From Mohawks To Mullets

Images from 25 years of Phoenix music

Looking back on the bulk of the music from that period, it's hard not to be struck by how quaint it seems in comparison to Dead Hot's dynamic panorama of emotions and imagery -- work that exists someplace between back-porch melancholy and widescreen majesty.

Most of that enduring legacy can be credited to front man Brent Babb, whose songs reconfigure the narrative vitriol of Dylan and the dissident linguistic themes of Chomsky with a mass of obscure personal and pop-culture references. Singing these existential tales, his voice seems capable of capturing almost impossible depths of sadness and desperation. His talent has long prompted fellow musicians -- notoriously stingy in their praise of the competition -- to use the term "genius" without hesitation.

But this was not a one-man show. The nimble melodicism of bassist G. Brian Scott, the determined backbeat of Curtis Grippe and the sinewy crunch of Steve Larson's Gibson guitar created a wall of sound every bit the equal of Babb's evocative wordplay.

Perhaps greater than their creativity was their principle. By refusing to play sordid industry games and forbidding their songs to be used as mainstream commercial fodder, they made a conscious choice to relegate themselves to the ranks of the revered but unknown. In this cynical and materialistic age, such wanton displays of artistic integrity may seem foolish, even perverse, but their actions, like their music, were always born of more profound origins.

The sad reality is that some of the greatest art and artists go unheralded in their lifetimes. Dead Hot Workshop continues to perform (minus original members Scott and Larson), so perhaps it's too soon to offer that up as their eulogy.

But even if they should forever be relegated to the slums of happy hours and sports bars instead of arenas and stadiums, they will remain in the eyes of their dedicated acolytes gutter aristocracy -- too proud not to care, too stubborn to change.

Return of the DJ

The Bombshelter DJs have a way of making club ventures sound like military operations. The trio, which long ago dubbed itself the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called its weekly 1998 stint at Anderson's Fifth Estate in Scottsdale "Pentagon Night." Its earlier residency at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe was known as "Mission Control."

The war-room lingo is no accident.

For, in a very real way, the Bombshelter crew -- Z-Trip, Radar and Emile -- has seen its mission as something akin to an all-out strategic offensive on the senses, an attack executed with turntables, mixers and 12-inch records. This mission is rooted in the strange disconnect that's existed between Bombshelter's national reputation and its local drawing power.

Both Rolling Stone and URB have cited Z-Trip for his production wizardry, and last year Spin ranked the Bombshelter DJs ninth in a list of the top 13 turntablists in the world. At the same time, this DJ collective has struggled to get 200 people to see them at Valley clubs. But if the gap between local and national recognition has frustrated them at times -- and it frustrated Emile enough to send him packing to San Francisco last year, although he still does the occasional show with Z-Trip and Radar -- they've found compensation in the fact that local DJs of all musical tastes congregate at Bombshelter shows, mesmerized by the trio's acrobatic control of six turntables, and their fearless mix of hip-hop, vintage funk and trippier techno fare. A Bombshelter show is an aural sanctuary where Naked Eyes and Yes can co-exist with Brand Nubian. -- GG

Rave On

I had a Daliesque moment in the Mexico City airport last Christmas Day. It came minutes after I cleared customs and bellied up to a bar blaring bootlegged techno from a boom box below the bottles of tequila. I was midway through my second shot when I registered the voice of a homeless man in Los Angeles, sampled more than a year ago, intoning the mantra: "Not everyone understands house music. It's a spiritual thing. A body thing. A soul thing."

The track was originally produced by Phoenix DJ and underground dance-scene pioneer Eddie Amador shortly after he moved to Los Angeles and became a nationally renowned guru of garage house. Eddie's big-time now, but I remember one early morning in 1996, descending a perilous mountain road on the way home from a full-moon party in the Superstition Mountains as the first hues of dawn caressed the darkness.

In the back seat, Amador and Jas Tynan (then a budding rave promoter, now a driving creative force in the Valley club scene) alternated between freaking out over the perilous cliffs to either side and arguing over John Coltrane tracks.

So what could I do but laugh and laugh at finding myself in the Mexico City airport, downing tequila, listening to Eddie's breakthrough track on a mix tape titled Discotecas de la Yucatan, Boom, Boom, Boom!

Well, now that I'm name-checking, let's bring Pete "Supermix" Salaz into the story. Amador's longtime collaborator and close friend, Salaz stuck here when Amador migrated to L.A., and has almost single-handedly kept the Phoenix house-music scene thriving with his Red Monkey series of club nights. Back in the day, Salaz and Amador promoted Chupa!, the "Club which never sucked so good," every Saturday night. You could mark the true beginning of the Valley's underground dance/electronica scene there, or its true peak, because it's all open to argument.

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