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By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
Darrell Robinson knows what it's like to ride in the back of the bus. To be scorned, mocked, even spit on. But he suffered these slings and arrows not because of the color of his skin, but for the content of his record crates.
Robinson is a house DJ, born and raised in Chicago, the birthplace of house, that early but enduring form of electronic dance music that is the love child of disco and the drum machine. Robinson, better known to Denver club-goers as DJ Fox, was a teenager in the golden age of house -- the 1980s, when the hot mix shows on WBMX dominated the Windy City airwaves. He learned to deejay by watching and listening to lords of the dance like Frankie Knuckles, Bad Boy Bill and Julian Perez. By the time he was 29, he was a master of the craft. But he was no missionary. He had no experience dealing with the hostile natives of Vail, Colorado.
It was 1995, the first year of Robinson's residency at Sheika's, a nightclub on Bridge Street in Vail Village. The club's cosmopolitan owner had decided to make a radical change from the usual ski-town fodder -- jam band, Top 40, old hippie with a guitar playing Cat Stevens covers -- to Chicago house spun by Robinson, whom the owner of Sheika's lured to Vail with a good money gig. The crowds he faced were rich, white and surly. To them, he was a weird black kid subjecting them to diva vocals and sequenced electronic beats. They threw drinks at him. They laughed at him. They asked him why the songs never ended.
One night in 1995, a cute ski bunny strutted up to the DJ booth and demanded that he play her favorite Bob Marley song, "the one about the little birdies." Problem was, he didn't have a single Bob Marley record in his crates. He couldn't have played her song even if he wanted to, which he didn't.
"I was polite about it," Robinson recalls. "I said, 'Ma'am, I don't have any Bob Marley.'" She bugged out, he says. "She said, 'I'm the daughter of so-and-so, who owns such-and-such bank, and I want you to play Bob Marley.'" Robinson asked her to hold tight while he mixed out a record. When he looked up, she was still there.
"This stuff sucks!" she shouted. Then she reared back her pretty little head like a cobra and spewed hot saliva onto his neck. "I actually got spit on, man. It was no joke -- that first year in Vail was hard times," Robinson remembers. "It's not like I was hard to recognize, because I was about the only black dude living in Vail, and everywhere I'd go, I'd hear the whispers: 'That's that guy who deejays at Sheika's. I hate that crap he plays.' Whenever I'd get on the free bus they have there, I'd sit way in the back so I didn't have to talk to anybody. I did all my grocery shopping late at night. I was so disliked, man, they didn't even give me a free ski pass."
It all started for Robinson when he was nineteen and snuck into a party at the legendary Warehouse (the term "house music" was taken from the club's name). Knuckles was playing that night on two reel-to-reel recorders. "Here's this massive, tall guy, in total command," Robinson reflects. "He's playing 'Disco Circus,' just the drum track, on one reel, building it, building it, and then he drops Frankie Goes to Hollywood on the other reel, and the place just went nuts."
It was a revelation. "I knew what I wanted to be."
Robinson's mom spent her 1986 tax-refund check on a pair of Technics turntables and a Numark mixer for her son. He'd been running with a bad crowd after graduating from high school, and she wanted to get him off the streets. It worked.
"Those turntables probably saved my life," he admits. "I was headed for trouble. But after I got those Technics, man, they didn't leave the house for two years -- and neither did I." He practiced and practiced, then practiced some more before he started playing out. He's smooth as a lover's caress on the mixer, and his transition scratches are like subtle haiku between tracks. If Robinson had stayed in Chicago, he might have gone global by now. But for reasons he refuses to discuss at length, the top tier of DJs in Chicago blacklisted him in the late '80s. The problem may have been his abundance of ego, his sense that he was getting the respect he deserved as fast as he deserved it.
"I was getting too good," he says. "I started to threaten the guys at the top, and they found ways to get rid of me, and that's all."
No one would hire him. So he started throwing raves in the suburb of Aurora, Illinois, climaxing with a 1992 massive that drew 1,800 and gridlocked downtown Aurora. Early the next morning, Robinson's phone rang. It was the chief of police. "He woke my ass up and said, 'Listen, my man. You can never, ever throw a party like that in my city again.'"