Whenever DJ Akshen steps behind a pair of record decks, he tends to become a tempest of motion befitting his moniker. Such is the case on a recent morning in his Arcadia home, where the veteran turntablist is busy painting a small side room with a slew of scratching over the orchestral heroism of the theme to 1978's Superman.
As his mix slides into the pounding thrum of drum 'n' bass and then a remix of Pharoahe Monch's signature track, "Simon Says," Akshen's hands are a blur over two Technics SL-1210 turntables, a Rane controller, and his MacBook Pro as he adjusts levels, changes pitches, and cues up clips. Every so often, he either frantically wipes his hands onto his black shorts to deal with any sweat disrupting his flow or throws his arms in the air as if he were hyping a crowd.
At this particular moment, Akshen is performing for an audience of one. But on Thursday night, he'll serve up this same 15-minute mix in front of packed houses during the national finals of the Red Bull Thre3Style.
The 41-year-old turntable guru, known to his mama and papa as Jonathan Valdez, is one of a dozen of the country's best mixmasters, spin kings, and platter jocks who will compete in the esteemed worldwide DJ battle sponsored and organized by the energy drink company.
Akshen and 11 other DJs will go head-to-head at venues around the Valley over three nights during the event, which will crown the Thre3Style's U.S. champion with the winner moving on to the world finals in Tokyo later this year.
Separate heats will take place Thursday, April 2, at the Monarch Theatre and on Friday, April 3, at Club Red in Mesa, each of which featuring six of the finalists performing 15-minute sets and being judged on their technicality, originality, skill, creativity, crowd engagement and stage presence. The top DJs from the first two nights will then square off for the Thre3Style U.S. title on Saturday, April 4, at The Pressroom.
(Each night will also feature a headlining performance by a legendary DJ, including Grandtheft on April 2, Jazzy Jeff on April 3, and local legend Z-Trip on April 4.)
It's the biggest DJ battle Phoenix has ever hosted amd will feature some of the best turntablists in America executing what should be epic sets. It also could be the chance of a lifetime for the competitors, including Akshen.
Considered by many of his local DJ peers as one of the best in the Phoenix scene, Akshen has been working record decks for 30 years. And in some ways, he says, this weekend's Thre3Style battle is something that he's been prepping for his entire career.
"I can honestly say that I have because things are aligning in my career to where they should be," Akshen says. "If I did this five or 10 years ago, I wouldn't have been ready. And it's here in Arizona, my home state. My wife asked me, 'Are you ready for your life to change?' And I definitely am."
As such, he plans to be prepared for the competition when he steps onto the Monarch Theatre stage on Thursday as a participant in the first heat.
Throughout his DJing career, which dates back to his days as an adolescent b-boy who cut his teeth on his older brother's turntables, Akshen has always followed the mantra of "practice makes perfect."
It certainly helped him triumph at the Thre3Style regional qualifier back in February at the Monarch Theatre, where he bested five other DJs from Phoenix and around the Southwest -- including locals M2, Jeff Metcalf, and Javin -- to earn a berth at the national finals.
Other than working weekend bar gigs around town, including his regular Friday night session at The Beverly in Scottsdale, or teaching a "Turntablism 101" class at Cyphers: The Center for Urban Arts every Monday, Akshen has been "locked up in his cave," relentlessly prepping for the Thre3Style finals. He's sacrificed time with family and friends, as well as a small chunk of his sanity in order to perfect his game. By his own estimate, Akshen has practiced it 200 times since mid-February, and he'll probably practice another 50 times before this weekend.
He's also putting plenty of research time as well, such checking out the work of many of his Thre3Style competitors, including Philadelphia's DJ Reed Streets, Spare Change from Indianapolis, Chicago's Boi Jeanius, San Diego's Dynamix, DJ Trayze from Washington, D.C., and Atlanta's Jaycee.
"For weeks, all I did was research. I was debating if I wanted to listen to all these other DJs, because in the regionals, I didn't listen to anybody and I didn't care. But then I decided that this was different, this was the national finals, and these guys are gunning for everyone else. So I've listened to everybody and learned something from each. So I'm really ready," he says. "There have been times within this whole journey where I've realized, 'These guys are good.' You have Trayze who's been to the [Thre3Style] world finals, Dynamix is a three-time L.A. Red Bull Thre3style [winner], and you have Spare Change, he's a DMC champ [and] he's been to the U.S. finals."
Akshen also says he's tried to tailor his set to appeal to the Thre3Style judges, which include Jazzy Jeff, Z-Trip, and Seattle's Four Color Zack.
He already impressed the latter judge during the Thre3Style regional qualifier in February as Four Color Zack noted at the time that Akshen, "took a lot of musical risks with his track selection and won the crowd over with his confidence."
Akshen, however, isn't resting on his laurels, however, and feels ready for the challenge that awaits him this weekend.
"For me, its about putting together the best possible set and being as flawless as possible and showing as much confidence as possible onstage to the audience and to the judges," Akshen says. "If I've done that, I can't do any more. I've done all the homework. I've done all the research. I know my competition, and I know what the judges are looking for. And it's the best I can do."
The Red Bull Thre3Style national finals take place on Thursday, April 2, at Monarch Theatre; Friday, April 3, at Club Red in Mesa; and on Saturday, April 4, at The Pressroom. Admission is $10 each night.
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