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The Dirty Dozen

top12coverThe Dirty Dozen

Kate Kilpatrick picks the city’s top 12 DJs.

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (APRIL 18, 2007)
BY KATE KILPATRICK
PHOTOS BY JEFF FUSCO//PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY SARA GREEN

New Orleans may have the best jazz, Memphis the best soul and New York the greatest MCs.

Philly, though, has the best DJs.

Our DJ legacy, if someone ever decides to document it, would fill volumes.

From old-school legends like Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff to contemporary prodigies like King Britt and Rich Medina, Cosmo Baker and Kenny Meez, Hollertronix and Dave P, Philly DJs stand tall on their reputation as the best party-rockers on the planet.

But the golden age of Philly DJs may be coming to an end. Some in the game say the new kids can’t mix, scratch and blend like their predecessors; that they haven’t learned their history; that they never tuned into Lady B, or heard Captain Boogie sound-blast in the school yard, and therefore don’t know what a good DJ is. That’s because they’re young, and instead of spending their lunch money at the mom-and-pop record shops, they’re trading mp3s.

For the oldsters, names like DJ Ghetto, DJ Groove, Disco Rat and Grandmaster Nell elicit intense waves of nostalgia, like when a grown man stumbles upon his collection of action figures from a bygone era, complete with all his favorite heroes.

But we believe Philly still has the best DJs. Whether battling or touring, spinning Baltimore club or electro, pushing mixtapes or breaking radio jams, representing West Oak Lane or Fishtown, our DJs know good music, and they’re not afraid to show it.

And thanks to them, someday we too will reminisce, piecing together memories from Hands and Knees or White Ts and White Belts parties where we krumped, jumped, two-stepped, twisted, winded, grinded, popped and percolated all night long, wringing the sweat from our hair as we left the club. We’ll speak longingly of mashups and mixtapes, and we’ll glorify the good ol’ days when kids were having Wu-Tang dance battles in school yards and roller skating rinks across the city.

But hold on. Let’s not get nostalgic so soon. Because the warriors of good music with their superhuman powers to keep us on our feet all night long are all around us all across the city. And at least for now, they’re ours to play with.

aktiveDJ Aktive: Best Tour DJ
Maurice Deloach

Age:
27
Hometown:
West Philadelphia.

Growing up in a historic Philly DJ family, Aktive was in high school when his cousins DJ Doodles, DJ Ghetto, DJ Kid Swift (Schoolly D’s partner) and DJ Evil Tracy helped him hone his skills to be the youngest member of their Action Figure Crew. He started off as a battle DJ, long before landing tour gigs with Kelis and Nas. Today he’s also a member of the respected Skratch Makaniks DJ crew.

Artists he’s toured with: Kelis, Nas, Musiq Soulchild, Floetry, Busta Rhymes, John Legend, the Roots, Mario, Ne-Yo and Sterling Simms.

On touring: “Being a tour DJ, you gotta be more of a showman. You gotta do tricks and talk on the mike and keep the people entertained, because a lot of people are looking at you.”

On up-and-coming talent: “DJ Amir has potential. DJ Omega–he’s real young but puts out good mixtapes, and he’s got a morning TV show on Channel 10. And DJ A-Run—he fills in for me sometimes in the clubs.”

On Philly DJs: “The scene is good, but it needs to come back more to the craft of DJing. Nobody’s really as technical as Philly DJs. The world still looks to Philly for DJs—there’s a certain respect. Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money to this day are still touring. They still hold the torch. But now you have a lot of DJs who don’t know their history.”

You heard it here first: He loves roller skating.

Aktive spins the new hits and latest exclusives on XM 67 satellite radio Wed., 10pm; Sat., 2am; and Sun., 6pm.

antliveDJ Ant Live: Best Mixtape DJ
Anthony Still
Age:
31
Hometown:
South Jersey.

DJ Ant Live was putting out mixtapes back when mixtapes were 45-minute cassettes recorded in one take. These days he’s behind some of the hottest street albums in the city, including Freeway’s Free at Last and Peedi Peedi’s The Crakk Files as well as the Philly Stand Up and Big Trouble in Lil’ Camden compilations of signed and unsigned artists.

On his first professional mixtape World Premiere (1996): “It was along the lines of DJ Clue. Exclusive music but a continuous mix with hot new artists like Mos Def, De La Soul, Beatnuts, Black Moon and Buckshot. That’s the world I came up in—underground backpack.”

Early influences: “The Philadelphia DJ scene as a whole. Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff as OGs. DJ Ran and Jay Ski when they hit the radio. I’d even say Cosmic Kev—when he was on ‘KDU.”

On Philly DJs: “A lot of guys undercut people on their prices. You might ask for $200, but such and such will do it for a ride home.”

On Philly radio: “The game is funny—it’s real political. We’re definitely behind. We’re definitely slower and people are scared to take chances. In Philly certain people are in and the door’s closed. They’re not looking for new blood.”

On up-and-coming talent: “I gotta shout out cats that are trying, but you’ve got to shovel through the malarkey to find it. DJ Ian and DJ Omega—when they drop something, it’s definitely worth listening to. And [a young MC] Funch the Camden Kid.”

If the feds are listening: “I use the mixtapes as a promo tool to keep my name alive in streets. Until I master the legal red tape, just rock it. That’s promotion enough for me.”

You heard it here first: “I’m mean in the kitchen. Chicken parmesan is one of my specialties.”

Ant Live spins a biweekly open-turntable showcase: Mon., 10pm-2am. $5. April 30: With Action Figure reunion. Liquid Charm, 1207 Race St. 215.557.0208. www.myspace.com/educatedthugmusic

diamondkutsDJ Diamond Kuts: Best Radio DJ
Tina Dunham
Age:
23
Hometown:
West Oak Lane.

Because Philly radio refuses to stray from the certified hits, music videos break more new records than any of our local stations. Which is why Philly should be thankful for Diamond Kuts, Power 99’s sweet-as-pie DJ (be careful though—she’s part of the powerful Murda Mamis music industry clique) who keeps her ear to the streets listening for hot new records to slip into her late-night sets.

On morning vs. late-night radio: “With the morning show you gotta stay to the hits. You can break records, but you have to absolutely positively know this record is definitely going to be a hit. No freestyles—definitely can’t do that in the morning. But at night it’s all you–you can play whatever you want.”

On breaking new music: “I played ‘Going Down’ first on [Power] 99, but because of the time I was on and I was new, nobody was paying attention to me. But now that people are familiar with me they’re like, ‘Okay, we trust her ear. I think that record is hot too.’ I feel like my [program director] and [Cosmic] Kev are starting to listen to me. Sometimes when he doesn’t totally believe in a record, he’ll play it anyway—like “Two Step.” I said I think this record might be a hit, and he said, ‘Okay, I’ma see where this goes, young grasshopper.’ So he started playing the record a little bit, and now it’s one of the biggest records on our station. I come to them when I feel strongly about a record because I do need their help to break a record. I can get the buzz up, but as for that extra push, I gotta tell Kev.”

On hot singles: “Lil Mama ‘Lip Gloss’—it hasn’t really blown up yet, but I feel like it has potential to. And ‘Pop, Lock and Drop It’ by Huey.”

On up-and-coming talent: “DJ Chops. He’s starting off how I started off—at Sneaker Villa. It might seem little now, but that’s your foundation. A lot of DJs come to me and I try to give them advice and they don’t take it. Or I might give a DJ an opportunity, and he just messes it up and makes me look crazy. Even with a lot of girls—they just like the sound of being a female DJ but they’re not putting in the work. They get sidetracked by boys and petty stuff. That’s something a lot of female DJs need to work on—especially the younger girls—they’re not focused. Their minds are somewhere else.”

You heard it here first: “I used to play the flute and the drums.”

Diamond Kuts spins on Power 99’s Sam Sylk Morning Show Mon.-Fri., 6-10am, and Sat., 9pm-2am.

brendanDJ Brendan: Best Cross-Genre DJ
Brendan Olkus
Age:
31
Hometown:
Frankford/Kensington.

DJ Brendan is the only DJ in the city who can consistently pack four different parties week after week. He’s mastered the art of crowd control—giving his fans what they want along with what they don’t realize they need. “Subconsciously you get the crowd to accept all the time stuff they don’t necessarily know by placing it in the context of music they’re familiar with,” he explains. Currently in his studio producing tracks with underground artists all across the city, Brendan wants to bring Philly’s raw and soulful sound to the masses.

On the forthcoming album: “I started a label: Deuce Deuce. It’s little but it’s official. We’re putting out an album called Deuce Deuce Presents with songs by El Feco, Spank Rock, Roxy, Shiz and Stakx, Jes-One … I’m trying to get Miss Jade on the record—she’s in L.A. recording—and Telaya and Sean Rivera. The concept is just to show people the diversity we’re capable of. It’s a bunch of good music–all stuff I produced, and I co-wrote and performed a couple songs. The second project is a Black Card album [with underground Philly rappers Shiz and Stakx]. It’s pretty much finished, but those guys are so good they keep giving me new stuff.”

On up-and-coming talent: “DJ Jes-One has been apprenticing under me for three years. He’s really taken his time and been patient and humble—he doesn’t have an ego at all about not knowing something. He’s learned a ton about music and working and reading a crowd and what it takes to make it pop. A lot of guys go buy Serato and watch videos of DJing but miss the fine and delicate details of it. Jes-One’s coming up under the same tradition how I came up apprenticing under Cosmo Baker and Mr. Vic.”

On his mission: “I want to do everything in the great tradition of Philadelphia music, from the Sound of Philly to Philadelphia International to Mr. Vic to Jill Scott. There’s a great tradition here, and I’m just tryna honor that. And win a fuckin’ Grammy.”

You heard it here first: Brendan is president of the board of the Kensington South Neighborhood CDC.

Brendan spins every Wed., 10pm-2am. Free. Walnut Room, 1709 Walnut St. 215.751.0201; Thurs., 10pm-2am. $5-$10. Bamboo Lounge, 101 N. 20th St. 215.636.0228; Fri., 10pm-2am. $5-$10. Tragos, 38 S. 19th St. 215.636.9901; and Sat., 10pm-4am. Free. Continental, 1 Atlantic Ocean, Atlantic City, N.J. 609.674.8300

skemeDJ Skeme Richards: Best Soul/Funk DJ
Wendell Tolbert
Age:
36
Hometown:
Wynnefield.

Skeme is old-school. He likes classic clothes, classic sneakers, classic toys and classic records. He reminisces about the good ol’ days of hip-hop, when records were $1.99, the radio played good music, the YMCA threw great parties and DJs honed their skills before leaving the house. Kids grew up in clubs back then. Karate flicks played at the local movie house. And an album was 15 strong songs you listened to from beginning to end.

On his DJ sets: “I grew up in the ’70s, so I also reference the ’60s and ’80s in my set. People will say, ‘He spins like a Philly DJ but his selection is more New York.’ Philly always had the best DJs, but New York always had the better selection. All the records, bands and artists were coming from New York, so the first people to get their hands on the music were New York DJs.”

On Philly vs. N.Y.C.: “Philly and New York were the only two cities that understood hip-hop before the rest of the world. Captain Boogie was renting out soundsystems in the park before anyone in Philly knew who Kool Herc was. But Philly never documented our history. We just did it. New York always documented everything they did.”

His DJ influences: “DJ Groove; Cosmic Kev when he was around in ’77, ’78, before Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money; Grand Master Nell; Disco Rat; Captain Boogie.”

On joining Rock Steady Crew: “Crazy Legs was in Philly at the Gathering [a monthly hip-hop party held at the Rotunda] with Y Not, who’s a member of Rock Steady. That night I played ‘Cocomotion’—that’s what really caught his attention. He came up to me and said, ‘What do you know about that record? Because I haven’t heard that record since ’81.’ He was impressed by my knowledge of the music. Last March he asked me to be a part of Rock Steady.”

On staying old-school: “I don’t like Baltimore club. I can’t tolerate dirty South. Because that was never us—New York and Philly. We never listened to that. We used to dictate what good music was; now money dictates. Music is so disposable today.”

You heard it here first: “I have a fetish for pretty feet and open-toed shoes.”

Skeme spins every Tues., 10pm-2am. Free. Walnut Room, 1709 Walnut St. 215.751.0201; Wed., 10pm-2am. Free. North, 222 South St. 215.238.0298; and the first Thurs., 10pm-2am. $5. Monthly. Fluid, 613 S. Fourth St. 215.629.0565

freaknastyDJ Freak Nasty: Best Wu-Tang DJ
G. Dawson
Age:
23
Hometown:
North Philly.

DJ Freak Nasty (Freak for short) was in a North Philly club holding down the mike when he started chanting, “Whoop that thing! Whoop that thing!” The crowd interpreted it as “Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!” and Philly’s greatest dance—the Wu-Tang—was born. The imported Dutty Wine and Walk It Out dances will come and go in Philly, but Wu-Tanging is here to stay. Freak’s latest dance creation is the Twist It Pull It.

Label: DJ Freak Nasty is signed to Baltimore club king Rod Lee’s Harm Squad Entertainment.

On party music vs. Baltimore club: “In Baltimore they have a dance called the SpongeBob or the Crazy Legs, which they do to a Baltimore beat. What we do here is the Wu-Tang dance to party music. They call it Baltimore club. We call it party music. In D.C. they call it go-go. We’re all playing the same music. It’s just got different names. The way I make my beats, I use extra claps, extra horns, keyboards, guitars, whatever. D.C. and Baltimore use extra bass. I just add a little spunk to it—something they can Wu-Tang to. There’s a lot of action in that dance, like smacking the floor, raising your hands in the air and twisting and stuff, so I add more effects.”

On party music’s popularity: “It’s a fast-paced beat, an energized beat with hard bass and hard claps. When I first heard it—’Percolator’ and stuff like that—I thought it was a [whack] beat. Next thing you know I come into the club and I start doing it.”

Top party records of the moment: “‘What, What, What’ by Rod Lee; ‘Dance My Pain Away’ by Rod Lee; ‘Hands up, Thumbs Down’ by K-Swift and ‘Get Back’ by me.”

On up-and-coming talent: “DJ Lean Wit It, DJ Breeze, DJ Frecks, DJ Honey, DJ D.R. and Freak Productions–I’m going to get a team of DJs who just play party music.”

On the Wu-Tang dance’s longevity: “Wu-Tang’s never gonna die. You see 5-year-olds doing it now. It’s going from generation to generation.”

You heard it here first: Freak was an all-public soccer player at Thomas Edison high school.

Watch Freak Nasty on Urban X-pressions every Wed., 12:30am, and Sat., 2pm. Channel 35. The album release party for Party Music With Freak is Sat., May 5, 8pm. $7-$10. L&J Banquet Hall, 3419 Kensington Ave. 215.253.2642

ianjohnDJs John Redden (left) and Ian St. Laurent: Best Indie Party DJs
John Redden and Ian Kelly
Ages:
29 and 31

Hometowns: Philly burbs/Fishtown and Northampton, Mass.

A year ago the M Room was an awkward and under-the-radar venue struggling for attention in hipster-haven Johnny Brenda’s shadow. That was before Hands and Knees, the indie dance event that instantly became the hottest weekly party in Philly. Electro/indie/rock ‘n’ roll DJs John Redden and Ian St. Laurent (formerly known as Diabolic) just celebrated the first anniversary of their full-on smoke-and-laser freak-out. But the Hands and Knees era is about to end, with only a few weeks left to experience what will soon be the stuff of skinny-pants legend.

On their sets:

ISL: “I started as a hip-hop DJ, so I’ll scratch a lot and I have a lot more of a pop/hip-hop sensibility. John plays harder electronic. We cover a lot of genres. It’s a good balance of stuff that’s recognizable, as well as brand-new music.”

On the popularity of Hands and Knees:

JR: “It was such a hyped-up party. It baffled us as well as anyone else in the DJ/promoter/party scene. After a couple months we had a line down the block and we were completely at capacity. We’re really focused on creating something that’s different and an experience. We work on this party all week. We don’t just show up and play music. We do our edits and mixes. We built the DJ booth and redid the sound ourselves. It takes us a couple hours just to set up every week.”

On ending the party:

JR: “We’re both big advocates of killing something while it’s on top. Everybody’s freaking out, but change is good. Hopefully some other good parties will come of it. One thing we’ve gotten from this is if we can make that party work there, we can do it anywhere.”

ISL: “You never wanna be bored with your own party. That’s not good. It’s more fun to do something scary.”

On up-and-coming talent:

ISL: “Diamond Girl. She’s our Hands and Knees prodigy. She’s 19 or 20, and she’s really good. A lot of girl DJs are kind of shticky and focus more on their look. But she’s a really technically talented DJ, and really modest and not bejeweled.”

You heard it here first:

JR: “I’m really into motorcycles. I’ve been in about 15 crashes and totaled three bikes, but I’ve never broken a bone or sprained anything.”

ISL: “When I was 15 I carved the words ‘Madonna Ciccone’ into my chest with a razor blade.”

John Redden and Ian St. Laurent will spin at the final Hands and Knees party. Fri., May 4, 10pm-2am. $5. M Room, 15 W. Girard Ave. 215.739.5577. www.handsandknees.org

emyndboEmynd and Bo Bliz: Best Hip-Hop DJs
Emil Nassar and Stephen Blizard
Ages:
26 and 28
Hometowns:
All over the U.S.

Two-thirds of White Ts and White Belts—their First Friday pop-off with DJ Dan the Swede—Emynd and Bo Bliz don’t just string together the soundtracks to great parties; they create the damn things. Having been handed the Hollertronix torch by beloved expats Diplo and Low B, E&BB tend toward hip-hop-heavy mashup bashes that dodge curfew and liquor license restrictions. Let ’em be. They’re huge in Sweden.

On DJ influences:

BB: “The guys that got me started DJing were the Action Figures, battle hip-hop DJs, and seeing DJ Ghetto at West Philly warehouse parties. This was when people were into crazy self-indulgent scratching to the point only DJs like to watch. But at the time they were rocking parties too. That’s how I started, but I realized I had more fun rocking parties. I still scratch but I’m not putting on a show.”

On their sets:

Emynd: “We play hip-hop, dancehall, some ’80s shit—whatever rocks the club. We’re both record collectors, so we’re into old soul and funk too. We play everything, but I like to think it’s not a novelty act.”

BB: “That’s always been a Philly tradition. When we go on tour—West Coast, New York, everywhere—everyone thinks it’s an exception to play all types of genres. In Philly that’s normal.”

On White Ts and White Belts vs. Hollertronix:

Emynd: “[Diplo] is known for crazy blends of weird genres—they were pretty instrumental in starting the whole mashup craze. We’re real similar regarding the types of music we play—rowdy party music—and the feel of the party, but when it comes to DJing, nuances differentiate. We’re a little more hip-hop-based. Their crowd was more hipster.”

On up-and-coming talent:

Emynd: “Caps and Jones. They’re already established in New York. They just don’t have a Philly following yet.

BB: “Also the record label Flamin’ Hotz. They put our record out as their fourth release, and they’re doing something with Caps and Jones now. We wanted to put out a record a long time ago but had given up on it. It’s really cool they’re doing that, because we came up collecting records.”

On Philly DJs:

Emynd: “The scene here would be healthier if more DJs would take it upon themselves to do parties instead of relying on the one or two promoters in the city who do that type of party.”

You heard it here first: Emynd went to grad school for English lit. His favorite book is Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson. Bo teaches at a disciplinary school in North Philly.

White Ts and White Belts: Fri., May 4, 10pm-3am. $10. With Peedi Peedi. Ukrainian Club, 847 N. Franklin St. 215.627.8790

obi1DJ Obi 1: Best Reggaeton DJ
Juan Ceballos
Age: 27
Hometown:
Chicago/Philly (Frankford).

Even though the party rockers now reign supreme in Philly, Obi 1 has kept our gritty city on the battle DJ map. A DMC finalist for the last two years, and the winner of the 2006 King of Philly DJ championship, he’s now working intensely on a “skipless routine” he’ll perform with his Crate Kickers crew during the team battle competitions this summer.

Early days: While attending Northeast High School, he met DJ Excel (now part of the Skratch Makaniks crew). Back then Excel was rapping, and Obi 1 was his DJ. After watching his first DJ competition, Obi 1 spent the next four years at home practicing so he could eventually compete himself.

On DJ battles: “You develop a better skill when you do competitions. You get used to doing it in front of people. I like it—being onstage with people watching you do something that to them is pretty amazing.”

His DJ influences: “Jazzy Jeff, A-Trak, Craze. My biggest influence was probably Jay-Ski. Before I’d seen any competitions, I’d hear him scratch, and it really impressed me.”

On Philly DJs: “[The scene’s] really not good. It’s a shame because this is the birthplace of DJing. I go to other cities, and people watch me perform and they appreciate it. Here in Philly they think anyone can do it. Today San Francisco is really heavy into DJing. Miami’s hot right now. Atlanta, even Chicago. A lot of guys I like are overseas, like in Germany. In Philly, for party-rocking, I like Touch Tone—he’s blind and you can’t even tell. He switches records fast. He never falls off beat. He can scratch. It’s one thing to do it and another thing to do it blind.”

DJ Dee Square: Best Reason to Be a DJ
Dorian W.
Age:
33
Hometown:
West Oak Lane.

It’s Saturday night and the Pee Wee Squad is killing it—skating sideways, doing jumps in the air and rolling into forward splits. Older skaters (in their early teens) are doing a line-dance routine along the perimeter of the rink. As the Northeast Philly Jamz Skating Center’s resident DJ for the past nine years, Dee Square drops a mix of Baltimore club, hip-hop hits and smooth reggae jams. But every now and then he cuts the music and raps to the kids about self-esteem and the dangers of getting mixed up in the streets.

On being a mentor: “I’ve watched kids come [to Jamz] and grow up. When they first came there they felt part of something. I don’t want to say they were mistreated at home or in their neighborhood, they just weren’t being treated fairly and feeling important. Some of them went back to the neighborhoods and got tangled up in nonsense and violence. A lot of them came back—a couple years would go by and they’d come check me out and tell me I’m over at such and such college now.”

On talking with the kids: “There are a lot of issues at hand. There’s a lot of serious gun violence in the city, and they feel like nobody cares and nobody loves them. I let them know they don’t have to go that route just to have their voice heard. All they have to do is let the right person know and their voice can be heard. And I tell them right then and there, ‘The microphone is here for you. If you have something to say, you can be heard right now.'”

His personal mentors: “My cousin DJ Storm because he played a wide variety of music—underground house, trip-house and acid jazz—and he showed me how to control the crowd and get a crowd response. I have to give a shout to Cool DJ Frank. He’s an amazing DJ. And a big inspiration is DJ Touch Tone.”

On DJing for young people: “I’m always asking for clean edits. If it’s not clean, I’ll try to clean it up myself using software or editing programs. Sometimes you can find a break in the track and use that—it depends on how bad the song is. But I’m very big on clean edits.”

On up-and-coming talent: “DJ Sega, DJ Vex and DJ Malq-G. These guys have all showed true loyalty and interest in the art of being a DJ.”

You heard it here first: “Don’t mess with my WWE.”

Dee Square spins every Fri., 7:30-11:30pm, and Sat., 8-11:30pm. $10-$12. Jamz Roller Skating, 7017 Roosevelt Blvd. 215.335.3400. www.jamzrollerskating.com

Photographs: Jeff Fusco // Photo Assistant: Michael Persico // Art Direction and Photo Illustration: Sara Green // Hoodies on DJ Brendan, DJ Aktive, DJ Obi 1 and DJ Dee Square: available at WTHN.

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