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Boogie Nights

Music, a Houston DJ andthe lure of Austin

It was early in the morning and everything was in sync. The vibe Zakaos always longs for started to take shape as soon as the DJ played that one song, that one disco-bell reverie with the pulsing bass line. Even two older black gentlemen had noticed how intense he and Steffani were getting on the dance floor. Zakaos wanted to pull away but couldn't, even though he's more friend than lover, even though she's more friend than crush.

Then the music stopped.
"Awwww, man," Zakaos said, dropping his shoulders.
"What?" Steffani asked.
"They cut the vocal, man."
"What vocal?"

The two older gentlemen looked on. Zakaos's voice was clear as he sang her the answer, his roundish brown face pushed up close toward hers, framed in straight red hair.

" 'Just can't get enough!' "
Just then, the music returned. Right on beat. Zakaos's and Steffani's mouths dropped open. The two onlookers had to laugh, too. It was early in the morning in a club in Miami, where Zakaos, Steffani and some of their friends were visiting, and everything was in sync; the work of a DJ, creating sonic architecture in interstices of time, spilling over into his life. Even when he's not the guy behind the turntables, as on this night in Miami last week, DJ Zakaos never misses a beat.

Zakaos is a popular club DJ in Houston, and he keeps getting more popular. He has been living here, or in the general East Texas vicinity, almost his entire life. At 25, Zakaos (who, like most residents of dance culture, goes by only his pseudonym, which just happens to be a phonetic variation of his birth middle name, Zaccheus) can count seven of those years as time spent working professionally as a DJ. His daytime job is as a record buyer at Atomic Records on Westheimer, where he has been working for about two and half years. While Zakaos's boss says he wants to open a store in Austin, he's not sure he wants to pass up on Zakaos's popularity here. If Fusion does open another Atomic in town, he might want his celebrity employee to be a focal part of it. But Zakaos likes Austin. He played there last weekend as part of the city's South by Southwest music festival -- an annual industry bash that brings about 800 aspiring rock stars and countless industry heads/gofers/ reporters, dressed in black and wearing yellow sunglasses, into Sixth Street for schmooze and booze -- and he likes that the city has a lake smack dab in the middle of it and greenery and some clublife. Three things of which Houston is deficient in two.

What H-town does have is a club scene that keeps getting bigger. And as part of this growth, Fusion wants Zakaos to have a bigger profile. Making tapes, mixes of dance songs DJs compile and which most use to supplement gig income, and landing a regular club gig are two ways to do this. But although Atomic has gotten bigger and more accessible to foot traffic, it still doesn't include any of Zakaos's tapes, mainly because Zakaos hasn't gotten around to making any yet and because, simply, Zakaos doesn't want the attention. He makes tapes, but only for friends.

In fact, the first thing Zakaos thought of when he got out of bed last Saturday at one in the afternoon, after walking in the door at two in the morning the night before and after sitting in a car for what felt like 24 hours on the way back from Miami was mixing a tape. Actually it was Steffani he thought about (as he usually does constantly) first thing that morning because he wanted to remind his friend, in music, never to forget their transcendental dance floor experience in Miami those couple nights ago, but it was mixing a tape that made him rise and shine. The song with the vocal "I just can't get enough" would definitely be in his mix.

One tape and seven dubbed versions later, Zakaos was ready to give Steffani her gift, even though she couldn't get away from work and homework for the weekend and he probably wouldn't see her until he got back. He had his tapes made, though, and if he and Audio 3 were to make it to Austin for the first set, Audio 3's at ten (followed by Zakaos's at 11), both at Twist, they'd have to get on the road by six. Austin is a two-and-a-half-hour drive on cop-free Highway 71, and ten means ten.

So if the first thing Zakaos thought of when he got out of bed last Saturday was mixing a tape for Steffani, the second thing he thought about was getting hold of Audio 3, who was driving. He needed directions.

Zakaos's house is on Hiram Clarke, right outside the Loop, where he lives with his mother, stepdad, sister and nephew. They all have their personal spaces, but Zakaos's is damn small. His bedroom walls are cramped with an unimaginable number of 12-inch records. Even the two shelves under his Technics 1200 turntables and Rane "Mojo" TTM 52 mixer are filled with records. Vinyl and cardboard platters cover nearly every part of the room except the bed, which is covered significantly just the same. An American Indian blanket, exploding in calculated, angular cultural motifs of yellows, blues, reds and greens, stretches almost the entire length of the single frame. Zakaos got the blanket when he and his family lived in Harlingen, about an hour from the Mexican border, during his preteen years. The blanket, actually more security than nostalgia, now travels with him as an adult.

When Zakaos moved into this house, his mother's, with his blanket, the first thing she did was buy her son maroon blinds to match. Something about bedding and love goes back to the family's days in Atascocita-Humble, a neighborhood where a black family of six was indeed unusual. Raised as Jehovah's Witnesses, Zakaos and his brother and sisters had learned to live among colorlessness. The only scintilla of color in Zakaos and his little brother Les's bedroom was a pair of matching Felix the Cat bedsheets, which mom had bought on a whim. Dad usually never approved. But the occasional splurge was always warranted. Especially around this house.

Zakaos's father had grown up in Houston, the first of 14 siblings, in a two-bedroom house. He graduated valedictorian of Yates High School, where he also met Zakaos's mother, and moved on to college in Arkansas, where he studied architecture. Walking through downtown Little Rock with dad was always a treat for young Zakaos, who was born there. Zakaos's father would always point to some grand, free-standing structure and say, "I designed that," which always filled the child with wonder and pride. Feelings that would last only so long.

By the time Zakaos and his family had moved to Navasota, Texas, and almost as soon as dad had begun his own insurance business, family life changed. Harsh words and bad attitudes announced his father's presence in nearly every room. The move back to Houston for his father to take a job in the booming oil industry intensified the tension. Living in one of the poshest neighborhoods in town hardly helped.

Zakaos's dad would arrive home after four or five weeks on the road only to find what he would consider a messy house. Slapping or berating Zakaos's mother or his sister, the oldest sibling, Tashon, became regular duty. Sometimes, as a nine year-old-boy, Zakaos would pull his head out from under his pillow, dry his eyes and run downstairs to intercept any damage being done to his mother and, as he looks back on it now, his second mother, Tashon. Sometimes, for Zakaos, a slap from his father was the most attention he got from him.

As Zakaos recalls those days, he wrongly thinks sometimes the discipline was necessary, even deserved. Since color was like gold in the house, Zakaos often stole toys from his friends. His mother would find G.I. Joes and Legos hidden under the young boy's bed. When she'd find him playing and ask where the toys had come from, Zakaos would lie. Really, he had been pilfering dolls and race cars from friends but he had also been taking tens and twenties from her purse to buy the brightly colored construction bits on his own. Nevertheless, he would say, "They're a friend's." Mom never had the heart to tell dad.

After his parents divorced when he was 14 and after Zakaos had learned to make sense of the illogic that surrounded him as a child, color grew in importance in his life. He soon began wearing tie-dye and brightly colored clothing. He began painting on small canvases in strong reds, greens, yellows and oranges. He began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. He began covering his bedroom walls with sheets of splatter art. He began hanging out with colorful people. He began sleeping beneath a rainbow of a blanket. And he began listening to colorful music. The brightest: dance.

The Life
"What time you gettin' here?"
Zakaos had Audio 3 on the phone, laundry -- two weeks' worth -- tumbling toward perfection in the garage and the game plan for his set rumbling around in his head.

"Is your house past the airport exit?" his friend asked from the cell phone in his red Pathfinder.

"Yep."
Even for someone who spends his life in urban settings -- raves, clubs, record stores -- metropolitan life holds only so much appeal for Zakaos. He's probably one of a few people who makes his living as a night dweller but who actually enjoys gazing out his bedroom window on sunny afternoons and seeing a blue sky and the tops of trees gazing back. If you look close enough at downtown Houston trees, he'll say, you'll see they're gray, ashen. Trees out here, or in someplace like Austin, they're perfectly brown. Bark like skin.

By the time Audio 3 arrived, Zakaos had finished laundry, had decorated -- as he normally does -- his seven cassettes (in bright leaf patterns, curlicues, peace signs, flowers, his name) and had stacked 60 records in his carrying crate. From drum-and-bass, his specialty, to acid house to ambient to neodisco to jungle. All, to the untrained ear, what one would call "techno." Austin awaited.

Neither Zakaos nor Audio 3 ever works from a set list. Most DJs don't. Zakaos has favorite songs, the kind that when the house starts dying down or when people coincidentally start vacating the dance floor, he'll pull out to drag the dancers back under his spell. But he never depends on one sound or one song too often. Great dee-jaying is give and take. And it is certainly experiential music.

The DJ's primary function is to serve as cultural shaman. By either freezing music for the moment or extending it indefinitely, the DJ controls the flow of life on the dance floor as a scientist would a microscopic megalopolis in a petri dish. This DJ music, these carefully measured techno pulses and airy melodies, is not "listening" music. It was never meant for radio, and it will never sell to anyone outside of dance culture's underground world. Similar to jazz improvisation, dance music is the experience. Hearing a DJ remove the bass from a song for a minute and watching the subsequent fallout on the dance floor -- where instead of jumping up and down with their arms in spirals, the dancers slow to a sway -- only to hear the DJ put the bass back in and watch the body-shakers erupt in a collective frenzy cannot be captured on CD. Those who try to relate to or harness it that way are blind to the music's essence.

Zakaos knows this. He has learned how to play a crowd. When he started dee-jaying he wanted to impose his favorite music on the people instead of playing what they seemed ready for mixed with music he personally enjoyed. He understands the balance now, though it's not always exact. Challenging dancers with new material as well as calling up old favorites separates the effective DJs from the masturbators in the rather snaky world of rave/dance. Since the history of dance culture or rave -- an unhealthy word nowadays -- has involved drug use, run-ins with the police are common. So it's not unusual or bad business policy for rival rave producers to call the cops -- or worse, the fire department -- on each other's parties. Trying to find work in such a shape-shifting world makes a weekly, regular-paying club gig and the structure it offers appealing, especially for someone like Zakaos. He thinks a steady club gig would help. A weekly show might happen for him at Lava Lounge, another new Houston club, opening up on Milam.

Zakaos spent a lot of years in clubs, but mostly on the other side of the turntables. Houston had such a great scene, he'll tell you, but things happened, man. Bad things. Yuppies. A word that, when spoken, always creates a smile on Zakaos's face, usually outlined in a dark beard -- no mustache, just an Abraham Lincoln-style jowl-wrap. When Zakaos first stepped inside a dance club, that first time back before facial hair, when he lived in Atascocita-Humble and his friends there took him to a place called FX in Fame City, where if you at least looked like you were 18 you could get in to under-21 night, Zakaos literally began hopping in place with excitement. He had heard all the stories from all his buddies who typically went to a club called Studio Circus and about how it felt dancing in a mass of people, but Zakaos had never actually felt the scene himself, felt what it was like standing, eventually dancing, inside some hazy cavern with red, blue, yellow, green, purple lights flashing in his eyes with melodies punching his ears and the bass kicking him in the chest. After that first time he was hooked.

Up until about the time he was 17, Zakaos had thought he had always wanted to be a dancer. A professional. Maybe work local theaters or something, or start a traveling troupe. That he would find something else to do with the music, another way to be a part of it, became real after meeting and talking with a DJ he had heard at Club AM, Mikey Pratt. It was Pratt who told Zakaos to buy a sampler. "You need a mixer, man," he told him. A mixer? All Zakaos had in his house was two boom boxes stacked on top of each other, a Hitachi record player and a set of blown speakers he had found while walking past his house one day and had rewired. A long way from the days when Zakaos would hold his portable cassette tape recorder up to his radio, but still pretty grim working conditions. His friend Adam had a sampler, an Atus -- a company that, after a Radio Shack buyout, is now obsolete -- and eventually sold it to Zakaos for $60. A $140 savings.

Zakaos hooked the mixer up to his CD player/tape deck and began practicing his cuts, splicing songs together by overlapping their bpm's, or beats per minute. (To calculate bpm's, tap your foot to a song's beat for 15 seconds then multiply that number by four.) Stretching out songs, like Shaman's "Move Any Mountain," the first dance record Zakaos ever loved reworking, or mixing songs of the same bpm's was all Zakaos could do up until the time he could afford another turntable, a crappy Gemini he got for about $300. Since most turntables have a dial that lets you control the speed of rotation, splicing together any Mozart with any De La Soul becomes entirely possible once you get two turntables and a mixer working in concert.

But for all his equipment and practicing, Zakaos still thought of himself as a "closet DJ." He had stories to tell, as all musicians do, but he wasn't ready to explain them to hundreds of people at once. He was content sitting and listening to Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and all the blues and R&B he grew up on with his family in Navasota and later Atascocita, and thinking about the tales each song told. Not their narratives, but what each song meant to each listener. One blare of Louis Armstrong's horn or one quiver of Aretha Franklin's voice meant so many things to so many different people that the "stories," the personalized narratives in each listener's heart, seemed to flow outward in one big American quilt for Zakaos. He thought, if I put a riff of Jimi Hendrix in a dance mix, what would those notes say to people who have heard of Hendrix? In a word, everything. A billion stories, a billion memories in a couple of arpeggios on a Fender Stratocaster.

Zakaos's spirituality extends beyond the Witnesses nowadays. He believes in reincarnation. He'll say he believes Hendrix could be merely a reincarnation of Mozart who could be merely a reincarnation of King David. Where we grow up and where we live as adults affects how we make our musics. And Zakaos believes a type of regionalism affects dance music and DJ styles just as it does any other genre. But while the Chicago Tribe may be saying the same thing as the Detroit Tribe who may be saying the same thing as the Houston Tribe, one thing is definite: Everybody is telling stories.

And telling stories to every person within earshot was something dance couldn't do for Zakaos. It was at around the time of these revelations, at around his 19th birthday, that Zakaos knew he wanted to be a DJ.

Hanging out at Mega Zone Records, where Zakaos bought most of his 12-inchers, was his first step toward a break. Most DJ-culture record stores house high-amplitude speakers and functional turntable systems, where local pros can get up and spin as customers comb the aisles, and Mega Zone's store manager usually spent Saturdays up in the booth when he wasn't selling or ordering records. DJ Andrei would eventually grow tired of seeing Zakaos and a friend watch him spin every other day, so he let Zakaos get behind the turntables for a little while one time. After he saw Zakaos could cut pretty well, he invited him to a rave at the Commerce Street warehouse called Unity. That was Zakaos's first mass dance gathering, like FX's crowd times four. But not his first DJ job.

Andrei's Matrix Crew party at the Main and Naylor building in the warehouse district in 1991 was Zakaos's first time actually working as a DJ. Of course, like everything else, it didn't come easy.

"Dude," Zakaos asked Andrei at the party, "you gonna let me spin or what?"
"Mmmm, it's cool with me, but go ask Chris."
Zakaos approached Chris, also part of Matrix Crew's rave production team.
"Chris," Zakaos said, "you gonna let me spin or what?"
"Mmmm, it's cool with me. Go ask Drei."

Back and forth the back-and-forth went until about four in the morning when only about 20 of the 500 people were still dancing. Then Zakaos got on the turntables.

"Keep the pitch down, man," Andrei told Zakaos before he went on. "Not a lot o' fast shit."

Zakaos's mouth: "Okay, Drei." (Zakaos's head: "Whatever, Drei.")
The pitch was fast. Zakaos could see the crowd was small, smaller than it had been at the height of the party, but he was dee-jaying, he was cutting records and he was working in front of an audience. And he had butterflies. Pterodactyl-size, like back when he was in boys choir as a young teen and had to sing a solo part in front of hundreds of people dressed in formal wear and wearing corsages. Though Zakaos had stuttered as a child, he had always managed to sing all right. The boys choir show went well; Zakaos sang his part, and a theater full of complete strangers clapped their hands together in approval. The applause after his first DJ performance at Main and Naylor cinched it. Zakaos had found his niche.

Chuck E. Cheese's. Victoria's Secret. Kroger. Marshall's. TCBY. All those part-time jobs Zakaos held seemed to matter now. They had all brought him to this place in the DJ booth, and they made him realize how lucky he had been. How lucky he had been to find something he loved truly and wanted to live his life through. If he hadn't known those dead-end jobs, if he hadn't dropped out of Stratford High after his sophomore year because a classmate, someone he actually considered a friend, accused him of stealing a Walkman, if he hadn't thought about the rest of his young life all those hours alone in his room spaced out on acid, Zakaos probably wouldn't have developed such strong feelings for music. In a way, music was his lifeboat. And it's something he thinks he'll keep clinging to.

By the time Zakaos and Audio 3 arrived in Austin, the sun had already set, and a cool nightfall had moved in. The club they were playing at was situated catercorner to all the obvious hoopla on Sixth Street. Packed with horse carriages, street performers, passersby and cops, the main drag of Austin looked more Fraternity Row than Bourbon Street. Lots of healthy-looking white people and lots of beer drinking. Getting nasty drunk or tripping are things Zakaos hasn't done in years. He was kind of glad Twist wasn't on Sixth Street, was kind of out of the way, so to speak.

But it's easy to see why Zakaos would be attracted to this town, and why he would want to live here. It has everything that Houston could ever have, except for a particular person.

Zakaos's thoughts usually travel elliptical patterns. They either stretch way out to a complete passion for music or they stretch way out to a complete passion for the people in his life. When he's dee-jaying, you can see one side of the ellipsis at its furthest point. At Twist last week, Zakaos stood behind a six-feet-long table on which two turntables and a mixer sat waist-level beneath his hands. He spun two 12-inchers and, as he cued one to his left and let one rotate freely to his right and go through the speakers, he slid the cross-fader from its position in the middle to the left in sync with the bass tone. BOOM BOOM BOOM. Right on cue, he moved the fader back to its spot in the middle before the melody kicked back in. That someone could be thinking of anything other than the music or the bass and treble knobs or pitch level or the cross-fader appears unbelievable in this work.

But as Zakaos dee-jays, his thoughts also stretch to the other side of his elliptical way of thinking. When he's standing at the tables and flexing knobs and dialing keys, he's also thinking of a particular person dancing in front of him. Steffani tries to see as many of Zakaos's shows as she can. She, a trained dancer, as tall as Zakaos at five-feet-seven and lean, met Zakaos back during his club-hopping days, and they've been friends ever since. She listens to his stories and thoughts and tells him how she feels, and he reciprocates. Zakaos had fallen fast. That red hair, that electric-blue Mandarin-collared blouse she always wears, that love of life, that color. No chance. He now dreams one day of getting her involved in dance culture as a DJ herself. Then, instead of just dancing and cheering him on at parties, she can work alongside him. Steffani and Zakaos can produce records together. Steffani and Zakaos can argue over music together. Steffani and Zakaos can eat late vegetarian lunches together. But for now, when she's at his performances, when she's urging him on from the dance floor, she's his sole muse. And he sees her all the time. He saw her last weekend. Even though he was in Austin. Even though she was in Houston.

Zakaos knows where he wants to be.

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