praise You’s b-side, a huge shit-eating-grin of a track, all wack loops and dirty vocal samples. Not quite as dirty as In Heaven, but you didn’t have to double up on any entendres once the looped vocal kicked in (which was immediately):
Pumpin and bumpin and thumpin and bumpin
The man was also directly responsible for this under-the-nonexistent-Midwestern-radar localized-to-one-club-only hit, possibly the first time in South Dakota’s history that Indian music (by real Indians, rather than just misnamed ones) had been heard at club-music volume. While the original single was pleasant enough, Slim’s bigger beats and chopped-up lyrical loops kicked its pleasant ass all over the dancefloor. And then there’s the breakdown, a faux call-and-response that namedrops everyone from the titular Asha Bhosle to French rock star Jacques Dutronc to Trojan Records.
But it wasn’t just CLT’s house o’ big beats. Harder, faster stuff made an appearance as well. Like every other DJ on the proverbial block, trancier stuff got airtime, as well as a variety of oddball, never-should-have-made-it tracks that took off for whatever reason (most likely due to the Top 40ish caning they received from the resident DJ). We’ll get to that in some future posts, but until then, here’s a taste of one of the directions we’re headed, courtesy of Yves Deruyter (who himself made his way into my ears courtesy of a hellaciously great mix album by Danny “12-hour-set” Tenaglia.)