In a culture that has fully embraced the immediacy and portability of digital music, the era of the turntable-toting DJ is on the decline. With the introduction of music software programs like Serato Scratch Live that allow DJs to scratch and blend digital audio files like vinyl, the old limitations on DJs are being tossed out the proverbial back door. Though a few clubs (like Neurolux) have local DJs who create and mix their own music, most clubs in town now rely on iTunes playlists to get people out on the dance floor.
But it wasn't always that way. In the early years, the American DJ ruled chiefly over radio stations and sock hops, with a drummer maintaining the dance party between records. Everything changed during the disco days of the 1970s. At the infamous New York club Sanctuary, DJ Francis Grasso invented beatmatching (blending beats when switching records) and in the Bronx, DJ Kool Herc began to isolate the breakbeats, or rhythmic sections, on disco records and mix them together simultaneously. This procedure, known as turntablism, allowed for a continuous flow of music that MCs began to rap over. Soon, groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang rose to prominence and took hip-hop mainstream.
Throughout the '90s, rave culture mushroomed, rocketing electronic DJs into the limelight. Genres like techno, acid house, drum and bass, trance and trip hop were created. In the sweaty, neon haze of the underground rave scene, most of Boise's notable DJs first gleaned their skills. Though local DJ Pat Benolkin never attended a rave, he remembers being fascinated with the music and the endless possibilities it offered. Benolkin hooked up with promoter Jen Kniss and began participating in the popular Project Om events. Though the events drew large crowds, downtown club owners were still reticent to hire DJs on a weekly basis.
"Boise has gradually grown into accepting dance music in the clubs on weekends. When I was doing Neurolux for the first few years, I would get people complaining," says Benolkin. "They would come up constantly and bug me to play something else and it was completely annoying."
Now, things are different. Art Hodge, Grammy Award-winning local composer and DJ, describes the downtown DJ scene as an east side vs. west side dichotomy that has sprung up on either side of Capitol Boulevard. On the east side, you have Top-40 dance clubs like China Blue and Main Street Bistro, and on the west side, you have less mainstream clubs like Lush and Neurolux. Essentially, it boils down to Jay Z vs. Run DMC.
"When I play at Neurolux, they love for you to whip out the Michael Jackson at the end of the night, where as, the more downtown stuff, to me, is just a notch above playing a wedding," says Hodge. "You're just the soundman. There's no artistic side to it."
But that's not to say that selecting music for an ever-changing, booze-hazed dance crowd is as simple as pressing play on an iPod. John Konczos, who DJs at Main Street Bistro, explains that a good DJ is always observing the crowd and gauging the reactions to certain songs. Though Konczos selects songs from a giant digital library and not a milk crate filled with vinyl, the pressure to keep the dance floor packed is just as intense.
"I still have to find a flow and pick music that caters to the crowd. And I have to read the crowd. I have to mess with the soundboards. I'd say I'm a DJ in that respect," notes Konczos. "But as far as what I do being an art, like turntables are, it's not. That's completely different."
And as for the east side, west side schism, Konczos sees downtown bar crawlers as a self-selective bunch. People go to Main Street clubs, he says, to hear familiar pop songs while they frequent bars like Neurolux to hear more cutting-edge, underground music. If the Top-40 clubs replaced their iTunes libraries with shiny new turntables and dance beats, the crowds would disappear. In the end, it seems, nothing goes better with a chili bomb than the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"People are cliquey. There's a certain crowd that goes to the Neurolux and they don't come to the Bistro. If they do, it's a rarity," says Konczos, resignedly.
Though all bars downtown play music, the difference lies in the sound levels. People go to clubs like Mack and Charlies or China Blue to dance. Music is tantamount to talking and people let their moves be their mouths. A skipping song or awkward transition is as noticeable as any conversational malapropism.
"When you have a club going where people want to dance, it's really loud and you can't hear people talk. That's different from places like Red Room, where people go to talk and music plays in the background," says Preston Woods, aka DJ Revolve. "At Neurolux, it's a combination of the two and you have more of the underground, less mainstream, dance party going on."
But no matter what style of music is being played, at what decibel, every DJ's main focus is the dance floor.
"You've got DJs that are mixing the songs and trying to keep it going in a continuous blend to keep the dance floor going. If you abruptly change the tempo of a song or change the way your music is going, you kill the dance floor," explains Woods. "That's what all DJs are trying to do ... keep their dance floor going so people [don't] miss a step while they're out there dancing."
Lately, Boise's club DJ culture and hip-hop culture have been intertwining. Rhetoric Style designer and promoter Mat Thompson has organized a handful of b-boy, or break dancing, competitions over the last couple of years. His upcoming event, Break Theory at the Visual Arts Collective, will feature a two-on-two break dance competition with a $1,000 prize and live music from both DJ Revolve and hip-hop group Kamphire Collective.
"The cool thing about all of the different cultures now is they're starting to mesh together a little bit," says Thompson.
Thompson hopes he can start throwing larger shows, ideally bringing in well-known DJs like Cut Chemist. Though his semi-annual Rhetoric Style events have drawn large crowds—once even selling out the Neurolux in a couple of hours—it's questionable whether there's an audience for more frequent live DJ and hip-hop nights. But Thompson and others involved in the downtown DJ scene are optimistic that DJ culture is continuously evolving. And for now, at least, there's no need to knock down the old school to make room for the new.
For more info on the Break Theory event on Saturday, June 28, at Visual Arts Collective, visit myspace.com/rhetoricstyle.