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When we think of Willy Wonka, we think of a busy-bee eccentric, an inventor of sweet treats that capture the world's imagination, a dude who's content to plod away in a bizarre factory while ignoring societal norms in the process.
So it's fitting that a friend of Alex Votichenko (better known as Djentrification) once called him the "Willy Wonka of DJs." The one-of-a-kind sound artist can keep people's feet moving or he can shock, captivate, and make folks laugh by melding spontaneous compositions from the most unlikely vinyl sources all while wrapping himself in a shroud of mystery.
"He has one of the most eclectic styles of anyone I know," says JRC, co-owner of art gallery/performance venue Trunk Space, whose independent record label, onewordlong, includes an exclusive Djentrification track on Hi, My Name is Ryan's Live from the MTC (remixed). "There just isn't a DJ or other musician in town who works the way he does with the material he does."
The records that Djentrification scavenges from in-person sleuthing (never mail order or online, and rarely any reissues) line the walls of his central Phoenix home. Lucky visitors may be privy to a custom mix in the home's back room, where towers of record crates are stacked almost from floor to ceiling. Peculiar categories include sex records (Living with Lesbians, a gay yodeling effort by Alex Dobkin), a kids section (The New Heartbreak Theatre, sponsored by the Salvation Army), and straight-up, shake-your-head-in-disbelief weirdness ("Don't Be So Holy Poly Over My Souly" by Kit Ream is seriously beyond description).
Immersing your ears in a Djentrification set is like indulging in turntable voodoo. Snippets from how-to, spoken word, and goofball sound effects records are seamlessly sped up, slowed down, and mixed into darkroom beats, experimental electronic mash-ups, and thematic music for Hollywood movies. A recent performance featured an auctioneer announcing, "Hey kids, get your lifetime psychedelic dance lessons" fused into a '70s spy movie soundtrack, complete with early electronic music full of cheesy synths and bass-heavy keyboards. Because there's minimal focus on scratching and more devotion toward sound collages, Djent's absurd yet accessible creations are truly distinctive.
"I wasn't planning on being a DJ, but I've always been interested in layering sound, ever since I was 12," Djentrification says. "I would use multiple tape recorders to create these custom compositions, just like any other kid that age, and I remain inspired by cut-ups and the idea of sound capturing. Sometimes during sets, I swear the records talk to each other. When that happens, I'll try to re-create it and mix them together."
Djentrification is equally comfortable spinning at coffee shops, plush establishments, dive bars, small galleries, and large museums. And though the Phoenix native and mainstay of downtown's concentrated arts community is forever performing, he remains a mystery man, choosing to quietly go about his creative business rather than to seek the spotlight. He doesn't promote himself on the Internet, he does minimal flier distribution for his shows, and he doesn't want his face in photographs.
Music and intrigue run in Djentrification's family. His grandparents exposed him to jazz while his parents soaked the house with Bollywood themes, ska, and spy music. Younger brother Nik fronted the local hard rock band Crucio and frequently appeared as a guest vocalist with the Phoenix-based, epic hardcore metal group Malakai.
But one of the most interesting family figures was great-grandfather Sasha Votichenko, "an eccentric, looming character in our family history," Djentrification says. The accomplished Russian musician, composer, and virtuoso of the timpano (a stringed instrument that produces piano-like tones) charmed royalty worldwide with his unique compositions before immigrating to the States to escape communism. "Our family has all sorts of old relics, including an autographed photograph of him with [writer] Leo Tolstoy. He made some of the first-ever recorded music on those old metal records, which we still have." (A commercially unissued recording, pressed on Thomas Edison's Diamond Disc in 1920, can be heard by visiting www.wfmu.org/playlists/shows/10377).
While Djent has yet to put his own work onto a medium as obscure as a metal 78 rpm record, the 34-year-old is a model of analog living in a digital world. He doesn't own a computer. ("The computer just isn't a priority because I've been able to promote shows with fliers and word of mouth," he says.) Aside from a seasonal jack-of-all-trades position at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, he basically makes a humble living from spinning records. He's also quick to express that he "would be nothing without the support of the local community."
Whether it's working on visual art, fronting the former "yuppie rapper" MC Merv project ("I stopped working with him because he's too volatile of a character, and he still owes me money"), or spearheading an unsuccessful effort with Chris Ibarra to stop the hostile takeover of Patriots Square Park, Djentrification's actions help preserve the colorful downtown culture, one that is vanishing as luxury loftification and cranescapes swallow the city's creative core.
"Gentrification is something I'm concerned about, but I'm not ignorant and think it's unnatural to a city," Djentrification says. "I just wish Phoenix would be as supportive of smaller scale, mom-and-pop-type businesses as they are with big projects."
"The book of Phoenix gets lost . . . There's many more people downtown now, but less neighborhood places. In 1995, you could walk down Roosevelt [Street between Third and Seventh Streets] and there were more street people and more activity. It was much more close-knit then," he says. "I wanted the name 'Djentrification' forced into print, so kids can learn about not only the word 'gentrification,' but also the meaning, so they're aware of it."
As he continues to take a stand against big-box development, Djentrification continues his sonic mastery. A new CD features musical interludes and a collection of weird neighborhood field recordings, captured using an old-school ghetto blaster. He's also looking to branch out nationally, not necessarily for bright lights and fame a Los Angeles show has been his only out-of-state gig, and he would love to perform in places like New York City and London but to expose his impromptu compositions to new crowds.
And for now, his gigs remain Djent's sole means of self-promotion. After all, no self-respecting mystery man needs a MySpace page.