Figuring out how Jazzy Jeff did his chirp scratch meant hours of practice away from the public eye, same as any other musical instrument. “Even though the turntable plays songs that are already made,” says Pacman, “the way you use it to manipulate the sound, to create a rhythmic pattern, changes the songs. You can change the pace that’s going for the crowd — the way you transition and put songs together. To me, that’s kind of like an instrument.”
Figuring out how he did that also meant respect. “Where we grew up, there weren’t so many Laotian-Americans. But as far as hip-hop was concerned, it didn’t really matter. It just mattered what your skill set was.” At first, he grants, the race thing might have made things a bit awkward, “but if you executed well, you were respected. D.M.C. from Run-D.M.C. would have these DJ battles, and the Filipino DJ QBert won it three times. They actually retired him from defending his title.”
Pacman is still with the Sharpshooters, and I catch up with him working a Saturday night at club 923 in the Gaslamp. The place is near empty when I show up; extreme sports play on the big-screen TVs with the sound turned off. Pacman stands at a tiny booth in the front corner, wearing an Armory shirt styled after a Padres jersey and pushing music toward the couples in the booths on the opposite wall. Then, boom, in come a dozen girls in short black dresses and high black heels, over comes the bottle service of Svedka and mixers, and on go the familiar party tunes. “I’m not complaining,” says Pacman. “When it’s a birthday party” — and this is a birthday party — “you’ve got to recognize.” He fires up the Trey Songz, and the girls whoop like crazy.
Go girl, it’s your birthday
Open wide, I know you’re thirsty
One girl spills her drink as she dances. An employee rushes over to towel it up, and the tipsy dancer freaks over top of him while he works. A girl who was stuck in the line to get into On Broadway shows up and starts drinking champagne straight from the bottle. More people show up, but the dominant force in the room is still that dozen pairs of bare legs twisting around each other on the dance floor.
Our DJ for tonight keeps it decently current — 50 Cent’s “I Get Money,” Busta Rhymes’s “Arab Money,” the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long,” as well as the aforementioned “So Krispy.” That keeps it fun for the birthday crowd; he keeps it interesting for himself by playing with his fades between songs. Sometimes it’s seamless enough to be a little shocking — “We’re in a different song now?” — sometimes one beat drops into another; sometimes he’ll scratch in the beat. “It depends on my mood, how much flair I put in,” he says after working some low-volume scratches over the end of “Say Aah.”
Pacman is 32, a year younger than Felt1. But they both learned their craft long before the advent of mp3s and Scratch Live software, which came into use around 2005. These days, a DJ could conceivably work without a set of headphones to help him match the beat before making it live. He could, if he was lazy enough, content himself with simply matching the beat patterns streaming across his laptop screen. (Actually, if he was lazy enough, he could make his mix at home and hit “play” in the club, but that’s the kind of thing that will get you booted if you get caught.) Thanks to the computer, you can just pick a couple of tunes with similar beats per minute, line up your runs of bass and snare, and let ’em rip.
For someone who trained on vinyl, it can rankle. “I mean, it’s sort of like you’re playing Guitar Hero on Playstation,” laments Pacman. “You’re not a guitarist just because you can play Guitar Hero; you’re kidding me. That’s kind of how we see it. Because of technology, you have a million DJs in one city now. Microwave instant DJs, you know? But I’m not saying that it’s bad or good. Just that they won’t appreciate the level of skill as much as we did — or do.”
Consider: in the mid-’90s, when Pacman was starting out, “One single was $5.99. And sometimes, a DJ would want to repeat a verse or do tricks — make a different beat from the song — so you’d need two copies. A lot of the old-school DJs had doubles of everything. People still do that kind of thing,” but now, all they have to do is cue up the same mp3 on both sides of their Scratch Live deck, and away they go. Plus, they’re not hauling crates of vinyl everywhere. Kids today, with their parties at Belo.
Back in the day, it was undergrounds in the ballroom at the Red Lion Hotel in Mission Valley. Or the Scottish Rite Center. Or the Ramada Inn on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. Somebody rents the hall, somebody prints the flyers. “You’d call a pager to find out where to get more info. You’d go there, and if you looked cool” — i.e., not a cop — “you’d go to the party. A thousand kids would come, 16 and up. There would be competitions — breakdancing battles, DJ battles, graffiti battles.”
Pacman and friends began by attending undergrounds hosted by locals like Kutfather and Z90’s Big Daddy, but it wasn’t long before they were hosting their own, printing flyers at Kinko’s and passing the word. “We were all just teenagers. It’s crazy to think about it now.” It started with house parties. After that, “You started doing quinceañeras or sweet 16s. If I knew someone’s birthday was coming up, I’d ask them if I could DJ their party. I’d charge 20 or 40 bucks — it was worth it to have people hear me. And you’re making the flyers, and it says who’s playing,” and people come because, hey, the guy’s name is on a flyer, and then they like the music, and here comes the reputation. “I remember my first paying gig, some hole-in-the-wall where they charged $5 to get in. They even had a booty contest for a pager. These girls were, like, 16, and I was 17, and just seeing that, I was, like, ‘Oh my God.’ That was how it all started.” And after a while, you hooked up with some DJs you knew and respected and formed a crew, just to help market the brand. So that today, when people hear Sharpshooters, they know they’re getting “hip-hop DJs who have been doing this for well over 15 years.”