A Force of One
Inertia chain-smokes when he spins. He buys Marlboro reds, the sharpest of coffin nails, and furiously drives them into his lungs whenever he's behind a pair of turntables at a rave. It's the only stress fracture in a facade that's otherwise solid ice. Unlike a lot of deejays, Inertia doesn't call attention to himself. The beats can be fluttering by at 145 per minute, with glowstick tracers gliding in the air like Day-Glo fairies and a thousand kids moving so fast they blur, and Inertia will look like he could be filling out paperwork. But get close--in a dark room just look for the burning ember hovering above the turntable lights--and you'll see that he's hyperfocused, eyes flicking back and forth between his mixer and the crowd. Do they like this? Do they want it harder? Do I have them yet? Quietly, he agonizes over the answers. Where other deejays act like masters of a crowd, Inertia conducts himself as a servant, intent to please, and he's been spinning records in the Valley underground since there was one.
Born Ryan James Jeffs 25 years ago in Lebanon, Indiana, Inertia grew up in Denver (the new, adopted home of Superstar DJ Keoki). His first gig as a deejay was spinning records for KBUR, the college station for Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He was a good deejay, he says, but a lousy student. "During my first year of college, I basically discovered the world of hallucinogens and ecstasy, and I skied a lot. I didn't get much work done. I'd party all night, then get up for class, and it would be like, 'Well, it's two o'clock. You can go to your last class, or catch a half-day on the slopes.' The choice, of course, was obvious."
Inertia learned to mix records by religiously watching a Durango club deejay called Iceman (now better known as the rave deejay Tribal Touch). "He was playing like New Order, Salt-N-Pepa, total Top 40, alternative-dance stuff. But I wasn't into the music so much as I was the technical aspects of what he was doing with two records--how he matched the beats, then mixed out of one track into the next." A Durango girlfriend who was a raver introduced Inertia to techno music, but, "as with a lot of people, it didn't take at first."
He moved to Phoenix in 1991 after he got booted out of Fort Lewis for bad grades, and was hanging out at a Tempe coffee house one day when Tall Paul, one of the founding promoters of the Valley rave scene, handed him a flier for an underground party. "They were called rooms back then--red room, green room, private room, etc.--and the fliers were just these little business cards with just a phone number." Inertia went to the party, and this time, the music took. "The scene, the music, it was just burned into my skull," he says. "And that was it. The path was clear."
Inertia's first gig was in December 1991 at a Tall Paul party called "Planet X-Mas." There have been hundreds since. Though lately, Inertia has been doing more hanging out at Valley raves than spinning records, often seen checking out the vibe with his longtime girlfriend Galxy Grl, who runs AZ Raves, the Valley underground's on-line nerve center. He says he's been out of live action for several reasons--a full-time day job at a local Internet provider, a performance slump that started with a disastrous gig in Boston last year, and a recent interest in producing his own original house music (one of Inertia's first tracks, "Sunshine Trip," made the U.K. dance charts this summer, and was a fleeting favorite of demigod British techno DJ Sasha).
"Producing music is like making a movie--you create the best work you can, it's done, and you release it to the public. But spinning records is more like being in a play--you get audience reaction as you create. I miss that immediate connection . . . and I want to start playing gigs again."
Among the founding deejays of the Valley's rave scene, Inertia is perhaps the most eloquent in discussing the creative process and strategy of spinning records, and the politics of the Valley underground. Last month, New Times spoke with Inertia for several hours. What follows are choice excerpts from that conversation.
New Times: What's your style?
Inertia: That's a tough one. When I'm really vibing with the crowd, and I can play anything I want, I usually spin progressive house. Nothing over 145 [beats per minute], and easily nothing under 125. But it varies. You can go to a party and hear me spin a ton of breakbeat, or some really hard, stompy trance stuff. And the reason for that is, contrary to what a lot of people think about deejays and how to deejay, when I'm playing a party, the crowd dictates what I play.
NT: As opposed to what?
Inertia: As opposed to me trying to impose my will upon the crowd. I don't get caught up in the deejay-ego thing. I don't look at it like, "This crowd came here for me." It's the other way around: I'm there for them. My job is to get that crowd off, and the only way to do that is to put myself on their level first, then take off from wherever that may be.
If you can jell with a crowd, vibe-wise, if you can reach that place where you and the crowd inhabit the same mental space, then and only then can you embark on a journey and bring them with you. And that's where the creative process takes over, and you get to take the crowd places a normal club deejay can't, places that just listening to a techno CD at home won't get you.
So if I'm working a crowd, and I'm playing house, and they're not really into it, I'll change up the music, maybe start spinning some breakbeat. And if they're not highly motivated by that, I move off into another direction. And once they start responding, I keep them flowing in that vein until I can feel they're with me, and then I start taking them where I want us all to go. And if I see that I'm leaving some stragglers behind, I slow the transition time down and pick them back up.
It seems easy, but I see a lot of deejays who never even try to get on the same level with their crowd . . . who just force their own agenda right from the start, and they never jell. They clear their floor, and have the nerve to wonder why. They're always like, "Man, I was playing great music all night and nobody was on my floor." Well, that's because either you started your energy level way too low and cleared them off, or you started it way too high and lost them. You have to go to them first, and then bring them with you.
NT: What's your strategy for taking over a set?
Inertia: That depends on a lot of factors. It depends on the crowd, the space, and the general mood of the party. What it depends on most, though, is what time I play. My approach to starting a set at 10 or 11 o'clock at night is completely different from my approach to playing at one or two in the morning, which is completely different from my approach to starting at four in the morning. Those are the three basic sets for a rave deejay--opening set, prime-time set and closing set. And each presents its own set of challenges and potential rewards.
NT: How so?
Inertia: Well, it breaks down like this: Generally, between 11 and 12 is when most people start showing up to a rave, and their mentality at first is to check out their surroundings and get comfortable with the space and say hello to everyone. They mingle and mill for the first hour or so. There are exceptions--I've played parties that were totally packed and going off by midnight. But usually, it's when the prime-time set starts, around 12:30 or one, that a good portion of the people who are going to show up are there, and everyone's gotten comfortable with the space and starts filtering onto the dance floor.
So, an early set is tough--and I've played a lot of early sets, because new deejays get early sets and late sets. New deejays never get prime-time sets. Playing early sets, you learn to just chill out and play a lot of cool, Chicago-style house--stuff that's around 125 beats per minute, right at the low range of what's considered underground dance music. You want a nice, constant, four-on-the-floor beat. Music mellow enough that you're not trying to cram it down anyone's throat when they stroll through your room--but at the same time, bouncy enough that if you're an early arriver at the party, or if you're one of those beautiful people who start dancing the second you walk in, I have a room ready for you.
NT: Which set is the hardest to play?
Inertia: Closing set, no question. A lot of quote/unquote "elite" deejays don't like to play closing sets, but I enjoy them, because the closing set is the most critical for the overall success of the party. Where the whole purpose of an opening set is to slowly build the vibe, a closing set is the opposite. You've just had rockin' energy for four or five hours straight, and now it's time to bring that down and cap off the night.
I hate parties where that doesn't happen . . . it just ruins the experience. My biggest qualm with a lot of parties around here lately is that promoters throw these raves, and they say like, "Okay, this is a hard-core party, so we're going to have hard, stomping acid house all night long, from 10 o'clock at night to six o'clock in the morning." And that fucks everything up, because there's no sense of making a journey. You showed up and it was banging, and when you left it was still banging.
By contrast, the closing set at a good party will almost imperceptibly bring the energy level down in stages and neatly seal it off. When I go on last, I like to play a lot of really pretty, floral house, with a lot of female vocals, and a lot of strings and arpeggiating acid lines. Because by five o'clock in the morning, I don't care what drugs you're on, man--most people are so sweaty and hot and exhausted that they don't want to hear the hard, techno stuff anymore.
Pulling off that last set of the night takes more finesse than the opening and prime-time sets combined, because that's when you have to read the subtleties of the crowd most carefully. You don't want to just drop them over a cliff. You don't want to crash 'em . . . you just want to sort of float them down like a feather.
NT: From the perspective of a deejay, evaluate the Valley rave scene.
Inertia: The worst thing about the scene here is that, compared to San Francisco or New York or L.A., it's small. Which is also the best thing. Because it's small, there isn't a surplus of gigs, so there's intense competition between deejays.
Basically, between here and Tucson you've got 20 to 25 deejays trying to get regular work, and maybe 10 who deserve it. And every weekend, there's only one or two parties. So there's a lot of backstabbing and shit-talking . . . a lot of negative energy that goes on between certain promoters and deejays, and all the little cliques and alliances that form. But by the same token, that competitiveness is what keeps everyone sharp.
NT: Any local deejays you admire?
Inertia: Locally, my favorite deejay is Gary. His style has really changed over the last year--he used to play more progressive house and progressive trance, and now he's playing a lot of harder, high-energy trance. I liked what he was playing a year ago better, but he's still my favorite deejay from here because Gary, more than anyone else in the scene, epitomizes what a deejay should be. He works his ass off, and he takes his music seriously. His focus is inspiring.
Emile is also a favorite of mine, because sometimes Emile plays really great, and when he's playing great you can't touch him. But sometimes Emile plays really crappy. And usually, the crap level of Emile's set is directly proportional to how great he'll go around telling everyone it was after it's over.
NT: Who do you like among the up-and-comers?
Inertia: The one to watch is Joe Bear, definitely. The reason I like him is he doesn't take anything for granted. He doesn't have any attitude like, "I've learned everything there is to know--I'm the shit now." He's just progressing at his own pace, doing it very quietly, and he just watches all the other deejays play and soaks it all in. If you see him at a party, chances are he's somewhere right around the booth and his eyes are totally focused on the deejay. He's on it--that's the way to learn, and it seems like he gets exponentially better with every party he plays. Give him another year, and if he's still in Phoenix, he'll be one of the best in the scene.
NT: Most of your gigs lately have been out-of-towners. Why isn't your name on more Valley fliers?
Inertia: Getting gigs here is 50 percent talent and 50 percent politics. I have the talent, but I work 40 hours a week now, and I don't have the time or patience for the politicking anymore. I don't have time to go and hang out at other deejays' houses and smoke pot and talk shit. But there's a flip side to that, because it's not just pot smoking and shit-talking that goes on when deejays get together. There's a lot of listening to records and discussing music--what's out, what's coming out. And if you don't do that on a regular basis, it's easy to lose touch with the scene and what direction it's traveling in. Because musical tastes in this form change month to month--sometimes week to week--and if you're not on top of it, you're buried.
To tell you the truth, I haven't been happy with very many of my sets this year. It started in Boston last December, when I played probably my worst set ever. It was embarrassing, and it put me into a slump.
NT: What happened?
Inertia: I don't really know. It's difficult to play a city you haven't been through before--especially one that, geographically, is so far away. Because the scene in the East, music-wise, is so much different from the scene in the West. The East is more about Detroit- and New York-style house, which is very minimal and acidic--kind of gruff and harsh to the touch. Whereas the West Coast is almost the opposite--it's more happy and progressive and feel-good, all that bouncy, trancey stuff.
So it was tough to judge what the crowd would enjoy, and I wound up really overcompensating and playing a lot of records that I felt comfortable with, my favorite stuff, to make up for the anxiety I felt playing to a new crowd. I did the same thing in El Paso one time, too, and had a flat set, but I didn't learn from my mistake. I was just so worried about what I was going to sound like that I took everything I've learned as a deejay and just threw it out the window and built a big, brick wall between me and the crowd. I didn't pay any attention to them. I didn't look at them, and when I did look up and they weren't responding, I was just that much more devastated, and crawled further back in my shell and started reaching for records I hadn't played in two years, just because they were familiar. It was a total disaster. It was agony up there, and it put my confidence through a shredder.
NT: According to a recent post on a Nevada raver's home page, though, you pulled off a sick set at Utopia [a Las Vegas rave club] about two months ago. True?
Inertia: Yeah--I went out to Vegas and played, and I was really pleased with myself. I'd never played to that crowd before, either, so I was nervous, but I went in there and focused, and I had some really good kids at the club that night. They gave me a lot of feedback with their body language.
I had this group of girls down in front of the booth who were fully energetic, and when I'd mix into some songs I'd hear them just scream. I'd drop in a new track and they'd be like, "Yeahhhh!" So I had my eye on them, and I had this Asian kid on the other side of the room who was on a riser, dancing in this cone of light from the ceiling, and he was dancing hard, so he was also a good energy gauge.
Whenever I finish a set, the first thing I usually do is go outside, and get some fresh air (by having a cigarette) and sort of reflect. And when I was done that night, I was outside the club smoking, and I was kneeling down because I was so spent, and one of the girls from the front walked by on her way out, and she just looked down and said, "Fuck yeah!" and walked off. That was her comment. And when I heard that, I was like, "Okay, I'm back.
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