Walk into the main room at Cheetah on any given night, head out to the most underground rave in the city, waltz into Deep Grooves on a Saturday and, were you not with it, the bump-bump factor would be too much bear. Personality? Style? Imagination? Uh-uh. Just repetitive dreck beating at your eardrums and insulting the spirit of little organic sounds -- the birdies, the crickets and all the organic chirps seeping from nature. The thump-thump sounds like nothing but itself, a machine with the repeat button soldered down and the signal-to-annoyance ratio pegging the red.
Submerge yourself in it, though -- bury your head in the stereophonic G-spot and stay there for, well, at least a few months, and you'll start to intoxicate yourself on the techno, tech house, deep house, gabber, garage, drum & bass and whatnot, and then -- and only then -- will you start to understand why Carl Cox has a legion of followers who consider him one of the most pivotal and important DJs in the world. In a rare visit to St. Louis, the most sought-after DJ on the planet will spin at Cheetah this week as part of the "Moonshine Over America" tour.
Carl Cox's position as superstar DJ drags him all over the place, from spinning at an industry party for the premiere of a Will Smith movie to a stint at the monster Berlin Love Festival (a million-and-a-half ravers) to leaping from Sydney to Paris to Japan to Gainesville (?) to London (his home base, where he and a few fellow DJs kick it at the weekly Ultimate B.A.S.E. party) to a monthly gig at Twilo in NYC.
He's all over the place, all the time. He's the center of attention when he's spinning, and instead of getting all furrow-browed and serious, he's smiling, pounding beers and shaking the hands of his disciples (his large frame and wide, honest smile immediately set him apart). These days, he's the center of attention with the music press, too (British dance magazine Jockey Slut has referred to him as "A God"), so much so that during a recent e-mail exchange his answers, despite his obvious attention, often lapsed into pleasant, sincere sound bites; when asked where he's spun in the past week and where he'll be spinning in the next few, he sounds like a politician.
"In the past week I've played in France and Sweden. I'll be arriving in the States in the next couple of days and am looking forward to the "Moonshine' tour. It's great to be able to tour with some of the best representatives of all of the subgenres that electronic dance music has to offer. My first date will be in Chicago and will carry through to cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco before ending in Seattle."
Woo-hoo! Get pumped.
It's hard not to think that Carl Cox, despite his obvious talent on the decks, wasn't aided at least a bit by the mere fact that he was in the right place at the right time. Lacking the singular voice of a composer, songwriter or vocalist, Cox started out in the late '80s as a club DJ, tracking down interesting cuts and presenting them to the dance floor (actually that's their role a decade later as klub kulture explodes). Legions of DJs out there are blessed with taste as good as Cox's, and legions are as amiable as he is. Unlike the distinctive timbre of the human voice, the two major ingredients separating a superstar from a show pony are his/her taste and the easily learned skill of beat-matching; talent is an elusive factor in a DJ. How can Cox be more "talented" than, say, DJ Micro, who's also on the Cheetah bill?
The answer may lie in Cox's reputed ability to read a crowd, discover the aforementioned G-spot and pick his tracks accordingly, something that can only be appreciated in a club full of dancers. Or maybe Cox is famous simply because the culture needs celebrities, and he has been magically ordained by the masses as one of its figureheads.
Whatever the answer, DJ-ing is something that Cox seems to have been born to do. He's been at it since he started doing rudimentary mixing at family gatherings in his early teens (he's 37 now). "We just had a music hi-fi," Cox told Jockey Slut earlier this year. "There was no bass and no treble, just a tone control and a volume. It also had a cassette on it and I used to record all the music that I was playing onto tape and then segue between tape and phono -- trying to mix, so that I could play music non-stop. I always hated gaps in the music. Also, the records then were really short, so when I used to think a record was starting to get going it would fade out. I was always thinking about the next record. Then it just progressed that friends of the family would want me to bring my records if we went round to someone else's house."
He discovered the sounds of the American '80s techno and house underground emanating from Chicago and Detroit, fell in love with them and transformed his passion into a profession. He was one of the first Brit DJs to develop a reputation -- he caught the rave wave in the late '80s and has been riding it ever since.
The Cox phenomenon, though, isn't as simple as right place/right time. His reputation has gradually grown in a culture that worships The New at the expense of its history, mainly because his passion for the music has expanded along with his celebrity. Unlike the majority of tunnel-visioned DJs out there, a Cox set is unpredictable; he draws from his 64,000-piece record collection without concern for whether a cut is techno, house, gabber or electro, and this egalitarian attitude is the glue that holds them all together. He plays electronic dance music, in all its incarnations, and understands the wave of excitement that gradually builds over an evening. It's one thing to pop on choice cuts; it's another thing to so completely understand the atmosphere of a specific dance floor on a specific night in a specific place that a DJ can manipulate dancers, move them, fluster them.
"Choosing which records to play for a set at times can be challenging," he says. "It depends on what kind of a history I've been able to recognize in my past performances with that particular audience. Other times, it can be as spontaneous as waking up in the morning and just picking out what to wear. What makes it work is how well the DJ can make it connect from one track to the other."
Cox connects tracks with the aid of three (count 'em, three) turntables rather than the standard two. And though on the surface the extra deck seems akin to Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel's explaining that his amp "goes to 11," Cox uses it for a reason: "To boldly go where no DJ had gone before (laughs). It wasn't something premeditated, really. I just wanted to add an ever deeper dimension to the sounds I was projecting and I thought, what better way to do that than to add another turntable?"
The third turntable is hard to place when you're listening to one of Cox's mixes. Because he's so adept at beat-matching, what, according to the track listing, is obviously a string of cuts mixed together sounds more like one long cascading composition -- 70 minutes of the perfect beat ("There is no such thing as the perfect beat," counters Cox. "Everyone responds differently to various beats and rhythms. No one experience will be the same for everyone. The common thread, I feel, is dancing.") that occasionally speeds up or slows down but never stops. Along the way it takes some detours. The scenery changes, and subtle nuances and bursting synthetic shouts bellow from the speakers. It's a rough ride, filled with the occasional lapse into tedium that any extended excursion will inevitably reveal, but Cox's talent lies in his ability to embrace the tedium of the continuous beat and gradually, deftly transform it into a wave of energy on the dance floor -- all without allegiance to a particular subgenre or philosophy.
For the blind and beat-ignorant, as well as the techno heads who'll be out in full force, the "Moonshine Over America" tour (Moonshine being an LA label specializing in electronic dance music) is a magnificent place to explore. In addition to Cox -- who, despite his versatility, these days does lean toward techno and tech house -- Omar Santana and DJ Micro will spin. Santana got his start back in the NYC day working with some of the legends of New York dance culture, including Mantronix, T La Rock and Arthur Baker; these days he runs the H2OH label and spins hard breakbeat and drum & bass. DJ Micro, who helped form the influential New York label Caffeine Records, leans closer to hard trance. Cirrus, a weird live band that mixes rock, techno and hip-hop, will kick off the show.
The "Moonshine Over America" tour hits Cheetah on Friday, Oct. 22.