But Felt1 has to play to the crowd, and what this crowd wants is what’s on the radio. “From ten to ten-thirty, I’ll do all radio,” he tells me. “I’ve been doing all right, but I’ll also throw in ‘Billie Jean,’ see what they do. Once, some girl came up to me and asked, ‘When are you gonna play some good music?’ I was playing ‘Human Nature’!” (At the moment, he’s blaring the Z-Trip remix of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.”) Still, the playlist runs to the familiar: Kid Cudi making Lady Gaga sound dirty when she sings “Poker face” as “Poke-her-face,” Mariah Carey, LL Cool J, 50 Cent, Eve. Oh, and Kinfolk Kia Shine’s “So Krispy,” which I seem to hear wherever I go. That and Trey Songz’ “Say Aah.”
The dance might as well be in a high school gym; the social dynamics seem pretty much the same. A single lady in booty shorts and a black tank top faces the DJ and works it hard and slow — call her the Constant. Over at the edge, two dudes face each other and hop around for a minute or two, mugging. One of them manages to approach the Constant; they gyrate against each other briefly, and then he disappears. A single white female in a kicky dress moseys out and starts a tentative shuffle. The Constant finds her and they dance, but Constant scares her off with a flirty touch to the back. We finally get a proper couple, but they’re both holding their drinks, and that slows them down. Five petite Asians with bare legs and heels of varying heights emerge from the restroom and begin to cross the floor. They stop, dance a little, take each others’ pictures, and start working their cell phones. The bass hits like missiles, the lights flash like bombs. Eventually, I count a dozen women out on the floor — and no men. They sit at the tables, nursing their beers and taking in the show. For the DJ, it’s enough.
DJ Felt1 is DJ Felt1 because he came to the music part of hip-hop through the art part of hip-hop: paint work. “Felt is like ‘felt-tip marker.’ I was doing full murals; it got to the point where people didn’t even know my real name. I lived near Morse, but I knew if I went there, I probably wouldn’t graduate. It was too close to home, and all of my friends were ditching. So I chose to go to University City. My brother started DJing in ’86,” when Felt1 was ten years old, “and I was the little brother who rolled with him. I started in ’89, playing as a hobby. This was when hip-hop was fresh, so there were no lines on what you could and couldn’t do. I even tried rapping, but it wasn’t my thing. That’s when I started with the art. My ninth-grade art teacher said I had a good eye for it.”
University City offered classes in graphic design, and that led to a graphic-art school in Denver. “But when I came back, I couldn’t find any work. I took whatever I could find, club flyers, stuff like that.” Around this time, he hooked up with an old neighbor who had just gotten his turntables and was also looking to start a clothing line. “We’d practice our DJ skills while we were designing, and that’s what got me back into DJ work. I’d make deals with club promoters — ‘I can do your flyers for free; just pay me to DJ.’” Today, he still designs shirts for Armory Survival Gear and also works at the Armory store on F Street downtown. There used to be four locations, including one in Tokyo, and they used to sell a lot of vintage vinyl. But then, you know, digital. These days, it’s mostly hats and T-shirts and DVDs of the company’s freestyle DJ sessions, which started in the Chula Vista YMCA before going international and moving to L.A. Oh, and spray paint, custom-designed for graffiti artists. “The pressure in the can is lower, so the paint comes out slower,” explains Felt1. “You get cleaner lines. I probably did my last work about three months ago.”
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That old neighbor Felt1 hooked up with now goes by the name DJ Pacman, a handle bestowed by a friend after Pacman shaved his head for the first time. Like Felt1, Pacman began his forays into hip-hop through a spray can before turning to the turntable. “It’s different skills,” he says, “but the same as far as expression goes. When I was a kid, I used to see all those writings — people call it graffiti. All the techniques were really fascinating to me. The closer in your can, the thinner the line, almost like an airbrush technique.” Enchanted, Pacman set out to become a hip-hop artist. “A lot of people have mistaken hip-hop, the actual subculture, for rap. But when I moved from National City to Paradise Hills in elementary school, I just saw it as what people did in the neighborhood. It influences how you walk, how you dress, how you talk. When people said, ‘That’s wack,’ that’s just what people said.”
The music was just part of the scene. “I think hip-hop artists grab from the environment and translate it into how they see or feel” — techno, house, rap, etc. “I was just in love with the music, the beats — when you heard it, it made you feel a certain way.” Then Run-D.M.C. broke out on television in ’85, and Pacman realized he was part of a thing. And then, on “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff,” the Fresh Prince asked DJ Jazzy Jeff to make the record sound like a bird, and Pacman realized he wanted to be a DJ. “It’s called a chirp scratch. When I first heard it, I thought, ‘Wow, how do you do that?’ I was working at an ice cream shop, and I saved up and bought two turntables for probably $1000. A decent mixer was maybe $100.”