Spin control

Inside the booth, DJs control the evening’s flow

DJ Simon Apex (left, right) and DJ Storm get busy.

DJ Simon Apex (left, right) and DJ Storm get busy.

Illustration By Meidu Sumampauw

At an all-ages dance joint in Carmichael, Sascha, a 23-year-old DJ who started spinning two years ago, is slated to do a one-hour set at midnight. It’s early, so Glen, a regular house DJ and co-owner of the club, is at the controls in the booth. He deftly leafs through milk crates crammed with LPs, searching for that elusive next tune—the perfect song that will fit in the mix and keep the kids hopping.

Darting about the booth, elevated above the dance floor behind an enormous stack of pulsating PA cabinets, Glen is a vision of perpetual motion. In a controlled flurry, his arms shoot out in all directions: cueing up the song on deck, coaxing special sound effects from the mixing board, twisting knobs and switches to activate strobes, spotlights and smoke machines.

As Sascha arrives, his own bag of vinyl in tow, a dance mix featuring Britney Spears vocal samples elicits a whoop from the crowd—mostly teenagers, a few scattered 20-somethings. While most of the music being played isn’t recognizable, a good deal of it is “original” in one way or another—either brand-new songs or dance mixes of existing material that has been manipulated and mutated in the studio.

“Usually, the songs that do well in the clubs have dance beats with little bits of the vocals thrown in,” Sascha explains. “The club kids rely on a certain amount of familiarity, so when they realize it’s a dance version of a popular song, they respond.”

Sascha spins progressive and high-energy forms of house and trance, preferring to fill out his set with proven favorites as well as more obscure selections. “I’ll play a song that you would probably hear at a party or rave atmosphere, and then I’ll spin something you might hear on the radio but with dance beats over it—like a remix of a song by mainstream electronic icons such as Alice Deejay or Moby.” With this formula, he says, the audience never feels alienated from the music.

Sascha takes over; he is well received. Several kids pop into the booth to put in song requests and wish him a happy birthday. “It’s important to be personable and open to the crowd,” Sascha says. “If people come up and talk to you while you’re spinning, even if it’s a hindrance to your mixing, you should take the time to listen. The point isn’t to be flawless, it’s to play for them.”

Glen hangs around for a moment to man the visual effects, and explain how a typical set is structured. “What’s considered ‘dance’ right now is 125 to 150 beats per minute,” he says. “We usually do progressive programming, going from the lower end of the spectrum to the higher end to build intensity. It’s common to short-mix, which means playing one song for about two minutes and then quickly mixing it into something else.”

A self-described dance jock who has played all kinds of music at Sacramento-area clubs for nearly three decades, Glen is an elder statesman of sorts for the Sacramento DJ community. “Most jobs are repetitious, but when you work with music, it’s always changing,” he says, explaining why he keeps spinning after all these years. “We constantly receive new records, so while there’s some consistency in the songs we play from week to week, over the long term everything evolves.”

As the house DJ, Glen plays the early slot, getting the crowd primed for guest DJs, such as Sascha, who play more specialized formats.

Sascha doesn’t follow a predetermined set list as he spins; as soon as he removes one disc from the turntable, he’s back at his record bag. “I find it’s best not to spend a long time working out the music you’re going to play because it never works out that way,” he says later. “The crowd energy might be higher or lower at different times, and you have to work with that, so you should always bring different types of songs.”

On this night, Sascha’s sounds shift from tribal crunching rhythms to pulsating ambient interludes, taking dancers on a roller-coaster voyage of high-energy onslaughts and ethereal moodscapes. “You want the crowd to have that one long, continuous experience that never gets boring,” says Sascha. “It’s a seamless combination of songs—some you’ve heard and some you haven’t—programmed in such a way that people don’t even realize when one song’s over and another has begun.”

It’s hard to tell when one track has segued into the next. “Beat mixing takes a lot of practice,” says Sascha. “It’s taking two beats on two different songs, matching them up perfectly, and letting them play together for a minute or two without people noticing you’ve mixed in the new track. Smoothly progressing from one song to another—that’s your goal as a DJ.”

As Sascha closes out his set with a driving number, he pumps his fists in the air, rousing the dancers to a barely controlled frenzy. “Just being in front of a crowd and seeing them react,” he enthuses later. “It hasn’t worn off, and I don’t think it ever will.”

A couple of weeks later, in a rented Veteran’s hall in West Sacramento, local electronic-music promoter and DJ, Simon Apex, 26, and his wife, Angela, are staging one of their celebrated SMILE dance parties. The atmosphere is more rave-like than club-like, and Simon’s approach is decidedly more animated and interactive with the audience.

The lineup includes more than a dozen DJs, including Jon “MC Sharkey,” 27, a big name from Simon’s native England. “Jon ran with some of the biggest original [electronic music] crews on the circuit at the very beginning of Britain’s rave scene,” says Simon.

Sharkey and Simon both specialize in the Happy Hardcore format. It’s interesting to watch how they work this crowd; these kids are serious partygoers whose musical preferences have moved beyond the typical clubgoer’s more pedestrian tastes.

Simon uses an MC, or master of ceremonies, as an onstage ringleader; while the DJ mans the turntables, the MC—usually Sharkey or Simon—grabs a microphone and revs up the crowd with a variety of chants, slogans and exhortations. “Are you ready for the hard-charging sounds of the underground? Let’s hear some noise!”

All night long, the MC-DJ combo is an effective one-two punch, keeping the crowd involved and energized. “I always bring MCs whenever I do a party,” says Simon. “The DJ can supply the music, but the MC helps hold the crowd. A really good MC will just detonate an arena in a matter of seconds.” And while this might not qualify as an arena crowd, Simon and Sharkey prove to be a pretty explosive tandem in their own right, especially with those glorious English accents: “C’mon, give it up for DJ Shah-kee!”

While the attention of the crowd—about 350 strong—waxes and wanes throughout the evening, it never appears uninterested in the action onstage. What people are seeing is indeed a performance, one in which they all play a part. They shout along with the MC, blow on noisemakers and whistles and twirl glow sticks to augment the digital light show.

With Simon as MC, Sharkey gets on the decks around 1 a.m., blending keyboard-heavy melodies with atmospheric overlays that show a true sense of musicianship. The dancers all face toward the stage, keenly watching the performers and responding to their cues.

Sharkey is all business, taking his eyes off the turntables only to steal a quick glance at the crowd, gauge its reaction and make his next song selection accordingly. He has a professional command of how to use quiet spaces in between faster beats, building momentum to a crescendo and then breaking it down to start the ride all over again.

While a contingent of Simon’s crew meddles onstage near the turntables, no one else encroaches on the DJ’s personal space. “Over in England, we get harassed to death!” says Simon, laughing. “Now, I respect all ravers—they pay my wages—but sometimes it’s like, ‘I’m in the middle of a mix, I can’t talk right now, just wait till I’m finished,’ and they’re like, ‘What do you mean, wait till you’re finished?!’ ”

Later, Sharkey swaps spots with Simon, who does a tag-team set with another DJ. As they alternate turns on the decks, the power amplifiers put out a palpable wave of heat. Every time the beat gets louder, the air gets noticeably warmer.

Simon roughly grabs an LP off one turntable and quickly slaps another down, then starts doing some wicked scratching—all in syncopation with the track playing on the other deck. It’s wizardry.

Soon after, the night wraps up with a majestic anthem that sends everyone home with a smile.