Two Turntables and a Microphone
Austin's DJ Culture
If 1997 put forth the question "Is Electronica the Next Big Thing?" then the Propellerheads' sold-out, overflow-only, "you're-sweating-in-my-Heinekin" showcase at South by Southwest '98 was a resounding, "Yes." It was a watershed moment for SXSW, whose previously limited success in the guitarless world of techno and electronica had resulted in less-than-amazing draws, despite occasional heavy-hitters like '96's Spring Heel Jack showcase. But chemical fog and cyberlights couldn't hide the fact that this English duo from Bath had something going on that leap-frogged industry and pop culture boundaries like a marmot dipped in napalm and methedrine. The Propellerheads proved once and for all that the genres collectively dubbed "electronica" by the mainstream press were a viable alternative to SXSW's usual draw.
More importantly, perhaps, the showcase brought together Austin's long nascent electronica scene in a throng that included as many local ravers and DJs as it did badged and bobbed industry stalwarts. To judge from the looks of the sizable coterie of lightsticks-and-baggies clubkids, the local scene had grown out if not up since the '97 domestic breakthrough of electronica standard bearers like Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. As a matter of fact, since the Propellerheads showcase in March, Austin's electronica scene has finally poked its head above ground, through an entirely different sort of chemical fog.
125 bpm, but Who's Counting?
Sure, a spectacularly under-attended Saturday night Austin Music Hall "rave" wilted despite the combined forces of Josh Wink, God Within, and a host of local and regional DJs, but at least this year, electronica showcases were bigger, better, and badgier. SXSW co-director Brent Grulke notes that previous years were hampered by venue limitations - the fact that the electronica audience falls short on bar receipts weighs heavy on some club owners' minds - and it wasn't until local Gobi Mass promoter James Neal stepped in with Twist that things really got rolling.
Grulke hesitates when asked if the sizable SXSW representation the genre had forecasts a future Technics SL-1000 boom for the U.S.: "It's really hard to say if that's going to take off here," says Grulke. "I think that in terms of creativity, it's going to have a huge impact. I think in terms of what it will mean, in terms of what popular music will be, the influence this music has and will have on the future of mainstream music will be huge.
"As to whether or not the form that it's in right now will ever have that sort of widespread appeal that it currently enjoys in Europe? I don't know. I think it's entirely possible, but again, I don't know. We had a big, big response to it (although not perhaps as big at the Music Hall as I would have liked), but the thing that's most important to us is that it's fascinating music. At it's best, it's great music, and that's why we're investing our time and energy in it."
"I Am the DJ, I Am What I Play..."
"I've only been DJing for about a year and a half," says Pam Mayo, who goes under the DJ moniker of gFire. "Originally I got into it wanting to write tracks."
Despite her relatively recent entrance into the scene, Mayo has already made her mark with a series of high-visibility party dates and her own SXSW showcase.
"I thought that if I learned to DJ, I'd learn about the tracks and somewhere that kind of got twisted around, because I ended up DJing a whole lot more than writing," she says. "I entered the Foundations of Groove DJ contest here last year and tied for eighth place after spinning for only four months, which gave me the encouragement to continue, but I started out basically from scratch. I had Miss H. - Mike Hernandez from Alien Records [a local record store] - show me a few things about beat matching and so on. But I had a knack for it, really."
The inside of Mayo's cramped apartment bears that out: a sonic warren of producing and mixing equipment, Macintosh computers, and a pair of Technics SL-1000s vie for space beneath a sprawling, tie-dyed banner hanging from the ceiling, a souvenir from her recent trip to Goa, India.
Mayo is not your archetypal DJ, it seems, but she is one of a growing legion of local femme-spinners, and her description of the Austin scene is one that is echoed by many others in the local ebb and flow of Austin DJ culture.
"The Austin scene is pretty cool, and you know, there are some politics here, but I don't think we have near the problems of some of the other scenes in the country. Austin is a pretty laid-back city in general, and I think that's reflected in the rave community. We don't have a huge scene here - it's not like L.A. or New York or San Francisco. When you throw a party here, you still worry if you're going to break even."
As for the big electronica question that's been haunting the media and markets since early last year?
"I don't know if it's going to be the next big thing," puzzles Mayo. "I'd rather it wasn't, actually. Yeah, it's breaking here, but god, I hate that `next big thing.' Alt rock is boring, though, and it needs something new, so great, it's infiltrating that. Maybe it'll influence people like Beck who use a combination of different styles. Who knows?"
One person who knows, or at least has a pretty good handle on things, is Jacqueline Specht, who not only runs the revered Vinyl Attic record store above Technophilia on Guadalupe, but is also a longtime DJ in her own right. Having started off shaking her groove thang in the Dallas clubs at the cusp of the decade, Specht eventually moved to Austin to begin working the tables for herself.
Alongside little brother Chris Specht (the sibs used to tag-team DJ years ago), Jackie is a highly respected member of local DJ culture and a force to be reckoned with; so much so that she's been nominated by the Austin City Council as part of the River City's ongoing attempt to get a handle on youth problems and more specifically, the burning civic question, "What the hell is up with all those baggy pants?"
"I've been spinning for about five years," says sister Specht. "I lived in Dallas from '79 to '92, where I really fell in love with the music. I'd go out to the clubs and dance five, six hours a night. I was a maniac. I liked the music so much that I'd always ask the DJs, `What's that song? Who's that by? Where can I go buy that?'
"I'd have my friends drive me to the record store, and I'd buy the records and go listen to them over and over. I even started carrying records around with me to the clubs, annoying the DJs by asking them to play what I brought - I mean, that's really annoying. The music made me feel free on the dance floor. That was where I felt at home, and that's where I fell in love with the idea of DJing."
Like many other longtime Austin DJs, the garrulous Specht cites her instant connection with Sixth Street club Proteus as a major factor in getting her off the dance floor and behind the decks.
"When I moved to Austin, I went to Proteus and thought, `Wow, this is good!' After that, I started going to Waterloo and began buying records. I began to practice spinning like a madman, and so that's pretty much how I started."
All to Ourselves
One of the recurring issues not only locally but also on a national DJ culture standpoint is the continuing backlash against '97's heavy hitters like Prodigy, a techno band that, although around for a decade or more, is facing an erosion of their core fan base due to major label signings and presumed success. Not one to be accused of mincing words, Jackie Specht spells it out.
"The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, they're the washed-up of this industry. They made the decision to sign themselves to Sony or Warners or whoever and they're going to lose touch with what they once were in touch with. That's why the underground isn't following those people. You're going to have the regular college kids listening to them and that's it."
Over at Alien Records, Austin's first real DJ specialty store, owner and once-upon-a-time scene figurehead Herb Agapetus makes his own predictions.
"The one thing about the underground," says Agapetus, "is that when it starts becoming the next big thing, it'll disappear again and change into something else. It seems like everybody in rock & roll and punk or whatever always wanted to be `The Next Big Thing,' whereas the underground dance scene doesn't want that at all. When it starts metamorphosing into something else, it'll go where there aren't any people. It'll go back underground.
"Of course you have your Crystal Methods and your Prodigys and stuff like that, who end up forgetting all their roots, where they came from, and how they got there, and just want to sell records. Which is understandable. They tend to lose their base by doing that."
Although the Austin scene remains more or less a tranquil affair, old-school Austinite DJs have noted that the explosive growth of the local scene can sometimes leave them feeling, well, old hat. After all, when 13-year-old kids are getting decks and mixers for Christmas instead of G.I. Joes, there's obviously a major shake-up going on in the cultural matrix.
"It's just young, young, young," Agapetus grouses. "There's not really much of a vibe these days, it seems to me. But the reason there's not much of a vibe is because the older people in the scene aren't going out. They complain that there's never a vibe on the one hand, but then they don't want to go and support anything to create the vibe on the other.
"Kids are coming out of the woodwork for these shows," continues Agapetus. "It's really weird when parents come in [to Alien] to buy their 13, 14-year-old kids tickets and start calling up and asking about it and stuff. That kind of just loses it for me. I still like going and playing at them, don't get me wrong, but as far as just going to them to have a good time, I rarely find anybody to talk to or converse with."
Patriarch of the Texas scene is Dallas' Rob Vaughn, who spends his days clerking at Oak Lawn Records and his nights and weekends spinning. Vaughn is the name most frequently dropped by scenesters when the talk turns to the Texas pros. There's pink microdot love in the air when his name comes up, and the kind of hushed, rapturous mutterings usually reserved for national names like Josh Wink and Keoki.
For a long time running, Vaughn has been the face of Texas DJ culture, though he's quick to note the differences between the laconic Austin scene and Dallas' volatile, police-hampered nightmare.
"Two summers ago is when things pretty much got going in Austin," he says. "The thing about that was that it was basically one or two promoters doing all the parties, and they were big parties, but now you've got a lot of different promotion groups throwing parties down there so there's a lot more diversity. The Austin scene is going to blow up big because they don't have as many hindrances as we do up here in Dallas.
"For example, I don't believe Austin has a 4am curfew, which is great. The cops in Austin are quite a bit more laid-back than Dallas cops. There's no task force set up to bust raves. It's the hippie town of Texas, you know? It's more laid-back and there's more of a musical interest there than up here.
"I think when you combine all that with the huge college population and a lot of people in their late teens and early twenties, all that makes me think that the Austin scene could possibly become one of the biggest in Texas before long."
Not that that's necessarily a good thing in Vaughn's eyes. A bigger scene doesn't always mean a healthier scene.
"We've been through kind of the same deal up here and all I'm going to say is `success breeds problems.' The cops and the moral majority kind of leave you alone when you're dealing with a small number of people. But when you start throwing these parties that are getting bigger and bigger, you just know there's going to be some kid there whose parents are on the city council, and someone is going to come home fucked up, someone's going to get pissed off, and then you're going to have problems."
Vaughn is equally vociferous about the notion of mainstreaming electronica, though like everyone else, he notes that hype is the key.
"Last year they tried to push the electronica thing on the public - they being Spin magazine and most of the major underground music magazines - and I don't think that's really ever going to happen. There's going to be groups here and there that bust through, that cross over, and they're going to be getting a lot of work - the Crystal Method, for instance, is on every damn soundtrack there is right now. But I don't think electronica is going to become this major scene like grunge was just because America is still just a rock & roll country. It's not a dance country like Europe is.
"And frankly, the dance music scene in the Seventies was gay. It's all basically based on gay culture and Hi-NRG clubs and stuff like that. There's a lot of gay people who are working behind the scenes. I think that has kind of a negative stereotype with a lot of the Midwest states and places like that. So unless the major radio stations start pushing stuff like that during their daytime hours, I don't think it'll ever become as big as grunge was. But then, I don't know if I want it to become that way. I kind of like having it all to ourselves."
Promoters, Promotions, and Parties
James Neal of Gobi Mass promotions has a lot on his hands these days, what with managing Jackie Specht, setting up house parties, and being SXSW's semi-official electronica maven. He's also one of the most knowledgeable cogs in Austin's DJ culture, free-flowing on the relevance of New York's early-Eighties Hi-NRG gay scene as well as the benefits to having Josh Wink fly in for SXSW's Music Hall showcase.
Commenting on the local boom, Neal points out that there's a fistful of working promoters in Austin besides himself, a situation that until recently was vastly different. Besides Neal, Austin has the Mumbling Shamen group, Red Mars, "Jaime from 24/7 magazine," Joseph from the Red Room, and a host of others.
"There's a bunch of them," says Neal. "And the great thing is that everyone has their own style and there's a lot of individuality involved, so it's sort of offering people a choice."
Putting the Next Big Thing question to Neal is like opening a DJ intellectual floodgate.
"1997 was a lot of people jumping the gun in a lot of different ways," he says. "I think it was important to say that electronica was the next big thing, because the music goes right along with the massive sort of cultural shift that we're going through right now. The more the mainstream picks up on small snippets of dance music, the more they're going to have to educate themselves on what dance music is really about.
"I think that's another inherent issue that the mainstream press and the mainstream media didn't pick up on: there's so many different styles of dance music. You can be a bedroom producer and sell 5,000 records that get to the right DJs that are heard all around the world, and I don't think the majors really know how to handle that."
As to how the local scene compares to the national front, Neal taps a familiar source for the answer.
"Rob Vaughn was in town a few weeks ago and he and his girlfriend Diane were saying that up in Dallas, there are no more parties anymore and everything is going back in the clubs because of the Dallas Dance Ordinance.
"In Houston they still have parties, but they now have to print the curfew law - like a little disclaimer - on the fliers for those people who may be affected by it. Here in Austin, you can still throw a party at the Red Room or the Music Hall or an alternative space, because Austin has a tradition of supporting music in general. Here the party will go 'til 4 or 6am, because there's always a great vibe there. The great thing about Austin is that you don't have to set out to create a vibe. It's already here, you know? Most of the DJs that come out to Austin love it here, because the kids are so appreciative of the music.
"One thing I found, though, is that some DJs think that because we're in Texas we're sort of behind in the music, when in actuality, we're right on the pulse just like everybody else is. We know what's going on in New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco, or Detroit. That all gets filtered down to us here in Austin. We know what's going on."
Neal hesitates, then launches into a critique of exactly what's lacking and what to do about it. Clearly, this is a man with a plan, though exactly what that might be is left open to interpretation. "Not enough clubs" is a mantra echoed not only by Neal but by almost everyone else.
"One of the places where Austin is lagging is in the consistency of parties being thrown and the consistency of quality clubs," says Neal. "For the past five years or so, the only place to throw a party was the Austin Music Hall and it's kind of getting old hat and needs to be retired. But because of that feeling, there's now this sort of movement to find new venues.
"I've got a couple of friends of mine who, on a whim, called up the Dessau Hall to see if it was available for parties, and now they've signed a year contract. As far as clubs go, my personal feeling is that the last sort of innovative club to open in Austin was Proteus. I don't really see any of the clubs pushing the buttons or pushing the boundaries of what a club is supposed to be.
"The great thing about Proteus was that it didn't matter if you were a rave kid, it didn't matter if you were a clubkid, it didn't matter if you were an average joe. You felt welcome when you went to Proteus. People smiled at you, and people were happy. Right now, the Red Room has been designated as the new rave club. Twist is a nice space, but it's not a club. It's a bar."
Derek Burgess from Mumbling Shamen Productions is another of Austin's local promoters, although the Shamen are more of a loose cooperative group than any single entity. Despite the fact that the Shamen are frequently mentioned as being one of the most "in-touch" promotions groups in town, Burgess has his problems with the way Austin's scene is heading.
"Shows here have become really repetitive," says Burgess. "For instance, the Situation Critical parties, the ones thrown by Atomic Underground, they were so repetitive that they lost the vibe and no one was really into it. It all depends on the promotion company and who they're targeting, I guess. The Red Room seems to target drag rats and... it's getting a little sketchy. The vibe here is still much better than it is in Dallas or Houston, and that's just Austin in general, it's just more open here."
First, the good news: The recent Crystal Method show at the newly refurbished La Zona floored all standing attendance records. La Zona's Carrie Stribling: "It was sold out and we actually ended up selling a few more tickets at the door. It was probably the most successful show we put on. Ever. We sold a little over 1,300 tickets and our capacity is, uh, actually 1,300. It was probably more packed in here that it ever has been."
As a result of those numbers - and the fact that SXSW's Propellerheads showcase brought in an equal amount of curious thrillseekers and hardcores alike - both La Zona and the Austin Music Hall are actively seeking out touring electronica and DJ acts. Though there have yet to be any full-scale raves at La Zona Rosa, the Music Hall has had raging success with a series of parties over the last year, culminating in perhaps the most packed indoor rave yet seen in Austin, last month's Caffeine party, which was packaged and overseen by Joseph Ruiz of the Red Room.
According to Ruiz, the Austin scene is definitely experiencing a boom. "We have a lot of people that may not ever go to parties or listen to the music and they come to the club, and they keep coming back, because it's something new and different.
With Twist, as mentioned above, taking up a bit of the slack with Friday night hosted by Alien's Herb, spinning deep house and trance, while the Mercury continues with its Wednesday tradition of trip hop featuring DJ Michaelangelo, it's the Red Room - at the site of the old, battle-weary Ohms on Seventh and Red River - that's become the Austin scene's focal point in the last year.
Co-founded and managed by Ruiz and partner Ramen Nouri, the spot has virtually taken over the downtown club scene, with lines snaking out the door and house DJ Scott Riley mixing it up on the weekends with a steady stream of guest spinners and Thursday night's much ballyhooed Rollers Redefined jungle crew slapping in some crazy drum and bass masterworks [see sidebar].
"As far as the whole Austin scene goes, I see some groups getting big," says Ruiz, "but as a whole it'll always be underground. Dance music as a whole, you can't keep up with it - there's always a new song. And then, I don't think the scene wants to see it go commercial. They want to keep it underground. If it did ever get to that point, they'd find something new."
Adds Nouri, "It's just like a family. Everybody's there every night."
"We always try to find out what they want," says Ruiz. "Some promoters just bring in the DJs that they want to hear and that's really not fair. We listen to what the kids are saying."
At the heart of electronic music - everything from the deep grooves and soulful vocals of classic house to the stuttering, staccato thudisms of gabber and hardstep - is, of course, the labels that get those bedroom-artist remixes out into the sweaty palms of John Q. Ravemonkey. In Austin, that means Myles Faulkner's and Mike Stewart's Face Records, a recent start-up indie who's only official release to date is the critically acclaimed One - Texas Electronica compilation featuring regional Texas artists.
"I would say that the hype and the fact that Face is around can only help the local scene," says Faulkner. "I think that people are only now realizing that there is an outlet rather than having to sit in their bedroom and play it for their friends. It's bringing people out of the closet, as it were, and showing them that this music can be taken seriously.
Although Face Records is still in its infancy, Faulkner knows all too well his fledgling label can afford to pick and choose the cream of the crop of Texas artists. Most DJs in Austin aren't producers, or aren't producers yet, but the major label stratagem from Sony to Maverick has been to sign everything with a turntable and let the consumer sort it out. This kind of capitalistic egalitarianism has resulted in a flurry of mediocre product cluttering up the marketplace and the record bins while original talents go unnoticed until the dust settles.
"Obviously," says Faulkner, "there's a huge underground scene, but I just don't think that it's had record company support in any way. That might be because people have been so engrossed with alternative and now that that's kind of tired and old, the first place they found when they looked around was the dance culture. Major labels have done exactly what they always do, which is to run and sign everything they can. And that's never a healthy way to do it. That's the trouble with major labels: they never try to grassroots promote their genres of music. They just bundle them in and spend shit-loads of money and it never ends up being that good. They're throwing 40 against the wall and maybe one will stick.
"I don't know exactly how much the Chemical Brothers have sold - maybe 100,000-200,000 - which isn't a lot in terms of, say, Nirvana or whomever. But it's not a bad start. And there is a definite educational thing going on here, because there's also that whole myth that you can't go and see electronica because it's boring to watch. Well, Propellerheads at SXSW changed that, didn't they? It's weird that way. People are just going to have to find out more and more about it and discover that you don't have to be wearing baggy jeans to like this music. I don't go out to the clubs, but I still love it, you know?"
Astralwerks, an imprint of indie label Caroline Records, has a formidable stable of artists including the Chemical Brothers, ex-Housemartin Norman Cook as Fatboy Slim, and Francophiles Air, so for a broader perspective, the Chronicle asked A&R wunderkind Peter Wohelski what he thought. For the most part, he agreed with Faulkner.
"Starting in October/November of '96," starts Wohelski, "there was this whole big furor about electronica - how MTV was changing their format to include a whole lot more of these acts and these artists. The record industry was in a slump, and a lot of people thought that this was the music that was going to save it and change the world. And it's not. It didn't.
"Some of it has been subject to the industry and media hype, because it was something new and exciting, although it's been going on in this country for 15 years - virtually ignored by the mainstream media until now. You've seen a lot of acts like Roni Size get attention, but their sales are not necessarily massive although they may be on the cover of every music magazine for a couple of months running.
"I don't think that this music is ever going to be hugely massive in this country. All that anyone who's been following this music for a number of years can ever really hope for is for it to become a legitimate form of music alongside hip-hop and jazz and blues and everything else. All we can really hope for is that it becomes part of the musical continuum that we already have."
Back in Austin, Butthole Surfer King Coffey's Trance Syndicate label isn't usually what DJ-culture denizens think of when they think electronica labels, but with Coffey's Drain side project, Berlin's To Roccoco Rot, and gone-to-Los Angeles locals the Furry Things, Trance certainly qualifies as playing host to some of the scene's more experimental electronic offshoots.
Asking label manager Craig Stewart to describe the Trance sound elicits a quick, "I can't," though he adds that Coffey's bedroom project Drain (not to mention his Internet-radio-only 24/7 Brainwash program) "is very much samples and electronic music.
"King, especially, has immersed himself in electronic music," affirms Stewart. "He's always had an interest in it, whether it was Throbbing Gristle or Kraftwerk or SPK early on. He's always been open to that. I've noticed, though, bands like OMD 20/20, Kitty, Quaquaversal have taken hold in the scene. Overall, Trance definitely started doing rock and it just kind of naturally progressed from there.
"We did a remix series of 12-inches with some of our artists and some others - three have come out so far - but again, it's not exactly what most people would think of when they think of `electronica.' It's more open, more ambient than a lot of that stuff, but still, it's definitely electronic music. We're not focused on that, it just kind of slipped in. It's a lot of fun to do and it's nice to keep our options open."
I'm With the Band
Claude 9 (née McCann - see sidebar) is one, working primarily in the stop-start subgenre of drum and bass. More than twice the age of most of his compatriots in the scene, McCann traces his musical roots back to the glory daze of Raul's, where Austin's old school punks like Randy "Biscuit" Turner and Gary Floyd cut their teeth on the primordial ooze of the upper Drag.
"These days, I'm basically a drum and bass artist," says McCann. "There's one track on One - Texas Electronica that's more of a big beat thing, but mostly drum and bass, yeah. When I started doing music again in the early Nineties, I was more into ambient and trip-hop, and then when I hooked up with Face, I did a couple of faster track along the lines of techno and got more of a response.
"Rather than the real DJ and rave scene, I kind of come from the hip-hop and reggae crowd. For me, drum and bass is the modern extension of hip-hop and reggae. They're very different, but they're also very related.
"People are curious about what's happening. It has been a small niche, but now you've got a lot more people who have heard about it.... In Europe it's been going on forever, and they expect a certain type of performance and so on. It's very different here. In Europe, kids listen to music in clubs, and here they listen to it in their cars. There's still a club scene here, but it's nothing like in Europe. I don't think it will ever be as mainstream here as it is in Europe."
On the other end of the breakbeat spectrum lies Quaquaversal [see sidebar]. Alongside acts like Kitty and OMD 20/20, the Quaquas are by their own admission a trio of post-collegiate techheads with too much time on their hands and too many knobs in their hands. When pressed, Robert Mace, Dixon Coulbourn, and Steve Thurman call their music "lo-beat techno, although it's getting a little bit more kinetic."
Thurman: "The stuff that we do isn't really that dancey unless we're doing it for specific club reasons. There's some crazy stuff that we did for some of our live shows, that was definitely up there at 160bpm, but we're usually much slower than that. And we're much more active on stage. I mean, I've been to a couple DJ shows and pretty much they're just looking down the whole time."
Faced with the Next Big Thing query, Thurman says, "I don't see it being the next big Nirvana thing, if that's what you mean. I think if that was the case it would have done it a couple of years ago. Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers are pretty much it. That techno stuff's been the same for years now and new techno songs come and go every week.
"We go kind of slow, then faster, then slow. We'll be doing something that lasts five or six minutes and it's just this little wahwahwahwahwahwah thing and then we'll kick in with some drumbeat thing, then that'll stop and we'll go back to the wahwah again. And that's basically it. Somebody wrote me a note and stuck it in our box at some art gallery show and it said, `You guys need to pick up the tempo and put some beats in the music.'
So then, you're not going for that ever-elusive gold record, are you?
"Well, no. The whole idea that some people have trouble digesting electronica bands because they can't figure out what's been sequenced before and what's live is really weird. I remember way back when Cheap Trick played here there was this big stink in the Statesman about how there was some keyboardist offstage. Big whoop. Now you've got a computer bank back there. It's like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, you know?"
Shopping 101: The Stores
For a town its size, Austin has a wildly disproportionate number of record stores catering exclusively to DJs, ravers, and the beat-curious. Alien Records, the Vinyl Attic, Turntable, and newcomer Unity Records (behind Katz's) to name the most prominent, while mainstays like Tower and Waterloo Records keep pace as best they can.
For instance, Waterloo's import buyer, Douglas Benjamin, says that despite the recent breakthroughs by the Chemicals, Prodigy, Crystal Method, and the like, the store's electronica sales remain only fair-to-middling.
"You have these big crossovers which then suddenly bring all the music into the mainstream light," says Benjamin, "but at the same time it's not the kind of thing that most people are really going to be that interested in. Definitely sales have picked up, but truthfully, I sell more of the import stuff as opposed to the big buzz bands. And as far as that goes, it's almost like ska to a certain degree. Ska was around for years and years and then last year suddenly it was big, yet there was no single ska band that was selling millions of records.
"I think there's something about rock & roll that captures the attention of people, whereas electronic music's nice, but a lot of times it's less accessible. You don't have vocals for the most part, it's not catchy, and it just doesn't hit the same nerves."
Over at Alien Records, Herb Agapetus has exactly the opposite going down: growth, and plenty of it.
"Oh, yeah, Alien is definitely growing," says Agapetus. "It certainly hasn't stopped and it seems to be growing better than ever. That's due to a couple of things. For one, we've started carrying some equipment, i.e. mixers, needles, turntables, and that sort of thing.
"More importantly than the big electronica movement going to the mainstream or being the next big thing is DJing itself. Five or 10 years ago little kids wanted to pick up a guitar and be Axl Rose or whoever. Now, they want to be a DJ. I don't know what you might attribute that to or if it has a relationship to the next big thing or what, but that's what's happening. People are wanting to be DJs like I never, ever would have imagined before.
"On one hand, it's a great thing because we're selling a lot at the store and everybody's into it and I'm very happy about it. But what it's done to the scene here on a local level is it's split it off into too many little things. The scene is lacking in some ways now that everybody is a DJ, because now that they have a set of turntables and some records in their house and can mix they're an authority and don't really want to go out and support anything scene-wise. There are a lot of little factions, garage, house, jungle, and that's great for the music itself, but for the scene it's not so good. It's a weird dichotomy between the two."
Unlike traditional (i.e. chain) record stores, Austin's specialty DJ shops take a hands-on approach to serving their clientele, whether that means special ordering a rare white-label 12-inch from some babyraver's Bristol bedroom or suggesting the obvious. Fringe purveyors 33 Degrees have nailed down the more outre genres that loosely encompass electronica's satellite forms. Co-owner Bob Coleman is quick to point out that although not much of what the store carries is "what you'd call dance-oriented," they're still drawing DJs and the DJ-curious based on their reputation for finding the rarest of the rare and the scarcest of the scarce.
Jackie Specht's Vinyl Attic takes this one step further, as Specht actively sets the bewildered down in front of a turntable, hands them a stack of fresh 12-inches and then lectures them on the finer points of Whassup, Inc.
"I love to make people listen to stuff they haven't listened to before," she says. "I had some 60-year-old women come in the other day, shopping for techno tapes for their son who was a DJ in New York or some place. They wanted to know what house music was, so we sat down for a while and I played them some really groovy records and they were totally into it."
But, Jackie, how can so many stores catering to essentially the same customers thrive?
"We've got about 20 different genres of dance music, and each store specializes in a different genre and that's what keeps them alive," speculates Specht. "At the Vinyl Attic, I specialize in deep house, aggressive house, techno, drum and bass, and we're about to bring in acid jazz.
"Basically, I'll order whatever you want and I'll go through whoever I have to to get it for you. It doesn't matter what you're into, I'll get it for you. We offer a consignment service for DJs, which allows them to shop on credit while I sell their records. No one else does that. It's an advantage that I have, but it's also a good karma thing. People come into my store because they know I give a shit, and that's all that matters."
"Jack In, Dust Off"
One thing is as glaringly obvious as an E-hangover on a Shatterday afternoon: '97's media scrum targeting every DJ and his little brother as the savior of a gangrenous music industry ruled by rock & roll despots with graying pony tails missed the mark by a full Yardbird. It's not in the underground to go aboveboard, nor has it ever been.
Nationally, the attempted co-opting of DJ culture has led to zippier Volkswagen commercials and gobs of fast cash for the Crystal Method, but not much else. Maybe the final word on electronica's on-again/off-again co-option by the mainstream, here and nationally, is in its place on the Internet, safe haven to all things underground, sub-strata, and fringe.
Locally, there's the Texas.Ravers site (http://www.hyperreal./org/raves/texas) listing everything from the home pages of the crews, promoters, DJs, and hangers-on that make up the scene, to the Texas Hardcorps DJs home page (http://texas.hardcorps.org), "a loose collective of individuals who have come together for the purpose of promoting the kind of music that has an edge."
Both sites are fairly representative of the Austin and Texas-at-large electronica community, with plenty of DIY ethics and street cred to match, linking clubs, record stores, and all the other ephemera that make up the scene to the scenesters themselves.
"Despite our musical differences," reads the Hardcorps site, "we share a common vision of promoting music in the Texas rave scene that doesn't get the kind of exposure it deserves.... We now have the opportunity to become a resource for the Texas rave scene, a place to find information and share it as well."
And in the underground, that's what it's all about.