Hit the Decks
House music started out as a trashy little tramp of a thing. Its early hits were built on not much more than a drum machine pumping away at a headboard-against-the-wall tempo and a few breathy pleas to jack your body into the orgiastic confluence of dancers on the floor. House was populist and lowbrow, unashamedly less complex than even its predecessor, disco.
That's the house the 13-year-old Chicago kid who would become Bad Boy Bill heard on his radio. In the two decades since its birth in the Windy City's gay black underground, house has acquired a nine-to-five job, traded its sweat-stained T-shirt for dry-clean-only monochromatic outfits and stopped hooking up with strangers in the bathroom. Witness the house flavor du jour, the deep, frictionless sound served up by of-the-moment label Naked Music, where all the rough edges have been rounded off and watery melodies soothe the listener into a Zoloft-like haze.
Bill says that this kinder, gentler phase of the music is fine "for lying back at the bar, talking to friends," but the less-mannered, older-school strain is still what ignites his passion. "My style is a lot more peak house," the veteran DJ explains over the phone from Chicago. "I tend to play the sweatier, go-nuts style of house."
And he plays it in a much sweatier, go-nuts way than does the newer crop of house selectors, who put a premium on extended, seamless mixes between records. Bill, on the other hand, slashes back and forth with the cross-fader, indiscreetly dropping in chunks of sound. He bobs and weaves between the turntables and his record crate incessantly, as he fiddles with the mixer knobs and scribbles scratches in the next track. He's one of maybe three house DJs in the world who are fun to watch.
His aggressive, trick-heavy approach has its origins in the music's earliest beginnings in Chicago. Too young to get into the clubs, Bill would tune in to WBMX, one of the only commercial stations in the history of American radio that really got behind underground dance music. The jocks who held court at various times of the day were the dexterous Hot Mix 5 tag team. Bill guessed at what turntable techniques they were using and tried to replicate them in his bedroom.
"What was so special about the Hot Mix guys was that each of the five DJs had his own little unique style," he says. "Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk was more deep house, but with cutting and scratching; Mickey Oliver had more of a European, NRG sound; but they would all meet, on certain big records. So the hottest track of the moment might appear in three of the five mixes, but each would use it in a different context."
Bill wanted a piece of the action, so he started throwing parties at rented halls and hiring the Hot Mix 5 to spin at them. He struck up a friendship with Funk, who decided to jump ship from WBMX and start his own all-star DJ fivesome at a competing station. Funk hired Bill for his team and pushed him to be especially flashy on the decks, hungry as he was to snatch ratings.
By the late '80s, the house wave had crested in Chicago -- the radio shows were yanked, and the only place where healthy numbers of house records were selling was Europe. After incubating for a few years overseas, the music came back to the States as fodder for the main-room sound systems in the burgeoning rave scene.
Bill, who in the meantime had honed his skills enough to take second place at the 1988 U.S. finals of the DMC DJ competitions, embraced the rave circuit more than almost all of his hometown contemporaries. The combination of his taste in tracks, which ran toward the hornier, harder side of house, and his frenetic B-boy showmanship proved irresistible to the amphetamine-charged kiddies in the massive warehouse scene.
But Bill's constant touring meant that his own production and remix work would be released sporadically and relatively late in his career. After more than 15 years as a DJ, he has yet to submit an artist album, promoting himself instead with a successful five-volume series of mix CDs called Bangin' the Box. Without a full-length of original material -- considered a crucial milestone in the dance press -- Bill has built his near-superstar status without the help of magazine covers or much promotional muscle.
"I've always tried to promote myself to the people," he says. "If people were buying the mix CDs and coming to the shows, then I was happy and didn't feel the need to push it harder than that."
Soon, though, that grassroots approach is finally going to take hold. On the tour that brings him to Houston, he'll be supporting a new compilation that cuts a slightly higher profile than his self-released Box series. This one, Behind the Decks, is on System Recordings, an upstart label that's attempting to build a platform for heralded DJs on the club circuit to wiggle their way into the awareness of general listeners.
Sonically, Decks shows Bill's track selections to be as indulgently lowbrow as ever. Just on the verge of "ghetto house" -- gritty bass lines and simple drum patterns spiced up with B-boy posturing -- the 40 songs he charges through are the antithesis of the so-called deep sound in vogue with house hipsters. Like a good Midwestern boy, Bill avoids the froufrou for the utilitarian, choosing records with titles like "Fist Funk," "Don't Stop" and "Just Dance."
Bill also keeps the mix street-level by employing the hip-hop DJ trick of reconfiguring instrumental tracks by blending a cappellas from different cuts with them, something few house jocks do. "That came from when I was on the radio, doing my mix show," he explains. "I'd always try to keep the listeners on their toes and interested, without punching out [i.e., interrupting the mix]. So I'd put an a cappella over a different track -- something unexpected, so they wouldn't tune out."
His DJ schedule of 180 gigs a year and his accolades as a quasi-turntablist cause even clubbers familiar with Bill's career to forget that he's also a burgeoning producer. Release of his debut artist album has been perpetually delayed (he swears it will be out next year); in the meantime, he used Decks and the tour he's supporting it with as a Gong Show of sorts for his new, self-made material. He test-drives his latest studio creations in the club and on the CD to see how they go over. Depending on the feedback, he either modifies them or lets them stand as they are.
Not surprisingly, his creations are unkempt, rambunctious little things, with just a bit of skankiness slathered on for good measure. Don't expect Bill, the last DJ on earth to put on airs, to wear a dinner jacket to his coming-out party.
Ultimately, he's in no rush to drop his album -- the step a lot of house DJs consider crucial to legitimizing their careers. He's satisfied as an in-the-trenches DJ. "I mean, come on -- I get paid to play records," he says with a chuckle. "I've got nothing to complain about."
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