Homeboy Meets World
At last month's Technics DMC World Finals DJ competition held at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom, the atmosphere was more charged than in past years. It was the first time the world finals had been held in the United States. Maybe the electricity could be attributed to the presence of all the New York b-boys in the house, making their deep territorial claim to hip-hop as the genre that originated in that city two decades ago. Or it could have been the fact that, since everything from Baby Gap ads to McDonald's commercials co-opts DJ culture these days, this year's home-turf visibility gave turntablism's finest an excited but protective feeling of pride. Perhaps a little too much hometown pride: While overzealously embracing the DMC finals' New York homecoming, the New York Times incorrectly identified defending champion DJ Craze as a Brooklynite. But the still-from-Miami Craze, South Florida's most accomplished turntablist, hardly had time to notice.
"Oh, man, oh, man, I was really stressed out," says the Nicaraguan-born Craze, recalling the days leading up to the DMC event. "Last month I had a nervous breakdown over everything: defending my title, my girl was about to have a baby, the doctors were telling me my baby was due on the day of the DMC finals! I was like 'Aw, hell no.'" But aw, hell yeah: Craze's daughter, Angelee, was born four days before the competition, and Craze himself went on to win the Technics DMC world title, making him the second two-time winner in that contest's history. "This year I just wanted to come off," he explains. "I didn't wanna be more technical, because now everybody technically is excellent. I was trying to keep my title, but I wanted to take it to another level." Craze turned in a performance that showed he is indeed an old-school b-boy battler, callin' out wannabes as hip-hop, a genre that celebrates bravado, demands. But more stunningly, in a world where scratching is becoming as cliché as the hammer-on guitar solos inspired by Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" were in the early '80s, Craze also proved he's thinking beyond the world of kids who hang out in their parents' basements, obsessively figuring out scratch routines like so many Trekkies with turntables. After exhaustive qualifying rounds, Craze's winning routine went like this: No, he didn't play Trick Daddy's "My Baby's Daddy." But with the weight of the world title (and, for hip-hop cred, the eyes of New York) upon him, Craze cut together passages from Raekwon and Gang Starr records, warning would-be tipsters and style-biters to step off. Then he backed up his juggled-together b-boy manifesto by launching into his trademark next-school move: reconfiguring hip-hop sounds into their manic offspring, jungle.
"I had the Amen Brothers' breakbeat [jungle's oldest raw ingredient] on 45 rpm and I was looping that with one hand and doing the bass with my other hand on another record," Craze recalls. Needless to say the double-time display set the Hammerstein crowd on fire, waking it from a catatonic state induced by more than two hours of numbing beats reverently cut and then scratched off with little imagination. And it all earned Craze his title -- again. But in the twelve months he has spent as champion, and with at least another year as world champ ahead of him, Craze has helped transform turntablism from hip-hop's little after-hours jam session into a whole new way of looking at and making music. "I'm getting mad offers from a lot of labels right now," he says, declining to name names. "But they don't just think of me as a hip-hop DJ." As his Crazeë Musick debut full-length (released in September by the independent label Bomb Hip-Hop) demonstrates, Craze is indeed operating outside of hip-hop's carefully mapped terrain. While Crazeë is certainly by and about the world of turntablism with its lo-fi, straight-to-tape style, and abundance of inside humor ("Crabhappy Crab-a-holics" references a particular scratch move), it defies the singular sonic boom of hip-hop, reminding us of the form's roots and its jazz-bent two-turntables-and-a-microphone ethos much more than Puffy's karaoke machine or the coastal hard-asses and slick crooners ever could.
"Some of that record's two years old," Craze admits, "but I wanted to show different stuff, just me experimenting. I guess I kind of pissed everyone off. Turntablist kids just wanted me to scratch the whole record, but I wanted to do some bugged shit." While "bugged shit" is at the very heart of hip-hop (remember, Afrika Bambaataa fashioned the electro classic "Planet Rock" by seizing on the eminently weird avant German outfit Kraftwerk, and then layering two of its records), Craze is becoming painfully aware that it's only the showboating side of his craft that the young trainspotters come to see. "When I play I like to DJ, just rock the party. But now I always seem to have this front line of little kids who just want to see me do turntablism," he says with a sigh.
Currently on a small club tour with fellow Miamian DJ Infamous, Craze is adjusting to life as the world's most visible turntablist. "I'll do some tricks, but I'm trying everything I can to get people to dance for an hour a half," he says firmly. Although audiences may be more familiar with Craze-the-battler than Craze-the-party-rocker, he traces his make-'em-dance agenda to his days growing up in Miami and the pervading styles here. "First it was bass music, then moving on to hip-hop; now it's drum and bass," he explains of Miami's prevailing soundtrack. "But I was always into my own little thing. I'd let everybody go this way, and I'd go that way." Despite his maverick bent, he declares: "Miami has this vibe; I always represent Miami."
These days Craze doesn't spend as much time with his girlfriend and baby as he'd like, but when he does get a break from touring and returns to the comforts of home, he says, "Everybody treats me like they always treated me, just a regular head. A lot of people just don't care that [I've won the DMC]. And I actually think that's really cool." He says he doesn't get a chance to record-shop that often, but does give props to his new favorite vinyl stop, South Beach's Grooveman Records. As for millennium plans, he's just barely recovering from last month's twin jolts of conquering New York and fatherhood. Still, he sees where turntablism is catching up with his innovations. "Right now it's getting real musical; everybody's technical as hell, the standard has been raised. I'm fucking scared," he admits, only half-joking. "It's getting crazy."
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