By Noah Hubbell
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Many American DJs leave the sophistication that's part of the European electronic mileu begging at the door of bland musical purism. But not Peter Gurule, aka DJ Aztec. Unlike plenty of his Denver peers, who favor the baggy-pants uniform that came into vogue during the early Nineties, Aztec prefers Armani suits and other form-fitting apparel. Musically, he's just as cosmopolitan. "I cater to a mature crowd--people who appreciate style and beauty," he says. "I am one of the few DJs around who thinks about playing jungle music surrounded by vases of flowers while serving hors d'oeuvres."
As a disc jockey, Aztec, 28, is concerned about both the eyes and the ears of his audience. He cuts a fashionable figure behind the turntables during "Pressure," his regular Thursday night drum-and-bass sessions at the Snake Pit (one of the first local venues to feature such sounds) and goes to even greater extremes to make the private parties he's becoming famous for hosting as special as they can be. His events, which sport names like "Cafe," "Cinema" and "Spring Rites," have earned a reputation for delivering the goods to a more cultured crowd--the sort of twenty- to thirtysomethings who would rather dance than spend half an hour in line to use a portable restroom. A Martha Stewart for the electro-disco set, Aztec has firm ideas about how spectacles should be staged. "I don't throw rave parties in dingy warehouses," he points out. "I like to have private parties, usually with a seasonal theme, like 'Equinox' and 'Summer Solstice.'
"I have a strong artistic background, and I like to create an ambience to go with the music," he adds. "Right now we're using a lot of slides as visual decor at my parties, and I shot the photography for those, like closeups of flowers from the Botanic Gardens. I even held one party where all the oil paintings on the wall were my work."
This renaissance man's nom de plume, which recently inspired him to visit Aztec sites in Mexico and Belize, reflects his north Denver urban background. He came of age as an Eighties-era barrio boy with a passion for breakdancing and a love of parties that he inherited from his parents. "DJing is more about entertaining for me," he divulges. "Getting behind the tables was the natural evolution of being a host--taking control of the music and controlling the vibe of the party."
Aztec began spinning in the early Nineties after DJ K-NEE, one of the most groundbreaking jocks in the city over the past decade, took him under his wing. "I was the new kid in the Step On Productions posse," Aztec says, referring to K-NEE's long-running company, "and I hung out with [fellow Denver jocks] DJ Swingsett and L7. L7 would look through my records and tell me what I could and could not play."
Established DJs who make such recommendations often do so not to warn apprentices away from out-of-date selections, but to prevent them from upstaging (or out-styling) them in public. Aztec's ability to stay ahead of the musical curve made these concerns quite real. "I remember buying the now-very-popular Mo' Wax label vinyl releases when the imprint debuted," he says. "I've always been attracted to records and sounds that are very fresh, very new."
Assisted by K-NEE and promoter/DJ Chris Irvin, Aztec struck out on his own in February 1997 with "Plastic Thursdays" at the Snake Pit, a fling that eventually evolved into Pressure. Today Aztec and the Pressure Syndicate, a posse of his own, assemble sets that include a healthy batch of drum-and-bass and jungle tracks. "I'm a bass-head, so jungle attracted me when I discovered it," Aztec says. "I first added jungle records into my sets years ago, before I even knew what jungle was. I even played some records on the wrong speed. I slowed them down because I knew the BPMs would be way too nutty for a down-tempo hip-hop crowd."
With Pressure, Aztec says he's been able to "wean the crowd off those raving fast beats, often with the help of the breakdancers who come down. I tell all the DJs who play for me, 'Watch the crowd! Watch the crowd!'" He'd been warned that jungle appealed only to kids and would not be able to support a theme night at a club aimed at the 21-and-over crowd. But thanks to his knowledge of the genre and his outgoing attitude, he's proven the doubters wrong. "I stand at the door to greet people and hand out fliers," he notes. "I remember the people who have supported me and ask them what they think about Pressure and my syndicate's music."
Pressure allows Aztec the freedom of expression that DJs crave, and his potent blend of jungle, house, hip-hop, Brazilian beats, reggae and whatever else strikes his fancy draws audiences ready to move on to the next level of nightlife. He keeps a firm grip on the event. "I do my own promotion," he says. "And I do all the fliers. When I design a flier, people come to expect something unique and different and stylish, and I can achieve that when I do it myself." There is a downside to this approach, however. "I'm a control freak," he admits. "If my hands are in all aspects of a party, I can make sure it goes exactly the way I want it to--and I'm also to blame if something goes wrong."