But by 10:45 on a recent Thursday, DJ Element has found "the vibe," as he calls it, and the crowd appears to be pollinating itself, growing a little bigger each time he smoothly changes a disc. Pulling the people onto the dance floor with the sure-fire hit du jour, Kanye West's "Gold Digger," Element slaps a duplicate copy on the first turntable and begins scratching frantically after about the eighth repetition of Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles impersonation, as if physically trying to pull something out of the vinyl that hasn't already been played.
Sure enough, with another quick flip of the discs, he's morphed the same groove onto an obscure funk workout that only the pair of b-boys lurking in front of the DJ booth seem to recognize, and soon they're popping and locking out onto the floor with abandon. No matter; the groove is already hitting that universal chord, nudging a frat boy at the bar to suddenly bust into some old *NSYNC moves in mid-conversation with his pals, getting the girls in the back booth blowing up their cell phones to click off and start sliding out onto the floor, and getting everybody in the place -- even the stone-faced scrubs watching the basketball game on the south end of the bar -- to start bobbing their heads.
Element watches over the groove like an attentive heart surgeon, vigorously massaging the records whenever the dancers look like they're even thinking of returning to their seats. There's CD gear and electronic effects boxes behind the glass in the DJ booth, but Element, his hefty frame casually dressed in oversize tee shirt and jeans, stays away from the digital gizmos.
Instead, the full-blooded Pima Native, born Logan Howard, grabs and shakes the vinyl discs on the turntables until the beats line up perfectly in his headphones -- then throws a rapid-fire scratch on the next record before releasing it, precisely on time. And it don't stop.
Just as on the three independently released CDs he's put out -- The Origin, Digger's Delight and the recent Freestyle Session mix CD -- Element, who's also toured internationally, keeps the beat flowing while tossing in odd funk, jazz and hip-hop samples and dazzling the listener with his animated scratching style. On The Origin, pal DJ Z-Trip goads Element to pull some words out of a scratch, and Element actually manages to make the vibrated vinyl sing.
"El's basically sick," says Valley hip-hop promoter Ty Carter, bestowing the ultimate compliment on the man he's come to rely on as a can't-miss opener for concert acts like Dilated Peoples and other hip-hop legends. "He represents the Babu and the Beat Junkie type guys. He just brings a lot of skills to the table. But man, is he a humble dude, you know?"
For sure, even though Element's the man with his finger on the pulse of the party, he shies away from interacting a lot with the crowd. When he's not smiling -- as is usually the case when he's digging through his records or seriously working the turntables -- the big, stern-faced Indian can be an intimidating presence. He's not flashy; he doesn't dance and spin behind the booth, and the happily married mixmaster doesn't go out of his way to entice the ladies. Typically, the only people hanging out at his booth are fellow DJ friends and the type of nerdy backpack hip-hop heads who can watch a turntablist as if studying a hot lead guitarist.
"He's definitely the polar opposite of a lot of DJs, who go for that whole New York style of in-your-face aggressiveness," Carter says. "Element's a lot more laid-back. Plus, he's really getting down, cuttin' and all that kind of stuff."
He's got the skills, though, which has earned this quiet giant his rep as a kind of DJ's DJ. Carter, who also manages Pokafase, the Phoenix rapper long considered most likely to make it big -- eventually -- recruited Element as Poke's official DJ because he believes he's simply the best around. "There's a lot of DJs in town, but few of 'em are in his bracket, as far as ability and experience," Carter says. "He knows how to rock a crowd."