February 25, 2011
Better than: An evening of mediocre music from DJs with good names.
I arrive around 9:30 p.m. at a very sparsely populated Mighty, wonder why I don't go to Mighty more, and then remember that I don't like to dance. J House, of The Say What, at first appears to be a duo, although I quickly realize that one guy is doing all the work and the other is making modest efforts to engage the non-crowd with encouraging shouts. Nobody is taking the bait. A lot of people are wearing Fernet-Branca sweatshirts, or in any case more than one person, and given that there are only like 20 people max at Mighty this seems conspicuous, to say the least.
J House's set is nice, smooth, a little genre-slippery: there's some old-skool house-hop, some of that de rigueur dubstep, some L.A.-sounding broken-beat electro-funk. He's good on the mic, even, though he doesn't rap so much as rhythmically express concern for our enjoyment of the evening. In any case he's less intrusive than the other guy, who by now I have gathered is the MC, not in the sense that he is a rapper -- and this is also problematic, because he has a microphone to his mouth pretty much every time J House mixes in some rap tracks, which makes it look like he's rapping, but then at one point he has a microphone to his mouth while there's a chick singing a hook and it becomes clear that he just has the microphone to his mouth, whatever his motives -- but in the sense that he's doing his best to whip up enthusiasm from the slowly growing audience. Every time he addresses us as "Mighty" I think he's saying "party."
Anyway, J House's set lasts another hour at least. When it commands our attention it's really good, but often his sound is indistinct, a soupy low-end hodgepodge; maybe for it to work better the beat would just need to be crushingly loud, but I can't help but suspect part of the lacklusterness is because we're all treating it as music for the crowd to slowly trickle in to. "Better than trickle-in music," I guess, is my takeaway evaluation of J House. Also, "way to pick a distinctive name."
The trickle-in music works, anyway, and soon, with surprisingly little fanfare given the tireless efforts of the MC, we're watching Berkeley-based Anticon luminary Jel tearing it up at his SP-1200. I'm at a loss for how to describe what he's doing with/to the machine: finger-beatboxing? micro-drumming? high-speed snake charming? Whatever it is, he's playing it like some ungodly combination of a piano, a drum kit, and a theremin, and it's rewarding to watch -- on screens projected behind him, classily in black and white -- as his hands flutter like Ritalin-addled pterodactyls over and around the buttons of the sampler. Pterodactyls? I don't know, I wrote it down so it must have made some sense to me at the time.
Jel intersperses freewheeling, pseudo-banger techno-noir cuts with tracks from his last proper album -- 2006's excellent Soft Money, which is full of near-eastern melodic samples and fresh hip-hop beats that sound (to me, inexplicably) like they're played with soccer goalie mitts rather than drumsticks. On selections I recognize it's easier to distinguish what's prerecorded from what he's actually doing by jabbing the SP's buttons; the rest of the time it's more hypnotic than impressive to behold. (I decide he'd have to fuck something up in order to prove the relative live-ness of the proceedings; for better or for worse, he doesn't comply.)
It starts to get exasperating, on that note, how quickly he gets virtuosic with his handmade beats each time he sets down a groove, recognizable or not: it would be pleasing for him to just let it ride a little more, to give the would-be dancers a few more footholds. As it is, nobody's dancing. Fine, though -- the better to watch and listen.
Based on the name, I'm not expecting DJ Swayzee to be particularly good, but in fact he is: good timing, good pacing, good sense of when the room's energy level is flagging and when to revive it vs. when to let it flag a little more. He opens with a dubstep reworking of a Diplomats track, and continues from there through a series of rap and R&B songs with the bottom half ripped out, souped up, and crammed back in: his beats are a little clicky, but no more intricate than they need to be. For the most part they're just loud and thumping, and he manages not to let them detract from the sample base, be it Wu-Tang or Turf Talk (Turf Talk!) or some sinister pseudo-glitch. You can tell he's a listener, one who processes what he hears before spitting it back out as dance music. Also, he has two chicks grinding on stage dressed like Playboy bunnies, except instead of Playboy it's Fernet-Branca, but that's neither good nor bad. It kind of just is.Finally, around half past midnight -- 12:34 a.m. by my watch when he puts on the suit -- Kid Koala comes out, takes control of his three-turntable station, and does some giddy calisthenics to amp up while a Johnny Carson interview about koalas plays overhead. (Sure enough, there is something kind of adorable and gnawing about the way he scratches.) When he starts, he sings along, waves his fist, jumps up on the table and touches his toes, at least for the song he wrote for Yo Gabba Gabba. He's big on audience participation; it's pretty obvious from his movements when he wants us to wave our hands or sing along, but he has a knack for mixing in samples that tell us what to do, like musical stage directions. For instance, when he wants us to sing along, he also happens to be playing that Dungeon Family song with the refrain about singing along. (He also invites us all to his "Music To Draw To" set the next day.) Koala is rough with his vinyl, flipping and flopping discs around when he's using them and flinging them out of sight when he's done, but gentle and precise with the tone arm. He's got mixing on three turntables down to a science; at one point he conjures up a syncopated manual speech loop, one record repeating "keep on keepin' on," another repeating "can you dig it," the third "right on." Someone near me compares what he's doing to cooking with three burners, which comparison is not without merit. For my part, it dawns on me anew that there's an entire style of music based on creatively disrupting playback as it was intended to go, kind of like how some drugs are basically just poison.
Happily, his set is equal parts groove and spectacle, splitting the differences among the opening acts. It's also diverse: early on he plays a lot of vintage Beastie Boys, which makes sense because early Beastie Boys records have some sick breakbeats; later on, under the guise of "some new stuff," he starts a long mix odyssey with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Skeletons." He scratch-shreds over Jay-Z's "My First Song," one of very few rap songs in 6/4 time, and brings Jel back on stage for a four-hand, vinyl-and-MPC improv jam. The set includes some bona fide club bangers, of course, but what's most impressive is the sense that, floppy ears or no, he's a DJ who can schedule those disruptions, pile and compile and arrange them, to make a banger of just about anything. Well, okay, not really the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song. But there's still time.Critic's notebook:
10:12 p.m.: Stop saying what, master of ceremonies! Or, rather, stop telling me to say what! I can hear you just fine!
10:26 p.m.: First plume from the aerially mounted smoke machines. This happens to happen while a handful of people on the dance floor are getting down to Das Racist's "Who's That? Brooown!" in what appears to be complete sincerity, which strikes me as symbolic, but I couldn't tell you of what.
10:34 p.m.: Patchouli bomb.
10:37 p.m.: I'm pretty sure the MC just yelled "What's up Miami!" to the room, but then again a little while ago I was convinced someone said "glad to see so many beautiful Asians out there," so the evidence against my hearing is piling up pretty conclusively.
11:19 p.m.: Wait a minute, Fernet-Branca's slogan is "Shockingly unique"?