Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Just Call Me the Jim Henson of Hip-Hop

The Dispatch/Argus just printed our biggest special section that we do all year: Progress. It's an annual special that we do every February that focuses on "good news" about the Quad Cities - from the people that live and work there to the places that make it a unique community. Progress runs in 3 parts across a month's worth of Sundays every February.

This year's theme? "QC @ Work." It's a special round-the-clock focus on everyday employees as they go about their work week.

The paper needed someone to focus on for the 2-3 a.m. hour, so they decided to follow me through a night in the DJ booth at 2nd Ave.

It's kind of a fun piece, and my friend Matt Veto did a good job putting it together.

That said, there's one BLINDING error that I have to point out. I have NEVER -- and I mean NEVER -- played "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens (or, for that matter, Los Lobos) in a dance club in my life.

The song he's referring to in the article is a blend of Cassidy's "Drink N My 2 Step" and "Tequila," a 1958 instrumental by The Champs (that you might know better as the Pee Wee Herman dance song.) I wish I could tell you I pulled it off myself, but it's actually yet another great blend off the Crooklyn Clan website.

And the article claims I played "Row Row Row Your Boat"? Well, it's a 30-second drop into a transition mix of Lonely Island's "I'm On A Boat."

The article makes it sound like my "signature set" goes from "La Bamba" to "Row Row Row Your Boat," in which case PLEASE come slap the crap out of me.

Still, Matt's a sports guy and NOT a dance club guy, and I think he did a pretty fun job for the most part...

Musical puppeteer brings night to life
By Matt Veto,

ROCK ISLAND, 2 a.m. -- At the center of Shane Brown's attention is a two-disc mixer, the tool this musical puppeteer uses to control the grooving marionettes who continue to pour into the club as adjacent bars close for the night.

In a 25-by-4-foot corner of the 2nd Avenue night club, Mr. Brown basks in darkness, face lit dimly by the dance floor lights and the twinkling LEDs beaming from an array of audio equipment.

The bass tones rumble the guts of the dancers as the lyrics "hotel, motel, Holiday Inn" thump through vibrating speakers. Mr. Brown shuffles rhythmically between five giant compact disc books that each contain 320 discs. At 2:02 a.m. he's touched his 90th-or-so disc of the night.

"The most important thing about running the floor is tempo," Mr. Brown says. "It's all about tempo. Each song I play is a little bit faster than the song before."

Beats per minute is a mathematical element that all successful disc jockeys must master. It's "BPM" that allows Mr. Brown to assume control of the horde on the floor. The music is flowing at 136 BPM -- just about the peak of Mr. Brown's ideal top speed.

At 2:07 a.m., he cuts it to 70 BPM -- the slowest he'll go.

"It shakes up the floor a little bit," Brown says as a few dancers head to the bar for another drink, while others join in the party.

The turntable Mr. Brown is fussing over allows two discs to play simultaneously. A sliding switch in the middle -- the cross-fader -- gives Mr. Brown the ability to control which elements of each song take precedence, almost as if he is recomposing already composed music. He puts on his headphones each time he adds a song to ensure it mixes smoothly.

"I pride myself on making remixes and creating sets using songs people aren't used to hearing on the radio," Mr. Brown says.

It takes practice and patience. Mr. Brown, 39, has been a DJ in some form or another since 1986, whether working raves, teen clubs or fraternity houses. He got his start working dances at Galesburg High School, where he graduated in 1988. He's been at 2nd Avenue for eight years. The equipment belongs to the club, the thousands of CDs he uses to orchestrate his shows each weekend belong to him.

Safe to say there is some music he likes and some he doesn't.

"The No. 1 piece of advice that I can give an aspiring DJ: You have to learn to put your own tastes aside," Mr. Brown says. "You're working for the crowd, not for you."

Mr. Brown works on perfecting mixes in his kitchen in his spare time. He said DJs network and share mixes they have developed.

At 2:13 a.m., Mr. Brown unleashes what he calls his "signature set," which starts out by pairing Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" (recorded in 1958) with rapper Cassidy's "My Drink n My 2 Step" (recorded in 2007).

Which CDs he chooses at which time just depends on the faces in the crowd or the speed of the set. The tempo of each song is written on the disc.

"Sometimes you just mess around and find two songs that really mesh like butter," Mr. Brown says.

And while he tries never to repeat a mix too often, he says he finds it hard not to couple Justin Timberlake's "Bringing Sexy Back" with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" every night. He melds those tunes at 2:23 a.m. to a roar of approval.

For the next 10 minutes he continues to illustrate the DJ's art of crossing generations and spanning decades, while still holding a modern dance beat and keeping the floor's enthusiasm. At 2:38 a.m., he even manages a successful mix with a rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" before dropping the beat at 2:40 a.m. one last time to prepare for a final climax.

At 2:47 a.m. he plays the night life's ever-recognizable "Closing Time" by Semisonic while he zips up CD cases and shuts down the music at 2:50 a.m. By 2:55 a.m., the floor is empty, the lights are on, and conversations are muffled as the ears of hundreds of dancers are ringing. At 3 a.m., the doors are locked.

Another night of melodious puppet mastery for the musical Mr. Brown.

1 comment:

Mel said...

Despite the errors, it sounds awesome. When summer (FINALLY) comes, I am heading up to catch a set. :)