Spinning diverse sounds

Sacramento’s deejays are woven into local music scene

Seth Ahern, aka DJ Zephyr, has his own genre-bending mash-up show on ALT 94.7.

Seth Ahern, aka DJ Zephyr, has his own genre-bending mash-up show on ALT 94.7.

Photo courtesy of dj zephyr

Sacramento is among America’s most diverse cities, so it’s only fitting that our resident deejays playing local bars, nightclubs, restaurants, festivals and local radio offer a diversity of style.

Part musical anthropologists and part psychologists, the region’s DJs weave their personalized auditory innovations and record collections into the fabric of Sacramento’s music scene.

The skill set of the modern DJ has evolved from its revolutionary roots in the 1970s mixing audio from vinyl records on turntables to the use of laptops, mixers, samplers, controllers and effects units that shape songs into unique works of audio production. Like a painter’s color palette, deejays mix records into a continuous harmonious collage—as a segue between songs or as the centerpiece of a new musical performance and a DJ’s signature sound.

Once samples of verse, chorus, bridge, breakdown and “hooks” are liberated from their initial genre and musical era, what DJs create can set the mood at local nightspots and arouse contagious magnetic energy on the dance floor.

Our region’s DJs’ collective aim is simple: Keep the party going.

My Cousin Vinny spins house music and hip-hop at The Golden Bear.

Photo by maria ratinova

Bending genres

Seth Ahern, aka DJ Zephyr, is responsible for genre-bending mash-ups heard on ALT 94.7 Bacterium radio, the station’s Electric Christmas and City of Trees Festival, plus Concerts in the Park. Ahern’s mixes just might have listeners saying “A DJ Saved My Life During My Morning Commute,” a twist on the legendary early ’80s Indeep track “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.”

“I have always felt like an ambassador of electronic music, always mixing with the live music, kids collaborating and introducing electronic music to our scene at the time in the early 2000s,” Ahern says. “Being able to expose people to a new genre or just pushing electronic dance music in Sacramento is what’s pushing me now, making it known and showing that it’s not just one style, but that there are so many facets to it.”

He says his radio show is introducing his art to an audience that includes kids. “When they first hear it, you can see their eyes light up, something they can connect to,” he said. “I love that.”

Speaking of the kids, DJ Lady Char, who has been featured at Crocker Art Museum’s ArtMix and who appeared at Sacramento Republic FC’s MLS celebration event, already has her eye on the next generation of local dance party ambassadors. She teaches kids in workshops that focus on technique, music history, performance confidence and even social media promotion.

“I’ve always loved music,” she says. “My uncles back then were [breakdancing] B-boys and heavily into hip-hop. As a child I followed them around and really fell in love with the culture and specifically the DJ aspect. Today my sound is heavily influenced by Top 40 and pop. So what I mainly do is play to the crowd. Whatever the crowd’s thinking, I’m thinking that, you know!”

Blake Gillespie, aka Busy Gillespie, spins vinyl-only sets of disco, funk and boogie at the Ten Ten Room.

Photo courtesy of nicole nygaard

New sounds

Venues in Sacramento are also listening. As clubs strive to set themselves apart from the pack, new sounds are taking root.

My Cousin Vinny—a DJ with a regular gig at The Golden Bear, playing house music and hip-hop—has started a Latin-infused, electro-cumbia night every Tuesday at Tiger restaurant.

The new wave/goth/industrial scene is experiencing a resurgence with nights such as Nouveau, Club Necromancy and Club Séance and New Wave Society.

Kylie Jackson, aka DJ Lady Grey, is young, but says she feels more in tune with ’80s musical influences. “I like to DJ music that’s classified as dark wave, experimental, industrial, EBM, synth pop, new beat,” Jackson says. Her “Black Mass” show on KDVS FM also features a confessional line where anonymous callers reveal misdeeds large and small. “I love having my show on KDVS! I can be as weird as I want,” she says.

The open-format, DJ-curated programming on KDVS, the student-run station at UC Davis, provides access for the next wave of DJ influencers in the region.

DJ Lady Char is teaching the next generation.

Photo by maria ratinova

“I first got my radio show start playing early and avant-garde electronic music on KDVS,” says Denise Chelini, aka DJ Holiday Special. “From there I got into disco. It was my dirty little secret. Because my Cuore Della Discoteca show was on in the middle of the night, I tried playing global disco more or less initially for myself. To my surprise, my fears of possible residual attitude left over from the “Disco sucks” period were over, so I kept going.”

Forging a unique identity as a DJ involves not only choosing a genre to serve as the medium, but picking which techniques and tools to use—or in some cases omit—as the process.

Blake Gillespie, aka Busy Gillespie, spins vinyl-only sets of late disco, ’80s, rare funk and boogie selections at downtown’s Ten Ten Room. He says his style parallels the ability of jazz musicians to improvise and keep their phrasing fresh.

“I like setting a good vibe for people,” he says. “By design I take a journey down that rabbit hole of sound. As an empathetic individual, I feel and mix in the moment, hopefully giving people that night the opportunity to hear something unique in that record.”

Experimenting during performances is part of the fun and part of Gillespie’s path to discovery. “When my mix choices work well, I can draw from that in the future,” he says.

Gillespie says he was influenced by John “DJ Crook” Molina, aka CrookOne, upon first hearing him 10 years ago.

Molina, a staple of the Sacramento DJ scene since 2002, started New Jack Fling at the Press Club alongside DJ Epic and Satapana eight years ago. Now a Sacramento pre-Thanksgiving tradition, the night features hand-picked R&B infused hip-hop recordings from the ’80s and early ’90s. His initial inspiration came from listening as a teen to mix masters on KDAY 1580 in Los Angeles.

“Each DJ had a different style rooted in hip-hop, and early on I’d borrow my parents’ records, which ranged from Madonna to The Clash trying to emulate their sound,” Molina says. “That’s mostly what I’d practice with while I was slowly building my own record collection, which was stuff like Cybotron, Audio Two, Ice T, Public Enemy, Hashim, etc. This basically led to my style of mixing different genres.”

Coming across new music is what keeps him going as a DJ, says Crook, who spins regularly at B-Side’s FFFREAK!. “It’s cool to see people having a good time, dancing to stuff they might not normally listen to in their day to day.”