Rockin' the house but shying from the spotlight, DJ Element is the Valley's no-flash grandmaster
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: Phoenix New Times, Thursday, November 17, 2005
There's a party going on Thursday nights at the Shaker Room -- if you're savvy enough to find the dance floor. The club, practically hidden across a patio and up a flight of stairs behind Martini Ranch, is, to begin with, too far back from Stetson Drive to draw in the dancers off Scottsdale's party row. Worse yet, anyone itching to shake their booty to "My Humps" must first pass through a moat of pseudo-punks and goths jamming to the live band in the bigger room's weekly "Punk Rock Nation" showcase. It's like trying to run the Soul Train line through a mosh pit.
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."
Still, sometimes the high-powered Carter can be frustrated by Element's quiet reserve.
"If we can get him to come out of his shell," he says, laughing, "I think he'll really be dangerous. One of these days, we'll have to get him to do a little yellin' on the mic."
By the light of dusk on an autumn day, with Element whipping through a practice session on his twin Technic turntables, scratching discs and slapping the fader on his mixer with breakneck speed, the vision just outside the window of the spare bedroom in his modest manufactured home looks like a swaying throng of skinny, spiky-haired ravers. When he's really rockin' the decks, and the setting sun casts just the right reddish glow, the image can even take on the appearance of a sea of upheld lighters at a huge outdoor concert, begging for an encore.
In fact, what Element peers out on while running through his daily practices are the acres upon acres of tall cotton fields blanketing the Salt River Indian reservation, where the DJ -- named in part for his role as one of the basic elements in hip-hop and partly for the Pimas' deep connection to the land -- has lived his entire 26 years.
"Martha Stewart's Pima cotton sheets," Element says, grimacing, as he carefully places his records in their sleeves and gazes out over the rapt audience of puffy-topped stalks. "That's probably where most of this goes. The tractors run through every now and then, and you just see it in big bulks after they pick it, waiting to be hauled away."
It's a peculiarly rural backdrop for Element's brash, urban style of DJing, a crash-up mix of funk, jazz, hip-hop, dancehall, rock and whatever else he has in his crates that hits the listener like an electrified walk down a crowded city street, with a bracing surprise around every corner.
Asked if he ever feels oddly out of place, rockin' the cotton with those big city beats, Element shrugs and says he's never given it much thought. "I mean, I've seen DJs' houses where the windows look out on nothing but city," he says. "But this is all I've ever known."
Besides, he says, a DJ's inspiration comes not from what's outside his window but from what's inside his record racks -- which, in Element's case, is an encyclopedic collection of vintage vinyl. Overflowing from two floor-to-ceiling IKEA shelving units that crowd his practice room is what he calls the core of his collection: everything from King Curtis and Nina Simone to classical collections, odd rarities like The Warriors soundtrack (fashionable again, thanks to a new PS2 game based on the '70s gang flick), and even vintage Cheech and Chong. "I've got a couple of storage units filled with seven more cabinets just like these," he says.
Still, the quiet, earthy simplicity of the Pimas' land suits Element's disposition, as well as what seems to be his restrained ambition. While his friends Z-Trip and DJ Radar have each hit big this year with works already drawing attention to the Phoenix turntablist scene -- Z-Trip with his modern-rock radio climber Shifting Gears (the first DJ album ever awarded a coveted four stars in Rolling Stone), and Radar with his serious-minded Concerto for Turntable, which he took last month to Carnegie Hall -- Element may well be the only player in the crowded Phoenix DJ scene who's not consciously primping himself to be the next major-label discovery.
"I suppose I should get around to having more CDs pressed," he says when asked if he's planning to capitalize on the momentum generated by his peers. "I keep hearing all the stores around town are out of stock."
He doesn't have a manager, and only recently allowed himself to be talked into getting a Web site (djelement.net). His CDs, nonstop party mixes of deep-dug funk, hip-hop and jazz, have become favorites of serious hip-hop heads around the Valley. But even on his own Web site, two-thirds of his catalogue is unavailable. He nearly blew off an interview and photo session for this article so that he could hang out with some DJ pals after a weekend gig in Tucson and mess around with tracks.
"It just sounds strange when I tell people I've got to do a photo shoot or something," he says, sheepishly. "I've never been good at that part of the game."
Element says he never planned on becoming a star DJ. As the youngest of nine kids in a noisy house just a stone's throw away from where he now lives, he simply loved records -- everything from the traditional O'odham "chicken scratch" music his father preferred to the jazz and reggae his mom played to the Metallica, Poison, Prince and Michael Jackson his older brothers and sisters filled the house with.
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."
But the transition from a close-knit hipster scene to a more corporate club environment has been challenging. Earlier on this day, Element had to attend a meeting with club management to listen to such things as corporate philosophy and brainstorm ideas to bring in more patrons.
"In Scottsdale, they're always looking for themes," he says. "Every night has to have its own theme. I'd like it to just be about the music. You know: Every Thursday night you go to this club because it's guaranteed you're gonna hear good music. But it's still a new night. And it's a whole new game plan for me."
Already, some of Element's b-boy pals have been showing up to get the party rockin' -- Element is an honorary member of the Furious Styles Crew, the long-running Valley collective of break-dancers and poppers, who've adopted the break-juggling master as the go-to DJ for all their events. But Element is careful not to align himself too exclusively with that movement.
"I always get that label: 'He DJs for b-boys,'" he says. "And I'm like, 'Well, no. It's about the vibe, not how people choose to segregate the elements of hip-hop.' When I play, I play for the crowd. You don't have to be a b-boy to dance to my beats."
Even when the room's still filling up, Element tries to mix a little something for everybody, playing a bit of the sublime Paul Simpson and Miles Dalto remix of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" for the fortysomething couple in the front booth, then segueing into the Pharrell and Snoop Dogg workout "Beautiful" for the girls making out between the restrooms, finally indulging in a little freestyle scratching -- for himself.
He views the gig like making mix tapes for his mom, a psychological therapist with the reservation who's lately become admirable enough of her youngest boy's work to turn over her favorite jazz LPs and tell him to mix it up his way, a request Element takes as his greatest compliment.
"Here, they expect to hear the latest cuts that are on the radio," he says. "But this place also hired me because I have a bit of a name. They tell me, 'Just do you.' So I balance it. I take the stuff that's out today, and I mix it up with stuff that makes me happy -- which can be anything from '80s rock or '70s funk to some of the more toxic hip-hop, like Run-D.M.C.
"You want to put your own stamp on the music, but if you're taking on a weekly gig, it's also kind of your job to make sure people are having a good time," he adds. "You can't have too much ego when you're a DJ. You almost have to be a little humble."
From the naturally desert-landscaped front yard of Element's home, the stocky former high school basketball player can literally point to where most of his surviving relatives live.
"That's my uncle's place over there," he says, pointing to another manufactured home just east of his. "Got an aunt over there, some cousins over that way. It's like my whole family is all around, in this square."
Element says most of his brothers, sisters and other kin are cool with what he does for a living. "I've never had a regular job," he says. "On the day I graduated high school, I had booked two gigs."
But his dad, who passed away from cancer about five years ago, was the hardest to win over.
"He was old school, 9-to-5, you know?" he says, looking out over the cotton fields. "If it wasn't construction or another kind of labor job, he was always like, 'I can't see you doing this for a living.'
"But what finally turned him around," Element adds, "was when he started going through the treatment phases for his cancer, and he wasn't able to work anymore. He started worrying, 'Well, how are we paying bills?,' and I was able to tell him, 'I'm taking care of it.'"
By that time, Element says, he was playing regular club gigs in Tempe and Scottsdale, and found he was able to take on the family's expenses. "So that's when it finally kicked into his head that I was making a decent living at this. To him, it always just sounded like racket in another room. Like, 'Turn that down! Go to bed!' But he finally understood I had made this my business -- right before he passed away."
For Element, that realization came even later than it did for his dad. "Even then, I didn't look at it as my career," he says. "This was me having fun, and if I was making enough money to pay the bills, great. But I didn't look at it as, 'I've got to get all these gigs to pay the utilities and the mortgage and whatnot.' The work just started coming along at the right time, and never slowed down."
Today, Element exhibits the same laissez-faire attitude toward his future. Fame and fortune may be in the cards, or not. "A lot of people say, 'Why don't you move to L.A.?'" he says, reflecting on the move that took his friend Zach Sciacca from nearby Granite Reef Road in Scottsdale, where the two used to trade records and turntable tricks, to big-time success in Hollywood as Z-Trip.
"But now, I get to go out and do big shows overseas and still come back here, where I've lived my whole life. It's cool."
Element is more jazzed about the future of DJing, which he sees as a limitless frontier. "There's a kid I met in Japan called DJ Kentaro, who won the DMC [Disco Music Championship] title in 2002, which is like the Super Bowl for DJs. And I watched him play with a traditional Japanese guitar player, scratching and beat-juggling with an instrument I had never heard in hip-hop. It was incredible."
Element cites crews like X-ecutioners, who've mashed-up with rockers Linkin Park, and DJ Qbert, who's taken scratching to an art form, as further inspiration.
"I see a lot of musicians working live with DJs right on the spot, cutting up with drummers and percussionists, and it just seems endless, the music to be made."
It's a music that doesn't need to sprout from L.A. or New York or anywhere other than the cotton fields bordering Element's backyard -- providing there's electricity, a couple of turntables and a crate of records nearby.
"As long as I can always find a few mom-and-pop record stores wherever I'm at," he adds, smiling, "I'm happy."