"I actually have a pile of records this high that I have yet to listen to," sighs Keven Atoms.
Atoms feels a little anxious about it, the same way you might when there's homework hanging over your head. It may seem funny, but for Atoms, Queen Knobtweekah, and Jhim --- a group of DJs that spins at the Bug Jar on Sunday nights under the name Slumdays --- this is homework. Finding new music is part of a weekly ritual that usually begins in the used vinyl rack at a local thrift store like the East Main Street Salvation Army.
Atoms, Knobtweekah, and Jhim Kempkes first started DJ'ing in the mid-'90s --- electronic dance music and rave culture had already taken root locally. Not long after, local musicians found themselves facing dramatically reduced audiences at their shows; DJs were seen as culprits.
Kempkes explains that DJ styles generally evolve quickly and spawn very specific sub-genres with fiercely loyal fan groups. As a result, new forms such as techno, house, drum n' bass, and variations thereof are often seen as quickly passing fads rather than the vital creative advances that they truly represent.
Now, things have changed. The turntable --- once, not too long ago, disparaged for not being a "legitimate" instrument --- has followed a course not unlike the electric guitar by growing into an instrument that can fit in with and serve any style of music.
The Slumdays DJs are all fluent in formal DJ'ing skills. They are all able to "play" their decks using techniques like scratching and beat-matching and blending two or more songs into a new, sometimes unrecognizable whole. For Slumdays, though, the technical side of their presentation tends to be more subdued in favor of just establishing a flowing mood between the songs they choose to play. Atoms describes what he does as "like making a mix tape in real time."
Head to the Bug Jar on a Sunday night and you might hear disco blend into funk, then go from that to some soul jazz, and from there in any direction towards underground punk, metal, or vintage rap. Atoms, for example, can flow from, say, Todd Rundgren to Chic to Steely Dan to Joni Mitchell to Motörhead to Bad Brains to A Tribe Called Quest.
"One of my favorite things," explains Atoms, "is to introduce you to something that you didn't think you'd like and set it up so that you'll dance to it."
This requires an empathy with the crowd that Kempkes calls "egolessness." He likes how in dance music the performer literally becomes secondary.
"A good DJ," he found, "was able to read the crowd and take the whole environment into consideration."
"You never really know what you're going to get with them," says Bug Jar owner Bobby T. "Because of that, I have faith that they could be the next thing that takes off for us."
Most of the local places where the Slumdays DJs experienced the rave scene --- Freakazoid, Piranha, Heaven, Carpe Diem, Y2K, Vertex, Club Red, Tilt, Water Street --- are either gone or no longer draw nearly as much, if at all, from DJ nights. House parties and impromptu raves at abandoned industrial spaces --- two major arteries of interaction for ravers --- have all but died off in these parts.
Nonetheless, you can search around town and still find plenty of DJ nights at various venues. But these days "DJ" no longer implies "dance music artist" as much as just "someone who plays records." The Bug Jar seems to be leading the pack in creating a space in between, where anyone who wishes to create an atmosphere with music is welcome regardless of their technical skill level on the turntables. This suits Slumdays fine because they straddle the same line.
In many other settings, you're likely to hear a parade of Top 40, modern rock, or staple funk hits. The Bug Jar calendar includes Mugs N' Jugs on Wednesdays, the Thursday Night Shakedown, and the long-standing (and very well attended) alternating dance and hip-hop roster for Fridays that includes DJ Silly Cutty and Too Chill. The club has even been receptive to indie and art-house DJ'ing in the past. Often, live music is featured on the same nights.
But on the "graveyard" nights --- Sundays and Mondays --- DJs have the floor to themselves. Thanks to another group of DJs --- Carrie Christman, Jimmi Sinn, and Michelle Zingo --- Monday nights no longer count as a graveyard shift. Christman, Zingo, and Sinn spin '80s music exclusively, and the attendance for their Manic Mondays has been healthy to say the least.
On the surface, because the crowd could be extras on the set of Night of the Living Aimee Mann Lookalikes, Manic Mondays might appear to be less about discovery and more about nostalgia and camp. You're bound to hear staple hits, and DJs Christman, Sinn, and Zingo don't spend their energy trying to convince people to take '80s music more seriously.
On the other hand, each DJ harbors a sincere attachment to various styles of the time. So you can take Manic Mondays on two levels: either as light entertainment or an opportunity to revisit the '80s with a new appreciation for its musical depth, which still goes largely unsung. Zingo enthuses about the production values of records by Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, the Fixx, Crowded House, Devo, The Cure, and countless others.
Like their Sunday-night counterparts, Christman, Sinn, and Zingo do plenty of genre jumping. An eclectic approach makes sense; the decade was as dynamic as any other. Zingo points out that alt-rock innovators like Jane's Addiction, the Sugarcubes, Dinosaur Jr., and Nirvana all debuted in the '80s.
"Besides the pop," she says, "that stuff is my shit."
Sinn is a passionate proponent of thrash metal, goth, and hardcore punk --- all forms that seemed to work against the prevailing slick pop of their day. Now, though --- thanks in large part to the iPod mentality, which in turn owes a debt to DJ'ing and sampling --- all music is at our disposal, and it doesn't have to feel so stratified. Sinn likes to subvert people's boundaries by slipping in grittier stuff.
"By the time they're more drunk," he explains, "they're dancing along." He tends to shy away from the Celtic Frost and Christian Death. But if you ask loudly enough, he might oblige you.
Only 20 years later could such contrast work.
Slumdays (Sunday nights) and Manic Mondays (Monday nights) start around 10:30 p.m. at the Bug Jar, 219 Monroe Avenue. 454-2966, www.bugjar.com. There is no cover charge for 21+