How to build a house
House music DJ and label owner Donald “Dizzy” Eley, proprietor of Doubledown Recordings, has been learning sonic construction on the job
Donald “Dizzy” Eley, Sacramento house producer and owner of Doubledown Recordings, has agreed to meet at Clear Music, a small boutique shop nestled beneath a Highway 80 off-ramp in San Francisco. The store is overflowing with vinyl: records are stacked atop one another on the floor, posted on racks hanging from the walls and crammed into wooden bins pushed against the walls. Trying to figure out Clear Music’s filing system, I lose track and barely notice that Dizzy has walked in.
He quickly disappears behind the counter to discuss sales with the store’s owner. Meanwhile, I search in vain for Back to the Scene of the Crime, an import album from British disco-house maestro Joey Negro. Frustrated, I complain that it’s impossible to find anything (Doubledown’s releases are stuffed in a plastic crate marked “West Coast House”). “There’s a logic to it,” a clerk answers, adding that they don’t have what I want. He then proves it by finding an obscure 12-inch single Dizzy needs for his gig at Ruby Skye that night in less than 20 minutes. “Those guys are record Nazis,” Dizzy confides after we leave.
During a subsequent conversation at a Haight Street café, Dizzy continually asks me not to include certain items in the article, including various adventures and opinions about certain key players on the Sacramento house scene. He is very concerned about how his label is perceived by the public.
Luckily, Dizzy’s respectful but censorious attitude still leaves a considerable story. In short, Doubledown Recordings is bum-rushing the U.S. house scene, having put out an impressive 19 singles in less than two years. According to Dizzy, these vinyl-only releases have cumulatively sold more than 120,000 copies. His biggest seller, Hipp-E’s “Down on Me,” has sold around 11,000 copies.
Doubledown Recordings and its sister label Lowdown (“a deeper version of Doubledown,” says Dizzy) have featured several topnotch producers, including Chicago’s Johnny Fiasco, UK deep house crew Inland Knights and San Diego progressive house stalwart Hipp-E. But one of its fastest-rising stars is Dizzy himself, thanks to efforts like 2000’s The Time Travel EP and last winter’s “Perfect Timing” single, the latter recorded in Spain with the DCL Project (musicians David and Danny Chatelain). Dizzy has also made tracks for OM Records, one of San Francisco’s most popular electronic labels; San Diego imprint Blue:M Recordings, and New York’s Electrik Soul, for whom he produced The Sactown Soul EP.
On Doubledown Recordings’ Web site (www.doubledownrecordings.com), Dizzy’s bio describes his style as “tribal house,” which emphasizes rhythm over melody, mixed with Latin funk. “I like to use a lot of keys, a lot of saxophone stuff, a lot of vocal snippets,” he says. He frequently employs local musicians: for example, “You Saxy Thing” from The Sactown Soul EP featured saxophonist Michael Bolivar. “Sometimes I sample, sometimes I don’t,” he explains. “I’m not a musician, so if I get stuck on something, I have a musician come in and do some studio work for me.”
Dizzy’s records are an accelerated version of house—they jack up the beats per minute, sounding harder and more percussive than the mellifluously smooth and soulful “deep” house that the nearby Bay Area is known for. “With my music, you just don’t have a straight 4/4 groove,” he says.
“I like the more upbeat, snappy, funky basslines—jazzy, grooving shit. Shit that makes you smile, man; shit that makes you want to party when you go to the club, not sit back in a chair and smoke a joint,” says Dizzy, who adds that he doesn’t use drugs. “You want to get on the floor and get down with it.”
Dizzy runs Doubledown out of his home near the UC Davis Med Center in Sacramento with Sean Witt, a fellow DJ he brought in several months ago to help manage the label’s growth. “I’m tired, man,” he confides. He’d flown from San Diego to Sacramento the day before, then drove to San Francisco. He’s scheduled to leave again this summer for several gigs around the world, including stints in London, Budapest, Ibiza, Hong Kong and Chile. With his touring schedule, it’s amazing the 24-year-old producer keeps the label afloat with only a friend to help him.
Then again it’s no surprise, considering how Dizzy’s been in overdrive ever since he moved to Sacramento from Mobile, Alabama, in 1996. He quickly immersed himself in the local dance scene, buying records and teaching himself how to DJ. “I played guitar a little bit, but I never had lessons,” he says. “I play by ear a lot, and I figured, DJ’ing is easier for me than learning music.” To support himself, he worked odd-end jobs—“cleaning pools and shit.”
Dizzy started throwing his own warehouse parties with Zack Greenfeld in 1997 at the Cabinet Shop near North Highlands under the name Doubledown Productions. “When I first moved here, the parties were really small, getting like, maybe 2-, 3-, 400 people,” he says. His Orange Grove parties eventually drew well over 1,000 people at their peak, leading Dizzy to team up with fellow DJ Rick “V” Villegas, owner of the Midtown record store In Tha Mix, for a series of events at the Cal Expo Amphitheatre.
Dizzy still doesn’t know how he was able to get Cal Expo officials to agree to host the parties. “I didn’t try to wine and dine them,” he remembers, “I just went in there and asked if we could use it, we want to do some parties, and they were down.” Between 1998 and 2000, the duo pulled off two editions each of “Bliss” and “Gigabeatz.” Until the fourth and last party, “Gigabeatz 2,” the partnership was a raging success, as the duo featured nationally renowned DJs like Frankie Bones, Terry Mullan, DJ Dan and Steve Loria for crowds estimated at “up to 6-7,000 people.”
“We only had problems there one time, and that was the last one,” Dizzy says of the June 2000 event. He alleges that Cal Expo’s security wasn’t prepared to handle such a large amount of people. “They couldn’t let them in fast enough,” he claims. “They had problems with their security, and everything ended up coming back on us because they didn’t do their job.” By night’s end, six revelers were sent to the hospital for drug overdoses. Cal Expo effectively ended Sacramento’s short-lived “massive” era by terminating its relationship with the two promoters several weeks later.
Parting ways with Rick V., Dizzy used the profit from those parties to start Doubledown Recordings. At first, learning how to produce tracks was an arduous process. “I didn’t know much more than how to turn the damn [equipment] on,” he says. Although his production debut and Doubledown’s third release, The Time Travel EP, took him three months to finish, it led to positive notices in several electronic magazines, including BPM Culture and Muzik.
Yet in spite of his many successes, Dizzy is somewhat disheartened by his experiences in the local dance scene. “I really tried to build up Sacramento,” he says. “I mean, I went from seeing 200-300 people parties to pulling 7,000 people [for my own] parties. And, for me, that’s an accomplishment.”
For most of last year Dizzy threw a house party at the Tower Club—“Fresh Fridays,” later changed to “Shakedown,” with Eric Sandi. “We actually pulled in less than what they would pull in on a Saturday night. Gradually it just got smaller and smaller,” he rues. He believes the club failed because there isn’t much of a local house scene. Most teens are into happy hardcore, trance and jungle, while adults would rather stay home or go to San Francisco to party than support a homegrown club. “I’m still trying to figure that one out,” he says.
“I don’t think there’s too many people in town that can appreciate what we do,” he adds. “It’s almost a lost cause here. The scene in itself has gone way back more underground, which a lot of people can appreciate. I like the underground party stuff, but the ones that are going on in Sac right now aren’t worth the time in my book.” When asked why he’s not interested in local underground parties, he responds: “For us, spending thousands of dollars and trying to make people have a good time in a good atmosphere, to going back to where Sacramento is at, is a giant step back.”
Not surprisingly, Dizzy plans to move to San Diego, where many of his DJ and producer friends live, by the end of the year. “The only thing that’s going on in Sacramento is titty fests at the Tower Club on Saturday night and Cheeseballs at Harlow’s and Polly Esther’s. You can take that shit straight to the press. This town is wack when it comes to nightlife.”
Dizzy isn’t the first to realize that Sacramento has limited potential for artistic growth. Too many Sacramentans move here to get away from the urban congestion, noise and pollution found in larger, more cosmopolitan cities. It’s unfortunate that artists of Dizzy’s caliber and ambition usually end up looking elsewhere for creative stimulus. Thankfully, Sacramento’s always had a few talented people—eager to make their mark in the world yet too inexperienced to look elsewhere to do it—to make things interesting.