Craig Christensen, aka DJ Craig C, has been spinning dance records at Denver nightspots for five years--an eternity by late-night standards. But he shows no signs of slowing down. He and his frequent partner, DJ Dealer (ne Greg Diehl), have become nationally known remixers; their revision of Joi Cardwell's "You Got to Pray," which held the top spot on the Billboard dance chart for two weeks in August 1996, convinced artists as varied as Mary J. Blige, Daryl Hall, Big Moses, UBQ Project and Ceybil Jeffries to hire them for current or upcoming projects. (Craig also recently did a solo remix of the old Pretty Poison tune "Catch Me, I'm Falling.") Moreover, the duo, whose earlier work was among the biggest influences on the Colorado dance sound, have teamed for "Reunion," a Sunday night event at Tracks 2000 that's keeping the tradition of classic house-music parties alive and well.
As a youngster, Craig was into an eclectic array of music. "I went through all the genres--everything from old soul to Phil Collins to Metallica to Depeche Mode, D.R.I., Dead Kennedys...you name it." In short, he's the type of person who might have wound up wearing a "Disco Sucks" T-shirt back in the day. Instead, he became fixated on dance music, which he discovered "at this Littleton teen club called Phantasmagoria. Later, I worked my way up through the hierarchy of teenybopper clubs until I arrived at a place called Starrs, where I heard a DJ named Mark DeLeon play 'This Is Acid,' by Maurice. That track really blew my mind, and I've never been the same since."
In a general sense, then, Craig is little different from the legions of teens and twentysomethings who are leaping off the testosterone-fueled alterna-bandwagon to work their hips under flashing banks of strobe lights and Intellibeams. But he took his love of dance one step further by sneaking into 21-and-over clubs in order to observe big-name Denver turntable jockeys like Johnnie Contreras, who once spun for Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and DJ K-NEE. Especially key to his development was his friendship with jocks Thijs (pronounced "Ty-jus") and Tracy Jones, Contreras's protege and onetime Rock Island maestro. "I used to hound Thijs all the time so he would give me his extra promo records and let me practice on his turntables," Craig recalls. "Then Tracy snuck me into 23 Parrish, as he did many others, and I would just sit and watch him spin."
These tutors provided Craig with an education every bit as thorough as one he might have received in metroplexes such as Chicago, New York, Detroit, San Francisco and London, where the art of vinyl-mixing was trailblazed. From them, he learned to haunt the racks at Wax Trax (virtually the only place in Colorado to buy dance records during the Seventies and Eighties), pick up multiple copies of the same remix singles and toil for hours to beat-mix various dub and vocal efforts. "It was practice, practice, practice," Craig admits, but the results were astounding--the equivalent of a half-hour rock-concert tour de force blossoming from a three-minute album cut.
Out of this amalgamation of inspirations came the Craig C sound, a style that draws heavily from the combination of soul, funk and disco that began emanating from clubs catering to gay African-Americans circa the Eighties. "To put it simply, I play house music," he says. "It's all about a groove. But there are so many variations these days. I fit more into the deep-house category. My sound is a bit more abstract and is not necessarily built around drum rolls, cymbal crashes or major chord progressions, like many house tracks. My mixes have a lot of energy and momentum." In addition, Craig is not averse to using music with vocals--a controversial stance in certain quarters. "Some people really get going when they hear sets by DJs playing tracks with vocals in them, whether the singer's wailing or singing straight-up lyrics," he explains. "Then you have the DJs that just play instrumental and dub tracks all night and who seem to look down on vocal tracks, like they're too mainstream or something. I'm caught in the middle. My sound is too soft for the underground scene and not recognizable enough for the Top 40 scene. In general, though, people like vocals. It gives them something to latch on to. Vocals are definitely where it's at for me."
This approach was codified during Craig's 1993-1996 reign at the Compound, a South Broadway bar that "made me Craig C," he says. "I was only nineteen years old and too young to go out to any clubs, but I kept begging the owners to let me have a spin at DJ-ing. So they told me to go get an underage work permit, which I did. I played for free during happy hour until I got a chance to fill in on Fridays and Sundays when one of their DJs quit. Some of the coolest people I'd ever seen before were dancing to my mix."
During this period, Craig met Greg Diehl. "He was doing the 'Rhythm Society' party with DJ John Chamie," he recalls. "We started playing together after realizing we had the same taste in music. So we started up a Tuesday night that took off like Sunday, and the legend of house music at the Compound was born. It was really the first club in this city that really understood and appreciated house music."
Indeed, international house-music stars like Cardwell and Dajae visited the Compound, and representatives of a wide assortment of dance-music labels, including Eight Ball and Nervous, began sniffing around. But a dispute with the Compound's management led Craig and Dealer to jump ship, joining the staff at nightclub (america) in 1996. The team subsequently had what Craig describes as a "professional parting of the ways," but the schism was far from permanent. "Bob Hill, from Tracks 2000, pulled a fast one on us," he claims. "He told Greg that I wanted to work with him again, and he told me that Greg wanted to work with me again. So we started talking, and we both realized that we wanted the same thing--so we decided to start over again with the partnership. Now here we are at this amazing space."
The space, whose past monikers have included the Edge, Paradise Garage and Traxx, has undergone as many changes as its neighborhood, a once-dusty stretch of fields, train tracks and abandoned container cars that was revitalized by the construction of nearby Coors Field. But to Craig, the history of the venue remains intact. "I love DJ-ing here," he says. "It's so weird playing in the DJ booth, because so many of my heroes, like Tracy Jones, worked in that booth. I fell in love with dance music at this place."
Still, Craig concedes that Denver dance is in a transitional phase right now. "The people who used to make the scene at the clubs are not going out as much anymore," he notes, "and now there is a whole new scene filled with people who don't necessarily know the music. If I play a record that is more than two years old, it's new to these kids, which is great for resuscitating grooves that often get slighted for being too old. Great songs are constantly being dumped by DJs if they didn't come out this Tuesday. But then again, you have a lack of education coming from this new set of clubgoers. They have no idea when I'm mixing one of the greatest songs in dance music, and they don't know the difference between Joi Cardwell's latest single and her first release."
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Not that Craig isn't keeping up with the latest trends. "I like jungle and drum-and-bass a lot," he says. "And I'm a big fan of Mystical Influence, one of the drum-and-bass DJs who comes through Denver now and again. I think of it as a blend of techno and hip-hop for the Nineties. I gravitate toward the more intelligent offshoots of that genre, the material that focuses more on jazz and atmospherics--sounds I've always loved."
In the meantime, Craig is spending more of his time remixing and producing, a sideline he stumbled into while hanging out with the members of Denver's Nebula 9. According to him, "You really have to put out your own tracks in order to establish yourself--which gives me a lot of freedom. I don't have to worry about the original artist's take on my remix or about whether or not I might clear the dance floor, or about pissing off the owner of a club." As such, his favorite tool has become the computer. "Some people still use sequencers to put together dance music, but computers are far more versatile. You can loop and squeeze and quantify any sound you come up with. It allows non-professional musicians like myself to create music."
The DIY aesthetic is only one reason so many creative people have fallen in love with dance music. Like punk rock in the Seventies, the sound doesn't require expensive studios, millions of fans or even a solid grounding in music theory. You can make it up as you go along--and that's exactly what Craig C is doing.
"Reunion," with Craig C and DJ Dealer. 8 p.m. Sundays at Tracks 2000, 2975 Fox Street, $3, 292-6600.