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How Many Licks 

Local DJs' spinnin' strategies to set the mood and get your body in motion

The DJs at Five Star in Raleigh spin and cut their records through three K1 amps and a set of double 15s. A 15-inch speaker is a hulking, black dinosaur. Each K1 emits 1000 watts per channel. That's 3000 watts of available power growling against the hardwood floor and purring through the loins and heartstrings of anyone in the general vicinity. Valentine's Day or not, with that much hi-fi static in the air, it's hard not to get down.

"It's the bass in general," says DJ Blake Burney. "It makes my ass move." The vibrations from the low end alone inspire people to do funny, freaky, even depraved things. DJ Blake, who spins with DJ Merlin at Five Star, is talking about "booty bass," something that his friend and colleague Grand Mixer Mooney knows about all too well.

"When 'Who Let the Dogs Out' first came out, this lady came up and requested it," he says. "I hadn't really heard it before, so I told her, 'Isn't that some booty bass stuff? I don't know about that.' 'Come on play it,' she insisted. So I made a deal with her, just as a joke. 'If you show your booty to that guy over there, I'll play some booty bass for you.' Well, she proceeded to show this gentleman, who was just standing there innocently, her booty. Then she showed a couple more people her booty and came back over to request the song again. And I didn't even have it."

Kissing, necking, heavy petting, grinding-the area's party and club DJs have seen just about every act of physical expression Cupid's arrow can arouse on a dance floor. But these guys thrive off a deep passion themselves. "It's actually more a sickness that we have," Mooney explains. "It's dominating our life." They are vinyl-audiophiles obsessed with bits and pieces of music and constructing those bits and pieces to build a proper ambience.

The shelves in the hallway of Merlin's apartment are stuffed to the ceiling with old records: "The Big Payback," "Superfly," "Maggot Brain." He keeps the real charmers filed away in plastic crates: Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, New Edition, Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. "We definitely take pride in setting a mood," Merlin says.

"Yeah," Mooney agrees, "One of my friends got engaged when we were working a party over New Year's. I was playing all that old classic hip-hop. He was planning on proposing anyway, but I guess he got all choked up after hearing those old songs."

Setting an atmosphere conducive to romance, however, isn't as easy as spinning a bunch of '80s tunes. At the beginning of the evening, when people are still lingering in the shadows like bashful middle schoolers, the DJs can't just hit them over the head with booty bass. They have to keep the mood toned low, while at the same time aggravating the audience's desire to get down.

"A DJ's job boils down to stringing the right mood together," says Saula, the house DJ at the Tree House in Chapel Hill. "Early on in the night I lean more towards sexier things. I omit violence all together and hit 'em with sex for like an hour."

Still, whether incited by Tribe Called Quest, Digital Underground or Elvis, nostalgia is a DJ's main ruse for getting the audience off its feet. Michelle King, of Triangle Entertainment Agency, tells a story about when Elvis put stars in one grandmother's eyes. "All night the DJ had been watching her sit around a little lonely and dance with the children. He put on an Elvis tune--I think it was 'Don't Be Cruel'--grabbed her and started dancing. After that she wouldn't leave him alone. She was following him right up to the bathroom."

But, according to Mooney, even the classics wear off after a while. "Sometimes I'll play everything I danced to in my junior high days, stuff like 'Poison' or 'Mr. Telephone Man.' You can definitely get caught up in some old party or middle-school dance. After five songs in a row, I'll start thinking, 'Oh my God, I just relived my damn junior high dance.' Then I'll look up and see the audience standing around staring back at me."

No matter how good it is, too much of one thing is still too much. A DJ's prodigal sin is to stagnate in one beat or vein of music for too long. Merlin reaches into another crate and fishes out a single, something completely different, something I don't think I've ever heard of before: "Girls Dem Sugar" by Beanie Man. He tells me I've probably heard it somewhere. It's the proverbial dancehall reggae record. Dancehall, or "lovers' reggae," is an offshoot of classic Jamaican rock steady. It's more upbeat and danceable than the more pervasive roots reggae. Although this music has never been a smash hit in the States, its bouncy beat makes people shake. "It's really rugged and sexy," Merlin says. Once the dance floor has reached a critical mass, the DJ doesn't have to rely on familiar tunes to move the audience.

At this point in the evening the beat takes over as the dominant motivational force. Actual physical bass swamps the floor and the air around it. The impact of the music becomes purely visceral.

DJ Joe Bunn, who spins at Southend Brewery in Raleigh on Friday and Saturday nights, was once invited to play a party for the N.C. School of the Deaf. As he set up his equipment, he looked around incredulously watching the partygoers gesture to each other in sign language. "One teacher finally suggested turning the bass on my mixer all the way up and playing music with lots of low tones. The students all started going crazy. It wasn't that they could hear the music so much, but they could definitely, literally 'feel' it. They were all standing around the subwoofers dancing, laughing and having a ball."

This phenomenon is by no means rare. It occurs most nights at clubs as the action on the dance floor crescendos. When the dim lights are veiled in a cloud of smoke and the low end starts to tickle the eardrums, dancers are reduced to only one means of expression. "After a certain volume, they're just swimming in it," Saula says. "It's just so loud that the only thing left is touch-loud music and bodies."

The No.1 shakedown song loved by all DJs: "Push It." Raleigh DJ Brian Pate has been playing it since December 1987. Comparing the audience reaction at three parties he did--a high school prom, a wedding and a retirement home dance--he says the old folks turned in the wildest performance. "When we played 'Push It,' they started getting down. You never know when grandma will get funky on the dance floor like Don Cornelius on Soul Train."

Although "Push It" still works at high school proms, Pate knows another song to get the kids wound up. "If you want to get the kids really grinding all over each other, play 'How Many Licks' by Li'l Kim. It's absolutely a scream."

How many what?

"That's right, and she's not talking about a Tootsie Roll Pop."

Saula agrees that romantic songs aren't necessarily the ones that provoke passion. For dancers these days, the nastier a song is the better "A club seems to be the one place that language that foul is allowed," he says. "It's less rigid in here."

Although it might be too early to tell, much of today's raunchier stuff doesn't seem to have the shelf life of a classic. The hormonal excitement over something so explicit and salacious as Akinyele's "Put It in Your Mouth" just doesn't have the crossover appeal of a "Brick House."

Merlin goes back to his classic stack and pulls out Marvin Gaye. For 28 years, at weddings and proms, in retirement homes and the hottest dance clubs, almost without fail DJs have relied on "Let's Get It On" to seal the deal.

"There is no greater slow jam in the history of music," says DJ Joe Bun. "Marvin's giving it to you raw. He's telling you flat out, 'Here's what I'm gonna do.'"

"If you can't get busy to this song, then God help you," Pate says. "I'm doing it for you."

Mooney puts it a little more succinctly. "It's kind of expected." EndBlock

  • And you thought only Muzak had a strategy ... Area spinners share their secrets to "setting the mood."

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