So what about that scrappy D.J. subculture? The parties in the basements, the scratch battles, the block parties?
Where are the D.J.’s who aren’t playing the same three Hot 97 chart toppers for celebrity clients, businessmen and strictly guest-list crowds?
They’re there, albeit exactly where they should be: in the underground; in warehouses, in house parties, in … Brooklyn.
On the first Saturday of every month, D.J. Eleven, D.J. Ayres and Cosmo Baker are expected to bring innovative sets to their party, the Rub, at the spacious, down-home local rock club/bar Southpaw in Park Slope.
“There were a lot of people in the neighborhood who were sick of the douche-bag Manhattan D.J. crowd,” D.J. Ayres—a.k.a. Ayres Haxton, 30—told The Observer by phone. He was en route to his Park Slope apartment from a one-night promotion spot for Puma sneakers in Boston. “It’s real music, real people, no bullshit at the door … and we encourage dancing. At the places in Manhattan, it’s all about the bottle-service shit. We serve tall boys instead.”
And the people who come to the Rub aren’t looking to flex their tongue or flash a nipple at camera-wielding “partyographers” like Merlin Bronques of Lastnightsparty.com, or to peep at celebrities dancing behind velvet ropes.
“They come because they want to see what we’re going to do,” Mr. Haxton explained.
The Rub crew, unchained by promoters and club owners, stuns the down-to-earth, hip-hop-head crowd by crossing geographical boundaries, time periods and musical genres to mix cultural fragments into a dance beat. Classic reggae mingles with Bay-area “hyphy,” 80’s pop nuzzles with soul jams, and classic rock gets down with Black Sabbath during their epic sets to bring the 400-plus crowd to rapturous heights.
“They’re expected to do the unexpected,” said Scott Melker, a Philly-bred D.J. who has guest-D.J.’d with the Rub and spins on Thursday nights with D.J. Eleven at Gallery Bar.
Mr. Melker worked as a magazine editor in Philadelphia and owned his own publication, 101 Magazine, before garnering enough gigs to work full-time as a D.J. two years ago.
D.J. Eleven, a towering San Francisco Bay Area D.J. who sports signature black-rimmed glasses, came to New York six years ago, “doing the worst shit you have to do to D.J. here”—like lugging his own turntables to “the dingiest bars” and dealing with drunken girls screaming requests in his ear. “It sucked for three years,” explained Eleven, who asked The Observer not to print his real name.
“Everyone is doing their own thing and out there for themselves,” he said of D.J.’ing. “Nobody’s looking out for you.”
Mr. Haxton lived on the same floor as Mark Ronson as a freshman at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Inspired by Mr. Ronson and other area D.J.’s like Paul Nice and D.J. Ease, he took up turntabling in his dorm room. When he moved to New York, he worked multiple jobs, writing for magazines, working in book and Web publishing, D.J.’ing weddings and putting out the monthly mix tapes, promotional remixes, unreleased tracks and full-album previews burned onto CD’s that help some D.J.’s make a name for themselves.
Now Mr. Haxton works as a D.J. full-time, with residencies at the Canal Room and Southpaw. He said he doesn’t mind that the well-connected club D.J.’s get the big spots, mostly because they are restricted to play mainstream hip-hop tracks and can’t get as creative as he can on his mixes.
“If you’re making $800 three or four nights a week, pretty much playing the same set, you build it like you’re building a mix tape, and people come back every week to hear you do it because they just know that that’s hot,” Mr. Haxton said. “They’re not motivated to make mix tapes.”
Mr. Melker developed his stellar mixing talents in Philadelphia, “where if you don’t have skills, you get booed out of the club,” and found the overcrowded New York D.J. scene daunting, simply because so many kids were in the clubs doing it, which can generate copycatting and trash-talking.
Mr. Melker said Mr. Berrie dissed a live mix of his, then copied the introduction to it to play at the club. “Unbeknownst to him, I was downstairs in the same club,” Mr. Melker wrote in an e-mail. “He’s got skills, he will likely blow up. But doing other people’s routines? One of his ‘specialties’ is his Oasis Wonderwall Mix into rent (with the tipsy beat behind it). You can see the exact same routine on DJ AM’s myspace page!”
“A lot of them bite ideas from each other and recycle shit,” Mr. Haxton explained about the major club-D.J. scene. “But at the end of the day, it’s a skill that you have to learn.”
Eleven said he doesn’t worry about celebrities taking up the big D.J. nights because they aren’t good enough to keep the party going. “People will say, ‘Oh hey, Heidi Klum is D.J.’ing, I’m going out!’” he quipped. “‘Oh, I’m here—she sucks, I’m leaving.’ In the end, the big clubs have to look at the bottom line.”
Mr. Melker, Eleven and Mr. Haxton, though they might admit to wanting to get paid as well as the socialite and celebrity D.J.’s, said they have no desire to get into their business. “I don’t have a real big interest in that. More for me, it’s about the music that I like,” Mr. Haxton explained.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Aoki agrees, because beyond the hobnobbing with Lindsay Lohan and the double-digit-paying gigs, it all comes down to having a good time. He’s not concerned about becoming the most mind-blowing turntablist. “As far as those types, do you really want to watch a guy doing a guitar solo for 45 minutes, or do you want to see a guy play songs that make you pee your pants?
“The model isn’t like: We’re going to make this amount of money. It’s always a creative reason; it’s doing art for art’s sake,” Mr. Aoki explained. “With D.J.’ing and clothing and the record label, the whole idea of it is one big party.”
Party on, Steve.