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Turntablists--DJs who turn mixing and spinning into hip-hop performance art--have made a big noise in San Francisco and New York, but they're just now getting the attention they deserve in many other cities. As a result, most locals don't realize that Denver DJ Jam X is widely regarded as one of the nation's true wizards on the wheels of steel.
Proof of Jam X's status came with his invitation to participate for two years running in the Battle for World Supremacy, a New York-based event that pitted turntablists such as the X-ecutioners' Sinista and Q-Bert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz against each other in a contest of savvy and showmanship. "They picked sixteen DJs from all over the world to go to the New Music Seminar when they were still having that," says Jam X, who was chosen by the World Supremacy selection committee over hundreds of other applicants on the strength of a video he submitted. "And I did good. I didn't win it, but I met a lot of contacts. I was one of the best sixteen in the world."
This is no idle boast. As anyone who's seen Jam X work his magic at venues like Muddy's and Club Mecca knows, his approach to the DJ medium is ultrakinetic, gymnastic, even spastic at times. He's been known to stand on his two Technics 1200 turntables and mix songs with his feet. But he's just as concerned about music as he is about putting on a good show. One lesson he's learned, he says, is not to "play everything you want to hear. That's not why you're there. And make sure you know how to mix before you go to a party. There's nothing worse than a DJ who's up there and he's got the double beats going, and he can't hear it, and he's walking around like, 'I'm better than all these cats.'"
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Jam X grew up mainly in Aurora--and by the early Eighties, he and his cousin, fellow area performer Chill, were spending much of their time competing with other fledgling hip-hop acts using a children's record player rescued from a dumpster. Back then, Jam X says, "we would use basically anything we could scrape together" in an effort to craft beats as perfect as the ones concocted by heroes such as Grandmaster Flash.
"We would even rap over old Prince records like 'Lady Cabdriver,'" Chill adds, laughing.
Jam X's abilities took a quantum leap after Big Jon, who was one of the city's most popular DJs at the time, set out to teach him the tricks of the trade. Right now Big Jon is a big name in hip-hop: He has a powerful position with EMI's publishing wing, he served as the executive producer on the latest CD by rapper AZ, and he's worked with everyone from Master P to the Wu-Tang Clan. As a result, some locals fault him for not doing more to help the Coloradans he left behind. But Jam X thinks criticism like this is unfair. "Big Jon opened up a lot of doors for a lot of DJs, and they don't give him the thanks like they should," he says. "A lot of people think he turned his back, but his door is always open. He's always asking me to send him tapes of the artists out here who are doing things. To me, there was nobody like Big Jon. He had all the skills. I mean, lines wrapped around the building when he did his clubs, and he often let me open up for him."
Years later, Jam X carries on in the tradition of Big Jon and old-schoolers like Funk Master Flex and Kid Capri, who he believes "took the DJ thing to a whole new level. They're making a very good living off of it, and no other DJ had been able to do that before." While he tends to gravitate toward underground hip-hop and East Coast-flavored grooves, he's willing to do whatever is necessary to find the right vibe for a particular crowd. While preparing for a show, he says, "I don't really go in with a game plan. You've got to test it out--you've got to go in with the first cut and then see how they react to it." As an example, he cites an August show at the Ogden Theatre during which he and Chill opened up for Ol' Dirty Bastard. After gauging the mood of the audience, he was able to focus on hard-edged material by the likes of M.O.P. and the Flip Mode Squad rather than what he refers to as "the KS-107.5 type of stuff."
KS-107.5, the primary radio outlet for hip-hop and modern urban music in Denver, has taken a lot of heat from local rappers like Kingdom for failing to provide listeners with access to fresh sounds (see Feedback, July 30). Jam X is just as adamant about the station's weaknesses. "I think they're killing us, because they don't really want to open up as far as playing local artists," he says. "I mean, they don't want to expand on playing local artists, and they don't want to expand on the same twenty set songs, either. They're really limiting the state from growing, because they're not exposing people to enough different music."