“This is HIP-HOP. I don’t know what they told you, but this is called HIP-HOP!”
DJ Artistic has me in a gentle headlock as he shouts this into my ear. He’s not being aggressive; he just needs to draw me in low and close if there’s any way I’m going to hear him over the music pumping out from the stage and filling the low confines of the North Park club U-31. We’re up behind the two sets of turntables and the three MacBook Pros and the mixers and the speakers that are blaring a modern-day cover of Bill Withers’ ’77 groove tune “Lovely Day.” (When I wake up in the morning, love/ And the sunlight hits my eyes…)
Tonight is “Generations” night at U-31; the music will range from updated old school to an early-’90s rap number like “They Want EFX” (So Peter Piper, I’m hyper than Pinocchio’s nose/ I’m the supercalafragilistic tic-tac pro…) to Jay-Z doing intro work for TI on ’04’s “Bring ’em Out” (Once again what other rap nigga hooder than this/ I got rich and I’m still on some hooligan shit). Nothing sounds as if it’s been on the radio lately, and it looks as though that’s the way everybody here likes it.
For now, the dreadlocked DJ Artistic is much more MC than DJ — he leaves the turntables to others and picks up the microphone to rally the crowd. “Ladies, make some noise! Fellas make some noise! Everybody say Ho! This party is in full effect!” He’s right about this much: the floor is full, row after row of hipster bodies outfitted with cocktails and artful bedhead and carefully haphazard outfits. One or two of them are even dancing. But mostly, movement is confined to milling and head-bobbing to the beat, the latter of which sets up a herky-jerk undulation along the surface of the crowd. The relative stasis is impressive, given the strength of the beat; I jot in my pad, “Are these people numb?” But then, it’s only 11:00; the night is young — and it’s not as if they’re ignoring the music. For the most part, folks face the stage, watching the DJs do their thing as the disco ball spins and sparkles overhead.
For the DJs, “their thing” is keeping the party going, mixing, and scratching — in that order. I’m here tonight to see DJ Felt1, late of the Sharpshooters crew, and as he puts it, “If you can scratch, but you don’t know how to mix, don’t call yourself a DJ. Know when to mix — know the bars, learn the verses, and once you’ve got that down, you can freak it your own way. Like maybe you scratch in the beat before it comes into the mix, just to give it that extra flavor.” Your job is to keep the flow, one song slipping into another before the people have time to get bored, before they start wondering what’s happening somewhere else. You never play a song all the way through. “Before,” says Felt1, “it was ‘Let’s DJ to make ’em dance.’ Now, it’s like, ‘Let’s DJ to keep them in the place.’ You can have a dead dance floor and a packed bar and still be making money. You might make more money working at a dive bar and pulling a bar percentage than a downtown club” for a flat fee. “You have to read the crowd.” (The fee thing is based largely on reputation — the more likely your name is to pull a crowd, the more you command. A newbie downtown might get less than $200, a genuine celebrity DJ, $2000.)
Just now, Felt1 is reading his track list, spinning a knob on the right-hand mixer to scroll through the near-endless song list on his laptop screen. (The songs are arranged by beats per minute— a standard evening might start out at around 78 bpm and finish up around 120. Smooth mixing requires that you build slowly, gently drawing the crowd along.) Over on the left, DJ Neil Armstrong is working through a longish set — he’s been away, and this is his welcome-back night. His cuts are frequent and dramatic, often with a heavy, even scratch busting in between songs. (A note on the scratching: once upon a time, DJs played records, grooved vinyl discs that delivered analog sound when you ran a needle along the groove. Now they spin vinyl discs that deliver a control signal to the mixer. You place the needle at the edge of the disc, and the rotation starts whatever mp3 you’ve got cued up on your Scratch Live software from the beginning. Scratching, once the natural result of pulling a disc back to cue it up, has become a digital sound effect. But a very good one. The delay between hand-motion and registered sound is split-second, almost unnoticeable.)
DJ Artistic breaks in to rap along over top of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”: “Uh, and if you don’t know, now you know, nigga…Let’s go, San Diego! Make some noise! Now get the fuck up!” This is his lead-in for Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says,” which starts off Felt1’s set and opens with, you guessed it, “Simon says, ‘GET THE FUCK UP!’” From there we move into Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None),” which includes a pretty rough stanza from Kurupt (And then I’m through with it/ There’s nothing else to do with it). That makes for a smooth segue into Kurupt’s “We Can Freak It”; smooth too is the fade from one song to the next. Felt1 saves his scratching for relatively low-volume quick work over top of the songs themselves. The bodies on the floor start to come unstuck and really move.
It’s a very different scene when Felt1 plays the downtown club On Broadway. Under the high, ornamented beams of the ceiling, it’s all untucked dress shirts on the men and short, stretchy dresses on the ladies. Somebody works a light show from up in a balcony, and a hostess in fishnets and a black bustier hauls big bottles of high-end vodka and stacks of glasses over to guests willing to pay for a table and bottle service. (This much is the same: it’s freaking loud.) The DJ works alone in a booth well above the parquet dance floor, sipping a Grey Goose and cranberry brought to him by a promoter. “There are something like six promoters here,” Felt1 explains. “Some promoters just Facebook all day to get people to come down to the club, or they walk around and pass out flyers. They have nothing to do with the music.” That’s what they hire DJs like Felt1 for.