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.
Spins at Mynt on Tuesdays and Fridays, Blue 67 on Thursdays, Lotus on Saturdays and Two AM on Thursdays and Saturdays.
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.'"
Around that time, one of Robinson's best friends, who had joined the military, got transferred to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. Robinson went with him. Big mistake. Homeboy got humbled.
"I wouldn't wish trying to make it as a house DJ in Colorado Springs in 1992 on my worst enemy," he says. "I just could not find a gig." As a result, Robinson slept on park benches and in basements. He stole hot dogs from 7-Eleven. The only DJ jobs he could find were spinning hip-hop and R&B for punk money.
"The breaking point came one night when I had to deejay in the Springs, and then a party in Denver, and then back to the Springs for an after-party," Robinson confesses. "I remember leaving Denver, and I pulled off the highway and just broke down. I was playing music I didn't really like. I was selling out, and I was selling out for 25 bucks a gig. I just couldn't have that."
He gave up and moved back in with his mom in Chicago, started writing his own tracks and got his head together. "I decided rule number one was: no more hip-hop. Dance music, that's it." He practiced and wrote, practiced and wrote, and waited. One afternoon, a friend of his tipped him to this bar owner in Vail who wanted to create a house club from scratch, and a couple of weeks later, Robinson was back in Colorado. His sets at Sheika's became so popular that by his third season, when he went home to Chicago on a short vacation, Brazilian jet-setters recognized him on the street. The spit on his neck had long since dried.
During his third season in Vail, the mountain's managers finally offered him a ski pass. He refused it, and when the snow melted, he moved to Denver to help Nate Uhlir (DJ Sense) found Casa del Soul, the combination record store, record label and DJ collective that built the bridge allowing Denver's electronic dance scene to make the transition from underground raves to legal club nights.
The store was located on the 1000 block of Broadway, next door to the nightclub Vinyl. Robinson lived two blocks east on Sherman Street, and he would often come down to open the store late at night or early in the morning for a DJ who just had to have a certain record right then. Last March, on day two of the great blizzard, he got a call from a friend who told him he needed to get down to Casa, quick, since Uhlir was out of town at the Winter Music Conference. Robinson waded through the deep snow with a growing sense of dread, and when he got to the store, he saw the roof had caved in, along with Vinyl's. He pleaded with the city engineers at the site to let him rescue as much of the store's inventory as he could, or even just get the money out of the safe, but they refused. And that afternoon, with a handful of other Denver DJs huddled with him in vigil, Robinson watched a bulldozer destroy what was left of Casa del Soul.
"I knew then that an era in Denver dance-music culture was destroyed. It was over."
After the demolition, Robinson did a lot of drinking, and then a lot of thinking. And now, with no hours to put in at the record store, he's doing a lot of gigging and has developed into the fastest-rising party rocker in the city. He plays out four nights a week, including a Saturday-night residency at the new high-end club Lotus. He's a house DJ, but he flirts with an old-school Chicago flavor that was known as freestyle in the '80s (basically breakbeat with vocals). He also weaves in the occasional '80s pop sample, then checks out the crowd to see if anyone's getting the joke.
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At Lotus, Robinson is anonymous, hidden from the dance floor's view. He's better experienced at Mynt or Blue 67 -- or, for the hard-core, after-hours at Two AM. In these intimate settings, he's able to interact with the crowd and make eye contact, jamming behind the decks as he sweats, grins and frantically fans himself with each record he takes off the turntable.
"The weeknight gigs, the after-hours gigs, that's when I experiment. I try new stuff out, mess around with vocals a lot," Robinson notes. "That's when I play stuff I can't get away with at Lotus. Saturday night, it's showtime. I'm all business; that's the money gig. It's my job to make the dance floor happy, and if that dance floor isn't happy, I'm not doing my job."
When he spins, Robinson usually represents his home town with a Chicago T-shirt and a Cubs cap. But he has no plans to move back. "Pound for pound, we have the best DJs in the country here in Denver," he says. "And the scene here isn't so entrenched as in San Francisco or New York or Chicago or L.A. You can still make your mark here without having to kiss all the right rings. It's not who you know; it's what you can do. And I can do a lot. I will reach deep down into my bag of tricks to get you on that floor and keep you there."
Just don't ask the man to play Marley at a house party.