Alternative Idol

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June 9, 2003 // UPDATED 10:51 am - April 30, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

In a Downtown basement, DJs vie for a night of stardom

In a tiny bruise-blue backroom in the basement of Let It Be Records, 1001 Nicollet Ave. S., aspiring DJs compete every other Saturday for a coveted night of spinning at a local hot spot.

It may look mellow - there\'s a couch, T.V., Nintendo, recliner, coffee table, life-sized plastic dog and shelves with a few KISS figurines - but the competition is intense. The evening\'s six contestants were drawn from a brown paper bag of 400 or so applicants. They bring their own headphones and records, and the house provides the turntables and mixers.

DJs get 20 minutes to prove their musical elan. The contest features Techno, House, Trance, Drum & Bass (also called Jungle) and Experimental music - electronic genres with hundreds of sub-genres. Contestants are evaluated on their \"beat matching\" (their ability to blend the tempos of two tracks together), track selection, overall skills and stage presence.

\"If you\'re feeling it up there, you might win for your stage presence,\" said Jevne Miller, 27, before the May 10 contest began. Miller, who travels nationally as a full-time DJ and manages the store\'s basement, which specializes in dance and electornic records, created the contest about a year ago as a feeder for DJ hopefuls.

\"There aren\'t a lot of opportunities to play. It\'s a battle to get a spot,\" said the shaggy-haired Miller, who wore a t-shirt that said \"Play.\"

First prize is a DJ slot at the Quest, 110 N. 5th St., spinning for \"Plush\" - the club\'s techno night - plus a $50 Let It Be gift certificate. Second-placers get $20 in store money, and third-placers win a \"secret\" prize.

As Downtown\'s alternative mini-version of \"American Idol,\" judge and veteran DJ Mason Thelan, 21, said the contest is a \"steppingstone for aspiring young DJs. Plus it gives people the chance to play on a system this loud and for a group of people.\"

\"Plush\" runs every Saturday night at the Quest. Although the cover charge is around $20, the show is packed with hundreds of fans, said Mike Mahigal, 19, who works at the club and Let It Be. Urb Magazine, an edgy music monthly, voted \"Plush\" one of the top-10 club nights in the country.

A steppingstone

At the April 26 contest, two 13-year-old boys with baggy jeans and skateboards arrived well before most of the contestants. The boys heard about the competition from someone on the bus. They whispered in awe about a DJ who gets kicked out of clubs for playing too-fast music. Clutching their skateboards, they asked the judges, \"How do you become a DJ?\"

\"Come to Smoovetown,\" answered Mark Bridges, 34, a.k.a DJ Smoove. The first and winning contestant of the evening and a DJ of 20 years, Bridges operates the DJ school, Smoovetown, out of his home.

He regularly plays at the New Union, a non-alcoholic bar. Clad in a football jersey and clunky gold chain, Bridges said he likes playing House, R&B and Hip Hop.

At the contest, Bridges pushed, pulled, rubbed, twisted and scratched his records vigorously. His hands climbed over the turntables and sound mixer with such mobility that one Hip Hop lyric, \"Don\'t be mad cuz\' I\'m phat like that,\" swam flawlessly into \"clap your hands\" from another record.

The smll crowd laughed, tapped their feet with the beat and applauded with genuine gratitude. Judge Thelan said Bridge\'s sweat-producing performance was one of the best the basement has seen.

DJ nomenclature

Technique is as varied and personal as DJ names. Paraquat Pound is the DJ name of Fred LeMoyne, who competed in the May 3 contest. According to LeMoyne, Paraquat was a carcinogenic chemical the U.S. sprayed on marijuana plants in Colombia to deter drug use.

Pony-tailed Lady Sparx, or Katie Johnston, 22, didn\'t pick her name. At one of the many parties she has DJ\'d for, a guy just started calling her that and it stuck. Johnston, the only female in the race, won the May 10 contest by one point. Since there aren\'t many female DJs, she said, \"People notice you right away.\"

Johnston DJ\'s for the crowd. \"I love to feel the people dance. If they look like they\'re having the best time of their life and that\'s because of me, that makes me feel good.\"

Unlike many others, Johnston relies on used records and hand-me-downs from other DJs. She\'s up to almost 100 records, but she doesn\'t own any equipment. \"I play whenever people let me,\" she said.

Getting funky

Mark Watts, 33, who works in the Foshay Tower, started DJ\'ing in \'94. After a lengthy break he started up again for the May 10 competition. The contest, he said pushed him forward. \"It\'s hard to get deck time, but any deck time is good time.\"

Contestant Jake Allen, 27, who builds computer circuit boards for a living, was nervous. \"I didn\'t think the competition would be this high,\" he said.

Allen plays Hardcore Gabber, which he describes as a fast and \"heavy sampling of everything from horror movies to Britney Spears.\" He describes his technique as \"beat juggling\" and likens his performance to that of a drummer. \"It doesn\'t take me very long to get a beat match. I start coming in with the next record one beat at a time, on rhythm.\" He calls that \"getting funky.\"

Allen also likes to stay a step ahead of his audience; he\'ll introduce a change of rhythm first on the eighth beat, then the fourth, second, or first.

When Allen surfs the web, he finds all-Hardcore Gabber parties in Europe. But in the U.S., there is little taste for the genre. Because his music is so fast, local clubs won\'t let him play their venues. But he has found some celebrity in this. After his one-time spot at Quest, he found a photo of himself online, and somebody recognized him on the street.

Allen does plan to go Hardcore Gabber dancing soon - in Italy.

Celebrity DJs

Most local DJs earn $25-$50 an hour, but some reach celebrity status. Miller, who also promotes \"Plush\" and comprises the record label aphrodisio with his counterparts from the store, occasionally brings internationally known DJs to the Quest whom they\'ll pay $20,000-$50,000 for a couple of hours of spinning.

\"If we\'re bringing in somebody like Britney Spears, somebody who\'ll bring in 20,000 people, they\'ll get paid that highly,\" said Miller. But, he cautions, there are only about five to 10 people in the world who get paid that well. It isn\'t that uncommon, however, for a DJ to earn $1,000-$2,000 for a shift.

Mahigal, who is also DJ \"phenix m,\" said the business isn\'t always that profitable. His lunch: a hunk of bread and an apple.

Not a Rave

DJ music and culture, once connected to raves, or small concerts that lasted for up to 12 hours at a time, migrated to the club scene when raves were disbanded, Mahigal said. Having attended raves at the age of 15, Mahigal has seen the rave scene swept out in his DJ lifetime.

Authorities, he said, \"busted\" the raves. They created a task force and alerted warehouse and ice-skating arena owners about their efforts. Fearing their venues might be \"busted,\" owners stopped renting their space for parties. Paranoia about \"busts\" blew out the local rave scene.

The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (formerly known as the RAVE Act) also passed this year, amending the federal \"crack house law\" to fine or imprison business owners for failing to block rave-associated drug offenses, mainly the consumption of XTC.

\"Now that the drugs are gone and it\'s cleaner, it\'s everybody\'s relief Saturday nights to dance to techno,\" said Mahigal. \"At \'Plush,\' people don\'t dance with each other. They throw themselves at the stage. You\'ll see people hugging the speakers.\"

Everyone wins

\"It\'s a treat, getting to interact with aspiring young DJs,\" Thelan said, after the contest ended May 10.

Sometimes DJs acquire gigs just from being in the contest. Often, attendees hosting house parties request the DJs they\'ve seen compete at the store. Occasionally, a booking agent is nearby.

\"Nobody ever really loses the contest. You never know who\'s going to be in the audience,\" said Thelan.