Spun From the Underground

How an ex-con, a would-be physicist and a kindergarten teacher helped shape Houston's DJ subculture

The surge of humanity is impressive for a Wednesday. Within the course of an hour -- from 11 p.m. to midnight -- the temperature in Cardi's nightclub jumps ten degrees. On the dance floor, blurred visual trails from whipsawing arms and legs compose a disorienting collage. The music drives along at a frantic pace punctuated by strobe lights and rubbery red lines shooting from handheld lasers. Film loops project the same images over and over on screens above the dancers; one looks like it might have been snipped from an educational film in seventh-grade biology class.

Over near the bar, DJ Bizz -- a.k.a. Albert Rowan -- is playing it low-key and taking in the action. Up on stage, another DJ is hard at play on a pair of turntables, so inconspicuous that you almost forget he's there. A cigarette dangles from his mouth as he moves back and forth between his rig and a storage case full of records. He might as well be spinning in his own bedroom, for all he cares about presentation. But the passion is there, underplayed as it is. Meanwhile, a dumpy, dejected erstwhile producer lugs a backpack full of his own mix tapes from person to person soliciting sales to no avail; he sees Bizz, turns and walks the other way.

Of all the working DJs in Houston, Bizz may be one of the most imposing. Size has something to do with it: His lanky, 30-year-old frame is a few inches over six feet tall, topped off by a tussock of blond-streaked dreadlocks. Today, they're tied back in a bundle to reveal silver hoops dangling from his ears -- not overkill, mind you, just a single ring in each lobe. There's something about the way Bizz carries himself -- slumped over and standoffish, though just as apt to be in your face at the drop of a pin. Light-skinned, with a ruddy face and what passes for a goatee, Bizz looks like a guy who's been through the wars yet has somehow survived with a small portion of his inner child intact. The scattered look in his deep brown eyes suggests a heightened fight-or-flight mechanism.

"Fuck it, I ain't got nothin' to hide," he says. "I've worked hard to get where I want to be, and I'm still working hard."

Talky, self-confident and fresh out of prison, Bizz muscled his way to the forefront of a budding party circuit in Houston three years ago. When he couldn't schmooze his way in, he simply shoved his way past. In no time, he was working his turntables at parties and established venues all over the city. Today, Bizz isn't around as much anymore. When he's not hauling his equipment all over Texas and around the country in exchange for airfare, a place to crash, a few hundred bucks and a chance to seduce a couple-thousand virgin ears, Bizz is focused on his new business, Chemistry Dance Music Records and CDs.

In 1992, Bizz was riding high. He had a nice apartment in New Orleans, a nice car, a nice life as a club DJ and record-store owner and yet he couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that it all would come to a fast end. So rather than passively sitting around waiting for his good fortune to come crashing down around him, Bizz took action -- and so did the authorities.

"It was LSD -- a lot, dude. I was selling it," he says. "I got set up by a friend of mine who got busted for steroids. I was DJing at clubs and I had two record stores and I was doing really well. It was overwhelming to me. I had all this shit, but I felt like at any minute, I wouldn't have any money to take care of myself. I got greedy, dude. I learned a valuable lesson: There's no easy way in life."

He spent 24 months in federal prison. He decided to come live with his mom in Katy and take up the life of a full-time student at the Art Institute of Houston. Like the millions before him who've resurfaced in Texas, Bizz came to Houston in 1994 determined to reinvent himself.

Today, Bizz is back in business. He's ditched school for a leadership role in Houston's amorphous DJ subculture. Drugs have gone from a part-time business to an occasional hobby. Now, it seems, his sole passion is music -- specifically house music, a pounding, fast-paced subterranean dance soundtrack with origins in the '80s disco and techno scenes of Chicago and Detroit, respectively. Key elements of both Midwestern scenes made their way over to Great Britain and Europe in the late 1980s. There, they were co-opted and transformed by a youth culture hungry for something fresh. England and Europe, in turn, volleyed their versions of the house experience back to America. All of this came in the midst of a home-studio revolution brought on by affordable computer and sampling technology. Suddenly, anyone could have a record label and be a producer.

At the start of the 1990s, the buzz over house music -- and the party-'til-dawn lifestyle it fostered -- was building to a rumble in the country's trendy urban centers. In Houston, house was first nudged along by the likes of J.D. Arnold and Michael DeGrace. All established DJs, they hipped the nightclub set to its mind-bending, escapist potential at edgier haunts such as Rich's and Therapy downtown, and Club Some in Montrose.

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