Spun From the Underground
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.
"They were the granddaddies of the local dance scene," says Club Some owner Neil Heller, about Arnold and DeGrace, who continue to spin all over town.
For a majority of house DJs, their motivation is simple: to introduce people to sounds they wouldn't otherwise hear, doing so in a way that's unique to their own tastes and personalities. The more underground the DJ, the more likely that commitment means working crummy day jobs or living at poverty level or both. The only other option is selling out, which normally entails spinning at mainstream meat markets downtown and along Richmond Avenue. The best DJs in Houston will swear that they really are in it for the music. Most think of themselves as crusaders for quality, giving folks an experience they wouldn't otherwise get from a radio station or a video channel.
House music caught on locally. Before long, a smattering of self-made DJ personalities and promoters began hosting renegade, all-night parties commonly known as "raves." An elaborate bash held in 1992 called "Unity" is widely considered to have been the city's first full-scale rave, and to this day, the best local parties are a bacchanal of overstimulation. Chest-cavity-pounding barrages of mix-and-match grooves supplied by DJs are paired with a pulsating arsenal of lights, lasers and other visual stimuli for (if it's done right) a potent full-body experience. The sin-soaked vibe is enhanced by LSD, ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine, the preferred modes of cranial transportation for ravers. Almost from the start, parents and local authorities were not amused. (Though it's worth noting that DJs and local police indicate that drugs aren't any more pervasive at Houston raves than in any other scene around the country -- in many cases, even less so.)
Chris Anderson just missed being a part of Houston's first legitimate rave by a matter of hours, but he is still considered the godfather of Houston's rave scene. A modest, intelligent 27-year-old, Anderson is a Rice University graduate who once had designs on being a molecular physicist, until a trip to England changed his mind. While there on a work-abroad program, he immersed himself in the thriving dance subculture across the ocean. Anderson returned to Houston a changed man, loaded down with British-made vinyl. In essence, Anderson's stay in the U.K. would help determine the fate of the Houston scene for years to come -- that, and his at-times tenuous relationship with the guy they call Bizz.
Anderson and Bizz are partners in Chemistry Records. Last month, the store celebrated its grand opening with "Chemical Reaction," a sophisticated, large-scale rave by any standard. The gig was held at the International Ballroom, a shoeboxy, hollowed-out old Kroger on South Main. After Dark -- a production alliance headed by Rand-E Harrison, also a part-owner at Chemistry -- sunk an estimated $20,000 into the event. A good portion of the money went toward the 125,000-watt sound system and a laser/light show imported from London. Another sizable chunk was spent bringing in DJs from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Canada. Houston's turntable contingent was represented by Bizz, Anderson and Harrison.
The cost to attend the event was $20 a head, about average for bigger raves. As is the custom, revelers had been tipped off to the party via the Internet, word of mouth and a slick, visually striking flier (featuring a shapely, nude female cyborg) distributed at Cardi's and other raver-friendly venues. Around 1,500 showed, most arriving ready to groove in typical rave-kid garb: absurdly baggy, super-flared trousers, oversized T-shirts adorned with an innumerable array of eye-catching, sloganish graphics, clunky, retro-'70s sneaks, multiple piercings, etc.
Most kids have a hard time articulating the ultimate rave experience, but Christina Shuman, who estimates she has been to more than 250 raves in Houston and elsewhere, puts it this way: "It feels like the whole place is happy and full of life. Everyone there is smiling; you can go crazy and nobody is going to care. It's a welcome feeling -- like home."
"Chemical Reaction" went off without a hitch: no cops, no injuries, no problem. But that hasn't always been the case. During the wee hours of November 24, 1996, DJ Bizz found himself the unwitting target of a short-lived initiative by Houston police to put a lid on Houston's burgeoning rave culture. Prompted by a flurry of media attention focused on the negatives of the scene -- drinking, drugs, curfew violations, occasional violence -- authorities swept into "Reach," a party thrown by Bizz's onetime crew, Good Vibe Tribe, at the now-defunct Southwest Houston nightclub Middle Earth. The surprise visit was accompanied by local TV coverage. After reporters began questioning his guests, Bizz lost it and screamed into a Channel 13 camera.
Of the 1,000 or so in attendance, 59 were taken into custody. Most were juveniles cited for staying out past curfew, though a few were charged with alcohol and drug possession. Though there were at least three other incidents around that time in which the HPD infiltrated area raves, the "Reach" raid was the most publicized. And it set the scene back some.
"That was when the shit hit the fan, so to speak," Anderson says.
Before the "Reach" bust and the few months surrounding it, Houston's rave scene thrived on the fringes. Upon his return from scouting out the rave scene in England, Anderson helped assemble a DJ/production group called the Matrix Crew.
"There was a point where we were building up this massive following," Anderson recalls. "Everything started in September 1992. 'Unity' was the first [big] party in town, then I came back and Matrix Crew threw our first party in October. In England, I remember sitting down and drawing [up] my own plan for this outdoor festival," Anderson recalls. "Eventually, I ended up throwing parties bigger than I had ever dreamed of at that point."
Bizz, meanwhile, was stuck in a Hill Country penitentiary.
"I'm not ashamed of anything," he says. "The things that happened to me are the things that taught me. Why should I try to bury [them]? Because I went to jail doesn't make me a bad person. You usually get that stereotypical prisoner -- he's full of tattoos, he's got a bald head, he's missing a tooth, he's big, he's mean. You don't think of somebody like myself."
Nonetheless, Bizz wound up spending two years in federal prison at Bastrop. "In prison, there's so many different types of people you would be amazed," he relates. "There's small, white old men all the way up to huge body builders."
Bizz opted to hang with the latter group, lifting weights, "keeping my mouth shut and staying away from stuff. I worked out a lot -- you can't tell now, but I was actually pretty buff by the time I got out."
Then, there's the matter of his street moniker: "My name is Albert, and the other prisoners would shorten it to 'Bizz-ert' After I was there for awhile, it just got to Bizz -- 'Yo Bizz, whassup?' "
Eventually, Bizz was shipped off to a halfway house in Houston for six months. His original intention was to play it clean -- to stay far away from the DJ lifestyle that had gotten him into trouble. "I came here to go to the Art Institute," Bizz says. "I wanted to go to school, and I wanted to be a better person and shit."
But as it turns out, Bizz wasn't cut out for the classroom: "Everything they were teaching me was so fundamental. There were like 40 other people in the room, and it was just too much. It's a scam, bro."
So Bizz ditched school and gravitated back to the dance culture he loved, eventually landing a retail position at a local record store called Atomic Music. Getting his feet wet wasn't easy -- and Bizz didn't make it any easier on himself with his distended ego.
"When I first came around, there was no love," Bizz says. "The rave culture is supposed to be about being yourself, coming in and being loved -- sort of like the hippie mentality. But when I first got here, they didn't give me no love."
At that time, the Matrix Crew had just resurfaced after a much-needed sabbatical from the scene. For more than a year, they'd been hosting large-scale, mostly problem-free raves in Houston -- a few with attendance of 2,000 or more -- and they needed time to regroup.
As it turns out, Bizz was actually barred from the Matrix Crew's first comeback rave. Dubbed "Area 51" (not to be confused with the local club of the same name), it was held backstage at the Ensemble Theatre downtown. "I didn't even get in the door, because they only let 700 people in the building."
Initially, Bizz felt like he was being barred from the scene entirely, so he skirted the resistance he felt by hosting his own parties. He started small: His first rave, "Resurrection," was held in early 1995 at an old Montrose club called Attica located behind the Oven on lower Westheimer, where an unfinished condo development now stands. Attendance was estimated at 500 to 600 -- not bad for a first effort.
" 'Area 51' was the spark," Bizz recalls. "Then came 'Resurrection'; then, after that, came 'Candyland,' which had 1,800 people, and we kept building and building and building."
By 1995, Bizz had his own crew, the Good Vibe Tribe, and was finally beginning to work his way into Anderson's good graces -- though the two couldn't have been more different in every way.
"I run off at the mouth," Bizz says. "Chris is very concerned about people hanging out with him just because he's Chris. You're not going to get a big extravagant spiel out of him."
Small and nondescript, Chemistry Records is easy to miss. It's just across from the Daiquiri Factory on lower Westheimer, wedged between a wireless-communications outlet and a second-hand clothing store. House and offshoot styles such as jungle, techno and trance are the main sounds stocked at Chemistry, along with various DJ accessories: high-quality needles, heavy-duty record-storage cases, leopard-patterned "slip mats" to cushion your turntable.
Aside from hundreds of national and international releases, Chemistry stocks mix tapes and CDs from locals. Ask around the store about what acts are hot-sellers of late, and you'll likely elicit a blank stare. For in the underground dance-music trade, it's more about the product than its creator -- so much so that a good many artist/producers in the business prefer to practice under pseudonyms or remain completely anonymous.
Aside from its retail identity, Chemistry has become a clubhouse of sorts for Bizz and his pals, a place to talk shop, gossip, have a smoke and watch the parade of people outside. Bizz now has a few close associates he can trust, patient types who have learned to laugh off his self-aggrandizing nature and tolerate his off-putting personality quirks.
"It must be too hot to wear a wig today," says Bizz, commenting on a reed-thin, short-haired transvestite passing by on the sidewalk in front of the store. It's a muggy September afternoon, and Chemistry co-owners Bizz, Anderson and Rand-E and a few others are gathered near the front of the sparsely decorated store's interior. Laughter erupts around the transvestite crack, and Bizz is in his element. Now the center of attention, he makes a lame attempt at humility: "I really think you need to talk about everybody in this story, but if you want to focus on me, that's all good, too."
Anderson eyes Bizz with a certain amount of jaded disinterest. His hair cropped to military muster and dyed a reddish shade of purple, Anderson looks either stoned or bored or both. The similarities between these two friends are few, but they do exist. Both have the skill to work with up to three turntables at the same time, mixing break-beats (the peak, percussive portion of a funk or disco track) and esoteric snippets of electronic dance soundscapes with liquid precision. But, similar to his everyday demeanor, Anderson is more laid-back and studious behind the tables, whereas Bizz tends to be more of an entertainer, a spaz.
"[My style is] a mixture of funky disco house -- which samples a lot of old disco records -- and some hard, hard house -- sort of techno-y," says Bizz. "I try to mix it up; there's a lot of different stuff I like. Sometimes I'll play like totally hard one night, and people will be like, 'Wow, this isn't the Bizz I've ever heard.' Other times, I'll play all disco.
"I get the crowd hyped -- I make them scream and shout. I do a lot of scratching [an early rap technique that entails moving a record back and forth under the needle for a scratching effect]. I used to be a hip-hop DJ, so I do a lot of tricks. The music should be so good that you shouldn't even be watching the DJ, but I definitely put on a show."
As for Anderson's command of the turntables: "I tend to be a lot harder, and he tends to be a lot more on the disco tip. You can definitely differentiate between us."
But in a way, the two complement each other, Anderson with his sharp mind, Bizz with his bold attitude. As the two kept knocking into each other in record stores and at various rave functions, they developed a friendship. It's one based on a mutual respect for the other's talents and the realization that together they can do twice as much for the scene.
"Chris is all the way left; I'm all the way right," Bizz says. "So whatever he lacks in my way, I lack in his way, and we make this combination."
One area where Bizz and Anderson do not diverge is in their recollection of the unfortunate events that put a dent in the rave culture in Houston. "I threw a party called 'Trip' [in January 1996] that got shut down [by the city fire marshal], and that was sort of the beginning of the end," says Bizz.
The extremely public "Reach" bust in late '96 was the capper, though. "The story had just broke in the [national] news about all this rave shit," he says. "They put a lid on it."
For a short time, maybe. Almost as quickly as it started, the pressure from authorities tapered off. The parties shrank in size for a while, and promoters became more thorough, getting legitimate permits and making sure all of their legal bases were covered. Bizz's friends in After Dark, for instance, have entered into an exclusive agreement with the owners of the International Ballroom, which assures them a safe party haven every few months.
"Really, there's been parties every weekend for the last two or three years," says Bizz, "whether they're at [a nightclub] or somebody's house."
Also chilling at Chemistry, Zakaos -- birth name: Deane Ewing -- shakes his head in agreement. A specialist in the drum-and-bass style, an ambient descendent of house music, Zakaos works for Bizz's former employer, Atomic Music, just down the road. But the competition between the stores doesn't prevent Zakaos from checking in regularly.
"A lot of times, if a party bombs, you don't make any money," Zakaos says, explaining that the rave scene in Houston is anything but a high-dollar enterprise. "You just do it to spin and maybe buy a few records. That's how I started out, that's how Chris started out, that's how Albert started out."
Despite impressive turnouts, rave organizers in town are lucky to break even. In fact, Rand-E's After Dark enterprise has yet to do so for any of the raves it's hosted. But money isn't everything, says Bizz.
"The quality versus the quantity is the thing. [Houston always has] a bunch of parties," Bizz says. "But there are some crews who throw good parties and some that throw bad parties. And there are some crews who want to throw good parties, but bad things happen."
To see it now, you'd never know that Cardi's used to book heavy-metal bands, and that's the whole idea: The club is trying to fashion an approximation of the rave experience into a few-times-a-week enterprise. The vibe is all-inclusive, feeding off the vaguely utopian philosophy that house music has no boundaries -- musical, cultural, racial, economic or otherwise. Tonight, at least, the crowd of a few hundred is mostly white. From a music standpoint, though, Cardi's plan seems to be working. Wednesdays and Fridays spotlight everything from mellow acid jazz to abrupt break-beats.
Wednesday nights are hosted by an amiable, low-key character who calls himself DJ Chello. His sets usually feature a rotating cast of guests, who seem to amble on stage whenever, to take over the two turntables. DJ Dose (Randy Rodriguez) is hanging in the back soaking up a guest set from Ethan Klein. "Any good DJ, when they perform, they're giving you a piece of themselves," Dose says.
Dose cut his teeth spinning hip-hop at nightclubs in New York City before moving here in the early '90s to attend the University of Houston. These days, he is a part-time student, construction worker and CEO of House Hound Productions, essentially a one-man operation.
His set over, Klein makes for the bar and squeezes in next to Dose. A clean-cut kindergarten teacher whose face bears a droopy resemblance to comedian Pauly Shore, Klein is part of the Scooby Doo Crew. At one time, the Doo Crew was responsible for some of the most elaborate, pre-crackdown raves in Houston, including an especially colorful outdoor spectacle on Crystal Beach.
"At our first party, there was 3,200 people; it was amazing," says Klein of "New World," the Doo Crew's first rave in March of 1996. "It was in an old bank building downtown, and the chill-out room was in the vault. We told [the building owners] it was a wedding reception."
Bizz was one of many DJs spinning at "New World," and he made an impression on Klein from the start. "When I left in 1994 [to live on the West Coast], I had never heard of Bizz. When I came back in '96, he was on all the fliers," Klein says. "He's real straightforward -- yeah, he is a little cocky -- but he's really genuine. He won't stab you in the back unless he's telling you he's stabbing you in the back. Maybe he's not the best mixer in the world, and maybe Dose and I don't like his music, but he works hard at what he does."
Indeed, Houston's DJ subculture seems to possess a heartening code of ethics: Work hard, stay honest and be true to the music. Almost without exception, DJs have nothing derogatory to say about their underground contemporaries, and they'll talk up another's accomplishments without hesitation. The way Klein sees it, the scene as a whole can only benefit from the hype.
Still, Klein sees the Texas DJ subculture as somewhat behind the times. His sobering outlook comes despite significant strides in the right direction -- events such as the Texas Electronica Festival, a nationally recognized DJ gathering held annually in Dripping Springs.
"The thing with Texas is that it's in the middle of everything," he says. "It's pulling between the East Coast and the West Coast scenes. It's young. Here, people seem to do it because it's more trendy. There's New York house, there's Detroit house, there's Chicago house, there's West Coast house...."
And Houston house? "Nah," says Klein. "The thing about Houston is, we're not recognized. But hopefully [guys like] Chris Anderson will do something about that."
The Doo Crew tried to make the rave-club strategy work, transforming Incognito, a gay bar downtown, into the Orbit Room on Saturday nights. Occasionally, they even booked national acts. But after losing a pile of money, they abandoned the Orbit Room this summer and have been noticeably absent from the scene of late (though Klein hints they might be back in business as early as next month).
Other clubs around Houston also cater to the rave crowd. The Oven in Montrose is a magnet for underage ravers on Tuesday nights, when the LunateX crew hosts an "open PA" -- which essentially means that anyone brave enough can get behind the turntables and mix. (At best, the sounds that result are random and experimental. At worst, it's the DJ equivalent of masturbation.) Downtown clubs like Rich's and the Waxx host weekly happenings with pronounced rave undertones, as well.
But Klein says the club experience in Houston leaves something to be desired. "Part of the fun of going to a party is going into a totally different world," he says, adding that the nightclub setup is simply too structured, too routine. "[I'm] in reality every day, and on the weekends I want to be somewhere else without having to pay 25 dollars for a hit of acid. For me, I'm sober, and like being totally away from everything."
Bizz would like to believe that the city's DJs can work within any limitations Houston might have, and eventually slough off any bad karma completely.
"When people ask me about Houston, I tell them that we're the shit," Bizz says. "Whether its the hip-hop guys, whether it's acid jazz, whether it's the jungle kids, it all revolves around the same thing -- which is to promote the music we believe in, whether it be a big party at the International Ballroom, or Chello doing his thing at Cardi's, or the hip-hop guys doing their thing at [the Waxx]. We're doing it because we love it. There's no money in this shit."
Which naturally means that Bizz will continue shopping his wares elsewhere. Already, he's been featured under the same roof as '90s DJ icons Moby, King Britt and the Crystal Method. Meanwhile, the national rave circuit has taken him as far away as San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Denver, Phoenix and Toronto. But wherever he spins, he does his part to talk up the scene in Houston -- and, of course, stay out of trouble.
"I've had my day and I've done my shit," Bizz says. "It took a lot of disrespect to get the respect I've earned. I'm all about the music now."
E-mail Hobart Rowland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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