12 February 2014
Ten years on I still remember getting blown away at Minneapolis’ Fine Line by the turntablists on this tour celebrating the release of Scratch, a retrospective documentary on hip-hop DJs.
I never would have been there except for my son, Evan (AKA DJ X-plore), a dedicated Battle DJ who’d already self-released his first CD, Genesis of X-plore. Thing was, Evan had barely turned 13. Only way into the club was going to be backdoor, which was why I came along. Evan had met Rob Swift, leader of the X-ecutioners, at a Walker Art Center event the previous year—had even gotten to play with him—and our strategy was to slide in through the performers’ entrance and see if Rob would get us into the show.
He was happy to oblige, although it took a bit of fiddle and dance to convince the Fine Line staff that this would be cool. I promised to watch over my charge, and melted into the side wall where I could keep an eye on young Evan working his way up to the edge of the stage. I expected to be entertained sure enough, but I hadn’t anticipated how much I would dig being force fed huge slices of hip-hop history.
Jazzy Jeff kicked things off with an avowedly Old School approach, while flickering videos of 80s era Wild Style flashed on the walls behind him. He was slick and sure, but my main focus was on trying to identify the back-in-the-day samples he was dropping. Plenty of early Soul, R&B stuff, and always the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown.
Then we were on to the X-ecutioners, a trio of New Yorkers who could cut and spin on a dime, and managed to create a full dance atmosphere just by the table-changes they kept running. With six turntables rolling, Rob Swift would pop up here, now there, now back again, but the beat never stopped flowing. Little Rock Raida (RIP) kept bouncing in between and moving the pace. Mesmerizing showmanship . . . and I was beginning to get my head fully inside the sounds.
By the time the announcer was calling in the third act, Evan had established a spot dead center and right up against the stage. He knew what was coming next. This time it was a white guy from Phoenix—Z-Trip—and when he dropped the first needle it came straight out of left field: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz . . .” Janis Joplin’s signature a cappella piece! No sooner was it familiar than Z-Trip’s fingers went whoo-whoo-whoo and we were riding some whole other kind of rhythm. “Mercedes Benz” bled into an Otis Redding piece, and then into heavy metal, and then some strange church choir. This guy was running deep crates for real.
As the mosh pit swelled and churned at his feet I watched Evan buffeted by the bodies, but still holding his spot, and somewhere in my head I heard the opening to the early 80s English soul hit “Geno,” by Dexys Midnight Runners:
“Back in ’68 in a sweaty club.
Before Jimmy’s machine and the rocksteady rub . . .
. . . the lowest head in the crowd that night,
Just practicing steps and keeping out of the fights”
When Z-Trip’s last screech went silent on his tables, I was sure we’d had the evening’s climax. But then out came a little Filipino guy with a single turntable, who just sat down at the edge of the stage, set up between his legs and started to riff. How, I thought, was he going to compete with the double-barreled full-coffin gear everybody else had been working?
Ah, but this was the mighty Q-Bert, the slickest DJ I’ve ever seen, before or since. The man spent 40 minutes working one single record, on that one single turntable, and taking us all over the map. He could sound like drums, like trumpets, like violins—or, somehow, all three at once. He could run hard and loud, or soft and surprising. Best of all, he seemed to sense the crowd mood and build it through his cuts and stabs. Flat out amazing stuff.
At the end of the show, as sweat-drenched revelers poured out the door, Z-Trip ran out from backstage and grabbed Evan. I could see them talking, and then a moment later, watched Evan reach into his pocket and pull out a copy of his CD. Z-Trip looked stunned.
I figured I’d best make an appearance, so I wandered over. Z-Trip was gushing—“Man, this is so cool—I can’t wait to put this on, see what a thirteen year-old’s been listening to—you did this yourself?” Evan was nodding and smiling.
“Hey, Rob!” Z-trip called Rob Swift over. “You got to meet this amazing kid.”
Rob grinned. “Hey, I already met the dude last year.”
Z-Trip pulled Evan out the door to the tour bus, now idling at the curb. “Hold on,” he said. He climbed aboard, then reappeared, arms loaded with promo copies of his latest CD, a matching set of his battle vinyl LPs, Z-Trip slip mats, tour stickers—“Here, man. Enjoy. I’ll catch you next time I come through town.”
Back inside, adrenalin still running high but starting to bleed, we spotted Q-Bert holding court in a secluded corner. His handlers kept the masses at bay, but at a word from Q-Bert we were ushered into his presence. “I saw you on the stage there, youngblood. Way to hold your corner.” Evan pulled out another copy of his CD and offered it up to Q-Bert. He held it up to his forehead, like tipping his cap, and then set it off to the side. Nothing further was said. But when we finally left the club, loping along the street with the sound echoes still ringing in our ears, it felt as if a torch had been passed.
Note: The DJ X-plore moniker has since been retired. Check out EGdoesit or Mandatory Bounce for the latest sounds from Evan Gabriel.