Photo by Dana Rieber

March 6, 2013

Rise of the DJs

How dance music moved in on the Louisville music scene

To be at the Germantown nightclub Zanzabar at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night that has become a Sunday morning is to be several things. Most likely, you are young, between 21 and 29. You are probably pretty drunk, though not too drunk yet, if you’re at all civilized (give it another hour).

If you’re a woman, you probably came to hang out with your girlfriends; you might be looking to hook up with someone, or you might just be looking to dance the night away. If you’re a man, you might not even realize there are DJs on the small stage in the back of the room. You are probably there with a handful of your bros, but you are hoping to leave with just one other person. You might get into a fight, tonight or some other night; if you’re that type, maybe on multiple nights.

Throughout the dry-ice-scented, laser-light-filled club, girls tote crossbody bags, decked out in a hipster style that works for the fedora and trucker hat-wearing guys. A swarm of the latter flash gang signs as GlitterTitzDJz knowingly segue from a remix of Icona Pop’s theme from MTV’s “Snooki and JWoww” show into DJ Assault’s classic ode to “Ass-N-Titties.”

Zanzabar opened in 2009 as a combination bar/restaurant/music venue, with the added distinction of boasting an impressive collection of playable pinball machines and old-school video games. But if anything has made it a place to see and be seen on the weekends, it’s the DJs.

The Louisville music scene has a long history of punk, hardcore and heavy metal bands to its credit, along with numerous variations on country, indie rock, jazz, hip-hop, blues and R&B. It’s always been a live music town, where bands from My Morning Jacket to The Crashers have thrilled thousands with their guitars, basses, drums and keyboards.

But increasingly, DJs — not just the wedding or Fourth Street Live variety aiming to play the latest Top 40 hits for less discriminating audiences — have become an important and essential aspect of the scene.

Not coincidentally, DJs have become a big business worldwide. From easily identifiable pop-star-level favorites like Skrillex and Deadmaus to super-producers and writers like Calvin Harris (Rihanna, Kesha, Kylie Minogue) and David Guetta (Black Eyed Peas, Akon, Pitbull), DJs have become a commercial factor like never before. While the music has had a decades-long presence in Europe, and various electronic and/or dance acts such as Moby, Prodigy and Underworld achieved success in the United States in the late-’90s, what is today called EDM (a redundant acronym for “electronic dance music”) is a relatively new phenomenon on Top 40 radio here.

Forecastle Festival founder J.K. McKnight, who has booked DJs at his fests for several years, says he saw the current wave coming a decade ago. “It seemed inevitable. I witnessed it firsthand when I was 19 and in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on a trip. It left a mark. The energy level was off the charts.”

But it would take time for that wave of energy to reach its peak in this town.

“(Louisville) likes its indie rock, it likes its singer-songwriters; it likes a lot of things, but it took a while for Louisville,” says musician Craig Pfunder of the dance-rock band VHS or Beta, a native who now lives in New York. “The times, I’m sure, are different now with the Internet — not as many boundaries.”

As more young music fans turn away from guitars and toward two turntables and a mixer, will Louisville’s next breakthrough act be a traditional rock band like My Morning Jacket or Houndmouth … or a DJ you wouldn’t even recognize at Kroger?

Garrett Crabtree Jr. was raised on classic rock, spending much of his youth attempting to nail perfect guitar solos. But these days, the 31-year-old genuinely loves dance music and is protective of its younger fans.

“Young people — 18-25 — have always been the deciding factor in pop music,” says Crabtree, one half of the DJ duo GlitterTitz. “They drive the world of music, but people just seem to write them off as stupid kids. Ultimately, I think it’s kind of crazy that it’s taken you guys this long to do a story on the DJ scene in Louisville.”

To the younger generation, he adds, this is their music: “It’s not ironic or funny. They look at DJs as artists.”

And as appreciation for this art form grows, so, too, does the number of aspiring DJs.

“There are so many artists these days, it’s like getting a turntable now for Christmas has replaced the acoustic guitar,” McKnight says. “Everyone is doing it, but so few will actually make it.”

British ex-pat Jon Paul Hill, who spins disco Saturdays at the Butchertown bar Meat under the DJ name JP Source, is one of those many. When he was 16, a friend taught him the basics.

“I couldn’t get it out of my mind. And so, when quite soon after I was given a bit of money, it came down to a choice of get driving lessons or some turntables. I chose the decks and, in retrospect, realized that these are the kind of foolish decisions only made by proper DJs.”

Jesse See Tai began learning how to DJ at 15. Within a year, still with braces on his teeth, he began DJing publicly as Jesse Jamz.

“The thing I like about DJing is the interaction,” he says. “When you’re playing to a packed club and everyone is losing it, it’s an amazing feeling.”

He also notes, “It’s pretty ridiculous how much money you can make for playing music for 90 minutes, especially the kind of money the big guys are making.”

Mostly self-taught, he also benefited from advice from mentors Mark Palgy and the aforementioned Craig Pfunder, leaders of VHS or Beta; the duo have also become popular DJs on the side. Today, at 24, See Tai has changed his professional nom-de-dance to Black Matter and has released some of his own music.

It’s here where Black Matter stands out from most of the crowd in Louisville — while some have begun making their own music, most are still in the early stages or just not interested. If live bands make their money from touring and licensing, most DJs today who make it out of their hometowns succeed by writing and producing. Rihanna can’t dub those steps alone, after all.

“Production is what gets you booked now,” says See Tai. “You can’t just be a DJ. Unless you’re a huge artist, you probably won’t make much for sales, but you could still make money from licensing.”

It’s why Carol Hamilton, who DJs as Lady Carol, is beginning to produce some of her own music.

“I’ve got the DJ thing down pat, but now I’m trying to get my own sound out there,” she says. “There’s nothing like playing your own tracks at a club.”

While the media has tried to explain the DJ surge by calling them “the new rock stars,” and rockers like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (DJ Cap’n Goodies) and Wax Fang’s Scott Carney (DJ Captain Howdy) have dipped their toes into the pool, full-time DJs — several of whom have also played in rock bands — are noticeably hesitant to agree with such a label.

“I do think it’s something different,” is the opinion of Alex Bell, aka A-Bell of OK Deejays, who DJ at Zanzabar on Fridays. “I don’t think DJs have — as they shouldn’t — the showmanship of a guitar-wielding, live, singing rock star.”

His partner, Aaron Chadwell, known as DJ Narwhal, adds, “I don’t even know if there are rock stars anymore.”

But Crabtree maintains it’s both musicianship and the ability to perform that sets some DJs apart.

“They are music producers, not just DJs. They write music. They do the legwork for Justin Bieber tracks. They are highly intelligent computer nerds. A lot of them are accomplished musicians in the classical sense. They just perform their music a little differently than Nirvana did. Ultimately, the music that they write would be impossible to perform live, so they DJ it.

“It might seem ridiculous, but it’s not,” he continues. “It’s still a performance. It’s hard to explain. But yes, DJs ultimately enjoy rock-star status. Follow Diplo on Twitter, and you’ll know what I mean.”

Crabtree’s GlitterTitz partner, Jamey See Tai — DJ Black Matter’s brother — laughs at the question. “I’m sure to some kids they are. I definitely give more credit to the DJs who are also producing music. Some of those dudes are making some really awesome tracks. On the other hand, I also think a lot of DJs look really foolish ‘rockin’ out’ on stage while not really doing anything. But you gotta keep the crowd hyped, I guess.”

It’s that ability to keep the crowd hyped that pushes the locals to the next level. Adjusting their sets on the fly is one element the majority of DJs have in common. It’s almost like performing stand-up comedy — most wade gently into their set, feeling out the crowd.

“It’s improv, man, you don’t know what you’re gonna get,” says DJ Matt Anthony. A veteran of the local scene and a regular host on WFPK, Anthony differs from many DJs because he mostly spins classic soul, Latin and jazz sounds, instead of current hip-hop, house or nu-disco records. At an ongoing gig at the Maker’s Mark Lounge at Fourth Street Live, Anthony was tasked with entertaining crowds ranging from Wal-Mart distribution conventioneers to an all-African-American 1983 high school class reunion.

“You’re trying to manipulate people with sounds; it’s not even songs,” he says. “The electronic guys have proven that. You don’t even need a hook, a song. You can make people dance if you get the right crowd and the right vibe going … Reading the crowd is what it’s all about.”

He says an older DJ told him: “‘Your job is to create hysteria. And you can’t plan on that.’ I always think about that, and I love it. You have to make people go crazy. Until I’ve done that, I don’t feel like I’ve earned my pay yet.”

Sometimes, engaging the crowd requires a little bit of bait and switch.

“You can’t please everyone with every track, so you find clever ways of tricking them into liking things they normally wouldn’t,” Crabtree notes. “Like putting a hip-hop beat behind a Metallica track.”

It’s a trick known to fans of internationally popular acts like Girl Talk. McKnight booked the mash-up favorite in 2007 as a Forecastle Festival headliner. After McKnight’s mother picked up another festival band at the airport, she told him how they had expressed unease at playing on the same bill as the DJ. “They talked about how it was a fad and was going to fade. (How) it had zero staying power, more or less a trend for high school adolescents.”

Now, McKnight says, Girl Talk makes seven times what the festival paid the act back then. “I haven’t heard anything about the other band since.”

Black Matter’s Jesse See Tai agrees with the notion that a DJ must be clever about working the crowd. “When I first started playing here in Louisville, I remember how tough it was to keep everyone happy and dancing … it was almost like I had to trick them into liking what I played. I’d play one song I knew they’d like and then a couple that I liked. Everyone likes familiarity, so you have to make them feel comfortable but, at the same time, introduce new unfamiliar things.”

“Things have changed a lot since then, though,” he adds. “Due to the growth of electronic music in mainstream media, it’s a lot easier for someone who isn’t necessarily into electronic music to go out and have a good time dancing to music they don’t know.”

Jon Paul Hill, aka JP Source, has developed a philosophical approach to his weekly DJ night at Meat.

“I think you just have to do your best at doing your thing. I’ve had gigs where I tried desperately to please everyone, and that’s usually a disastrous approach. It’s pretty nice when people tell you that they ‘usually don’t listen to this kind of thing’ but they enjoyed what you played.”

Though many of the DJs interviewed for this story enjoy pop music, this isn’t a Top 40 group. “I can easily pinpoint the worst experiences as being Top 40 gigs,” says Mark Nelson, who makes his living as gothic and industrial DJ Count Grozny and hosts a monthly “Queer Dance Party” at the Haymarket Whiskey Bar. “Although they can pay well, you have little-to-no artistic liberty.”

And most agree passionately on the issue of requests.

“If you request a song I have, I’ll probably play it at some point in the night,” says OK Deejays’ Chadwell. “But don’t expect me to play any Top 40 in the near future … or ever.”

Sam Sneed, who shares Saturdays at Seidenfaden’s bar in Paristown with Chadwell, is a little more adamant: “Never request!” shouts Sneed, who also co-hosts (with OK Deejays) “Night Visions Radio,” WFPK’s weeknight dance music hour. “I usually have a set planned out, and it’s hard for me to fit in everyone’s love of the Black Eyed Peas and Skrillex.”

But GlitterTitz DJ Jamey See Tai says it goes both ways. “You just have to feel it out. Also, the crowd needs to feel the DJ out. If you are at our party for even just an hour, you should know better than to come up and request Phish. That’s just not gonna happen. True story.”

Matt Anthony walks into an unfamiliar room with crates of records in his arms, purposely trying to get the crowd to see that he’s “a real DJ,” to use his phrase. He wants to work the crowd before the first note hits.

Some of the more popular DJs in Louisville have built up their audience over the past few years, increasing the trust level between them and their regulars. It wasn’t always easy, especially for those who tried in an earlier era.

VHS or Beta’s Pfunder “started playing wherever in Louisville they would let us set up our tables. Friends’ bars, apartments, warehouses, indie shows … really, wherever we could. At first, it was a real pain in the ass. The locals weren’t taking too kindly to four-on-the-floor beats. They’d jump up and down and make our records skip. Or just run into the table and point and laugh.”

Today, though, Pfunder and Palgy can look at their passports and have the last laugh. “We’ve toured around the world as DJs: Sydney, Paris, London, Bangkok, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Santiago, Bogota, to name a few, and I’ll be playing a couple sets soon in China,” Pfunder says, adding with a laugh, “DJing is easy compared to touring with a band, and for that, I’m grateful. Seriously. Show up and boom. No soundcheck. Just play.”

His protégé Black Matter has toured all over the United States and in Canada, Europe, Asia and Central America, but not every night has been a success. One of See Tai’s worst nights at work was at a warehouse rave in Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood.

“There was this huge dog chained up outside in the parking lot, and we just thought we were about to get jumped or something. We get into the venue and go onstage, and they have the shittiest gear possible, so we’re trying to swap out equipment during this other guy’s set, and it was just a mess. Of course, getting paid ended up being an ordeal, too, and I got paid in all fives and ones,” he laughs.

OK Deejays have had their best nights in Louisville, most recently at a warehouse party they threw a couple of years ago that drew more than a thousand people. They also opened for the Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem at Waterfront Park in 2007, which drew several thousand. “It was easily the biggest system I’ve played through,” Chadwell recalls.

The duo is somewhat unique locally as they also book and promote other DJs (and the odd live band) from all over the world — Rome, London, Brazil and more, 20 in the past year alone. Chadwell sees it as an investment in the local culture. “I could pay my bills from DJing (alone), but then I wouldn’t have much extra cash for bringing in out-of-town DJs or bands to play our fine city.”

One complaint shared by some of the local talent is a lack of suitable venues.

“There are some talented DJs but not a lot of fun nights,” says Jesse See Tai. “I feel like Louisville (people) aren’t comfortable with clubs; they like going to bars. But if people want something to happen, it’s up to them to support it.”

The problem is numbers, according to Nelson, aka Count Grozny. “There simply aren’t enough people to support more underground and niche genres and sub-genres.”

“I’m hoping that people in Louisville appreciate our growing dance scene and don’t take it for granted,” Chadwell says. “Otherwise, the good shows will dry up, and we’ll be stuck seeing the same local folks each week.”

Assuming the scene continues to move on up, does the current class see itself continuing into their 40s and 50s, like Tom Petty or Wilco?

VHS or Beta’s Pfunder and Hill see a long future of DJing ahead, even if it does get to be a bit awkward. Pfunder says, “Yes, I’ll be DJing for my kids, probably in 20 years, and they’ll be like, “Dad, you’re so embarrassing!”

Hill replies, “I would like to be making music in 10-20 years, for sure, but I’m positive it’s going to be utterly weird shit that will embarrass my family.”

GlitterTitz’s Crabtree is characteristically blunt about their future. “It’s hard to say. We both write music, and we’re trying to put it out there like the next guy. We’re just gonna ride the train as far as it takes us, I guess. One weekend at a time.”

Additional reporting by Damien McPherson.

They look at DJs as artists.”

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