Judge not lest ye be judged: I think it was Buddha or some other religious dude that said something like that one time. Now, I'm not usually superstitious, but I do feel a little leery as I mount the makeshift dais at the swanky Next nightclub (2020 McKinney) to take my place as one of four judges for the Houston Press-sponsored DJ Spinoff. I mean, just think about it: One measly vote could decide which of these hardworking disc jockeys will get flown to Miami to perform at the super-gigantic and really crowded Ultra Music Festival in late March. That's right, only one gets to go! The rest have to stay right here. You have to admit, it's a daunting responsibility.
Well, one fella who's not afraid to cast the first stone is my fellow judge, Houston's leading "DJ, producer and nightculturalist" Sean Carnahan.
"I'm just waiting for the first train wreck of the evening," he tells me conspiratorially. When I respond with a blank stare, visions of elderly Amtrak ticket-takers and shards of jagged metal flying before my mind's eye, Carnahan kindly explains that "train wreck" is a technical term for that unfortunate moment when a hapless DJ attempts to match the beats of two different records and fails. This can be the result of a simple miscue or a failure to sync up the BPM's properly, but either way the result is the same: Synthesis gives way to entropy, the set fizzles, the DJ is disgraced. How cruel, I think to myself. Carnahan, however, is unfazed.
"We should have a gong here," he snickers cynically. "Or at least a button hooked up to a big electronic gong sound effect that cuts off the main speakers." He scans the list of contenders, each of whom is to be allotted a full 15 minutes to show us what they've got. "This could be a long night," he says with a sigh.
As soon as Amanda Robinson drops the needle on her opening set, it's obvious that this is a crowd that wants to move. I'm reminded of a wise musical mentor of mine who once posited that the difference between good and great dance music was that the good stuff allows you to dance while the great stuff leaves you no choice but to dance. I decide to let this be my guiding principle for the evening.
Now, the judges are here strictly to evaluate the musical skills displayed by the various DJs. However, this fact doesn't prevent the dancers from doing everything in their considerable, exhibitionistic power to gain our attention. This is basic, instinctual primate behavior: Since we judge types are on a raised platform and have been identified as "the judges," we have symbolically become the most powerful people in the room, at least for these 90 minutes.
One particularly vivacious young lady seems to find her way into my line of vision no matter which direction I turn. At one point, between sets, she makes brazen eye contact while treating my fellow judges and me to a cute, tipsy little pantomime of descending first a set of stairs, then an elevator and finally an escalator. I find myself egging her on until it suddenly occurs to me that the theme of her mini-performance could be most pithily described as "going down." I turn my attention back to the clipboard in my lap, absently fiddling with my wedding ring.
Several train wrecks later, Carnahan and I kill some time during an extended "technical difficulties" break by discussing our spiritual brethren on American Idol.
"That guy Simon?" Carnahan says. "His last name is Cowell, is that right?"
I affirm that I believe this to be the case.
"Well, that's gotta be a fake name," insists the renowned nightculturalist. "I mean, 'Cowell'" Like a monk's cowl? Come on!"
"It's worse than that," I realize out loud. "His first initial is S. 'S. Cowell'?"
" 'Scowl!' " howls Carnahan. "That's perfect. Totally fake! But so perfect!"
It isn't long before Carnahan is prompted to do some scowling of his own.
"Great, here comes some guy I've never heard of who hasn't even spun in a nightclub before," he murmurs. As it turns out, these words are destined to be eaten: By the end of DJ Andrew Lawrence's set, Carnahan is hooting and hollering. "Damn, that boy can mix," exclaims the new convert.
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This sort of love can't last, of course, and it isn't long before Houston Press publisher Stuart Folb is gesturing wildly from the sidelines to get the exuberant Carnahan to desist his loud heckling of one contestant. "Some DJs are really popular," Carnahan explains matter-of-factly, settling back down. "But they can't mix for shit."
When eventual champion Alex C hits the decks, it becomes instantly clear that herein lies the distinction I've been seeking: The music has now ceased to be an excuse to dance and is suddenly an imperative. Within seconds of Alex's first beat, the already crowded dance floor is packed, the 500-strong crowd whipped into an unprecedented, sweaty frenzy of physical movement and sonic propulsion. I even manage to lose sight of Escalator Girl for a few seconds here and there. Afterward, Carnahan is obviously exhilarated.
"I was counting, and he did 15 songs in 15 minutes. That shit is really hard to do," he marvels.
As the contest draws to a close, I reluctantly prepare to give up my alpha status among the assembled tribe. I'm fully aware that without my Judgmental Accoutrements of clipboard and dais, I must descend the social ladder and reclaim my usual place as a member of the rabble - and, among this crowd especially, a woefully underdressed one. I bid my fellow judges adieu, and after a failed attempt to locate the men's room, I scan the crowd one last time. Sure enough, the same folks who were clamoring for my attention just moments ago stare right through me, and Escalator Girl has disappeared completely. Of course, this is only right and natural. I check my watch and realize that if I get motoring I can still make it over to the Heights for the end of the Smoking Popes reunion show at Walter's (4215 Washington Avenue), where the hoodies 'n' hornrims crowd will be sure to provide a pluperfect counterpoint to the tricked-out denizens of Next. Oh, what a night!