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."

Luckily for Craze, once he reached age eighteen and graduated from West Dade's Braddock Senior High School, his mother gave him two years to get his act together. "I'd wake up, practice all day, go out all night," he explains. "I started making a little money and my mom was cool with that, so I didn't have to get a job." In the years that ensued he began racking up wins in competitions such as the Zulu Nationals, the East Coast Rap Sheet, and the East Coast Technics DMC Champion. Since 1996 he has held the title of Winter Music Conference Scratch-Off Champion. But as he approached his mother's two-year deadline, the major honors still eluded him. "I was pretty stressed," he says jokingly. "I thought, Oh shit, I better blow up soon!"

He did. In March 1998 URB magazine, the bible of hip-hop culture, featured Craze in its "Next 100," a list of who and what to watch out for in the coming year. Five months later the young DJ embarked on the road to hip-hop history. At the Technics DMC US Championships held at New York City's Irving Plaza, he was widely praised for the highly musical six-minute routine he delivered. Hunched over his turntables, he spun close to ten records, metamorphosing their sounds while performing spectacular stunts such as scratching with both hands at once and lifting his leg up and sticking his arm underneath to spin. The flawless set ensured his victory over ten other competitors, including a supremely confident DJ Shortkut from the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the Beat Junkies.

This victory allowed him to advance to the Technics DMC World Championships, held in October at the Palais des Sports in Paris. There, in front of an audience of more than 5000, he won again, taking home two gold Technics SLK 1200 turntables, a matching gold mixer, a gold cartridge with a diamond needle, and a $2000 microphone as prizes. This time he vied against DJs from more than 30 countries, including 1997's champ, sixteen-year-old A-Trak from Canada. Proving the adage that if you can't beat them, join them, A-Trak recently became a part of Craze's crew. "I'm scared of him," Craze says. "He's really young, and he's really good."

It's fortunate that Craze has youth on his side as well. In the past few months his exhausting schedule has taken him to Amsterdam to compete in the ITF World Scratching Championship (he took the title), and he's been on the road nonstop, performing shows in England, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. "It's more mentally exhausting than physically," he notes. "You have to memorize all these routines. And where to drop the needle, how to drop the needle, where to throw the song in, what speed to have it in."

During his days off Craze still has the energy to perform in his hometown and collaborate in the studio. In Miami he's opened shows for the Fugees, Biggie Smalls, Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, Afrika Bambaataa, and others. He was featured on DJ Faust's album Man or Myth? and with Faust and DJ Shortee on the EP Fathomless, both released on the San Francisco-based Bomb Hip-Hop Records. He and his friend Edgar Farinas, a.k.a. Pushbutton Object, have teamed up as Ko-Wreck Technique and are working on a three-song EP for Miami-based experimental label Chocolate Industries. Future projects include an EP with Ani from Deee-Lite, and a solo album for Bomb Hip-Hop.

Somehow after winning numerous competitions, traversing the world, and garnering acclaim, Craze has remained unaffected and grounded enough to perform for a few hours in a local club. "His attitude is special," says fellow music scenester Seven, cofounder of Chocolate Industries. "He approaches many types of music with an open mind, and he breaks barriers with the way he cuts them up. He's very experimental and extremely humble about it."

Whether working in the studio or spinning in a nightclub full of distracted patrons, Craze continues the tradition of elevating turntablism into an art. "There's so many things you can do with a turntable," he notes. "I try to combine all the technical stuff and have as much showmanship as I can. I try not to let the crowds get bored."

To those who consider turntabling a derivative art, Craze offers an impassioned defense: "We take other people's sounds and turn them into different sounds. We take a record and flip it completely differently just with our hands. It's not like we're pushing a button. It's completely human. It's about music, it's about soul, and it's about having fun.

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