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Drums + Bass = Heads

DJs Dehga (left) and Preecha (right) hold Mass for the true believers at Sky Lounge.
Emily Piraino

Grooves wound like tight metal coils, rinsed-out Rastafarian rhymes at 180 beats per minute, dark and dirty bass lines, jazz vocals sung over rolling rhythms -- these are the sounds of drum and bass. Old hat in the U.K. -- where it originated as "jungle" -- and relatively fresh to U.S. ears, drum and bass has dragged its toes now across most cosmopolitan cities here since the mid-1990s, and Phoenix is no exception.

The Valley drum and bass scene, a small but unusually enthusiastic group, has had two main Valley spots to call home -- the now-defunct Lucky Dragon in Tempe on Monday nights from 1997 to 2002, and the Sky Lounge, the upstairs portion of Sports City Grill on East Washington. The organizers of the Thursday night "Frequency" events at Sky Lounge are now shopping for a new home, mostly for financial and promotional reasons and, according to a recent Internet post from local performer DJ Moniker, for fear the night eventually could grow stale. Regardless, the energy readily on display at Sky Lounge last week figures to carry over -- hard-slamming beats and a healthy mix of bohemian urbanites, techno-heads and stragglers who just want to dance as soon as the DJs hit the console.

The vibe that was obvious among the several dozen attendees last Thursday, when the performing DJs mixed nasty breaks with more restrained bass lines and vocal samples, seems to promise an upswing from what longtime players in the scene say has been a lull in recent months. The scene, they say, began to wilt late in 2002 when the original organizers of the Thursday night Sky Lounge parties (called "Subconscious" at first) pulled out over disputes concerning money. Soon after, an atmosphere that can only be described as "hippie's basement" waned, and attendance dropped as a result.

But with the beats growing increasingly harder -- and with women continuing to dance right along with baseball-cap-wearing, fist-pumping men -- whatever drop-off that occurred on the night's first wave appears to have leveled. Four of the scene's key players -- Jason Ayers, DJ Dehga, DJ Preecha and Frank Mendez -- now reflect on the scene's immediate past and are contemplating what's next.

Jason Ayers, co-creator of Subconscious

Turned on to drum and bass for the first time because of the simple fact that he heard it on a good sound system, Jason Ayers took drum and bass out of the back room and on to the main stage at Sky Lounge in April of 2002. He partnered with Adam Eaglerock, who had come from Atlanta in 2001 and was motivated to put together a weekly.

"A lot of people think really fondly back to that time," Ayers reminisces on the origins of Subconscious. "The night before [we started it], I had a big barbecue at my house, called up every DJ and hard-core fan I could think of and we outlined our ideas for the night there. We had our deal upfront with the bar that they were going to pay for talent. We just did our homework."

Able to bring big-name DJs such as British pioneer Andy C to Phoenix and foster a sense of community among local DJs, Ayers found instant success. Even after the night changed hands from Ayers (performing name: DeepFreq) to DJ Access in 2003 and took the name Frequency, people were still coming down in big numbers on Thursday nights. But that turnout didn't last, and Ayers has his own ideas as to why.

"When I was involved, I introduced what became the image," he says. "I bought tapestries to decorate the Sky Lounge mostly because I don't like acoustic reverb, and I did other things that all together made the space different from any other space. It was a lot warmer."

(DJ Access could not be reached for comment.)

Ayers' other contribution to the local drum and bass community came in the form of a message board, which started as a feature on his www.subconscious.com Web site.

"I created it as a general resource. . . . I allowed all promoters to promote there," he says. "Unfortunately, too many people didn't realize it was a supplement to drum and bass culture."

Some people think the board is "evil," according to Ayers. The "no love for the board" shtick rose from the dramas that would ensue over disagreements. The moderators quickly created a "Trash Can" forum especially for the haters.

Evil or not, as "Drum-Core" (http://www.drum-core.com), the message board lives on as a source of gossip, event promotion, political commentary, record release listings and even music charts.

DeMartel Woods, a.k.a. DJ Dehga

DeMartel Woods, who performs as DJ Dehga, is something of a historian and guru when it comes to the development of drum and bass in Phoenix. The friendly, fun-loving Woods discovered the genre in 1997 after spending his teens as an electronic-music junkie, listening to his uncles spin house records and attending raves. Once he heard the skittering rhythms of jungle, however, he was hooked. At first, he collected underground jungle records. Soon after, he began spinning records; his first gig coincided with only the second time he had ever tried his hand at DJing. Along with Ayers and Eaglerock, Woods helped launch the Thursday night affairs at Sky Lounge. The music then leaned more toward songs driven by rich melodies and vocals such as the Latin-influenced old-school U.K. duo Shy FX and T-Power's "Feelin' U" and "Shake Your Body." These days Dehga leans toward jazzy progressions classified as "intelligent" drum and bass, one of the many subgenres that inhabit this beast of many beats.

 

Drum and bass heads, though, can be a fickle bunch, and Woods will tell you he has seen countless DJs and producers move on since the birth of the weekly. In fact, he's only one of the few original Phoenix cats still performing.

"Everybody here, everyone that's been around, at least for any amount of time, is aware of how far behind Phoenix is culturally," Woods says. "You can only build yourself up so much out here. If you're trying to do things on any other level, you do have to leave, because Phoenix doesn't have the culture to support artists that are really trying to do things. It's a lot of work to build something. Owners of venues don't see local DJ culture as valuable to their business. Even if it's not big names, just on a local level, they don't employ us."

Woods' intention is to build a larger community for the music, and he sticks to that goal like a missionary in a town full of agnostics.

When Woods dons the tables, he does not approach it as a one-man show in the least, seeing it as a two-part operation.

"I play records for my friends, people I see in the clubs," he says. "They're friends of mine, it's not like I'm playing to an audience that I'm performing for. I man the turntables; the rest of the operation is on the other side of the turntables, and it's one big project. We're able to establish a following that way."

Jamie Saunders, a.k.a. DJ Preecha

When the sound of reggae and thundering drums -- if God bowled, it would sound like this -- blasts from the speakers in venues around town, chances are the combination is erupting from the decks of DJ Preecha. Born Jamie Saunders, the 26-year-old is a relative newcomer to drum and bass, having embraced it in 2001 from the depths of reggae and dub. (Until its recent closing, Preecha could be heard on Mondays at west Phoenix's My Favorite Lounge blending reggae vocals with aggressive drum tracks.) He spins a roots-based blend of reggae and jungle known as "raga" or "old school jungle," which makes him a standout in the scene.

"Almost every tune I play, no one else has played in Arizona," Saunders says confidently.

Influenced by Detroit raga superstars Soundmurder, Remarc and Krome & Time, Saunders also produces, and is working now to launch his own label, called Jungle Forever.

Besides producing and performing, Saunders' contribution to the scene lies in a collective of DJs, producers, artists and MCs called Pure and Wyze, which also includes Ayers and Woods. Saunders explains, "We . . . strive to bring our music and vibe to the local community through block parties and benefit events. We try to be socially conscious and yet still have a good time."

Interestingly, while Preecha and Dehga usually stand at different ends of the drum-and-bass spectrum in terms of intensity, they performed a blistering set together, standing side by side, during last week's Frequency. They defined the set with athletic and sensual bass lines, reaching a happy medium between hard-core fist-pumping and soulful booty-shaking.

Frank Mendez, resident of Frequency

Frank Mendez came to drum and bass from the even darker sound of industrial music. He started DJing in 1990 and found the abrasive beats of drum and bass to be a logical progression from the droning, gothic sound he had been admiring. He also was amazed by what he saw as the amount of interaction drum and bass seemed to inspire between the DJ and the crowd.

"I'd never seen anything that was so interactive, where the crowd would stop a record, want to hear it again," he says. "With the MCs, all they did [on the microphone] was praise the DJ."

 

Mendez is a longtime resident DJ and co-organizer at Subconscious/Frequency. As the weekly has developed over the past two years, the music has evolved from melodic offerings toward the raga/old school jungle mostly spun there now.

While the vibe is noticeably different, Mendez finds it essential that aficionados and newbies learn about the roots of drum and bass, regardless of the fact that for Mendez himself, raga was past tense by 1995.

"The raga thing is necessary to the scene," he says. "It's necessary for people to be educated about the [progression] of reggae from roots to dub."

Mendez also points out that raga is tied inevitably to the hip-hop history of break beats, the hard, abrupt, repetition-based grooves driven by cracking snares and propulsive drum fills. It's the bottom, after all, that makes the toasting and island-fried rhythm sizzle.

"Hard-core break beat is an imitation of Detroit techno [mixed] with Miami bass . . . it made drum and bass what it is today," Mendez says.

Of course, it would help if more fans were of age to enjoy it all. Mendez says that for Frequency and the scene in general to grow, the addition of an 18-and-older venue would mark a huge step for the scene.

"The scene is very hungry, very young," he says. "I've performed at Freedom a couple of times where [the age restriction] is 18 and up and the youth is great, 'cause the kids have the energy. It's very unfortunate with the drum and bass weekly downtown that we can't do an 18-and-up night. When we did this, only a handful of people came out, and the reason is we don't have a medium for drum and bass in Phoenix where we can turn other people on to what we're doing."


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