It's mere minutes into J.R. Phillips' turntable set at Dirty Pretty in Scottsdale and the dapper DJ is already sweating.
Between the heat generated by a dance floor packed with bodies and his rapid efforts behind a laptop and mixers, the 26-year-old (who performs under the moniker D-JR) has developed a sheen of perspiration on his arms and face as he blasts out mash-ups of hip-hop and rock.
Relief comes when Benjamin Cutswell and a few other friends crowding the DJ booth shower him with champagne, soaking his light blue Banana Republic shirt with bubbly. After flinching for a second, Phillips opens his mouth and tilts his head to take a few thirsty gulps. The crowd cheers.
Bottles are popping on this night in December because it's Phillips' official "going away party." He will be leaving the Valley this month for the greener pastures of Los Angeles, following the trail already blazed by Z-Trip, Eddie Amador, Fashen, and other local DJs who've put Phoenix in the rear view in hopes that Southern California will provide them bigger and brighter opportunities.
It's only to be expected, given how Phillips' career has exploded in the past year. In March, he bested eight of Phoenix's finest party DJs (including Cutswell, electro all-star Death to the Throne, and hip-hop selecta Robby Rob) during the local round of the Red Bull Thre3Style battle at the Venue Scottsdale. He proceeded to come in second at the national finals in October at Denver's Beta Club, losing out to Orlando's M-Squared in what was deemed a "close finish."
Cutswell says the props Phillips received from the competition were well deserved and long past due.
"He's the most capable, diverse, hard-working, forward-thinking DJ I've ever met," he says. "Phoenix is a breeding ground for successful DJs, and I believe it helped make J.R. into this unstoppable force of talent."
Although he had to settle for the silver, Phillips hardly went unrewarded. His Thre3Style finish landed him a spot on Red Bull's upcoming Texas Thre3step Tour, a gig at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, and — more importantly — a necessary push to leave the Valley.
"I've worked so hard here, and I've reached a point where winning the Thre3style locally and then going on to nationals and doing well only confirmed that there's only so far you can go out here before you start to decline and become just another guy at a club," Phillips says, also citing a desire to move his son closer to the rest of his family, who live in Southern California. "So I feel I'm going at that point where everyone else thinks they should leave before it gets old."
But will he regret making the leap to El Lay? Renowned local turntablist DJ Radar, who was part of the influential Bombshelter DJs crew with Z-Trip and Emile in the '90s, believes that Phillips has enough talent to survive the cutthroat SoCal scene.
"JR isn't like your normal club DJ. His mixes are phenomenally creative. He's fast-paced, high-energy, and pushes himself to the limit," says Radar. "The way he puts songs together isn't like your standard mixing. Each gig is always different; it's never boring, and really cool to watch. He's always coming up with new tricks and different ways of working [DJ mixing program] Serato. A lot of DJs rely on effects, which are easy, but he comes up with innovative transitions. Plus, he still scratches, which is rare these days."
Even more important than Phillips' turntable tricksterism, adds Radar (who's collaborated with Phillips since the days of bygone shop Swell Records), is his killer work ethic.
"He's definitely the hardest-working DJ in town and has stepped it up in the last few years," Radar says. "And it's been paying off big-time."
A self-taught selecta, Phillips has been diehard for DJ-ing ever since he first got behind a turntable in the late '90s. A gourmandizer of music who hung out at raves and underground parties in his teens, Phillips bought himself some Technics 1200s and spent countless hours working on his craft in his bedroom and picking up his skills while hanging out at gigs by such legendary locals as Z-Trip and Pete "SuperMix" Salaz.
"I started working for record stores, got into underground battling and scratching, and picked up the more technical aspects of DJ-ing and not so much the club style," he says. "My girlfriend got pregnant when I was 19 and I realized I needed money. So I went to college during the day and DJ'd at night and on weekends."
Phillips favors live remixing versus pre-taped mash-ups, choosing to blend his beats on the spot and "put my own stamp on things to set myself apart."
He worked every gig available, ranging from Scottsdale joints like Myst and Suede to such bygone Valley spots as Bash on Ash.
"There wasn't a gig that I ever turned down," he says. "If it came in, even pulling doubles on weekends, working at a place 'til 2 a.m. and then shutting down and carrying all that equipment to an underground after-party. Whatever it took."
And that includes working a few private swingers' affairs.
"I used to DJ at this [bygone] club, Thirty Three, which had these parties where disabled wealthy old coots in wheelchairs come with their trophy wives, who they weren't capable of satisfying in the bed. And the younger guys would swarm up on these wives, and they would be doing stuff right there on the dance floor or in the bathrooms."
When he wasn't witnessing wife-swapping, Phillips says, he was busy losing plenty of sleep while slaving over music, where he'd "sometimes spend 20 hours working on things and then go and perform for four hours." Over the past five years, he's been a longtime resident at Pussycat Lounge and Dirty Pretty, amassing a serious following in the process.
"It's been nothing but tooth-and-nail fighting to get to where I'm at right now. I really paid my dues, working for pennies and carrying turntables and crates and crates of vinyl for nothing to feed my family. It took me a long time to get to the top residencies in town," he says. "But now, I'm at the point where music has changed and the crowd has changed. It used to be more about the music and not just bottle-service deals. I'm young enough to relate to the new crowd and the old, but I prefer the people that know music and not those people who look at the DJ as just as interchangeable as the bartender."
He says he'll always love Phoenix but feels California is where he ought to be.
"L.A. is a progressive scene where there are progressive music heads. Out here, the typical music lover will come into a club and hear me play the same shit they hear on the radio," he says. "And I'm trying to do something funky with it, and I want to get to a market where I can get outside that box."
Though Phillips hasn't landed any solid gigs in L.A. as of this writing (such SoCal DJ friends as Evil One, Adam 12, Graham Funke, and StoneRokk to make things happen), he's convinced he'll land on his feet and won't wind up as a failed P-town prodigy who couldn't make it happen.
"I've lived here my whole life, but I need to make this move," he says. "If I fail, then I can come back here and have this home to rest my hat at and do well regardless and be the guy that tried to do something with himself."