"Disco sucks" are fighting words to the finely honed ears of Charles Fields, widely known in the world of house music as DJ Feelgood. As a child growing up in Baltimore during the '70s, Fields was often awakened early in the morning by his father blasting current club hits on 12-inch slabs of vinyl.
"He'd bust out on school days, Saturdays -- it didn't matter," says Fields. "He'd wake up before anyone else in the house and just fire it up. The Gap Band, Wild Cherry, Gloria Gaynor -- you name it, he played it, top volume. He was into Steely Dan and Motown, too. I can't tell you how many mornings I woke up to Michael Jackson. I was always into it, though. I was never like, 'Dad, come on, turn it down.' There's definitely worse ways to start off a day, and I thought it was just normal, you know, like every kid wakes up to his dad rocking Michael Jackson. Looking back on it now, I can see his little morning rituals were one of my biggest influences, so to thank him, I just recently hooked him up with a nice set of turntables and a mixer. He doesn't really mix, but I like knowing he could if he wanted to."
Now 36, Fields has established himself as one of the hardiest road warriors in the top tier of house DJs in the country. He has played gigs in three to five cities a week, year in and year out, since he first rose to national prominence in the early '90s as one of the founders of Fever, the near-mythical, biweekly club night that became a cornerstone of the Baltimore/D.C. area's monumental underground club scene.
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"Fever started back in 1990, when I hooked up with my partner [and now fellow big-name turntablist] Scott Henry, who was already DJing and throwing warehouse parties, and he and I started going to some of the early raves in Brooklyn that Frankie Bones [yet another present-day luminary] was throwing. They were the kind of parties where it looked like people had cut chains to get into the building and set up a generator. Anyway, we decided we wanted to throw parties that were in a more stable location, where you could install a permanent, incredible sound system, and it worked. Before we knew it, we had 1,500 through the door every time, and it went on like that for nine years straight."
Fields and Henry dropped the curtain on Fever in 1999, though it was still going hot and heavy. "We just both realized that, to be a driving force in the scene on a nationwide level, you have to be on the road all the time, which is where we both more or less live now," Fields explains.
Currently touring in support of his third full-length release, djmixed.com/DJ_Feelgood, the follow-up to last year's gold album Can You Feel It?, Fields' schedule for the last 10 days of March took him from Toronto to Durham, North Carolina, to Miami to Los Angeles to Phoenix to Mexico City, then back up to Canada for a show in Montreal. Fields says he has played in every country that has a good audience for house music, except for the country with the biggest audience of all: England. He is a bit out of sorts on the subject.
"I've played all over this world, but I've never played in England one time, and I've never been invited to play in England one time. And I'm not alone in this. For some reason, a lot of America's best DJs -- and I'd like to take this opportunity to complain about this, vociferously -- a lot of America's best DJs do not get to play in England. And when the English DJs are touring over here, it makes it harder for the rest of us to get gigs, because the English guys are charging such ridiculous amounts of money that the promoter can't put anyone else on the lineup. I don't understand it. A lot of promoters say, 'Oh, we did it just to say we brought so-and-so over,' so they'll bring them over, pay them way too much and lose their ass. It's fucking silly."
With a more diplomatic tone, Fields concedes that audiences in Spain are amazingly warm and receptive. "It's funny, you know -- you'll be grocery shopping in Spain, and you'll hear this record you played in the club the night before coming out of the P.A. in the supermarket. It would be nice to see the music get to that level in America. Some people say, 'Oh, no, then it won't be underground anymore,' but as long as the music isn't getting watered down, the more people listening to it, the better."
Whenever and wherever he gets behind the decks, Fields' style is wild. He plays fast and funky, hovering just above 135 beats per minute, a pace that pushes the limits for house -- especially for the vintage Soul Train-hued, heavy-on-the-vocals vein of house in which his tastes flow. Fields is famous for his use of dialed-in reverb effects and crafty manipulation of the equalizers on his mixer, tricks he picked up from old-school Baltimore house DJs in the late '80s.
"I used to hit a lot of gay clubs in those days, and I liked how the DJs in there screwed around with the EQs, you know, how they would bring the bass down or the highs down, so the crowd could hear each other and react to it. It's just part of the way I play now. It's a spontaneous thing. I don't go in thinking, 'Oh, I'm gonna mess with the EQs tonight.' I have to be feelin' the crowd first."
The third big factor in the Feelgood formula is Fields' fondness for bootlegs. "I don't believe any of the albums I've put out 100 percent captures the way I sound live, mainly because I can't use my bootlegs on them, because there's no way to secure the rights," he says. "Like right now, one of my favorite records in my crate is this new Boston bootleg. You know that song" -- Fields breaks into an a cappella excerpt from the classic-rock group's hit "Foreplay/Long Time" -- "'Well, I'm taking my time, just moving along . . .' This bootleg's got that bit of lyrics set over a really pumping 4/4 house beat. People have been losing their minds over that one."
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Though he recently moved to Los Angeles to gain better access to the city's production studios during his fleeting downtimes, Fields still owns a house in downtown Baltimore's Canton district, right across the street from Shorty, a martini bar he opened last year.
"A lot of promoters and DJs, their dream is to get enough money together to open their own dance club. Mine was always to open my own dive bar," he says. "Shorty is a dive at heart. It's been a neighborhood bar for at least 70 years, and it's really smoky and dark. I hooked it up with some cool stainless steel, but it's basically just the kind of place I would want to hang out in when I'm not DJing, and when I'm not DJing, I hardly ever go to clubs anymore. I head straight for the nearest dive."
When he is spinning, Fields prefers licensed clubs to the warehouse parties of yesteryear. "The older I get, the more I like the clubs," he says. "They're more secure, you can have a couple of drinks, you don't have to worry about the party getting shut down. I still play some of the massives [raves] now and then, because when you get thousands of people together instead of hundreds, and everything falls in place, the vibe is impossible to match. But when I remember the days of playing records standing next to a big pool of water in some nasty, illegal warehouse party, I have to laugh.
"It's just funny to think it all started there."