Keeping the Pressure On
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."
One of the ways Aztec keeps Pressure building is by searching out his own vinyl. "I'm not a headhunter when I go shopping for records," he maintains. "I call some DJs that, because they have to listen to the record in the store with their headphones on and they skim across every track in two seconds and then decide if it's good or not. But I don't judge a record that quickly--based on how fast the tempo is or how loud the snare. I think you need to take a record home and listen to it four, five, maybe ten times. When it starts to grow on you in a certain way, you discover its soul.
"A record does have to have soul for me to want to keep it," he goes on. "It also has to roll, if you know what I mean. It has to thunder along. That thundering bass comes from dub music, and I like dub music a lot." Indeed, this Jamaica-based reggae variant has made a powerful impact on dance music. Aztec sites the dub-based music of Smith & Mighty (the unsung progenitors of trip-hop), Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper, On U-Sound System and Massive Attack's first incarnation, the Wild Bunch, as personal favorites.
Such wide-ranging influences have made Aztec a controversial figure on the area dance scene. "I get flak from other DJs for not adopting the image that many associate with being a DJ," he concedes. "While on the other hand, some say I'm not a true barrio boy because I play jungle, even though jungle is just a UK version of hip-hop. My personality is eclectic, and my image reflects that. And as a result, I've taken shit from all sides. But I don't care what people think."
Statements like this one have the potential of killing careers. But thus far, they haven't hurt Aztec, whose individuality is a key to his allure. He quotes a fan who told him after a particularly impressive set: "I never know what you're playing or what you're about. I don't even understand the music that you play--but I know that me and everybody else will be buying it six months down the road."
DJ Aztec is filled with pride by compliments like this one. As he puts it, "The idea that people think 'Aztec, experimental, we don't know what he's doing, but let's go see him, because it's what's coming next'--that just proves to me that I'm doing something right."
"Pressure," with DJ Aztec. 9 p.m. Thursdays, Snake Pit, 608 East 13th Avenue, 831-1234.
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