Any time you go out to a club in Phoenix, you're putting your night in the DJ's hands. Sure: You'll pick the style of music you'd like to hear, and the venue, and the drinks. But if the DJ's having a bad night, it'll take an industrial-strength pair of earplugs to enjoy it all.
Luckily, the Valley has no shortage of talent. Just to give you a head start, here are 10 DJs who made this year's Best of Phoenix.
Best House DJ: Tranzit/Juheun
Given his ultra-packed schedule of weekly club shots, warehouse parties, production work, and remix sessions, Steven Chung does the work of two DJs. And, depending on when and where you catch the Scottsdale scene veteran performing, that sometimes is literally the case. Over the past few years, Chung has pulled sort of a Tyler Durden thing with two distinctive alter DJ egos, each with its own look, attitude, and particular tastes in house music. There's his original identity as DJ Tranzit, a rowdy party monster who spins more mainstream and club-friendly progressive and electro tracks heavy on big room sound.
And then the yang to his yin is Juheun ("joo-hoon"), a brooding loner and avatar for Chung's artistic leanings and interest in more complex and intelligent grooves of a darker bent. It certainly makes Chung one of the more unique, if not downright complicated, DJs in the local scene. Interestingly enough, each side of this yin-and-yang situation also has its own distribution deal going on with different EDM labels, like when Tranzit was signed by influential house superstar Bad Boy Bill earlier this year to release his Strike EP.
Readers' Choice: Pete Salaz
Best DJ Duo: Collective Chaos
Despite the turmoil and discord implied by their moniker, things are rather harmonious with the DJ duo of Thomas James and Anthony Mastamonk. And we're referring to the utter listenability of the intricate and electro-infused mixes and bootlegs they create, as well as their interpersonal relations. "We don't really ever clash much on things," Mastamonk says. Well, there are the differing opinions on hair care (Mastamonk flies a six-inch Mohawk while James prefers far less product) and certain EDM subgenres.
"Thomas specializes in more filthy electro-house. He's got an amazing ear for it," Mastamonk says. "I started as a hip-hop DJ. Even in my sets now, which are mostly electro, trap, and house, I still have something of that flavor." It doesn't distract the duo from working its collective magic in the studio and performing 2x4 sets at Scottsdale clubs like El Hefe and American Junkie or such Tempe spots as Gringo-Star Street Bar and Zum. James focuses on combining complex effects with filtering in order to amp up the energy, while his partner adds keyboard work and other instrumental elements. As a result, it's made their remixes of such artists as Afrojack and LazerDisk Party Sex spectacular to hear and has scored Collective Chaos thousands of collective Facebook likes and Soundcloud clicks.
Best Hipster DJ: Boris, Saturday nights at Bikini Lounge
It's Saturday night and you're in the mood to dance. You're tired of EDM and cover charges. You don't want to listen to Top 40s or old school hip-hop. Basically, you have two options now -- stay at home and shimmy in your mirror to a Spotify playlist you made or head down to Bikini Lounge off Grand and 15th avenues and get crazy to DJ Boris' unique mix of genres and styles.
Post punk, surf rock, French pop, oldies, and even some Mexican jams like Selena and "El Noa Noa" are all on regular rotation, making it easier to do the twist (a fun dance) than grind on folk (a scary dance). Plus, the drinks are dive bar cheap, with pitchers of PBR being only $3.50, and if you need a break from shaking your thang, you can always play pool for a couple songs.
Best Goth DJ: DJ Apollynon
Mark Peskin is a gigantic nerd, and proud of it, too. Like any successful geekazoid, the 34-year-old has parlayed his niche passion into getting paid. As DJ Apollynon, Peskin gets to combine his longstanding love affair with retro goth, industrial, and other doomy throwback genres at nightclubs and local fetish fetes with a particular yen for colorful cosplay. And he's just as old-school rivethead as the classic songs he's spinning. More than a decade ago, Apollynon dropped Covenant, Nitzer Ebb, and Sisters of Mercy while adorned in spikes, towering Doc Martens, and goofy goggles at the Nile Theater's and Boston's notorious industrial nights in 2000 and 2001.
These days his getups may be a bit more dork-oriented (read: Cobra Commander or a pink sex robot) but his sounds have remained just as sinister. Every Saturday, Apollynon and girlfriend, Sidney Slaughter (a.k.a. DJ Angel Toxin), crank out relentlessly gloomy audio at their popular City of Madness night at Club 24. And no one seems to bat an eyelash if he's wearing a unicorn mask at the time, probably because they're sporting some freaky-deaky duds themselves.
Best Dubstep DJ: Liquid Stranger
Somewhere up in the hinterlands of North Scottsdale, Martin Stääf is likely very busy crafting some of arguably the world's finest (and most brutal) dubstep tracks. The 34-year-old electronic musician and DJ, better known by his nom de guerre Liquid Stranger, is big on blending insane amounts of thuggish bass into his fierce mixes that he posts tohis Soundcloud page
and burns out sub-woofers at gigs throughout North America and around the world. Inside his studio, Stääf conjures what he jokingly refers to on Facebook as "dubstep sorcery," hewn from such disparate audio elements as sci-fi clips, reggae, big band music, and probably the belches of Satan himself.
Though he's sort of a reclusive fellow, Stääf hasn't completely shied away from the local EDM scene. He's performed a few times at local dubstep night UK Thursdays, as well as at the Monarch Theatre and defunct District 8 Warehouse, and he's collaborated with local producer Nick "Sluggo" Suddarth. One of their jointly produced tracks, "Stalkers VIP," is filled with wicked wub-wub, and listening to it recalls how Stääf's mother once famously described his music as akin to being "boiled alive by a primitive headhunter tribe in the Amazon." We kind of feel the same way, except we're loving every second of it.
Readers' Choice: DJ J.Paul
Best Hip-Hop DJ: DJ M2
Whatchu know about M2? Mention his name to other local DJs and you'll get nothing but mad respect for the esteemed platter jock (real name: Michael McDowell) and his meticulous mixing, cutting, scratching, and selecting talents. Ditto for folks from the Valley's hip-hop community and pretty much anyone else who's heard him dominate the decks on Power 98.3 during its mix shows or attended his club nights at the Roxy in Scottsdale and elsewhere.
"M2 is one of those guys that took the time to learn the ins and outs of hip-hop culture, the music, and everything else about it. So he knows his shit," says Fact 135 of his fellow DJ. "And he's so well-rounded on all levels of DJing, whether it's the skill, the knowledge, the history. He's so versatile its ridiculous." Yup, M2 is much beloved, even outside of the Valley.
The Source gave him major props a few years back by including him in a list of the top 30 radio DJs in the nation. He also came damn close to winning the Red Bull Thre3style Nationals in 2011. And when M2 worked a guest mix session on influential L.A. station Power 106 last summer, its was widely lauded by the listening audience. While we're glad that SoCal got a taste of M2's skills, we're more than a little selfish and want to keep him all up on our airwaves.
Best Rave DJ: CIK
David "CIK" Sankey has an aversion to the local club scene. The 36-year-old DJ is more likely to be found doing his thing at warehouses, event spaces, or off-the-radar dance fests in the desert. And what about the danceterias of Scottsdale or elsewhere? Eh, not so much. Frankly, he's more into either gigging for gigantic European crowds or Valley ravers, both of which are more receptive to his EDM genres of choice (industrial hardcore, gabber, darkcore, and industrial techno) and approach to crafting soundscapes. "Mixes are generally my way of telling a story or taking someone on an auditory journey," Sankey says. In 2010 and 2012, for instance, he took more than 80,000 people on such a jaunt at the high-profile Ground Zero Festival in the Netherlands.
Closer to home, Sankey, who runs influential DJ collective Arizona Hardcore, has played massives like Nocturnal Wonderland in California and Bang! in Philadelphia. He also has built a reputation as one of the more prominent and die-hard performers in the local rave scene, having worked more than 500 underground parties in the past 17 years. His Phoenix audiences may never get as big as those across the pond, a fact he doesn't seem to mind. "A lot of the local DJs are okay with being a superstar in the state of Arizona," Sankey says. "That was never my goal."
Best Turntablist: LES735
Les Sias is nothing if not humble. Back in April, the 30-year-old local DJ and producer absolutely killed it during the Phoenix regionals of the DMC World Championships, but he modestly shrugs off any notion of being the best in town. A strong case could be made otherwise, based on his victory at the contest -- part of the prestigious yearly worldwide DJ competition -- not to mention his mad abilities at turntable artistry as LES 735.
The big win, which earned Sias a ticket to NYC for the U.S. finals in August (when he placed seventh), only reinforced his cred among local DJs or anyone who's witnessed his well-plotted turntable routines, fierce cuts, and complex tricks during highly creative sets at local hip-hop joints. Sias began acquiring such skills during bedroom spin sessions as a teen, and has kept up the wikki-wikki thing ever since. In the ensuing years, he refined his arsenal of techniques involving the Technics while backing the rappers of Central Products, as a member of the Avenue of the Arts urban collective, producing tracks for Mykr Fiend X, or holding it down on the weekly Rhyme & Reason show every late Friday night/early Saturday morning on 101.1 The Beat.
On the radio, at the clubs, or in battle, LES735 definitely is dope.
Best Non-Turntablist Turntablist: DJ Ruthless Ramsey
Ramsey Higgins is quite prolific when it comes to the DJ game. He's down with Traktor, skilled with Serato, and knows his way around both a Numark and a pair of Technics 1200s. So skilled is the 36-year-old, who performs as Ruthless Ramsey, that he's also an instructor with Scottsdale Community College's illustrious DJ program. And this prof has a lesson he'd like to lay down: "I'm a turntablist," Higgins says. "We can spin anything."
Just some of the usual self-aggrandizing you'd associate with DJs, right? Yeah, we thought that, too, until we saw him on YouTube backing up such swag with a storm of scratching -- on a double cassette deck. Higgins is renowned across the Internet for his singular aptitude of turning boomboxes into scratch factories (accomplished by ripping the doors off and futzing with the rollers, flanges, and pause button) to mimic chops, flares, and chirps of pro turntablism, only without the turntable. It's his claim to fame that he's been perfecting for more than 25 years and has nabbed him worldwide notoriety, half a million YouTube views, the nickname "Captain of the Cassette," and a snazzy skill set to teach both SCC students and a few more famous apprentices, namely, superstars like Jazzy Jeff and Qbert, both of whom have hit up Higgins for tips.
The scribes at DJ Times, however, playfully tweeted about the video, "DJ Ruthless Ramsey thinks he's hot cause he can scratch on cassette tape. Problem is, REAL DJs only use reel-to-reel!" Don't put it past him, because he might perfect that skill next.
Best Latin DJ: DJ Kyko
According to Miguel Morales, he isn't much into twerking. And he felt that way long, long before Miley Cyrus made the notorious booty-shaking maneuver even more infamous (and earning worldwide scorn as a result) on the VMAs earlier this month. The 31-year-old, who's also known as DJ Kyko, says he leaves that to the ladies to handle. "I'm a dude," Morales quips. "And dudes shouldn't ever twerk."
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He's happy to bring that about by dropping Latin songs with some serious tempo and bounce, like maybe "Wiggle Wiggle" by Fulanito, during his Friday night main room hip-hop and reggaeton set at Monarch Theatre or up at Q-Lounge when he's there on Tuesdays and Saturdays slinging more Latin sets filled with merengues. But only, he says, when the time is right. After DJing professionally for more than a decade, like any ace selector, Morales has learned to read a room properly and pick the perfect songs for the particular mood and crowd. "If it's a majority of ladies, they're gonna want more of a Latin feel," he says. "Dudes want more machismo so I go with reggaeton or hip-hop." Both sexes, however, really dig it when he cues up super-popular tracks like "Echa Pa'lla (Manos Pa'rriba)" by Pitbull, which has resulted in one giant sing-along at Monarch. "I can shut off the music and have 600 people at once singing an entire hook of a song by themselves, and I mean they'll go word for word," he says. "It's amazing." But not nearly as astounding as when he saw 15 girls twerking together in unison. "That was fun to watch," Morales says. It's just one of the many perks of being a DJ.