These days, everyone's a DJ, right? The iPod, not to mention the sheer availability of all kinds of music, has transformed everyone's bulky CD and album collection into one tiny portable party mix. If, perhaps, you long for more discipline, schools offering classes in DJing are cropping up all over the country, the 21st century's version of the guitar lesson.
And yet, before all that, we simply had DJs, those rabid musicologists with the ability to provide the soundtrack for your Saturday night. We gathered four of the city's best DJs for a roundtable discussion on their coveted job--from the old-school days of mix tapes to the rave hype of the '90s to today.
DJ Merritt is the longtime host of 102.1's Edge Club and is probably the city's best-known DJ. Kelly Reverb hosts Renegade Radio every Sunday night on 106.7 FM and has a residency at 8 Lounge, among other clubs. Jeremy Word, aka DJ Kid Icarus, and Adrian Ziegler, aka Catalyst, are two well-respected freelance DJs.
Tell me about choosing your DJ name. That's like choosing your superhero name.
Ziegler: My original DJ name was Space Ace. When I started taking this seriously, I thought that was too party-oriented, kinda corny. My mom's a biology teacher, and as I was grading her papers, the word "catalyst" came up. We were trying to break drum 'n' bass in Dallas at the time, and I thought, yeah, I'll be the catalyst. I'll change everything, but I'll stay the same. [Laughs]
Merritt: This is my original name. I thought it was more unique than, say, Dave. But a joke name I use is DJ Crystal Pitbull. There was this seedy club, and every time I'd pass it, I'd think, "This is DJ Merritt, live from the Crystal Pitbull."
What made you want to be DJs?
Merritt: I was just stuck in music. Ever since I was younger, I was seeking out stuff you don't hear on the radio. I was doing little house parties at high schools. There was no variety then; you just pop a tape in and change the music out. It evolved from there.
Reverb: Oh, come on. It was all money and girls. [Laughs]
Word: I went to a couple shows, and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the atmosphere, I fell in love with the music, I fell in love with the culture. I started recording the Edge Club every Saturday night so I could listen to it when I got back.
Merritt: I remember getting his first tape. It blew me away. It was music I'd never heard, which is cool because when I'm looking to break new DJs, I don't want to hear a carbon copy of myself.
What was the hardest thing to learn when you were starting out?
Merritt: It was really frustrating to go to a Top 40 club because you're like, "Why don't these people want to listen to something else? Why can't they just be cooler?"
Reverb: I still feel that way, dude.
Word: It's frustrating because you realize how the industry only lets in certain songs. Not everyone is waiting for the next Britney Spears record. A lot of people are curious. They want to know who did that or what is this? And oftentimes those people end up becoming DJs or hanging in the club scene.
So what makes a good DJ?
Merritt: A lot of newcomers think it's all about mixing. It's also about programming the right tracks. If people aren't dancing on the dance floor, well...
Ziegler: These days it's about promotion as well.
Word: With online record stores, every record is available to every person. So I think how you put your music together stylistically has to do with it. A straight mix to an outro, well, anybody can do that. If you put it together in an interesting way that's never been done before, that means something.
Does the availability of music online challenge you?
Merritt: Not too much, because I still produce my own music. We'll still have things in our repertoire that no one else has, and we trade music with other producers.
What do you guys think of the current attention on mash-ups?
Merritt: It's always been done, but it's just getting more attention now because of Danger Mouse. Some of the Danger Mouse stuff is really good, but some of it isn't. There really are some good producers out there who take time and piece the tracks together nicely.
Ziegler: A lot of guys made names off this trip--DJ Peas went on tour with bands like 311.
Let's talk about the late-'90s rave hype and how it affected the scene.
Word: They made going to a club sound so horrible that every kid in every suburb wanted to go. And it made a lot of people who weren't really into the club scene focus their attention there.
Ziegler: Drugs are everywhere. But you're trying to say that the people in the dance scene are just here to make money and we're also running drug operations. Like we're Colombian drug lords. There was a lot of stigma during that time.
After that, the dance scene fell into a slump. You often hear that dance music is dead.
Reverb: Dance music isn't dead. I think hip-hop is alive. The radio is pushing primarily rap and hip-hop. There's still a niche interest in dance music.
Word: There was a time period when it was in an extreme slump. Recently, there seems to be a wildfire of interest.
Reverb: It'll happen the same way. More and more people will start doing it, the market will get flooded, and then everybody's like, whoops, we can't dance again.
Ziegler: Hip-hop is huge now, but whether or not the producers will admit it, a lot of what happens in hip-hop is influenced by electronic music. How they start their breaks, how the music sounds. If you take the vocals out and pitch it up a little, it would be a dance track.
Do you consider yourself musicians?
Ziegler: Yeah. I've been in bands since I was 12, and I crossed over as a DJ because dealing with a band is a pain in the butt.
Merritt: Well, I do make music. A lot of people think electronic music is just hitting a button and the song's made, but it's more complicated than that.
What's the craziest thing you've seen people do in a club?
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Reverb: Is this where we talk about sex?
Merritt: You name it, we've probably seen it. Still, one of the craziest things is when you see those dudes freak out and get naked and start masturbating all over the place.
Reverb: It's happened a few times. There's a serial jacker.