I always thought of DJs as being these unapproachable music gods who had the power to make or break your night. Turns out they’re more like musical GENIUSES who want us to have a good time and dance our bums off. And they are approachable, well sort of. Ask about music and you’re in, but ask them to play journey or kelly clarkson and you’re likely to get the silent treatment. Luckily, I’ve since learned my lesson (the hard way) and while catching up with Baltimore’s DJ Balagan, managed to keep “since u been gone” to myself.
So hey, Mister DJ Balagan, how did you first get started DJing? What sparked your interest?
I started rummaging through my parents’ several hundred records early in high school, hitting thrift stores and putting it all together on tapes I would trade with friends in algebra class who were doing the same thing at home. Donny Hathaway, Bo Diddley, and Mongo Santamaria all got on those lovingly crafted tapes along with music like DJ Shadow that I was discovering on CD.
At the University of Kansas, I started DJing in earnest on student-run KJHK FM, along with many current SF heads like the Afrolicious crew, MAKossa, and what is now a worldwide diaspora of Lawrence, KS music lovers. Gigs at bars and parties followed, and now I’m based in Baltimore playing up and down the east coast and elsewhere.
What song or songs are you really loving to play out at your gigs right now?
I DJ because I enjoy piecing together an audio tale for people to dance to and consider, and I especially like blending sounds you would never think could fit together, like Algerian chaoui music with disco rarities.
I love playing my own productions too, and tops right now is “1-2-3 Vou Pro Baile,” which I created from samples of Fela Kuti, field recordings, some Baltimore club staples and sounds I grabbed from CDRs, vinyl, and local DJs’ sample sets while in Rio for 2 weeks this spring. Here is an MP3 for download: http://www.divshare.com/download/8355418-db8
What exactly defines Bmore club music and how has it become this worldwide phenomenon?
To me, Baltimore club is the sound of a city that thought no one was listening. Baltimore is an underdog city and the music was for people there, not anyone else. Not as a matter of exclusivity, just kinda saying, “Fuck it, we like this and we’re gonna keep doing it.” It’s aggressive but playful; simple but complex. Dancing to “club music,” as we call it out there, can also be a catharsis when helicopters are buzzing overhead and nearly a person a day is getting murdered. It’s also the sound of a city on the come-up. Many of us DJs in Baltimore are part of the knowledge economy that has to a large extent rescued the city from a post-industrial spiral down. We’re writers or doctoral students who want something real and raw and find a ready medium in the furious sounds created by producers like Scottie B, Blaqstarr, and Booman who also DJ the style to perfection. I think the Baltimore sound has caught the world by storm because it has so much life. You can “dance your pain away,” to paraphrase Rod Lee’s classic, or you can just “rock off” with gravity-defying dances to impress your friends (type “rockin off” on YouTube to see what I mean). It’s also a collage of rhythmic archetypes, with James Brown, disco, and early house music sounds surrounded by rap vocals and gunshot sounds. It’s like someone starting a story with “Once upon a time…” You’re ready to listen. Funk music in Rio is also a nod to a whole history of urban music, which is part of why Baltimore and baile funk have emerged at the same time. They share a musical genealogy almost by accident, and it doesn’t hurt that the BPMs match.
Can the styles of music in Baltimore or the Mid-Atlantic compare at all to the sounds of the Bay Area?
As for bringing Baltimore to the Bay, I still have plenty to learn about the local scene. My hip-hop upbringing included lots of Latyrx, Shadow and the rest of the Quannum crew, and hyphy definitely got me interested when it swept the nation a couple years back. I’ve been working on tracks with Buddy Leezle for some time now, so you may have heard my beats here in the Bay without knowing it!
What is your favorite thing about San Francisco and the bay area?
I have heard so much about the SF area, and I’m thrilled to finally make it out here, especially to get the opportunity to mingle with so many talented DJs and dear old friends who make their music happen here. I’m happy to offer up my Funny Accent international beat mix for you and your readers to get to know Balagan better: http://www.divshare.com/download/6045120-a49
And there you have it folks! DJ Balagan spins tonight at Dalva and tomorrow night at the Elbo Room. So bring your dancing shoes and show him how we do here in the bay, or do your best rockin’ off impression.