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A grinding bass line boomed as the lights came up on the baby-faced DJ, his white polo shirt collar popped and his black cap tipped sideways. He thumped his chest, and then, almost invisibly, his hands flew over the turntables, leaving a spray of scratches in their wake. Shouted hip-hop samples gave way to hard rock guitar and then to a moment of electro breakbeats and a Fat Joe snippet.
More retro guitar and more snare drums passed from turntable to turntable. More records were thrown aside. By the opening strains of Miami Sound Machine's "Conga," the audience whooped. Finally came a hip-hop version of Darth Vader's theme song. The DJ gave a shrug, left the record to play, and charged the crowd with plastic light sabers and a put-on scowl. By the end of the set, the audience was chanting his name.
The performance was impressive enough to net Isaac DeLima, a.k.a. DJ I-Dee, one of the most coveted titles on the battle DJ circuit: the Disco Mix Club (DMC) USA Supremacy championship. As the winners were announced, DeLima donned the signature champion's jacket — and was promptly accosted by a security guard and escorted out of the venue.
It was 2005, and San Francisco's DNA Lounge was strictly a 21-and-over venue. I-Dee was barely 18 years old.
"I was even staying with one of the DJs who was doing a showcase there that night," says I-Dee, shaking his head good-naturedly as he lounges on an off-white sofa in his pad on a tree-lined residential strip of South Beach. "He was stuck in there for a good three or four hours after the event. So what's funny is, I ended up staying in a hotel with the guy who got second."
Just months beforehand, I-Dee had graduated high school in Fairfax, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. Just weeks after winning the crown in San Francisco, he placed third in the DMC Battle for World Supremacy in London. In 2006 he took the rest of the big national titles, winning both the Gong Supremacy and Scribble Jam competitions. Meanwhile, in late 2005, he decamped to South Beach — weirdly, to get away from distractions.
But I-Dee, now 20 years old, is funny like that. He's a mix of impressive maturity and winsome playfulness. Tall and broad-shouldered, he speaks with a deep, chesty timbre, but then suddenly cracks a grin and speaks in a goofy voice. He keeps his apartment almost spartanly tidy; the floor tiles are spotless and possessions are carefully lined against the walls. The main item on display is a TV set hooked up to an original Nintendo videogame system. He favors campy comic book T-shirts, and at one point answers questions while chewing thoughtfully on a Fruit Roll-Ups snack.
But above all else, I-Dee possesses an enviable work ethic. He is represented by Premiere Artists Group, the ultimate booking agency for the most creative post-battle DJs (on the roster: Jazzy Jeff, Q-bert, Kool DJ Red Alert, and Swamp, among others). He travels to out-of-town "party-rocking" gigs for a few days every couple of weeks and uses his place on the Beach for respite. His days in the subtropics, he says, are spent working out, maybe grocery shopping on foot, cooking, and working on his music at a bank of turntables and equipment adjacent to the kitchen. It's the setting for many of the videos of his latest scratching and beat-juggling routines, which he uploads to his frequently updated MySpace and YouTube accounts (www.myspace.com/djidee and www.youtube.com/user/djidee).
Born to a Guatemalan mother and Puerto Rican father, I-Dee clearly remembers when his hip-hop-enthusiast brother, David, older by 10 years, brought home decks. With them were a couple of battle videos.
"It was the 1994 DMC U.S. finals," he says, nodding as if picturing the video. "It was actually a bootleg. I watched that one, and then I watched another one with [Miami native] DJ Craze. And it just blew my mind. I'd have trouble falling asleep because I'd have routines playing in my head. I just couldn't get rid of it."
David didn't want I-Dee messing around with his expensive equipment. So the younger sibling simply waited until his brother went out, and did it anyway.
"My parents didn't know either. I was very discreet, very quiet," he says. "I never turned on the speakers. I just plugged it in through the headphones. Then I would make sure I'd use a record that he wouldn't be using."
At age 12, I-Dee decided to spring for his own equipment. He picked up odd household chores and carefully squirreled away the cash. Eventually he had enough money for one turntable — the standard Technics 1200 — and just a basic mixer and one battle record. But that was sufficient for practicing, working backward by decoding the moves he saw on videos. His parents still didn't know.
In 2001, at age 14, he attended a regional DMC contest in Washington, D.C. "Once I went to my first live competition, I realized I wanted to do this," he says. "Right after that battle, I ended up getting my second turntable."
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.