A tall figure stands alone in his bedroom. The door is closed, the phone turned off. The youthful 27-year-old is cut off from his friends, his girl, the world. Here in his solitude, he drops the needle cleanly into the groove with an air of authority; he's done this before. A pulsing beat starts to chill his spine, and he begins to move his body to the rhythm. He has tapped into that vein again, a primal scream scored by exuberant highs and warm, welcoming lows.; ;
Andrew Spear is not alone in his addiction. Others across Central Florida have succumbed to the same urge. And their numbers are growing, their plague infecting all walks of life; even our children aren't safe from its grasp. It is an expensive, all-encompassing habit. Although a few hundred dollars are enough to get started, feeding an addiction such as Spear's can quickly consume entire paychecks and thousands of dollars.
Hooked on heroin? No, Orlando's hooked on a different kind of needle, one that cuts a groove, keeping people satisfied with a throbbing desire to get up and boogie, blending one musical cut into the next without -- literally -- losing a beat. Street names include "wheels of steel" and "decks." Orlando is hooked on the turntable. The people here have a DJ fascination like no other.
DJ culture has become ingrained in our society as much as hip-hop. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Central Florida, where the disc jockey reigns supreme. Getting your hair cut? A DJ beat-mixes while you blow-dry. Eating sushi? Thud-thud-thud-thud and a shot of saki. Admiring art? Boom-cha boom-cha boom-cha. It is simply out of control. But why? And does everything need a body-moving soundtrack? What's next, banks? ... rest stops? ... toll booths? Is it like this everywhere?
Not really, but it soon will be. For once Orlando is ahead of the curve, thanks to a young adult population that spent a better part of the '90s at one of the area's many once-thriving clubs -- some popping pills, others drinking themselves silly -- moving to the beat of some turntable wizard. And Orlando certainly has spawned its share of them: world-renowned and regional favorites Icey, AK1200, Jeffee, Chris Fortier, Baby Anne, Rick West, Rob-E, Sandy, Magic Mike, Dave London and Kimball Collins all have done time in this DJ training center.
No doubt, many a DJ-in-a-Box set -- ranging in price from $199 to $599 at musicians' outlets such as Mars Music & Recording Superstores -- turned up under Christmas trees across Central Florida this year. But not everyone will find what they're looking for -- for many, deejaying will forever be something they fooled around with a few times and then put away. Remember the '80s, when every budding musician just had to have a Casio keyboard? That little electronic marvel now gathers dust in your parents' attic or long ago anchored a yard sale. Expect the same fate for the turntable.
Chris Domingo, the DJ department manager at Mars, already has seen a few kits come back to the store in the days since gifts were cracked open, because "they don't know how to work it." Good thing Mars offers DJ lessons ($68 for four sessions).
"A lot of kids have been giving up their guitars. ... and starting picking up turntables," says Hao Do, co-owner of DJ-centric vinyl shop Echo Echo and himself a devotee of the decks for the past seven years. "They want to be DJs," he says of his new customers. "They'll come into the store and ask what records might be something that they'd be into."
You would almost expect the kids to go crazy for it. But a surprising number of adults have surrendered, finding themselves hooked on the most fiendish habit in town.
"It's the best thing ever, especially if you are a music fan," admits Spear, an acknowledged DJ-junkie. He started innocently enough, making mix tapes for friends. Last year he progressed to a makeshift mixing setup, consisting of one turntable, a tape deck and a mixer. Six months ago, Spear made the quantum leap and purchased two decks, making the metamorphosis complete. He hasn't been the same since.
"The thing is, especially with house music, it's such a pain in the ass," he says, "because it is an extremely expensive hobby."
Pro-quality gear -- two Technics 1200 turntables and a decent mixer, the kind you'll find in most clubs -- will set you back at least $1,100. Then, says Do, comes the burden of stocking up on records.
Do's one of the lucky ones; as part-owner of Echo Echo, a DJ-owned and operated shop that caters to deep house fanatics, Do gets plenty of freebies or discounted mixes to satisfy his craving for vinyl.
But some who can't afford it spend the money anyway.
Singer, musician, producer, electronic scenester and label owner Sam Mollison knows all about the allure. He experimented himself with the demon decks a few times but got out early, before the pull became too great, the siren song too loud to ignore. He's seen others who didn't. He refers to "a young lady singer" on his label, an up-and-comer who become so obsessed with deejaying that "her singing took a back seat this year because of the intensity with which she wanted to prove to herself that she was as good enough [a DJ] as anyone out there," says Mollison. "I actually encouraged it, because I wanted her to get it out of her system."
Though his friend has since restored some sense of balance, Mollison says it was tough at times to "see her go without so many things in order to buy records. ... A new paycheck just meant more records, food and rent -- in that order!"
What drives people to the wheels of steel? What's the fun in being a DJ? Simply put, it's the hard-to-match thrill of playing records in a manner that gets the room moving. At a party or club, the DJ is the center of attention, and everyone is focused on what he or she is spinning. The crowd is yours to win over with a case full of hot records and precisionlike turntable skills.
Getting to that point can take months of discipline and hard work. Just ask Perry Farrell. The former Jane's Addiction frontman jumped feet first into the fire, headlining a DJ bill last August at Icon, smack dab in the middle of Spin City. His disastrous turn showed it takes more than star power or musical ability to be a successful jock.
Natural talent -- a sense of rhythm, manual dexterity -- will take you a long way, but you still have to learn the mechanics of running the mixer and a pair of spinning, mesmerizing belt-driven turntables. What's to learn? The art of beatmixing, track-to-track crossfading and, of course, turntablism -- cutting, scratching, pitch manipulation.
"The technical side of deejaying isn't very hard to master," says Mollison. "Six weeks of regular daily practice, on reasonably sound decks, will get you up to a standard good enough for work, if you have the confidence to go with your mission."
Eventually, deejaying absorbs your every thought, "like when you would play Tetris and then you'd go to bed and the pieces are falling and you are putting them in place [in your head]," says Spear. "It's the same thing with beats. You'll hear a song, and you'll want to catch it. Someone will be driving in front of you with their blinker going, and you'll try and put it to the rhythm of the song in your car."
And then there's the DJ name, always a controversial topic. At this point in the game, a baby jock might want to use his or her proper name instead of some goofy appropriation. How far in life can you go known as DJ Cheddar Cheesy?
"I've always kind of made fun of funny DJ names," says Do, who currently spins under the Chairman Hao moniker. "To me it's like some kind of superhero name or a wrestler's name. ... I have no interest in coming up with some alter ego for the sake of being a character around town."
Orlando is certainly full of those.
"Within all my travels around the U.S. and abroad, I would say that the DJ phenomenon in its Orlando image is probably one of the most intense, if not the strongest, I have encountered," says Mollison.
The truth is, even before those Christmas kits were cracked open, Orlando's DJ market already had reached a saturation point. Getting good records can be difficult, especially for novices. And for Spear and Do, like so many others, the record is everything.
"If you get your hands on [a hard-to-find release], you're the man with the record, you've got the torch," says Spear with fists pumped. "Being surrounded by [your record collection]. ... it's the best. The more records you have, it's like a statue, like a history."; ;
Spear speaks fondly of a prized Stevie Wonder white label remix, as if it were a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. But getting the records is only half the battle. You also have to learn those records "inside and out, because you have to know the timing," he says. If not, train wreck -- a DJ's worst nightmare, where the mix dies a horrible, rhythmless, out-of-sync death because the two tracks weren't properly beatmixed, or the record .... Just ... stops.
"There is something about the sound of a train wreck that leaves the ego in tatters," says Mollison.
And getting that gig? Ha. Orlando's huge DJ population makes finding work at clubs difficult. That's why you're finding DJs in your soup; they need a place to peddle their wares, and any captive audience will do. Moreover, the DJ business is very territorial: Unless you've already broken through nationally or internationally, expect to work strictly local or regional clubs. Sure, Orlando's top break-beat DJs can crush here, but they won't necessarily fill a venue in, say, New York.
Those hoping to be heard first have to make a mix tape or CD -- the DJ's calling card. For jocks, that's a serious undertaking. It gives the listener backstage access to what makes you tick. "If someone gives you a mix tape," says Spear, "they're giving you their soul."
A former hard-rocker who mixes "Bad Boys Running Wild" by the Scorpions and "Little Black Spiders" by Armand Van Helden into his homegrown sets, Spear is not worried about making starry-eyed tapes or looking for gigs just yet, though. For him, deejaying is still "just for me. It's just like if you buy a guitar; you just love it so much, you just want to learn how to do it."
Do carries that philosophy into the clubs: "Most DJs get their satisfaction from getting people out on the dance floor. ... I'm kind of a selfish DJ, in that I find instant gratification from just playing a record that I thought was underplayed. ... I see [it] as more of an art form. I basically appropriate different forms of music styles to create a new mix of music that wouldn't have existed before if I hadn't put those two records together."
"It's no substitute for singing," admits Mollison, whose brief experience in the DJ world taught him all he needed to know. "Being able to think like a DJ for a while helped me understand the creature more," he says.
"There are people who spin for the wrong reasons," says Do. "They see that there's a popularity thing ... they are doing it for recognition." Do himself was inspired to get started by watching local jock BMF mix hip-hop. "I couldn't tell the difference between which record was playing," he says. "That is the technique, or the art of mixing, that got me."
But for those who crave and find an audience, there always will be the thrill of leading the charge, of deciding how high to pump up the crowd. And it's an addiction acknowledged even by those who, whatever their own ambitions, can bear witness.
"I saw Fatboy Slim and the Basement Jaxx last year at Level in Miami," recalls Spear. "That was hands-down the greatest electronic dance show. ... They ended their set with ‘I Love Music' by The O-Jays, and all this confetti's falling, it's like 6 in the morning … this is why I love this stuff. ... It's the closest thing to being a God."