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Published: 2001/08/20
by Barry Smolin

House Full Of Cheese: Mixing It Up With DJ Harry

In the hills above L.A.’s boho Los Feliz neighborhood, among the lush trees of Griffith Park, String Cheese Incident is deep into its 2nd set before an enraptured audience at the Greek Theatre.

Meanwhile, down in the flatlands of Hollywood, just two miles away, at a funky dive called The Garage, DJ Harry is setting up his rig, preparing to throw down a set of psychedelic house music for an all-night dance party following the SCI show. It’s certainly not news that the conjunction of the jam scene and the electronic dance music scene is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. As jambands incorporate dance music into their sound and DJs appropriate psychedelic samples into their mixes, the momentum of this emergent “crossover culture” seems to gain force and velocity with each passing month. Given the combination of jam fans and dance mavens heading to The Garage tonight, prospects are high for a culmination of sorts.

DJ Harry has made a splash in this hybrid scene with the release of his new CD “The String Cheese Remix Project,” just out on Instinct Records, a collection of dance remixes of live SCI performances culled from the Summer 2000 tour, during which Harry had been invited to bring his turntables onstage and spin breakbeats between SCI sets. He remembers, “I got booked to do Horning’s Hideout as a DJ at the shows. So, in June of 2000, before those gigs, I started to remix String Cheese licks and stuff from their discs because I thought it would be cool to include SCI music in the House mix I’d be doing on stage for the SCI audience.” Much to Harry’s pleasure and surprise, near the end of his DJ set at Horning’s Hideout in Oregon that July, “The guys from String Cheese came out and played on top of the mixes I was doing on stage during one of those sets, and they loved what was happening. THEY suggested the Remix’ project. They laid some tapes on me, and I got to work . . .”

Although it was through his friend Jesse Aratow that Harry got the original invite to spin, the dreadlocked DJ was certainly no stranger to the String Cheese scene. He and his friends had been going to see Kang, Nershi,, et al back in their days playing bars and clubs in Colorado as a bluegrass outfit called The Blue Cheese String Band.

Harry says he is not surprised at all at the phenomenal rise of String Cheese in the jam scene; however he is surprised, he remarks, “at how FAST it all happened. But, like I said, I am not surprised that it has happened. Jamband culture is now slowly entering the mainstream consciousness. It’s small, but it’s there. The groundwork was laid by the Grateful Dead, and it was translated into a contemporary setting by a few bands in the early ’90s. The time was right for SCI. Furthermore, and most importantly, String Cheese has learned how to play as one perfectly synchronized unit, knowing exactly where and how to take the crowd to that 'other place'. The journey to that 'other place' is why we are all involved in this culture in my opinion.”

In Los Angeles tonight, the vibe is especially auspicious: the cool August night is comfortably wonderful, the Cheese are in town, and it also happens to be Jerry Garcia’s birthday. Within the hour, String Cheese Incident will bring its epic outing to a close, and a swarm of jam enthusiasts will pry their way out of the stacked parking at the Greek and cross the L.A. basin, symbolically breaching the imaginary chasm that separates the hippie freaks and the techno geeks, two distinct worlds with myriad attributes in common, not the least of which being the search for transcendent journeys via music (and other psychoactive supplements). These worlds should have converged long before today.

In fact, DJ Harry did see the light of this hybrid form shine nearly a decade ago. His epiphany occurred in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show (of all perfect places) in Oakland in December of 1992. Upon exiting the show, he saw two DJstechno-hippies The Wicked Crew—spinning house music for a gaggle of ecstatic dancing Deadheads. In that most fitting of locales, Harry realized that what these DJs were doing to and with the body-minds of their audience was identical to what the Dead had just done inside the stadium.

For those unacquainted with the term, House music emerged out of the ashes of Disco after that much beleaguered genre was harassed into the underground by a rabidly antagonistic rock audience in the late ’70s. By 1982, primarily in gay dance clubs, gifted DJs in Chicago and New York and San Francisco began spinning an intensified, more complex form of Disco that came to be called “House.” Although House shares DNA with Disco, it has mutated into a genre all its own, several hundred genres, actually. Categories and labels in the electronic dance music world multiply faster than fruit flies.

“I was introduced to House music when I was at the height of my interest in the Grateful Dead. The connection was a no-brainer. I saw them both as the same thing: Music to dance to and have a mind altering experience with. The rhythm keeps your body moving and the melodies carry your mind away,” recalls Harry of his life-altering experience and subsequent immersion in electronic dance music.

To him, the Grateful Dead experience was mind expanding in more ways than one. He explains, “The music was very big and open. I felt like it matched the flow in my head. I was 18 at my first Dead show and 19 when I got hooked. I had grown up in the Midwest and hated it there at the time. It was constricting and depressing. It did not have the culture I felt I was cut out for. Too closed-minded and not imaginative enough. When I went to my second show, I looked around at the Deadheads and realized that these were my people. It was the kind of freedom I had been looking for my entire life. That was the first place I learned what it meant for everything to be on.’ The music established a perfect groove. It brought all of reality into concert. It was the first music I heard that took people to that other place.’”

And what did that other place’ teach the intense young DJ?:

“Ultimately, it taught me that I could be my own freaky self, whenever, wherever. I found a big part of myself with the Grateful Dead. I thrived on the carnival type atmosphere that prevailed throughout my day-to-day life and that peaked during the shows and kept me going when I was down, the way it taught me to live my life true to myself, that elated feeling I learned as I ran down the aisles of the venue, my spirit smiling from ear to ear. On the downside, the Deadhead scene was also kind of a home to the spiritually homeless,’” says Harry, referring the growing population of tour rats whose numbers continued to mushroom throughout the early 1990s and with whom, he admits, it became harder and harder to deal.

On stage at The Garage, while DJ Harry prepares to get his groove on, local funksters Mamasutra, who are sharing the bill with DJ Harry, lay down a blistering soundcheck in anticipation of a thick mob of tripped out Cheeseheads looking to get off their asses and get their asses off to a combination of live funk and raucous DJ-spun house music. Mamasutra saxman Russell Spurlock recalls his own first glimpse into the techno/jam hybrid: “I was at a Phish show, and I saw these dreadlocked hippies with rap and hip-hop and dance beats coming out of their boxes and cars. I didn’t get the connection at first. But it started to make sense real fast. The dance beats combining with live improvisational music is just inevitable.” As restrictive booking policies in Los Angeles rock clubs (35-40 minute sets are the norm) make it harder and harder for jambands to stretch out during their sets, Mamasutra has found the ideal setting for their music in the form of these parties. Inviting DJs to spin alongside the live bands seemed like a natural partnership.

Harry is double-checking the connections on his Technics turntables and his Pioneer DJM-500 mixer. Although he often rents rigs when he travels, for this series of gigs on the west coast, Harry has driven from his home in Colorado, and so he has brought along his own rig, although, as he explains, “essentially the rig doesn’t matter. It’s not like musicians and their instruments. Technics turntables are Technics turntables. My records are what matter.” He points to a battered silver box at the side of the stage. “The Silver Box. THAT’S everything,” he makes clear. His stack of records is his calling card, his bread and butter, and his constant companion. Harry cues up his first two discs.

While he readies his set-up, Mamasutra’s stately bassist/vocalist Molly Boyles strolls the still empty club in the moments before the doors open. As a player from the punk and funk traditions, both of these worlds—jam-rock and electronic dance music—have been an acquired taste. “It took me a while to accept the looser psychedelic influences,” she states candidly. But now, of course, she is completely into it and has embraced both worlds separately as well as in the form of the embryonic hybrid music creeping into broader consciousness. “I was surprised that the two types of music blended together so well. Now, of course, it makes perfect sense,” observes Boyles, “They both create an inner silence, hearts and minds come totally awake, bridging the gap between rock and dance.” Like her bandmate Spurlock, Boyles has come to prefer the party setting for their music: “I like it better than the club concert scene. You make a deeper connection with people. Clubs create tightness and fear.”

Satisfied with his soundcheck, DJ Harry straddles a stool at the bar and continues to reminisce about his journey to DJhood. Once he experienced his great revelation in the Dead show parking lot, he decided he wanted to learn the art of spinning. Harry sought out no mentors, though. He relates, “I totally taught myself. Did all the research on where to get the gear and the records myself. No mentor. I am a very do-it-yourself kind of person. I like to go up against the odds; it makes the rewards that much more fulfilling. I learned by listening very closely. I picked up the basics in about three weeks and was playing big raves four months later in St. Louis and Phoenix.”

Perhaps he had no mentors, but he certainly had profound mentoring experiences at the raves that were cropping up all over the country at the time: “I started going to raves in 1992, definitely the glory days.” Harry remembers that scene a decade ago as purer than the current commercialized mega-events and club-raves that occur with great regularity today: “Back then people didn't exactly know what it was or what to expect, so everyone just came to check it out. There was no status quo, no preconceived ideas about how to act, dress, or dance. It was very pure. People came with open minds and had a great time. It was a learning experience for all. The music was the best then as well in my opinion. Very soulful. It was still very underground at that time which kept the vibe undiluted and very high energy.”

But despite his love for underground raves, Harry, who had moved to the Bay Area briefly in 1992, was also drawn to San Francisco’s abundance of exuberant dance clubs. “The San Francisco House music scene in the early ’90s was my heaviest influence,” Harry recalls, “The energy and the love on the dance floor up there is the best in the world. The Bay Area is known for that. The Grateful Dead/Hippie movement was also spawned there. It’s a very open place for artistic experimentation and the development of kind scenes.”

As Harry and Mamsutra’s Spurlock discuss the logistics of their planned segue from Harry’s DJ set to Mamasutra’s live set, a segue intended to be utterly seamless, switched-on jam fans begin to arrive from the String Cheese show. Bewildered at first by the unfamiliar surroundings and the hip-hop on the P.A., the post-Cheese crowd is drawn immediately to a corner of The Garage where artist Tom Gardner is painting a birthday portrait of Jerry Garcia, someone they recognize. Within minutes the venue is crowded and heating up with all the residual joy of the SCI show. The psychedelios are here to party, mingle, dance, expand, turn on, get laid, and, most importantly, trip out to some freakzone music.

Harry steps to the stage and begins to spin, setting in motion a warm but ferocious beat that seems to say, “Welcome to the Funhouse, all y’all seekers of dizzy wisdom, tonight tonight tonight tonight tonight we will we will we will tonight we will tonight we will explore explore explore explore. . .” The bass is like yo mama’s heartbeat. Piano traipsings trip across the designated eternity, locked into the always present moment. And then, instantly, the beat shifts, the moment is broken, time is dislodged. The dancers have been expelled from mother’s womb, whelped into the chaos of worldly experience once again, until the new groove galvanizes their minds and jacks them back into hyperspace.

The methodology of cutting and mixing is quite the magical mystery tour to most jam fanatics, who can often discern what a jamband is up to during their freaky jams but can’t really digest how a DJ creates dance mixes out of pre-existing music. Harry is happy to describe his method of working on the tunes that became “The String Cheese Remix Project”:

“First, I found the hottest hooks in the hottest songs in the concert tapes the band had given me access to. Days and days of listening to different shows. A sizzling key line or a bunch of hot Kang licks. I then sampled those riffs with the Emu e6400 Ultra. I pulled out as many hooks as possible from all the musicians and then began the process of picking the best from that lot. I ended up with a bunch of amazing little puzzle pieces that I began trying to make into a new, complete picture. Many times the gluing together process hit a dead end, and I had to step back and try gluing from a different perspective. This sort of thing can all be very time consuming—days and days. The best work happens between 1:00 A.M. and 5:00 A.M. Things get really weird when everything’s flowing. I spent over 1700 hours in about 4 months making the String Cheese Remix’ album, almost all of that time by myself….it was mentally and spiritually challenging.”

While the dancers spin and flail on The Garage’s cramped dance floor, DJ Harry—lit cigarette dangling from the left corner of his mouth, head crooked, cradling the headphones, cuing and synchronizing his segues and overlaps—maintains a serious demeanor, the look of artistic concentration. Although his natty blond dreads bounce to the rhythm of the music and fly ever more severely upward as the energy crescendos toward a pants-wetting climax, Harry is focused on his work, attending to the business of providing adequate accompaniment for the inner journey of the dancers in his thrall. The freaks are breathing the beat. This is more than a machine, and they know it. The angry cry, “Disco Sucks!” has never seemed farther in the past. “It’s a very interior trip,” Harry concedes, “House music is sex for one.”

The folks who criticize electronic music and the burgeoning scene around it have valid concerns, admits Harry. “Electronic music can be sterile when it’s not done well. The other problem is there are too many bad DJs out there who perpetuate the stereotype of electronic music being cold and computerized and inhumane. People go out and have a bad experience with a lame DJ and they reject ALL of electronic music, which is a shame.” He is himself a musician (mandolin and guitar) and thinks it’s important for people to support work being done by the talented players out there making music on traditional instruments.

Some brilliant combination of the traditional and the electronic, seems to Harry the probable next direction of the scene. “Bands like The New Deal, Sector 9, and The Disco Biscuits are the future of psychedelic dance music in my opinion. Traditional instruments need to remain a part of the electronic groove and electronics can provide a whole new panorama of sounds for rock bands. It creates an equilibrium: the gravity of DJ culture can’t take hold as powerfully as this hybrid that’s happening.” He goes on to reveal, “Just DJing is not enough for me anymore. I’d like to have communication on stage with other musicians, which in turn makes the music more a conversation that the audience can participate in as well.”

He’s actually considering jumping into the electronic/rock combo situation himself: “I plan to start a band that’ll include a percussion player, a keyboardist, a guitarist, and I’ll be doing a live P.A. loop underneath it all. I’m very excited about what’s happening. I’ll also play some guitar and keyboards as well. I did the live thing with Keller Williams and it was fabulous, at the bluegrass festival in Telluride. I’m hoping to do some more stuff with Dr. Didg on a regular basis. I’m doing some stuff for his upcoming album and would love to keep on working with him. Dr. Didg [Graham Wiggins] is amazing. He understands completely how to merge electronic and traditional sounds.”

The sonic assault emanating from Harry’s speakers as he winds down his set is punctuated by samples of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which strikes one as, perhaps, a nod to the “integration” of these two scenes. Mamasutra’s drummer takes the stage and begins playing along with the house beats. No one notices. Drummer and machine are joined. Russell Spurlock then begins laying down sax riffs with the drummer and Harry’s mix. Molly Boyles, in a mock-blasphemous wizard-pope costume, takes the stage, blesses the crowd, dons her bass and starts slapping her funky thing. Finally, the guitar player straps his dragon on and begins to wail. Harry fades down his mix and the music is then all Mamasutra, straight on and funkified, a seamless transition from DJ to band. The undulating crowd is itself the sign that “everything’s flowing,” to use Harry’s phrase. Also helping the madness along are a couple of veterans of L.A.’s stalwart dance party crew The Moontribe Collective distributing to the happy dancers squares of psilocybin fudge, that great staple of the party scene in L.A., the new hippie mixture of choice ’round Southern California these days.

With the madness all around him, DJ Harry gazes upon the tuned in crowd with his eyes emanating a sparkling sky-gleam and considers the differences between jam-rock and electronic dance music: “The big difference is the bottom end. Rock and roll seems to be missing the bass. The bass is what moves your body. You can physically feel it in your bones. Very low bass tones can actually cause a feeling of uneasiness or dizziness. House and Drum n Bass tracks with really low bass lines are often referred to as 'spooky' or 'dark'. It gives you the feeling there is another presence or being in the room with you. And I would also say electronic music is more atmospheric because of its abstract nature.”

Despite the impressive energy of events like the String Cheese After Party, one wonders if there really is any kind of true success in store for the melding of these two scenes. Each on its own has remained fiercely underground. Will the hybrid blossom more grandly than its respective parents? DJ Harry doesn’t see widespread acceptance as a probability: “Mainstream America listens to what big record companies tell them to listen to,” he warns, “The irony is that if jam music or electronic music DID become mainstream, the art would get diluted by necessity, whitewashed, and none of us who are into it right now would want to go anymore. Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, Prodigy, etc. were an attempt to streamline the electronic sound. And it didn’t work.”

Distinguishing the Hippie and Rave audiences from such corporate tastes, he goes on to explain, “We want a mood, an emotional experience, and we’re hooked on the possibility of that emotional experience, not necessarily on the songs themselves. Just like in the jam scene, House music is new every single time. You can go hear 10 DJs spin several times in a row, and you won’t hear the same music repeated. Electronic music invents new sounds and ideas on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. It keeps the imagination fresh and requires that you constantly visit new places. It allows you to go to a new place every time you spin, or go out dancing, or whatever.”

. . By now it’s nearing 5:00 AM. At the end of Mamasutra’s set the audience has dwindled down to the hardcore space cowboys who can still wrangle enough energy to sway. The final strains of music conclude as dawn imposes itself on the Hollywood cityscape. Is the blurriness out there due to the lack of light or lack of sleep?

DJ Harry packs up his rig and prepares to make the trek up the coast to Santa Barbara for another SCI dance party later tonight. Pondering the exodus of weary souls, Harry wonders if his intent has been successfully achieved: “I like people to think new thoughts, and have an experience that casts their everyday world, when they return to it, in a new light, from a different perspective. That’s the sign that it’s been a real journey. You should be different upon re-entry into daily reality.” He acknowledges, of course, that, as a DJ, one rarely gets to find out if the spell has worked. But DJ Harry moves forward with the faith that it has.

The remaining stragglers stumble out of The Garage and into the brisk overcast morning, L.A.’s seasonal marine layer enshrouding the town in a blanket of familiar summertime gray. All are giddy with the glimpse into the future they’ve been provided with in the past few enchanted hours. Bodies have moved, minds have transcended, worlds have merged.

It’s a brand new day.

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