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The DMC began annual contests in the early Eighties as a mixing competition for DJs. In 1986 DJ Cheese introduced scratching into his routine, and the world shifted. By the time I-Dee became involved, the competition had evolved to its present form. Each DJ gets six minutes to impress a panel of judges, who score on aspects like accuracy, technicality, and crowd control. Within those six minutes, most competitors show off their stuff in a series of 90-second mini routines.
"If it goes any longer, the attention span of the average listener drops off," I-Dee explains. "The main thing is kind of the same thing as writing a paper. You want to have an introduction, the main chunk, the climax, and the end."
A year after attending his first battle as a spectator, I-Dee entered the D.C. regional DMC and placed in the top ten. Two years and multiple smaller competitions later, he won, qualifying for the national championship, where he emerged victorious. "I wasn't even trying to win that year. It was more than I expected," he says. "I couldn't believe it. Like, I'm on a DVD now!"
Not bad. In the United States alone there are about 13 regional heats leading to the national championships. I-Dee joined the ranks of U.S. winners who would become near-household names — Mixmaster Mike, Q-bert, and Craze, to name a few.
Where other competitors went for a backdrop of radio hip-hop standards to show off their skills, I-Dee, true to personality, took an offbeat route, often deconstructing Eighties pop, New Wave, and rock. Song bridges got juggled and juxtaposed, guitar passages reworked into something stuttering and funky.
Stage presence is also judged, and here, too, I-Dee's charisma shone. Neither nervous nor serious, he approaches routines with a kind of youthful obliviousness. His ever-present baseball cap bobs in time with the beat; he moves his arms in a stylized, syncopated bounce; and a self-assured half-smile plays across his face.
But for all of his success on the battle scene, by age 19, I-Dee had declared himself done with it. "I felt like I kind of peaked. I didn't want to make routines just to make them. Each year I'd want to top the previous year," he says. "I left a good name behind, and I'm still going to make routines, but as far as the competition realm, I'm pretty much done. Creativity-wise, I felt like I should do different things."
So what's a 20-year-old battle DJ retiree to do? For inspiration I-Dee looks to DJ Shadow, who moved from the turntables into production work, composing original full-length albums, film scores, and a full live audiovisual show that sells out clubs worldwide.
To this end, I-Dee recently collaborated with Washington, D.C.-based industrial rock act Rites of Ash to create "Eclectic Dreams." It's a complete reworking of a distorted, minor-key, goth-inflected track, flipped and turned into a moody, hiccupping down-tempo odyssey. The accompanying video is set, again, in his South Beach apartment, where a sleeping I-Dee dreams of himself performing the routine. At one point, bats fly from the turntables in time with the scratches; at another, flames shoot up from the ground on either side.
"I'm trying to establish myself in a different category now," I-Dee says, "rather than playing music, making music, but still with the turntables. And I have a synthesizer, and I'm getting a DVD turntable for the visuals. I hope by next year to get myself to the level where I can play places where bands come through."
But first he must rock the Far East. In less than two weeks, I-Dee will leave for a month-long residency in Shanghai, playing one-off gigs in places like Taiwan and Singapore. It'll be his first trip to Asia.
"The culture's still in its early stages there, so they're investing a lot of money bringing over these DJs," he says. "They're still in a mostly Communist environment and they don't really have radio, and their Internet is mostly blocked, so a club is the only place to hear music.
"Still, it's going to be a little weird out there," he continues. "In the States I can pretty much play whatever I want, a mix of rock and hip-hop. But all the DJs who have gone to China, and my booking agent, are telling me that you can only play Top 40 superpop stuff, like Fergie and Beyoncé. It's really more about keeping the consistency of the mix. But I'm not complaining."
Unsurprising words from someone who has never been bothered by a challenge.