Gabriel Fain has a superhuman ear for detail. You can hear it foremost in his euphoric, voluptuous house music sets at places like Voodoo Lounge and Club Space in downtown Miami. But you can also hear it in his speech, in the careful way the Israeli-born DJ uses metaphor to tell a story.
"It was like when you're running a race, and you're winning, you're the winner. You're number one. And then, wait, wait -- stop. Holding you back."
His outstretched arm halts the air in his North Bay Village penthouse apartment. The place is bare because Fain hates furniture.
Gabriel Fain and Ivano Bellini
Voodoo Lounge, 111 SW Second Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
Every first Wednesday (including January 5) at Voodoo Lounge. Fain also plays two Fridays a month there; check www.voodooloungeflorida.com for details. Fain and Bellini play the Sunrise Sessions starting at 9 a.m. every Saturday at Space, 34 NE 11th St., Miami.
"And you wait and you wait and you wait. And you're like, 'Come on, let me continue.' But no."
He's a stocky guy, dark-complected, wearing faded jeans and white sneakers. He looks more like an athlete in the offseason than one of South Florida's most spectacular turntable talents. He shakes his head, remembering.
"And I suffered so much from that."
"That" was the moment when Fain's steep ascent through South Florida's club scene was cut down cold. In less than two years, Fain had risen from an unknown immigrant working restaurant jobs and hustling gigs to spinning records for 5,000 revelers in one of the most illustrious dance clubs in America. By the summer of 2003, Fain ruled the patio of Space, spinning after-hours sets on Saturday mornings to chemically enhanced dancers in what seemed like never-ending sunshine. The residency at Space -- the platinum ring for any star-eyed, working DJ -- lasted two months.
Then he surrendered himself to the DEA and went to federal prison.
The first time Fain flipped a record was in 1987. A fresh-faced 14-year-old, he worked as a bar back at a club called Palladium II in Haifa, the northern Israeli town where he was born. He'd learned the fundamentals of turntable technique from watching a smooth-operating DJ named Sam Atari. Atari often left the booth in Fain's hands while he went cavorting with lady friends.
"One night, Sam Atari is like, 'Gabby, I'm busy. Put on a few records,'" Fain recalls. "The club is packed, everyone's in their 20s, 30s. And you know, I'm not a DJ, I'm a 14-year-old kid; I just liked to watch him. But I used to have a few tracks that I put on -- Madonna, Rick Astley, Jason Donovan -- before his sets, when the club was empty. So I just have these ten vinyls that I played, and I thought he was gonna come back. But he never showed up. And I didn't know what to do, so I played these ten vinyls again."
Even though he could barely see over the DJ booth, Fain managed. Then the club owner gave him an early slot, spinning for teenagers before the adults came in at midnight. Fain was hooked. He played at Palladium II and other spots around Haifa until his mandatory turn in the army when he was 18 years old. In 1992, while still an infantryman, he became a devotee of Tel Aviv's legendary Allenby 58 disco. There, he graduated from pop music to the house beats of gurus like Tony De Vit and Deep Dish.
"I discovered, wow, like this 4,000-person club, and I was like, you gotta be kidding me. Four thousand people and one guy [the DJ] way over there, banging, banging. And I'm like, 'That's it.' That's what I wanted to do."
For the next few years, Fain bounced back and forth between the megaclubs of Tel Aviv and his own modest club residency in Haifa. He traveled in Europe and visited Chicago, he says, scoring records wherever he went. Absorbing new music was -- and still is -- his primary motivation.
He tells another story from the not-so-distant past to explain his bottomless thirst for fresh sounds.
"I have asthma, and I don't have money to buy medicine. And my mother gives me some money to buy medicine. And on the way to the doctor, [the record store] calls, 'Hey, we got music in, and there's a brand new remix of Satoshi Tomiie.' 'Oh bro, but I'm sick.' 'OK, OK, we're just letting you know.' And so I make a U-turn and go buy music. And I don't tell nothing to my mother that I spent the money from my medicine on the music. And the weekend comes and I'm fucking sick and I'm still gonna go play. And I have the best music. That's all that matters."
The music mattered enough to inspire Fain to move to South Florida. In September 2001, Fain came to the area early for the Winter Music Conference. The plan was archetypal -- to figure out the scene, work his way up, and make the big time. An experienced international clubber, he knew the venues, he knew the music, and he knew he could do it.
"That was the plan," he says. "Come to Miami, to somehow -- don't ask me how; I had nothing here, no friends, no contacts -- two to three years, make it happen."
And it worked perfectly. Fain's ambition and outgoing nature carried him as far as his immaculate, crowd-pleasing deep-house sets. His after-hours dance marathons started out deep underground and gradually grew in size and reputation. To say he rose through the scene doesn't fairly indicate the drive with which Fain approached his work.
From Surface to Union Lounge to Blue to Lime -- all present and former Miami-Dade clubs -- Fain gathered a dedicated following. The parties he threw with close friend Carol-Anne Hemmingway flourished with an all-inclusive vibe and a reverence for quality, funk-drenched house.
Then Fain was implicated in a case that brought down 17 people. The official charge was "using telecommunications to commit a crime." The DEA would tell you Fain was an accessory to an illegal drug transaction. With a shrug of defeat, Fain says, "I was in the wrong time and the wrong place, and I asked the wrong questions."
By his description, he used his cell phone to link up two friends, one of whom was under surveillance. "I told him, 'I need 50.' I could've asked him for 50 glasses of water, and [the DEA] don't give a fuck. That means ecstasy or special k."
The transaction was never even consummated, but Fain still faced federal charges. He was served his papers and given five months to surrender to the court. "There were 17 people on the list. Seventeen names, and at the end, it was 'and Gabriel Fain. '" He eventually pleaded guilty.
In March 2003, he says, "I got sentenced on a Friday, and they released me and gave me two more months to surrender myself." That Sunday, he was at Lime Bar, playing his regular gig there. "[Owner of Space] Louis Puig came to Lime Bar. He heard my set, and he was like, to my friends, 'You can tell your friend, Saturday night he's spinning in Space. I love what he's doing.' They told me, and I remember I ran outside, and I cried. I cried because the dream come true just happened -- I did it. And at the same time, 48 hours before, they just told me I had to leave that. I had to go to prison."
An 18-year veteran of the international dance scene, Fain says he gave up party favors in his early 20s. "Even if I think I didn't fuck up too bad, I still fucked up," he admits. "I asked the wrong question. But as far as prison time I don't think I deserved a year. I'm not a drug dealer, and they knew this."
The prison term "was horrible," and Fain held himself up on the crutches most often taken up by convicts -- religion and weightlifting. He lost 30 pounds and reconnected with the Judaism of his homeland. "I'll never be religious," he says, "but since then, I do pray to God every day." He was released in March 2004 -- two months early for good behavior. (Fain's case isn't listed under his name in public records.)
Within two months, he and DJ Ivano Bellini had started their Twisted parties at Fort Lauderdale's Voodoo Lounge, and he recently reclaimed the coveted, Saturday morning Sunrise Sessions at Space.
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"In prison, I was listening to Party 93.1 radio from the Voodoo Lounge," he recalls, "and I remember telling my cellie, 'I'm gonna spin at that place. I don't know how, but I'm gonna spin at that place.' Two months after I got released, I spun at that place."
Fain's clear-eyed determination has made an impression on everyone he works with. "He's one of those people that sank to the bottom and managed to climb his way to the top," Voodoo Lounge owner Wendy Tascione says. "He's a DJ that will still go out and hand out his own fliers, and a lot won't. He's not gonna sit around and wait to get promoted -- he did it himself. That's why I gave him a shot."
Fain's never been given much of anything in his life -- effort and raw talent have earned him his achievements. "Still, after so many years, I get excited about going out to spin. All my friends know that. Especially in Fort Lauderdale -- it's all new to me, and I like that."
And as self-made as he is, he does know when to ask for help. "It's all about giving people the music. And I'm just praying to God for no more problems. I'm just a person trying to make a living, to show everything I have in my heart and in my head. To put it in the turntables for the people."