Quiet Riot

Rockin' the house but shying from the spotlight, DJ Element is the Valley's no-flash grandmaster

Overseas gigs followed: Japan, Germany, the U.K., Denmark, Australia. "In Japan, DJs are like rock stars," he says. "We pack out the Tokyo Dome, which holds 40,000 people. I barely got off the plane, and I was meeting all these people who already had my CDs. I was like, 'Man, I never imagined my music would make it to a place like this.'"

While touring seven cities in Japan with the Freestyle Session b-boy battle team, Element got to see just how deep the DJ culture cut with the youth. "I was riding on the subway there, and these little schoolgirls in their matching uniforms all sat down and started whipping 45s out of their backpacks, playing them on portable turntables," he says. "If they knew I was an American DJ, I would have been mobbed!"

Element remains a reluctant celebrity, preferring to focus on his craft and digging through dusty record bins rather than spend his time on the areas that might bring greater acclaim.

Element, out standing in his field: "It's like my whole family is all around, in this square."
Brandon Sullivan
Element, out standing in his field: "It's like my whole family is all around, in this square."

Married for five years to a bright young woman of Thai descent named Tina, who's more into kick-boxing and their three cats and one wolfhound than the club DJ scene, Element admits he's had domestic spats over what sometimes appears to be his misplaced priorities.

"I remember making really good money on some gigs, and spending it all on records the next day," he says. "I would go without food, man, just to have records. I'll eat Cup o' Noodles for a month so I can have $500 worth of new records."

Nevertheless, music remains his obsession. After browsing the racks at Swell Records on Mill Avenue -- he also likes to visit Memory Lane and Stinkweeds when he hits Tempe -- Element stops for a chat at the nearby Coffee Plantation and can't help pausing to soak in the mellow world music wafting through the shop.

"Everything I hear, I'm mixing in my head," he explains. "I'll be listening to something, and all of a sudden the beat drops away, and all I'm hearing is a metronome in my head, and I can already tell the beats per minute. And then I start thinking of all the other songs that sound similar, that I can mix with it.

"It's really freeing to know you don't just have to pop in a CD and go to track seven," he says. "You can actually mix it up with whatever else you like, until you feel, 'That's me!'"

It's a Thursday night early into his residence at the Martini Ranch & Shaker Room -- less than two months after starting at the club, and only a week after the room reopened, following renovation. And DJ Element sits alone at the bar, nursing a bottle of trendy Voss water and doing a little text messaging on his Sidekick, waiting for more people to fill the half-empty room.

Up until this past August, Element was one of three resident DJs at the packed Blunt Club nights at Hollywood Alley, a weekly event he helped grow over the past two and a half years from a spoken-word poetry jam originally held at the Priceless Inn in Tempe to the all-out celebration of hip-hop's four elements it's become, pooling together MCs, DJs, graffiti artists and break-dancers into "a party-rockin' night of the roots, the real hip-hop," Element says.

He parted amicably with Blunt Club originator Dumperfoo and the rest of the regulars over the summer, when Element was offered his own well-paying night at Martini Ranch -- on the very same night the Blunt Club continues to operate.

"I told everyone I was leaving, and they were real cool," he says. "They gave me a big farewell party at the Blunt Club, and then I started this night."

But the transition from a close-knit hipster scene to a more corporate club environment has been challenging. Earlier on this day, Element had to attend a meeting with club management to listen to such things as corporate philosophy and brainstorm ideas to bring in more patrons.

"In Scottsdale, they're always looking for themes," he says. "Every night has to have its own theme. I'd like it to just be about the music. You know: Every Thursday night you go to this club because it's guaranteed you're gonna hear good music. But it's still a new night. And it's a whole new game plan for me."

Already, some of Element's b-boy pals have been showing up to get the party rockin' -- Element is an honorary member of the Furious Styles Crew, the long-running Valley collective of break-dancers and poppers, who've adopted the break-juggling master as the go-to DJ for all their events. But Element is careful not to align himself too exclusively with that movement.

"I always get that label: 'He DJs for b-boys,'" he says. "And I'm like, 'Well, no. It's about the vibe, not how people choose to segregate the elements of hip-hop.' When I play, I play for the crowd. You don't have to be a b-boy to dance to my beats."

Even when the room's still filling up, Element tries to mix a little something for everybody, playing a bit of the sublime Paul Simpson and Miles Dalto remix of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" for the fortysomething couple in the front booth, then segueing into the Pharrell and Snoop Dogg workout "Beautiful" for the girls making out between the restrooms, finally indulging in a little freestyle scratching -- for himself.

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