Rule number one for aspiring performers: Always know the room you're working.
After all, Ozzy Osbourne might be the self-proclaimed "Prince of Fucking Darkness," but when surrounded by high-powered, tight-ass pols at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, he was dapper and well-behaved, with nary a dove sacrifice all night.
Jesse Fiese, better known to local clubheads as DJ Megadef, is another one with a gift for sizing up a crowd. Consider the turntablist contest at the recent Linkin Park show, before a sold-out America West Arena audience. Megadef's opponent, Neverland, delivered a standard set of turntable-scratching, the kind of performance he'd probably dish out at a local club on a weeknight. But Megadef was determined to get the angst-ridden, hard-rock crowd on his side, so he shrewdly took a Linkin Park record and beat-juggled it, shifting back and forth from one turntable to the other, while a pumped-up crowd roared in appreciation. Needless to say, Megadef walked away with the victory.
"It was different levels of game play," says David Dimmick, a.k.a. DJ Fact, Megadef's creative partner, roommate and best friend. "It was like playing old-school Nintendo and then playing a new PlayStation."
When he emerged on the scene four years ago as a cocky teenager, Megadef astounded locals with his outrageous turntable skills. Now, even as he approaches his 20th birthday (May 20), he still looks like a precocious adolescent, every bit the trash-talking, b-boy wonder of the Valley DJ scene. Alienated from his parents in his mid-teens, he had to grow up fast. But he's also been protected by the creative and quasi-parental guidance of Fact.
Short and scrawny, with a blond buzz cut, wire-rim glasses, Ross Perot satellite-dish ears and a crooked cross-section of choppers that he flashes with great regularity, Megadef could pass for Eminem's baby brother. Like the notorious white rapper, he conveys a comic -- almost cartoonish -- aura, even when he's mercilessly talking smack.
Megadef is infamous for calling out rival DJs, flipping the bird and hurling taunts of "fuck you schmuck" while he's scratching records and doing body tricks. On his new sophomore CD with Fact, Just Getting Started, his acknowledgements include a thank-you to "all you shit talking punks that fueled me," and a "special shout out" to "everyone who tried to keep us down -- you know who you are."
This kind of stuff is standard fare in New York, and it's a hard part of the Megadef/Fact approach. Fact grew up in Brooklyn, and took inspiration from the East Coast's artsy, underground hip-hop aesthetic. If Megadef is the technical genius of the duo, the guy who makes jaws drop with his acrobatic flair, Fact is the strategic mastermind. He's the one who's educated Megadef about jazz and blues, imbued him with the East Coast attitude, provided him with heavyweight connections, and tried to mold his colossal raw talent into something world-class.
In more ways than one, Fact is the young turntablist's guardian: creatively, technically -- even legally. Like a protective older brother, he makes a habit of clarifying or softening his friend's statements, so he won't be misunderstood. But even he couldn't keep Megadef from ruffling feathers.
"A lot of people take that personally," says Fact, the goateed, more mature and articulate half of the team. "I was born and raised in New York, and I just have that attitude. A lot of people get upset because they don't realize that it's a healthy level of competition and not that we're just trying to player-hate, or singling people out because we don't like them. Whenever we battle people, we're just trying to keep people on their toes, and stepping up the level of competition."
"No one's gotten physical yet. They're smarter than that. But we've had a lot of people running their mouths off," Megadef says.
But Megadef's penchant for ridiculing his peers has cost the duo bookings, with local competitors reportedly sabotaging their chances with promoters.
"It's a small scene, and things get back to you," Fact says. "I've heard instances where people are trying to badmouth us to promoters -- 'Those guys are jerks; don't book them, 'cause they've got a bad attitude.'"
Hurdles like that can be serious business on a local scene with diminishing options for underground DJs. Less than two years ago, Arizona Roadhouse and Nita's Hideaway had competing Tuesday night DJ showcases, with Megadef and Fact appearing regularly at the Roadhouse. Now the Roadhouse is history, as is Nita's "Funky Cornbread" night.
Meanwhile, the local rave scene has faced increasing scrutiny from authorities since Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano's bust in February 2000 on Ecstasy-peddling charges. Promoters, aware that the rave scene got out of control in the late '90s -- with drugged-out teenagers frequently running amok -- are trying to scale back: They talk of organizing fewer events, with emphasis on quality control.
But even while the Valley's rave scene is turning a corner into the unknown, Megadef and Fact don't seem too concerned. In fact, they took a sabbatical for much of the last year to hone their skills behind closed doors. And though they earn steady income by playing mainstream club gigs at Sanctuary and Axis/Radius, they've got their sights set on world domination.
"Our vision's much broader," Fact says. "We have much higher goals set than just playing local shows for our buddies."
In some ways, Megadef and Fact are remarkably similar. Both of them are the only boys in their families, with two older sisters. And both were white kids who grew up besotted with old-school underground hip-hop.
But they took radically different paths to their present partnership. Fact grew up on jazz and blues, and learned to play practically every instrument under the sun.
A skateboard kid with no musical background, Megadef probably never would have become a DJ if not for a fortuitous experience at the age of 15, while taking out the trash.
Hearing a clunk in the garbage can, he found two dilapidated, belt-driven Technics turntables and fished them out. Suddenly motivated to give DJing a shot, he bought an $80 Gemini mixer and woodshedded in his room for months on end.
During this period, Megadef met Fact, who'd relocated from New York in 1997. Fact had come off a painful breakup, sunk into a brief period of depression and drug abuse, and lifted himself up by committing his energies to turntablism.
One night in early 1999, Fact was preparing to play a backyard party for 400 people in Tempe, when his turntable's needle broke. He ran into a nearby store to get a new one, and struck up a conversation with Megadef, who was hanging out there. The next day, they bumped into each other at Plastik Records, and Fact invited him over to his house.
"We were both into the same style of hip-hop, both had the same ideals as far as what we wanted to do with it; we'd both been into DJing for only about five months at the time," Fact recalls. "It was a good time for us to try to come up together."
It may have been a good time for their creative collaboration, but it was a tense time at home for Megadef. His no-nonsense, working-class father (a plumbing maintenance worker for Phoenix public schools) was getting fed up with Megadef's rebellious attitude and disinterest in school. When Megadef suggested that he could make a steady income from turntablism, he says his father responded, "That's if-come, not income."
With father and son butting heads, Megadef's mother agreed to an unorthodox solution: She signed her son's legal guardianship over to Fact, who was only 23 himself at the time ("My dad was like, 'I'll rent the U-Haul,'" Megadef jokes). In part, it was a way for Fact to get his underage partner into clubs.
"When we first started doing shows, he couldn't get into bars, 'cause he was only 16," Fact says. "He was spending so much time at my house, with us practicing and getting ready for shows. He was having some drama at his house, and I pretty much looked at him like the little brother I never had. So I took him in, got him back on track, got his priorities straight."
One of the duo's most consistent champions has been Russ Ramirez, owner of Swell, a store that sells electronic music, DJ gear and clothing, as well as a promotions company that puts together many of the Valley's biggest raves. Fact works at his store, and Ramirez has booked the twosome for several of his shows, including last week's Musik festival -- a ninth-anniversary party for Swell -- before an estimated 3,000 people at the downtown spot Jackson's on Third.
The Jackson's show is the prototype for what Ramirez is trying to do with Swell-promoted raves. Namely, he let alcohol be served, making it a decidedly 21-and-over event. It's part of Ramirez's strategy to steer local raves away from the stereotype of young kids sprawled out in Ecstasy puddles.
"We just want to do things with 18 and over, to take the whole minor element out of it," Ramirez says. "We don't have to worry about curfews, it's just more responsible. And it seems most of the people who are doing drugs are the younger kids. If you're 16 years old, you don't belong out at four in the morning with 30-year-olds. And also, if you're 30 years old, and you want to go out to a party, you don't want to hang out with 16-year-olds."
Surprisingly, both Fact and Megadef -- who worked raves before he was old enough to drive a car -- agree that teenagers have been the source of major problems at local raves. While the rave scene has lost some of its energy over the last five years, both DJs actually prefer the more mature, club-type crowd they're now encountering at local raves.
"Yo, when we first started doing this, some of these kids were just out of hand," Megadef says. "A bunch of eighth graders acting weird. I walk into a spot, the last thing I want to see is someone wearing angel wings and giant gloves. I don't see none of that now.
"They had to flush some of those young kids out. I was there when I was 15, but I was spinning. I wasn't getting all crazy and drugged out."
"When you go to rave and it's an underage crowd, you've got people all strung out. I don't even feel good around it," Fact adds. "'Cause you pick up the vibe they're emitting. You see these people in a pool of sweat, kissing. I grew up in Brooklyn, and we didn't have that."
Ironically, Ramirez's attempts to "flush out" the underage crowd have been met with resistance from local authorities, who've nixed most of his attempts to obtain liquor permits for shows. In January, the state liquor board granted him a permit for a rave at the Icehouse, but he says the permit was subsequently pulled after a Phoenix police lieutenant expressed concerns about drug use at the venue.
"Everything has been considerably harder since the whole Sammy the Bull thing," Ramirez says. "I think it's kind of ridiculous, but the general public doesn't think so. They thought 60,000 pills a week were being sold at a rave with 800 people, and it wasn't true. They were going to clubs, titty bars and everywhere else.
"We're just trying to work something out to grow with what we're trying to do. The city, the police department, the liquor board and the DEA all discuss these things."
Ramirez says he's spoken to DEA agents, who've been turning up at local raves recently. "I've asked the DEA, 'How do we stop [people buying drugs]? Why don't we hire undercover security guards to buy drugs, to get those people out?' They say you can't do that, 'cause you're committing a felony by buying the drugs. So I ask what we can do about it and they'll say, 'Don't let it in the door.' But we're not letting it in the door."
Jim Molesa, Phoenix division spokesman for the DEA, would not comment on any specific DEA investigations into the Phoenix rave scene, but did say, "Independent of the activity we did with Gravano, we're aware that Ecstasy across the country is an issue. But conversely, we're seeing that it's not just a rave-type drug now. It's more a recreational drug, just like any other drug."
In a way, Ramirez shares the DEA's concerns. He thinks that widespread drug use and the presence of underage kids have seriously damaged the local rave scene.
"Before the Sammy the Bull thing happened, the scene was pretty strong," he says. "Then, the parties started becoming too regular, and too cookie-cutter. It was too many young promoters and too many young kids. It was really cool for a while, and then it just became a bunch of young kids doing drugs. And that became the reputation of the scene. Now it's few and far between for the big events."
Megadef and Fact's new CD doesn't represent a huge stylistic leap forward from 2000's Set Disorder. Like that record, it was pieced together in their Tempe bedroom studio from scratching, beat juggling and doubling up records on two turntables. But the duo consider it their true debut, thus the title Just Getting Started.
"We're trying to be more musicians than we are DJs," Fact says. "It's all just playing records, but we come at it as though we're musicians, trying to make something out of the record, doing something creative with it."
Though they're increasingly concentrating on out-of-town shows -- having performed in California, New York, Florida, Georgia, Utah and Colorado -- they're not yet making enough money to afford the travel, and besides, Megadef can't get away too long from his "real" job: baking bread at Fry's.
But if cockiness counts for anything, Megadef's bread-baking days might be behind him soon.
"We've got the CD out, so a lot of DJ schmucks have about a week to pack their bags," he says. "We're just getting started and we're taking over. We've got bills to pay."
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