My electronic-music hangover is starting already. The Winter Music Conference hasn't even gotten here yet, and I'm already burned out after hours of listening to some of the oddest and most obscure tracks the FPL-driven genre has to offer. I'm not exactly an electrophile, but it's 11 p.m. and fate has me stuck inside Club Gryphon at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino trying to drink my way toward a good time. Unfortunately, most of the breakbeat/techno tunes careening out of the speakers are giving me a monster headache that several free Red Bull-and-vodkas can't cure. I'm working as a celebrity judge for the Ultra DJ Spinoff, a somewhat-contrived competition in which five South Florida DJs are squaring off for a chance to play at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami next weekend. In fairness, part of this spinoff makes sense. SoFla has a heap of DJ talent, and since the six-day electronic melee is happening in our backyard, I'd be pleased to see a local spinner get the opportunity to play a set at Ultra, which is basically the biggest event of this electronic bacchanalia.
So as I walked into Gryphon to judge the competition, I had lofty expectations. The only problem was, Gryphon doesn't really get cranking until 1 a.m. at the earliest, and trying to work a paper-thin crowd (60 people at best) into a dancing frenzy just wasn't happening.
Before the gig even started, I noticed that all five of the DJs spinning were men. Nothing against the stud crowd, but why weren't any ladies hitting the decks? Sure, Miss Kittin and Orlando's Baby Anne are already on the official Ultra lineup, but I was a little miffed to see a lack of gender diversity at the event I was forced to judge. That was cause for drink number one. Plus, the place was a bit too posh for its own good, and Pangaea, the club next door, was playing Top 40 hits and luring away most of the patrons. Here was a competition with DJs showing off their skills and patrons were being drawn away by a bunch of radio songs. The looks on some of the DJs' faces were classic. They were notably peeved at the diminishing crowd, but as far as conditions for a competition go, it really put everyone's skills, or lack thereof, on full display. I was happy about that. Now we'd see how sharp these electronic gurus were and if they had enough juice to work themselves out of an awkward situation.
What stood out the most about these mixmasters was their lack of vinyl. I know this is 2007 and DJs rock parties with their iPods all the time, but if you're in a DJ competition, then act like one. Relying on technology to compensate for a dearth of skills isn't going to get folks very far at Ultra, and it damned sure wasn't gaining any favor in my eyes. That was cause for drink number two. Of the five competitors on hand, everyone played CDs or MP3s, except Miami's Doormouse, who thankfully spun wax. Interestingly enough, he also won the event. But his victory did not come without controversy.
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While most of the DJs played safe sets of downtempo, drums 'n' bass, and straight-away house during the 15 minutes they were given, Doormouse scared the crowd silly with an aggressive set of electronic hardcore, glitch, and experimental IDM that cleared out the dance floor immediately.
Now, normally this is a cardinal sin, but the night was wack anyway and the cojones it took to play that style of music was impressive. Most of it was pure noise-core riffs and homemade beats (everything in his set was original material), giving him an advantage in the skills department over everyone else. But his crowd-control ability couldn't have been worse. At one point, a representative from Gryphon actually went up to him to ask that he change his music. Midcompetition. Talk about censorship. Dred Scott had to find out what all the fuss was about.
"It felt like something from a dream," Doormouse recalled the next night at Club Roxanne's. "Here I am, the only guy spinning my own shit, playing a bunch of hardcore music, and the folks from the club asked me to stop. I'm thinking to myself, 'I knew it I knew this was going to happen. '" Although he was almost yanked from the turntables, he was able to hold on long enough to ensure that all of the club's attention was on him. It was part ego and part keen strategy.
"That's not exactly my type of place to perform, so I didn't think there was any way I could win playing the type of music that I do," Doormouse said laughing. But he did. The lesson in all of this is: Stay true. DJ'ing is an art form that technology is corrupting and enhancing. But without taking risks, what's the point?