Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Nothin' but a Party

The bartender with the dagger tattoo is the first person I encounter in the room. I ask for a beer. It doesn’t matter what kind, I say, as long as it’s dark. 

“Anything for you, SugarBear,” she replies, winking at me while pouring a bottle of stout micro-brew into a mug. As I stand with my elbow on the bar, taking in the scene before me, not many would guess that I’m actually on the job. My first task involves exactly this: just standing back, out of the way, taking everything in. I notice how the room is lit with candles and dimmed down lighting, and how all the dinner tables are filled with people sitting at them. The bar is thoroughly occupied, and in the foyer, a dozen people are waiting to get in. Overall, the climate and ambience of the room is warm and cozy, especially considering how cold the night is beyond the glass walls. Tonight's crowd is diverse. You’ve got gray haired elders, young children and their parents, farmers, back woods hipsters, carvers of wood and rock, skiers, carpenters, ravers, artists, and crusty skids who moved way out here to the mountains from the cities, fleeing before the inevitable collapse. It’s a gathering of valley folk, congregating in the only public space they have. 

My job is big. I must find a way to gain the trust of this room of radical, rural, fiercely independent mountain people. Then, once they’re comfortable with me, I’ll have to get them comfortable enough with each other to express themselves through their bodies. It wont happen immediately. There’s a process to it with various stages, each of which takes time. 

Music is the primary tool I'll use. And while it’s true that music is the universal language with qualities that can transport the listener into other realities, to achieve my goal the music has to be used wisely. I’m The Sugarbear DJ. It is my duty to know these things.  

Tonight I’m booked for four hours. Some call that a “long set,” but for me it’s standard. I’ll gladly play for eight hours, but nothing less than three–the minimum requirement for the particular experience I co-create with the people I’ll be spending the night with.  

Many are still eating dinner when the turntables start spinning. They’re sipping wine. Laughing. Flirting. Talking to their friends. Their focus is upon what is immediately before them, and so the music I choose in the beginning has to support this. The first song is like a beckoning to the energies imbued within the grooves of my records to assist me in the sonic spell we'll cast. What exactly I’ll play is determined in the moment by the broadcast I’m receiving around me–not just the people in the room, but the greater ambient reality. Tonight, it begins with Maria Helena’s, Improviso. I slide my volume fader up so that the notes are elevated, but it’s not so loud that the song overpowers the space.  

After fifteen minutes or so people begin to notice there’s a change in the aural atmosphere of the room. The random chaos of the playlist on shuffle has been replaced with something more purposeful and human selected. It’s starting to happen. I’m meeting eyes with some of them. Connections are being made. Now we’ll go further, a little more volume and a lot more soul. Since I have their attention, I want to send out a message–most eloquently communicated by Issac Hayes, singing Do Your Thing. Heads are bobbing. Fingers tapping. Everybody is still in their seats, but it’s getting groovy with Ben E. King, Bill Withers. Lynn Collins, Darondo, Sharon Jones, and Fingerman playing. 

More people arrive. They’re way in the back, standing around the bar, taking in the scene like I was an hour ago. I know them. These are the dedicated party people who came specifically for the purpose of getting down. My party crew is a rag tag bunch of urban back to the landers, disco punk hip-hop herbalist hunter/gatherers, film makers, visual artists, social workers, queers, LGBT’s, baby catching mid-wives, blowers of glass, as well as those who simply refuse to be limited to any kind of classification. 

There’s a few people who’ve ventured onto the floor by now–a couple in their late 60s–first wave hippies who ran here to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War era. They’re pulling taffy and spinning around to Stevie Wonder’s, Superstitious, like they did in the old days. With them on the floor, and all the people standing close by, it's clear the pressure in the room is building. I’ve gained enough of their trust to move into the next phase of the party, but before I do, I can’t help but lay down the fantastic track Wait, by The Kills. Not only do I love the song, but it also speaks to the tension in the room because I know people are ready to groove. I let it play all the way through, not mixing anything in at all, then let the silence between songs fill up the space for about four seconds.

In comes the opening bass line of Guns of Brixton. There’s nothing like it on a big sound system. I first heard this Clash song as a ten year old boy, thirty four years before, and find it is as good now as it was then–and perhaps even more relevant. People who thought they hated punk rock move closer to the speakers. Their shoulders rock, responding as though the band was calling from London at that very moment to smoothly sing them a funky revolutionary anthem. 

The stage is set. My heart is beating faster. I’m excited. There’s no going back. I call on Edwin Starr and so he screams up from the grave; his voice from so long ago attached to contemporary, acid inspired beats in space. The people are on the floor now. I hear a woman growl, “YE-AH!” They’re grooving around and smiling, their faces telling me it feels great to be caught up in Edwin’s whirlpool of love. 

It’s on!  

We go to Yo Majesty’s lezzy ghetto funk, then Another One Bites the Dust for all the people shot this year by brutal cops. Emperor Machine has a magic, mid-tempo track which, I know when it bumps out of the speakers, will fill the floor to capacity. When I put it on the dancefloor gets packed. Barely any room left. I invite a half dozen dancers behind the decks. Some are friends, others I’ve never met. Yes, there’s the threat of the turntables getting nudged and the records skipping, but I like having people all around. It increases the intensity and pressure, and envelopes me in the energy of the boogie. It also breaks down the barrier between “audience” and “performer,” something I learned from hardcore in the early 80s. 

With Wicked Lester, Fort Knox Five, The Crystal Ark, Isis Sallam, and Psychemagik’s music of pure funky ass wonder, we’re totally in it. Hands in the air. People whoop and holler. The room is filled with the good feeling of liberating the moment and riding high on a wave of collective joy and fun–not in an abstract or intellectual sense, but in a pure, animal, in the body kind of way. 

At the peak of it all, I drop Selector Retrodisco’s High Voltage edit, and it’s like we’ve just entered a zone of total autonomy–a place where the chains of constraint are broken. With all the grinding and shaking that’s going on, it feels like the burden of living in modern civilization is gone and something brand new is possible. For a moment the dominant reality that hammers our lives into nothing more than consumerist mundanity is replaced by an instinctual, ancestral knowing that life never has to be any less than fantastic. And then, just as we’re tearing the roof off, the house lights flash on and off.

Really–four hours passed that fast? People sigh and boo like a squadron of fun police with billy clubs have just entered the room. Without a microphone I shout to the crowd: “Don't worry people! The night’s not over. There's an after party, and it's within walking distance!” 

They holler back in excitement, and together we move on.