By his senior year at Westwood High in Mesa, Element was deep into hip-hop and experimenting with scratching and beat juggling, mixing up the latest beats with the odd records scattered around his parents' house and borrowing his mom's Aerostar van to haul his stereo and discs to parties.
At 17, a friend egged him into going onstage at an all-ages DJ battle at the old Boston's in Tempe, and he immediately won over some influential promoters.
"Within a month, they had got me into tons of gigs, one after another," he recalls. "By the time I was 19, I was playing clubs in Scottsdale four or five nights a week. And making pretty good money. I didn't plan for it, but everything just kind of snowballed."
Overseas gigs followed: Japan, Germany, the U.K., Denmark, Australia. "In Japan, DJs are like rock stars," he says. "We pack out the Tokyo Dome, which holds 40,000 people. I barely got off the plane, and I was meeting all these people who already had my CDs. I was like, 'Man, I never imagined my music would make it to a place like this.'"
While touring seven cities in Japan with the Freestyle Session b-boy battle team, Element got to see just how deep the DJ culture cut with the youth. "I was riding on the subway there, and these little schoolgirls in their matching uniforms all sat down and started whipping 45s out of their backpacks, playing them on portable turntables," he says. "If they knew I was an American DJ, I would have been mobbed!"
Element remains a reluctant celebrity, preferring to focus on his craft and digging through dusty record bins rather than spend his time on the areas that might bring greater acclaim.
Married for five years to a bright young woman of Thai descent named Tina, who's more into kick-boxing and their three cats and one wolfhound than the club DJ scene, Element admits he's had domestic spats over what sometimes appears to be his misplaced priorities.
"I remember making really good money on some gigs, and spending it all on records the next day," he says. "I would go without food, man, just to have records. I'll eat Cup o' Noodles for a month so I can have $500 worth of new records."
Nevertheless, music remains his obsession. After browsing the racks at Swell Records on Mill Avenue -- he also likes to visit Memory Lane and Stinkweeds when he hits Tempe -- Element stops for a chat at the nearby Coffee Plantation and can't help pausing to soak in the mellow world music wafting through the shop.
"Everything I hear, I'm mixing in my head," he explains. "I'll be listening to something, and all of a sudden the beat drops away, and all I'm hearing is a metronome in my head, and I can already tell the beats per minute. And then I start thinking of all the other songs that sound similar, that I can mix with it.
"It's really freeing to know you don't just have to pop in a CD and go to track seven," he says. "You can actually mix it up with whatever else you like, until you feel, 'That's me!'"
It's a Thursday night early into his residence at the Martini Ranch & Shaker Room -- less than two months after starting at the club, and only a week after the room reopened, following renovation. And DJ Element sits alone at the bar, nursing a bottle of trendy Voss water and doing a little text messaging on his Sidekick, waiting for more people to fill the half-empty room.
Up until this past August, Element was one of three resident DJs at the packed Blunt Club nights at Hollywood Alley, a weekly event he helped grow over the past two and a half years from a spoken-word poetry jam originally held at the Priceless Inn in Tempe to the all-out celebration of hip-hop's four elements it's become, pooling together MCs, DJs, graffiti artists and break-dancers into "a party-rockin' night of the roots, the real hip-hop," Element says.
He parted amicably with Blunt Club originator Dumperfoo and the rest of the regulars over the summer, when Element was offered his own well-paying night at Martini Ranch -- on the very same night the Blunt Club continues to operate.
"I told everyone I was leaving, and they were real cool," he says. "They gave me a big farewell party at the Blunt Club, and then I started this night."