Quiet Riot

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

He views the gig like making mix tapes for his mom, a psychological therapist with the reservation who's lately become admirable enough of her youngest boy's work to turn over her favorite jazz LPs and tell him to mix it up his way, a request Element takes as his greatest compliment.

"Here, they expect to hear the latest cuts that are on the radio," he says. "But this place also hired me because I have a bit of a name. They tell me, 'Just do you.' So I balance it. I take the stuff that's out today, and I mix it up with stuff that makes me happy -- which can be anything from '80s rock or '70s funk to some of the more toxic hip-hop, like Run-D.M.C.

"You want to put your own stamp on the music, but if you're taking on a weekly gig, it's also kind of your job to make sure people are having a good time," he adds. "You can't have too much ego when you're a DJ. You almost have to be a little humble."

DJ Element, in his.
Brandon Sullivan
DJ Element, in his.
Element among the scores of signed album sleeves covering the wall in his practice room at home: "Everything I hear, I'm mixing in my head."
Brandon Sullivan
Element among the scores of signed album sleeves covering the wall in his practice room at home: "Everything I hear, I'm mixing in my head."

From the naturally desert-landscaped front yard of Element's home, the stocky former high school basketball player can literally point to where most of his surviving relatives live.

"That's my uncle's place over there," he says, pointing to another manufactured home just east of his. "Got an aunt over there, some cousins over that way. It's like my whole family is all around, in this square."

Element says most of his brothers, sisters and other kin are cool with what he does for a living. "I've never had a regular job," he says. "On the day I graduated high school, I had booked two gigs."

But his dad, who passed away from cancer about five years ago, was the hardest to win over.

"He was old school, 9-to-5, you know?" he says, looking out over the cotton fields. "If it wasn't construction or another kind of labor job, he was always like, 'I can't see you doing this for a living.'

"But what finally turned him around," Element adds, "was when he started going through the treatment phases for his cancer, and he wasn't able to work anymore. He started worrying, 'Well, how are we paying bills?,' and I was able to tell him, 'I'm taking care of it.'"

By that time, Element says, he was playing regular club gigs in Tempe and Scottsdale, and found he was able to take on the family's expenses. "So that's when it finally kicked into his head that I was making a decent living at this. To him, it always just sounded like racket in another room. Like, 'Turn that down! Go to bed!' But he finally understood I had made this my business -- right before he passed away."

For Element, that realization came even later than it did for his dad. "Even then, I didn't look at it as my career," he says. "This was me having fun, and if I was making enough money to pay the bills, great. But I didn't look at it as, 'I've got to get all these gigs to pay the utilities and the mortgage and whatnot.' The work just started coming along at the right time, and never slowed down."

Today, Element exhibits the same laissez-faire attitude toward his future. Fame and fortune may be in the cards, or not. "A lot of people say, 'Why don't you move to L.A.?'" he says, reflecting on the move that took his friend Zach Sciacca from nearby Granite Reef Road in Scottsdale, where the two used to trade records and turntable tricks, to big-time success in Hollywood as Z-Trip.

"But now, I get to go out and do big shows overseas and still come back here, where I've lived my whole life. It's cool."

Element is more jazzed about the future of DJing, which he sees as a limitless frontier. "There's a kid I met in Japan called DJ Kentaro, who won the DMC [Disco Music Championship] title in 2002, which is like the Super Bowl for DJs. And I watched him play with a traditional Japanese guitar player, scratching and beat-juggling with an instrument I had never heard in hip-hop. It was incredible."

Element cites crews like X-ecutioners, who've mashed-up with rockers Linkin Park, and DJ Qbert, who's taken scratching to an art form, as further inspiration.

"I see a lot of musicians working live with DJs right on the spot, cutting up with drummers and percussionists, and it just seems endless, the music to be made."

It's a music that doesn't need to sprout from L.A. or New York or anywhere other than the cotton fields bordering Element's backyard -- providing there's electricity, a couple of turntables and a crate of records nearby.

"As long as I can always find a few mom-and-pop record stores wherever I'm at," he adds, smiling, "I'm happy."

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