DJ Dossier

Mantis Claw Talks Morse Code, Turntablism, Soul Music, Bob Marley, Kaz Bar, and More

If you've never checked out Mantis Claw do his twice-weekly gigs at Kazimierz World Wine Bar, there's only one opportunity left.

Tomorrow night will be the last hurrah for the DJ and local music scene veteran, as he's about to relocate to the great northwest (more specifically: Eugene, Oregon).

We checked in with Mantis Claw before his last ever gig at Kazimierz to discuss his two decades of involvement in the Phoenix scene, as well as his opinions on turntablism and music.

Name: James Conant

AKA: Mantis Claw

Regular gig: It's mainly been Kazimierz World Wine Bar every Wednesday night for over two years. Then for the past six months it's been every Saturday night as well.

Genres spun: It's a variety of genres. I go from dub reggae, roots reggae, into dubstep. And from there into soul, like old northern soul, and then into a variety of classic breaks or into some kind of hip-hop or Latin or very select indie rock.

How do you weave it all together? Basically within all these genres that I'm mentioning, they all have a common thread of soulfulness and being beat-driven or having some kind of backbeat. And if there isn't, then that's where I come in and I add backbeats to a lot of the music that I play at Kazimierz. 

Dj Mantis Claw- Blooming Boom! by MantisClaw

What's it like spinning at Kaz? It's a wine bar so there's some expectation that I'm going to play some jazz or something that isn't going to have some heavy drums to it so that's where I come in and add the heavy drums with either doing it traditionally the way a DJ used to do it with mixing in a record that has just drums, or whatever it was that had drums and mixing those two together and making a new creation on the fly with the mashup. Whereas a lot of times now people just play mashups, they play recordings of mashups as opposed to mashing it up themselves and it kind of loses that live...that dangerousness, that excitement.

What do you dig about the music that you play? It's like Bob Marley said, "When the music hits you show no pain." But it hits you, it has an effect on you. It's like what anyone else has said, music is a drug, music is a medicine, it's vibrations, it's sounds, it's concepts, it's all of this can present to you in a way you're experiencing through you senses. So there's a lot going on with it, and more that what people realize. So, that's the important thing to take into account being a DJ and what you're doing up there...this music that you're playing, what are you trying to go for. Do you realize that you are actually telling people a story? Maybe, maybe not, maybe you're just playing the latest song that came out and that's okay too.

What else do you enjoy? There's freedom within it all for that but is that all you think about. There are a lot of other things to be thought about in this whole craft of DJing. People think its people up there playing music but really you're a selector, you're the one who is really creating the vibe of the place. You're in control of how this place is going to feel and that's why there are ones that are good at it and ones that are not so good at it. Maybe they're good in other areas as far as promotion and graphic design but as far as creating vibes by playing records and how you play them and the music that gets created by you playing them by mixing two records together.

What do you mean? A lot of times, DJs, they can beatmatch fine, they can four bars, eight bars, 16 bars but that's it. A lot of times they use their effects just to transition out of songs so as far as the skill and craft of beatmatching and being able to match up songs like take one song that has heavy drums going on in it and take another song that doesn't but it's got a lot of cool other stuff going on, it's got flutes and whatever kind of arrangements going on and you want them to blend together don't have a sampler, you can't sit down and make a beat or whatever. This is how they did it back in the day: you had two Technics 1200 turntables and you rinsed them out and matched them and so that continued on since I first started to do this 18 years ago and just continued on to a point of being able to take one record and keep it synced up with another record through all the changes and variability of whoever' playing.

What are some skills that every good DJ needs? You have to have a real good ear to be very responsive and just practice a lot. That's just one thing, one aspect of this DJ turn-tablism that a lot of people shy away from it because there's a lot of room for messing up. Coming into DJing, from my own experience, the mix, that's the most tensest part for you because you don't want to mess it up, the segue way, the transition, so, how you pull that off makes or breaks you as a DJ. A lot of times, DJs they just play it safe. They're like, "Let me get this done as cleanly and as safely as possible so I don't look like I don't know what I'm doing." That's fine and dandy but in the scheme of pushing the art form it's boring. It's uninspiring. And that's the way things have been for a long time because dudes get away with it and that's okay, it's what they get away with. Maybe people raise their standards and not let people get away with stuff like that. That speaks to larger things within people and why all that happens. But I give thanks and praises because I've been blessed to have a venue that lets me do what I feel to do as an artist, as a selector, as a turntablist. I get full freedom because I have respect for what I'm doing, who I'm playing for. I look out and see if I have a large of elderly people I take them into consideration. But other than that I'm playing soulful, beat driving, on the fly remixes.

Can you describe some of your turntablism tricks? I incorporate a loop station. It's a foot peddle that my turntable is a mixer it goes through that and it goes out through the sound system. So I'm able to sample on the fly through my loop station and that combined also with being able to loop within Serato I have two layers of looping that I can do. Just a real quick about my history as far as within turntablism out here...I just realized there are some things I haven't told you that tie into what I do as a DJ, as a turntablist.

What's your musical background? For five years I had a turntablism band called Morse Code. New Times covered us a few times and so within that it was all instrumentation by turntables but not just playing the record and having a bunch of turntables mixing the records. We were all manipulating at the same time.

What are your feelings about hip-hop? Hip-hop introduces people to amazing music they had no idea about had it not been for those hip-hop producers digging in the crates pulling stuff out. I mean like this is amazing, I need to recreate something with this and so people get inspired when they have their favorite hip-hop song, if they're really into the music they go and find where does this come from and they find that record and they find out about an artist they have no idea about. And that's how it is for a lot of people into the music.

So Saturday is your last night at Kaz? Yeah, it's going to be with DJ Smite. I'm passing it off to him, he's going to be taking over on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It's a great place as far as being able to do what we do with a DJing style of music that not what other people would think is like what needed to be getting played, like Top 40 anything that people think is going to sell more alcohol.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.