DJ Mick Boogie steps from the booth, gleaming with sweat after two hours of spinning and mixing hip-hop records, when a nightclub patron comes rushing up from the dance floor with an urgent request.
"If you're going back up there, could you ask the DJ to play something? He hasn't spun it yet tonight."
"Sure," answers Boogie. "I'll ask him. What song is it?"
Mick Boogie could play out this familiar scene differently, but he never does. Six years after debuting on John Carroll's WJCU-FM 88.7, Mickey Batyske has turned his Mick Boogie stage name into one of the most successful hip-hop tags in Cleveland. The 24-year-old entrepreneur now hosts a half-hour mix show five nights a week on the city's only commercial hip-hop station, WENZ-FM 107.9. He also spins in two Warehouse District hot spots, opening the clubgoers' weekend on Thursdays at Wish and hitting its midnight-to-closing apex on Fridays in the Spy Bar basement. As icing on the cake -- and a solid confirmation of his reputation -- Boogie even does a brisk business selling his own homemade hip-hop mixes on CD. National chains might not carry them, but Boogie's street team stocks mom-and-pop record shops from Akron to Lorain.
Yet, as Boogie explains while sitting in his airy, sunlit apartment in Cleveland Heights, he's rarely recognized at clubs for one main reason: "A lot of it is because I'm white, and people would say, 'Why is he here?' They always come up to me and think I'm the manager. 'Excuse me, can you tell security that . . .' They have no idea who I am. It's beautiful. Because I don't have to deal with the bullshit. I can just blend in."
Once upon a time, of course, blending in would have been the antithesis of every hip-hop practitioner's dream. In fact, the universal old-school rap chant "I am/ Some-body!" was generally understood to be a positive response to racial injustice. Yet, as Boogie understands, the plight of blacks in a white-dominated world and his place in a mainly black subculture are hardly parallel concerns.
"Whiteness has always been an issue if you let it be," admits Boogie. "But I don't let it. You know, you're always a little too 'black' for the white kids, though it's not like I go to school wearing a FUBU jersey. I don't even dress like that. I don't think you have to dress hip-hoppy or act hip-hoppy or talk hip-hoppy to be hip-hop. That's real cliché. I look at it like I'm not a hip-hop DJ; I'm a normal person who happens to be a hip-hop DJ."
This might help explain why Boogie gets so annoyed with the "idiots" who sometimes compare him to the most famous white man in hip-hop today, Eminem. Like the Detroit drama king, Boogie has loved hip-hop since grade school. But this son of a floor-laying dad and secretary mom grew up in suburban Youngstown surrounded by all kinds of music, from disco to polka, and has never turned to hip-hop for need to escape. His commitment to spinning, he says, is no more or less profound than his devotion to earning his master's degree in marketing from John Carroll.
Unlike Eminem, Boogie is part of a multiracial generation for whom hip-hop is the means of transcending old boundaries; it's not, however, the only source of their identities.
And his crew has more than just hip-hop going on, too. Boogie's webmaster on www.mickboogie.com is a Kent State student and a freelance fashion photographer. And Boogie's close friend, rapper Saj Supreme, with whom Boogie cut the new CD, Hostage Negotiation Team, is also a professional chef, who's more interested in entering cooking contests than open-mic rap battles. In fact, this refusal to accept identity labels might explain how Boogie and his crew have managed to make the transition from underground to mainstream.
"It's like I've been there, done that," says Boogie. "I'm so removed from the scene now, and I'm glad. I've paid my dues [there], but now I need bigger channels. And a lot of the underground hip-hop people are really closed-minded. You go to the Grog Shop to one of those shows, and 99 out of 100 of them there are going to tell you they really hate Jay-Z. But if you took the three commercial records off the Jay-Z album and listened to the other 20 songs, you would love it. You just would never do that, because you go to the Grog Shop. There's a lot of hating."
Boogie isn't citing Jay-Z randomly. "He's just a prime example of how you can make relevant music that's happy and dancey and party, but still good," he says. "It fits on 107, it fits on a college show, it fits in my car. I don't think anybody else does that right now."
It's no surprise, then, that Boogie chilled out a recent Friday night set at Spy with selections from the new Jay-Z album, though only the most ardent fans had heard it yet. Earlier in the evening, the club's upstairs dance floor was booming standard-issue techno to a midsized crowd of club-hoppers. Downstairs, however, the line to get on the floor was packed halfway up the stairs. A crowd that split 60-40 black/white and male/female bumped to a smoothly mixed set of bouncing party hits (Missy Elliott), old-school classics (Slick Rick), and thugged-out bombs (Jadakiss), all peppered with subtle scratches, lightly remixed beats, and other deft touches. It pleased the masses, but it didn't condescend for a minute.
"I don't have a problem with balancing the act anymore," says Boogie. "I'm progressing, I'm evolving, I'm moving forward. And if people don't think I do it, then that's cool. Then they're not my audience."
Not that Boogie really has an audience. As the diversity of dancers at Spy attests, Boogie's appeal is as broad as his tastes. So what if most in attendance can't identify the man who's making them move? As long as he keeps drawing crowds, Boogie will be content to be just another face among them.