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The Beat Surrender

It's 2:00 a.m. at Zanzibar. The club's few attempts at exotic decor: a totem-pole-like wooden sculpture with carved faces, a couple of bar stools covered in zebra-striped upholstery, and two banners suspended from the ceiling, one depicting a caricature of a black man, the other a black woman. Just out the back door, a patio featuring a minibar, a few tall tables, and an umbrella-covered VIP area beckons. But the action tonight is definitely indoors.

Here the weekly party known as "The Gate" is in full force. Stools vibrate to the hip-hop blaring from several speakers. Multicolored spotlights flash and swirl. A machine called the F-100 periodically spews clouds of fog. At least a half-dozen young men, wearing baseball caps turned every which way, stand with their backs against the bar. They hold beers and move in place to the beat, bobbing up and down, swaying from side to side. They stare longingly at the voluptuous, young, dark-haired woman in front of them. Raised about three feet high on a wooden box, she wears a skimpy black spandex dress, wields a green lightstick, and gyrates.

The crowd is visually captivated by the go-go girl. But the person who demands their aural attention is the diminutive, boyish-looking man in the DJ booth. He's wearing baggy blue jeans, a voluminous blue-and-white checkered shirt, and a black baseball cap. He has smooth olive skin and a close-cropped moustache. And he is doing more than just playing records. With astonishing speed, his hands move from one LP to another, then to a mixer, a small electronic gadget that allows him to segue from one album to the next. Under his stewardship the turntables are transformed from stereo equipment into musical instruments. The records emit sounds that at once can be soothingly melodious or gratingly dissonant.

His family knows him as Aristh Delgado. The hip-hop world knows him as DJ Craze. At 21 years old, the Nicaragua-born, Miami-raised Craze has recently become a sort of DJ heavyweight champion of the world. He holds two major solo titles: the Technics DMC International DJ Champion and the ITF World Champion in the category of scratching, the first DJ ever to clinch both awards at once. The DMC, a DJ organization with branches all over the world, publishes Update, a weekly dance-music publication, and produces a compilation series of CDs called MixMag Live.

The group has been sponsoring championship contests for DJs since 1986. The ITF (International Turntable Federation) also hosts prestigious championships but breaks them down into separate categories such as advancement (innovating new techniques) and team (competitions between groups of two or more DJs).

The club crowds generally regard DJs as the people who keep them moving to music for hours on end, but Craze is not just a DJ. He calls himself a turntablist. Although turntablists can refer to themselves as DJ This or DJ That, dress like their counterparts (wide pants, loose T-shirts, baseball caps), and often employ the popular Technics SLK 1200 turntable in their work, the similarities end there.

The job of the turntablist, Craze stresses, is to coax new sounds from old ones by scratching, beat juggling, or cutting. Cutting entails picking out a portion of a song (such as a particularly memorable riff, or a portion of that riff) and playing it again and again, thereby "cutting" the song up. Scratching generates sound by scraping a needle back and forth across whirling records (think Beck's hit song "Loser"), while beat juggling involves bouncing beats from two records against each other, resulting in an entirely fresh rhythm. In short the best turntablists deconstruct sounds and reconstruct them. They develop their own routines by weaving portions of lyrics, melodies, and beats from a variety of records with sound effects and a good dash of showmanship (such as spinning their bodies while spinning records).

Turntablists often are members of crews (some of the best known are the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, the Beat Junkies, and the X-ecutioners), who engage in sonic battles, like gangs. Craze, who considers himself a member of two crews -- the Tek Masters and the Turntable Krash Dummiez, collectively known as the Allies -- began his career modeling himself after his older brother, Gerald, who was a DJ.

At age fifteen Craze acquired his own set of turntables, bought by his parents with funds that were left over from their post-Hurricane Andrew insurance settlement. According to Craze, he began "practicing like crazy." His parents thought it odd that their son enjoyed spending hours on end locked in his bedroom, wearing headphones, spinning his collection of hip-hop and Miami bass records. "They thought I was lonely," he recounts. "They said: 'Why don't you have some friends? Why don't you go out like everyone else?' I told them I don't need friends. My records are my friends. I didn't feel like going out."

A few months later he did leave his room. He showed up at a Coconut Grove club called the Zoo and took part in his first DJ battle. The teenager defeated the veteran (DJ Fingerprint) he was matched against. That feat, coupled with the experience of watching numerous videos of New Music Seminar and DMC competitions at a local record store, convinced Craze that turntablism was the area of hip-hop best suited for him. "At first I was only into scratching because that's what I heard on the radio," he recalls. "Then I realized there was a whole other element of DJing I had to learn, the tricks and performance. I just wanted to do all that crazy shit. I wanted to be good, so I could start joining those competitions."

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