Sol Martinez spins his winning set.
Sol Martinez spins his winning set.
Jonathon Steele

House of Dance

A few weeks ago, I helped judge the Ultra DJ Spinoff at Myst in Scottsdale. Six finalists had 25 minutes each to impress the judges (who also included DJs Pete "Supermix" Salaz, and Inertia, and the crowd), with the winner receiving an expenses-paid trip to Miami Beach for the Winter Music Conference and a slot at the Ultra Music Festival there.

I'd been to the WMC as a panelist, and I'd partied at the Ultra Music Festival. Ten or 11 years ago, I regularly hit up raves around town. But I'm not a huge fan of dance/electronic music. I've watched and listened to many of the top DJs, but the music never grabbed me. The raves were great for the drugs and the girls, but you wouldn't see me dancing. Likewise, when I stop in for Joe DiPadova's "StraightNoChaser Presents: one" on Fridays at Homme Lounge, I'm not dancing. I'm just kicking it.

Nonetheless, I volunteered to judge the Ultra contest, mainly to scope out what the top-tier dance DJs in town had to throw down and to see what the state of the genre is. I didn't expect to enjoy it — Myst, and Scottsdale clubs in general, just aren't my scene — but this was a mission.


Ultra DJ Spinoff

For more insight into Phoenix�s music scene, visit Brendan Joel Kelley�s blog, "Ear Infection."

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself actually digging some of what the DJs busted out (the finalists were DJs Louder, Memo, Lil Ernie, Senbad, Josh Nelson and Sol Martinez).

I was definitely out of my element. The music was quality, but the environment didn't change. I was in, but if I ignored my surroundings and just listened to the music, it was interesting at least, and occasionally enthralling at best.

The judges were situated above the DJ booth and could watch exactly what the spinners were doing with their equipment. Techniques varied — Josh Nelson used CDs, Senbad used Serato (which allows DJs to scratch and mix electronic music files), and, of course, there was plenty of vinyl. The dope shit wasn't constant, but when it hit, it was awesome. At one point, Senbad was remixing four tracks on the fly, which isn't necessarily obvious to the crowd, but when you can see what the DJs are doing, it becomes more impressive.

Sol Martinez was the winner. I wasn't expecting to be impressed, but the dude had thought out his set pretty intensely, starting it out calm and building to peaks, making his 25 minutes kind of like a little house-music story. By the end (Martinez's was the last set of the night), I wasn't necessarily a convert to the dance music, but I knew I'd had a hell of a time.

Afterwards, I got on the phone with some homies, including fellow judge Salaz, who is in this scene a hell of a lot more than me, and tried to get a handle on what's happening in dance music — what the state of the beats is, exactly.

A lot of what I heard at the Ultra contest was house music, and that seems to be pretty prevalent around town at nights like "one" and the nights that Salaz plays. But that scene seems to attract a more mature audience — people in their late twenties and thirties, rather than the youth-oriented clusterfuck I'd see at raves a decade or so ago.

"There's this huge, gaping hole of age group, a whole age group that hasn't been exposed to dance music. Back five or 10 years ago, you had raves. They were good for dance music," Salaz says. "Regardless of the music, kids wanted to go because they could go — they weren't allowed into clubs. You had 15- to 20-year-olds being exposed to electronic music. As these kids got older, they'd search for what electronic music is available.

"That's where house music came in — it was deemed the more adult electronic music. You wouldn't see much house at raves, but you'd see it at clubs. So when these kids graduated from the rave scene, they went to clubs. As raves became part of the past, everyone got older, [and] there's no one to replace them."

It looks as if that may be changing, though. At the Ultra contest, DJ Louder was busting out uptempo breakbeats and jungle, which usually is the flavor of a younger, rave-oriented crowd, and he managed to win over the crowd with it. According to Jas Tynan, whose GrooveTribe collective plays upstairs on First Fridays at "one," the local rave scene has seen a resurgence in the past couple of months. Tynan would know: He promoted many of the best raves that I went to back in the '90s.

"It seems like the rave scene is coming back. The house music scene seems to have dropped off," Tynan says. "It seems like there's raves and there's Myst [which brings in DJs weekly for its House 7340 series]. In the middle, there's this huge gap. There's not a lot connecting the underground with the club scene.

"It's kind of like it was when I was throwing raves, number-wise. It's a recent thing. I couldn't believe it was still going, either. The past couple months, the numbers have started to pick up."

That's exciting news to me. I may be a little old for the teenage rave scene, but I'm going to check it out of curiosity anyway.


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