"Chupa" means "suck" in Spanish, and the motto on the fliers for Phoenix's defunct but legendary underground dance spot of the same name used to read: "A club never sucked so good." From the fall of 1994 to the spring of '96, Chupa sucked long and hard, every weekend, all night long. It was housed in a warehouse space on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Madison, a no man's land of disputed gang territory near downtown Phoenix. At night, the surrounding urban landscape was desolate and threatening, nothing but shackled warehouses and littered, vacant lots. Homeless people circled around barrel fires and crack heads lurched along the sidewalks like zombies in search of raw brains.
Chupa was a blooming flower amid the ruins. From a block away, the club's throbbing, purple strobe light and deep house beat were a comforting beacon for what could be a nerve-racking walk from the car. And inside, it was all good. Drag queens and club kids, boys and girls, dancing on the floor. Chupa was a sweatbox, but it had a secure, outdoor courtyard for chilling, and a positive, open-minded vibe, with a tangible erotic charge. It was a small club with a good heart in a sketchy part of town. Unfortunately, Chupa's location proved to be its undoing. "The knuckleheads did it," says Pete "Supermix" Salaz, who co-founded the club with his longtime partner Eddie Amador and several other formative, local underground DJs and promoters, including Blaz and Anton. "The bad elements started coming in. Cholo types, hanging around outside, drinking beer, hassling the queens."
A few weeks before the club shut down, Salaz says, he got in the first fight of his life protecting Amador, who in turn was protecting a drag queen. "This bunch of gangbangers started acting like they were going to jump this queen outside the club, and Eddie went up to them," says Salaz. "But Eddie can't talk the talk, you know, like, 'Hey, ese, just chill out, man.' So he went up and said something wrong, and they jumped him. And I was like, 'Well, they're beating up Eddie,' so I just waded in and unloaded."
The fight ended when Salaz's brother, who was working security and had a gun, came outside and fired into the air. The cholos backed off, spewing threats. "A few weeks later, there were shots fired at the place before we even opened," Salaz says. "And I said, 'You know what? It's over.'"
Which were Amador's sentiments exactly--about Chupa, about Phoenix, about the whole damn thing. He was frustrated. He and Salaz were pretty much running Chupa on their own by then, anyway. The other four founders had peeled off a few months back, after the group lost thousands of dollars spent renovating a warehouse space on Fifth Avenue. The idea was to move Chupa to the new, larger location and open a full-scale club, but the city shut 'em down on opening night, because of multiple--and selectively enforced--permit violations. "We played to pay for and obtain all the permits as we went along, once the club started bringing in money," says Salaz. "We gambled, and we lost."
Chupa lingered in its old location for a few months, then folded for good, and Amador split for L.A. to launch a career producing his own music. As of last month, he now has one club hit to his credit. After it broke in L.A., the track--titled, literally enough, "House Music"--was quickly picked up by the Washington, D.C., house collective Deep Dish, which will issue it next month on its record label Yoshitoshi. Two weeks ago, the track was also licensed for overseas distribution to Deconstruction label, another heavy hitter in the dance-music business.
"I don't want to jinx it, but it feels like things are moving for me out here," Amador said recently from Los Angeles. "Getting away from Phoenix was definitely the right thing for me. I remember when [Phoenix DJ turned L.A.-based touring artist] Chris Flores used to come back from L.A., he'd say, 'What are you guys doing here? Why are you still in Phoenix?' And we'd be like, 'Oh, well, you know, this is cool, this is where we're from, we like it here, we want to make our scene happen.' And he'd just shrug and look confused. And now I understand where he was coming from, because now I'm in a global city, where it's actually possible to take things to a global level."
When Amador left, though, his best friend and musical partner of 10 years stayed behind. Amador and Salaz had produced tracks together and deejayed as a duo under the name Direct Force since 1987. They're both freaks for house music, but their tastes are subtly different. Amador strictly prefers traditional, deep house music. Salaz can hang with that, but he's more into catchier, faster, more (dirty-word alert) commercial stuff. But when they played together either back-to-back on two decks or tag-team on four, they seemed instinctively to play off one another, and their combined tastes had more flavor and flow than either of them alone. The same held true for their original material, and one of Direct Force's tracks, "Babaulu," was picked up by Bomb Records.
Direct Force is now on indefinite hold. Salaz didn't go with Amador, even though he was invited. Instead, he stayed behind and kept trying to lift up the Phoenix scene. His efforts have also borne fruit, in the form of a new, after-hours radio show (Fridays, 2 to 4, on 103.9 FM), and Salaz's own house club, Red Monkey, a periodic one-off in the bowels of the Riverbottom Lounge, an old dive bar in central Phoenix. "Basically, Red Monkey is the son of Chupa," says Salaz. "It's an extension of Chupa, with me at the controls instead of six people, or even Eddie."
Red Monkey's debut was last March. Salaz hosted the night once a week at first, but after a strong start, it started to lag, "so I started doing one-offs every four to six weeks, and the numbers have been nice." The last Red Monkey was September 13. It drew 400-plus. The vibe was tight, the mean age of the crowd was over 17, and the music was good, old-fashioned house. It was like a time machine to rave's age of innocence, before greedy promoters and bad drugs began to poison the well. The Monkey will rise again November 27 (Thanksgiving night). Amador is scheduled to appear as the special guest DJ, returning home to spend the holiday with his family and spin a 2x4 (two DJs, four turntables) set of house music with his old partner. Recently, Amador and Salaz gave separate Subterranea interviews that covered the past year, the history of their friendship and the future of Direct Force.
Subterranea: When and how did you and Eddie meet?
Pete Salaz: It was the spring of 1986. Eddie and I were both studying at ASU, and we were both in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. One weekend there was a SHPE softball game, and Ed pulled up in this car that was bumping a hip-hop track, and we hit it off because we both loved hip-hop, and pretty soon we started telling everyone we were going to be DJs. And they were like, "Yeah, right," and as a joke, some of the other engineers started calling us Direct Force--I think it started with Applied Pressure, then became Direct Force. But as they were still laughing, we made up some business cards and just started doing it. We played lots of car shows, lots of backyard parties where you'd be up there spinning records, watching out for drive-bys . . . it was all the Latin hip-hop scene. But it got good fast. In 1989, we were co-champs at the Battle of the DJs at Pride Pavilion.
S: What caused the transition to house?
PS: Well, a few months after the Battle of the DJs, Eddie and I had a break in our friendship where we didn't speak to one another for like a year and a half, and during that time, I stayed with hip-hop, and Eddie went techno, and he teamed up with Blaz [Mario Gallegos, arguably the founder of the Valley's underground dance scene], who was doing the Green Room, Red Room, and Funktion parties. And one of the first things Eddie and I did once we were hanging out again is go to one of the Red Room parties. This was in like 1991, at the dawn of the underground scene here.
S: What did you think?
PS: Well, it was raw, uncensored. I liked it, even though I was shocked at some of the things going on there. Shocked in a good way.
S: Care to elaborate?
PS: Well, those early parties were really free-thinking. For example, the first Chupa was actually in 1992. It was a one-off Ed, Blaz and I threw, and it was in this warehouse across from Circles records. Anyway, right when the party was peaking, this orgy broke out on the dance floor. First this guy and girl started kissing, then their underwear was on the floor, and this other guy joined in, and a girl started spanking him, and pretty soon there were eight people in this thing, and they stayed there for three hours, right in the middle of the dance floor, with everybody watching and dancing. I was like, "Wow. So this is the underground."
S: You didn't jump in there?
PS: (laughs) No. I was on duty.
S: You sure that's not why they call you "Supermix Salaz"?
PS: No, no. My real name is Pete Castenada. I changed my name when I got a mix show at KRQ in Tucson [in 1994, before Chupa opened]. For some reason, the voice man for the station couldn't pronounce my last name, so I used my middle name, "Salaz." I took on the moniker "Supermix" because it was better than what the station wanted to name me, which was "Jam Hard Junior."
S: So what's up with the Elvis glasses? (Salaz sometimes wears gaudy, aging-Elvis-style sunglasses when he spins.)
PS: Oh, man, I'm a big Elvis freak. I've seen all his movies, I know all his songs, I've got all his records on vinyl. I love Elvis.
S: What about Eddie?
PS: I don't know. I don't think he likes Elvis as much as I do. See, Ed and I get along well, but we're different in many aspects. He's a Republican, I'm a Democrat. Ed is very religious, I'm not. I love all sports, Ed couldn't tell you what position O.J. played. Also, he's a better talker than I am. I'm not a good promoter. It's hard for me to walk up to someone and talk about myself or my event. And musically, I tend to spin a little faster, around 126-130 bpm, where Ed likes to stay between 120-124. Also, when it comes to house, Ed likes to go a lot deeper than I do. I like spinning stuff that's catchy, maybe it's got a little sample of a disco riff that hooks you in. Ed can get just God-awfully deep, down to just a full-on gospel singer and a hand-clap for a beat.
S: Are you still producing as well as spinning?
PS: Sure. It's tougher than it used to be, though, with Ed not around. When we're together, Ed gives me a boost of confidence, whether we're producing or deejaying or whatever. Also, without him I'm low on equipment. All of our equipment got ripped off from a warehouse in 1996. Ed's family helped replace it with new gear so we could keep working, but when Ed moved to L.A., all the equipment went with him. As soon as I knew he was leaving, I just went crazy in the studio with the time I had left and cranked out 10 tracks, and I still know enough people with equipment and studios that I can get in somewhere whenever I have a burning idea, but, truthfully, it's just not the same without Ed.
S: How do you feel about his move to L.A.?
PS: Well, Ed felt that a Phoenix return address would always land our demo on the bottom of the stack. My philosophy was, a good track is a good track. Plus I wanted to keep working on my hometown scene a little while longer, so moving to L.A. wasn't personally what I wanted to do right then. It seems to be working for him, though. He wanted to go out there and network with people and put some music out, and that's just what he's done.
S: Do you plan to join him in L.A.?
PS: If I had to make a prediction, I'd say yes, there will be a time when I move out there. I still talk to Ed about every day on the phone. We both just turned 30, and the other day I was like, "Damn, Ed, it's crunch time." I know we have the same goals: to produce music and make enough money producing and playing music to take care of our parents. That's always number one for us. I don't think it's all over for Direct Force. Ed's been my best friend for 11 years, and he's my best friend now, and he and I work best as a team. At least, I feel that way.
Subterranea: When did you write "House Music," and when did it break?
Eddie Amador: I wrote "House Music" in late September, and I knew I had something right away, because I test my demos in the store where I work [soon after he moved to L.A., Amador got a job as a house-music buyer for the renowned Melrose record store Street Sounds]. I just play the tapes and see what moves people as they're shopping for records, and that one, "House Music," got a good response. So I pressed a test acetate, and this guy I'd gotten to know, DJ Orlando, played it during his mix show on Santa Monica's Groove Radio [103.1]--which, unlike any station in Phoenix, plays nothing but dance music--and while the record was still spinning, [influential L.A. house DJ] Tony Largo called and asked for a copy to spin at his club [Does Your Momma Know?]. It just spread from there. Then last month, it was showcased at the Global DJ Awards conference in San Francisco. Deep Dish heard the track and wanted it and . . . that was it.
S: The centerpiece sample on "House Music" is this really rich, wise male voice repeating that one phrase, over and over ["Not everyone understands house music. It's a spiritual thing. A body thing. A soul thing"]. The guy sounds like a wizard. Where's that from?
EA: The words are from a short poem I wrote, and the guy reading them is this homeless guy who hangs out on Melrose, near Street Sounds, where I work. I thought he had a really special voice, so I asked to record him. During Chupa, I met several homeless people with special qualities like that, and I learned to be aware of what homeless people have to offer and not just ignore them, and it really paid off in this case. He was perfect for the track.
S: Do you still DJ, or is it strictly producing now?
EA: I still spin parties, but I'm just more selective, simply because I can be. I'm spinning at Red Monkey--and I'll have five new, original tracks of my own there--on Thanksgiving, and I'm spinning a big party in Washington, D.C., on New Year's Eve. So I still spin, but producing is way more of a priority now. You get more respect as a producer, because DJs are a dime a dozen in L.A. I would say this to any DJ that's serious about music: You need to get behind a drum machine and a computer and try to promote your style by creating original tracks using the kind of rhythms and wave forms you like.
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S: Was that your goal, specifically, to promote your kind of music?
S: And what music is that?
EA: Well, out here we call the good stuff "garage house" [yet another genre tag, named after the fabled New York City nightspot Paradise Garage]. That term means house music that stays true to those soulful, disco grooves that have been going for more than 10 years. Because I like to stay right at 120 bpm, some might call my music "deep house," but that term's way overexploited. There's a lot of garbage floating on the winds of house music right now. Which is another reason I wanted to come out here and produce music--house DJs need better wax to work with.
S: Why couldn't you produce that same wax in Phoenix?
PS: I could have produced it, but I don't think it would be getting the same exposure. Also, I was just burnt out on Phoenix. I worked in Phoenix eight, nine years, and I finally reached a point where I realized I was giving more than I should to the scene. I wasn't working enough on my own development. I knew I had to get out of Phoenix and live in a truly global city. I'd done everything in Phoenix, and done it well. I'd been a big fish in a little pond, and now it was time to go for the ocean. When I got here, I knew no one, so I had to just lay low and soul search and listen and gradually introduce myself. And I was thrilled to find a thriving house-music scene out here. The dance culture out here is so big, there's enough people to support a strong scene for every kind of music--house, jungle, whatever--and there's crossover and a lot of mutual respect. It's not so cliquish and political as Phoenix. I want to be clear, though, that I don't want to sound like I'm talking Phoenix down, because I'm from there, and I remember that. When Chupa was really going, like a year before we shut down, it could have hung tough with any club out here, no question.
S: Do you plan to work with Pete again?
EA: Well, I'm sure we'll do remixes of each other's stuff. We're already doing that now. But, honestly, I don't know. We're both just doing our own things right now. He's there and I'm here, and I don't know how it's going to end up. The house he likes is faster and more commercial. But, I will say this, I hope he comes out here in the next year or two, and if he does, then, yeah, I'm sure we'll do something together. I just don't know exactly what. But, like I said before, I remember where I'm from, and any Phoenix DJ that moves out here, they should give me a call, and I'll do everything I can for them.