When You Gonna Play Something Good?

Cleveland's most viable music scene may be the small band of DJs holding down the clubs

A breeze skips off the river, raking the near-fossilized trash and crumpled glossy club flyers littering the sidewalk on Old River Road. In terms of real estate, the street is a heap of dead bodies, the empty storefronts casualties of the East Bank's abrupt nosedive years back. But tonight, muffled behind the doors of Earth Nightclub, a pulse of bass knocks around inside.

The club — once the dingy Odeon, now upgraded with a lush vibe — has all the extra fixings tonight: the high-heeled girls up front wave around handfuls of general admission and VIP bracelets; guys in earpieces dart around checking names off clipboards. On the normally bare stage stand three six-by-eight video screens framed by trusses strung with lights; as the dance floor below fills up and the clock eats up what's left of Thursday evening, the displays flash through the names of the rotating line-up behind the turntables, a Who's Who of the city's best known DJs: Alex Kay, Corey Grand, Flaco Flash, Pana, Donkis, and tonight's birthday boy, E-V.

One after the other they take the stage, hauling up sticker-covered Mac Books before free-jazzing their way through a set, blending this old-school rap track with that '80s pop tune, suturing an electro outro onto a chart topper — basically stringing together a single night-long piece of ear theater that keeps enthusiastic arms and legs constantly moving. And more people want in. Out front, an anxious line is strung down the street all evening.

The night hits its climax when E-V brings out a special guest: Machine Gun Kelly. The cameo makes complete sense. E-V regularly opens for the Cleveland rapper on tour; a number of the DJs in tonight's lineup remix MGK material. It's just two examples of the cross-pollination between the guys cutting the records and the ones playing them in clubs and on the radio.

But instead of lint collecting on the hip-hop scene's coattails, Cleveland's class of DJs stands out on its own: a field thick with artists who are cutting their own course and inking their own reputations. And in a city that prides itself on its musical heritage, a well-known DJ probably has more name recognition these days than any of the bands or singer-songwriters working what's left of the traditional music scene.

"Cleveland just breeds good DJs," says Keenan Williams — DJ K-Nyce — a week later while walking the halls of Z107.9, the radio station that hosts his daily show. "This hustling-ass city. We're gonna make something out of nothing."

Yet despite how far the homegrown scene has come, Cleveland might not be the best place for DJs to flourish.

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DJs get a bad rap as human iPods who simply hit play on the next no-brainer Top 40 hit. Over the past couple of years, more critical respect has been meted out to the craft, mainly thanks to high-profile names like Diplo, Skrillex, and A-Trak, spinners who've emerged as their own artists.

On any level, DJing is a multi-dimensional job — especially live, when the mixer is a combination music arranger and cruise director. Instead of simply fading the previous tune out at the start of the next, a DJ welds the two together. Technically speaking, you can splice the DNA of even two wildly different songs, although you might have to get creative in how you merge the two.

It's advice that's stuck with Nate Wachsman — DJ Donkis — since the beginning. Working the night shift at hip-hop station Z107.9 years back, Donkis would mess around on the turntables, trying to learn. One night, then-Cleveland DJ Mic Boogie walked into the studio and handed over a useful challenge.

"He would come in and there was a crate of random records sitting there," Donkis recalls. "He would say, 'If you can mix this whole crate of records without stopping or changing the beat, then you know what you're doing.'

"It took me awhile, but I know exactly what he means now. All songs can go together in some way, no matter what. They might not be the songs you want to mix together right then, but you can get there in two or three songs. Say you want to take a Hall & Oates track and put a hip-hop track to it. If they don't match, it will take me two or three songs to figure out how to get there."

At the level of nuts and bolts, DJs entwine songs by carefully getting inside the sonic guts of each track. Every musical beat has a kick and a snare; the catch is to link the two on the fly.

"If I have something that's 70 beats per minute, and I want to mix in something that's 68 beats per minute," explains K-Nyce, "on the turntable I will literally slide up two notches, match up the kicks and the snares. I hold one snare, time it to drop when the next one drops, and then the beats in theory should be on point."

But even if a DJ is technically fluid enough to weld in the middle of the bustling club, if the song selection is off, it can pretty much dunk the whole experience in cold water. "You almost have to be a human Pandora," says DJ Alex Kay. "'If they like this, then they're going to like this. If they don't like this, maybe I should play this.' Knowing what to play is a whole big part."

As is gauging whether the crowd is feeling what's coming over the speakers.

Most DJs say the best signpost for picking out the reactions from that fickle roiling mass is the girls.

"Women are honest," says K-Nyce. "Sometimes you'll play the next song and get that 'what-the-fuck' look." Then he cracks a wide smile. "They're actually assholes, a DJ's worst enemy because they'll come to the booth and say, 'When are you going to play something good?'"

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The rise in popularity of DJs is specifically tied to mixtape culture. Thanks to the internet, a DJ — any DJ, anywhere — can get hold of the basic components of a popular song, pop the hood, and fool around with the insides, piecing it with other elements until you have a sonic monster of your own styling.

Whereas a band might write a song, run off to ASCAP for licensing, and cross their fingers for future royalties, a DJ just fires off a remix into the internet. There's no way to get paid from tweaked material, no matter how much of a departure from the original. But the payoff isn't in a paycheck; the remix is where a DJ can show off his or her chops for a wider audience. A number of Cleveland mixers regularly put out new material or host a mixtape featuring a specific artist, all to build up their name.

"I think that's where a lot of DJs fail. The club is cool, the club is fun, but outside the club you need to still keep a presence," says Corey Grand. "Learning production and doing remixes is what's going to take you to the next level."

Grand is prolific at pushing out fresh mixtapes; he's dropped 14 in 2012, as well as monthly mixes on the website SoundCloud. "Basically, I want to hear how I can make a song sound totally different and original. I'm interested in making an intelligent mix, so someone will be like, 'Oh, I see what you did there.'"

But the irony dripping off the mixtape culture in Cleveland is that although the scene has a handful of DJs pushing the envelope behind their laptops at home, the options for bringing forward-thinking music to the masses in a live setting are limited.

Cleveland has a lot of bars, but what it doesn't have is a Las Vegas-style dance club. As much as that might strike you as a fist-pumping, all-you-eat buffet of douchery, for DJs it's a blank slate where they can air whatever warped concoctions they've put together as long as intensity doesn't fall off on the dance floor. No flak from the crowd. No bullshit from the management. Cleveland's talent crop doesn't really have a local club that lets them run free.

"I hate to say it," says K-Nyce, "but if you could take Cleveland's nightlife scene and put it in Columbus, you'd have a major contender between New York and Chicago. Columbus has a lot of venues. Nice venues. We have some nice venues. But Columbus doesn't have the scene that we have."

Left with the local options, Cleveland mixers are playing clubs that keep the mortgage payments coming. But these spots also have rules or expectations that squeeze off the creative juices.

"I feel we have this cool place, this cool place, and this OK place," says Corey Grand. "Now this OK place might not be the best club in the world, but they're probably going to let you play anything you want, from hip-hop to old-school to electronica to remixes to Top 40. The cool places probably won't let you play more than one or two hip-hop songs."

With rap unofficially unwelcome at some of your bigger-name establishments downtown, a counter-scene has cropped up in the neighborhood bars owned by African Americans.

"These bars are usually owned by someone who's influential in their community, so it's packed every weekend," says K-Nyce, citing places like the Harvard Wine and Grille and Lounge 75. Still, the hip-hop crowd has it's own limitations.

"In the hip-hop circle, we're not able to play as forward as we would like to," says K-Nyce. "Hip-hop crowds dance off recognition; it has to be a song that they know. That's how you keep the club moving. So 98 percent of the night you're playing popular music."

As local DJs increase their profile, they're likely to hit the road for gigs in other cities across the Midwest. Many say they're cautiously eyeing a move to a larger market down the line, if that's the only way to develop a bigger following.

In the meantime, the number of people picking up turntables will likely increase.

"I definitely see the scene going further," says K-Nyce. "The world is DJ crazy right now. Paris Hilton wants to be a DJ. What the fuck, dude?"

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