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On the most recent First Friday, at midnight, I'm in a former Mormon church with immense ceilings. Psychedelic colors are dancing on the walls courtesy of some old-school overhead projectors while old-school funk is jumping out of speakers. Even more incongruous is that I'm at a party in the Great Arizona Puppet Theater -- not the sort of place I'd expect to find the most avant-garde DJ collective in town laying down tracks.
The DJs holding it down -- Smite, Johnny D, Jimi the Mantis Claw, and DJentrification -- were calling their Friday night sessions "Escape From Sun City" while they were at the Hidden House on Osborn Road, from late March until the weekend prior to the Puppet Theater party. They unceremoniously lost the Friday night gig there to be replaced by an '80s night, though, so they've taken to calling the now-roving Friday night get-downs "Escape From the Hidden House," as Johnny D announces when the event's getting started.
For week two, the party's in a backyard with a fire pit in central Phoenix, and for this Friday night, November 18, as of press time, the locale's still unannounced.
Personally, I'm goddamn stoked that these DJs -- who play everything from '60s soul records with beats cut over the top of them, to mixes of Tex-Mex with Hotlanta crunk beats, to obscure dub 45s -- are out of a regular spot and on the underground tip. This isn't a hipster socialite scene -- this is for the real heads who can appreciate 40-year-old records virtually no one has heard in years.
As Smite tells me a couple of days later, "It makes it more exciting than having people always know when and where. We won't even know sometimes until the day of the show. It makes it that more creative. You gotta look out [to find it], keep your eyes open. Maybe if you hit up any Zia you'll find a flier, or if you see us. Keep your eyes peeled."
These DJs, who started their weekly party to celebrate the music that's perennially ignored by the mainstream, are amongst the biggest collectors of vinyl in the area. Nobody in the state can fuck with 59-year-old Johnny D's collection -- he's been collecting vinyl and DJing around here for going on 40 years now, from sock hops to the radio waves. The other DJs, who are in their late 20s or early 30s, are the new wave of crate-diggers.
"I originally know all these people through vinyl," Smite tells me. "I'd see Jimi and Rob [Trent, formerly of Supermarket, along with Jimi] digging together up at Swell and Tower. I knew Johnny D from buying records as well. Back when records were a lot more obscure of a thing, it wasn't as popular to have a 45 adapter tattooed on your arm and shit like that. We were trying to keep shit on the down-low back then."
They've brought their eclectic tastes together to bring what's by far the most innovative, off-the-wall, experimental night going on in the 'Nix. Johnny D drops records from his unmatched library of R&B, soul and funk records from back in the day, and often Jimi the Mantis Claw will get on another turntable and throw down beats, cuts, and breaks that update the percussion to a hip-hop-flavored, contemporary mode.
Jimi also has a looping machine to make freestyle beats on the fly, while DJentrification brings the psychedelia, as well as providing matching light shows via the overhead projectors and a 16mm projector. And Smite throws in an entirely new flavor -- what he likes to call "cumbia crunk" -- with norteño Tex-Mex and cumbia tracks blended with Lil Jon, Petey Pablo, and other crunk beats amping up the hype.
Smite, much like Johnny D, tries to give a regional flavor to his sets, though his extends to south of the border. "It started off, really, back in the mid-'90s," he says. "I was living with my grandma, going through her record collection, pulling out the Tex-Mex records, and I started off mixing them with like Eric B & Rakim beats and stuff like that. It gives a contemporary feel to the gangster lifestyle from the immigrants crossing the border day and night. It doesn't get much play, especially in the region that we're in.
"When we DJ, it's coming from a big perspective," Smite continues, expounding on the variety of music he absorbs. "I keep a radio on in the kitchen on one station, in another bedroom I'll be playing another station or CD, in my room in the studio I'll be playing records. Our crew, hands down, nobody can fuck with the record collection -- not even close, man."
The mix of obscurities and ignored genres past and present adds up to the sickest party going on for true-school musical aficionados. You're not going to hear the backpacker indie-rap jams you're used to at many weeklies, nor typical gangster shit -- not that there's anything wrong with that, but this is on a whole different tip. And now that the Hidden House has severed its ties with this little collective, they're kicking it underground. You should have to dig to find artistic experimentation that's this avant-garde, and now you will have to.