When Michael Chapman speaks, his words make him seem like the sagest of club veterans. "You want to get that positive response, watching people dance and go nuts to your music," he says authoritatively. "If you're not reading the crowd, they're not going to respond to what you're doing, and you're not doing your job as a DJ." But Chapman, aka Little Mike, is hardly the grand old man of the Denver dance scene. He's been a professional disc jockey for four years, yet he's only nineteen.
The contrast between Chapman's youthful cheek and his turntable smarts is striking. But while it's hard at first to believe that a kid with spiky brown hair, a still-settling voice and a cute-as-a-button face could be so knowledgeable about techno music and the art of deejaying, his musical background helps explain this seeming contradiction. He began playing the piano at the tender age of four, and although he stopped tickling the ivories when he was seventeen ("Playing the piano was more to make my mother and father happy," he concedes), he appreciates the wisdom that his decade-plus of practicing the classics has provided. "I am so glad that I took those lessons, because if I didn't take piano, I wouldn't know what the hell I was doing now."
That's a bit of an exaggeration--plenty of gifted DJs have no formal musical training. Still, Chapman's understanding of musical fundamentals is a great advantage, and one that allows him to mix records together in the same key to achieve a more fluid sound. "A lot of times it's unnecessary," he grants, "but if I want to get a bit experimental, it really helps. If I want to play more of a progressive or trancey sound, it sounds good to key-mix like Sasha and Digweed"--a U.K. pair whose Northern Exposure mix discs have made them two of the most acclaimed performers in their field.
When he was fifteen, Chapman received a helping hand into the DJ business courtesy his cousin Tabor Chapman, who performs under the name DJ Tabor. "He really got everything started for me," Michael says. "He was in charge of the DJs at Herb's Hideout, and he would let me come down and play some cheesy stuff--and I got a good response." This opportunity soon went the way of the dodo, but Chapman wasn't discouraged. "I went down to the I-Beam and started training--learning how to work the lights and listening to the other DJs' sets as they showed me what I needed to do to make the crowd go nuts." He adds, "I trained there a year before they let me go a whole night myself, and that's where I learned my crowd-reading skills--the way a crowd reacts to music and figuring out how to keep them happy all night." Since the I-Beam (now known as Luckystar) attracted patrons who generally ranged between 24 and 35, Chapman had to program plenty of disco and retro platters to keep them on the floor--and he did so willingly. "You can't play music to a crowd and watch them walk out the door," he says. "That's not going to help anyone, you know what I'm saying?"
Before long, Chapman was also deejaying at the Church, where he was hired after an impromptu audition. "I went down there on a Thursday night just to hang out and see what was going on, and for some reason, it ended up that they had no one in the DJ booth that night. So I told the door guy, 'If you need someone to spin tonight, let me know. I have some records.' I mean, I had, like, thirty records in my car and no headphones." When the Churchgoers went wild, Little Mike was asked to return the next week--"and I've been there ever since," he says.
"Quench," the eighteen-and-up Church event Chapman works, is only one of many gigs currently on his slate; he also stars in "Recovery Sundaze" every Sunday at Jaded, hosts "Flavor" Tuesdays at the F Stop, and lifts the tone arms at Rock Island on Fridays and Saturdays. Even so, he still has limitations on the vinyl he can spotlight. "Sometimes I don't get to play the music I want to play," he says. "I would rather hear the newer tracks; I'd rather play all house music. But, honestly, I'm in the wrong city for that--and I can't even complain, having gone this far at my age.
"I learn so much more by knowing all the different styles of music in the city," he goes on. "I want to use the whole history and learn the demographics of people and what they like to hear. When some of my friends come down and hear me play at a club, they ask me, 'What are you doing? Why don't you play some newer music?' But I have to do my job before I can slip in my own personal stuff."
Fortunately, "Basic Friday Funktion," an after-hours bash staged early Saturday mornings at Synergy, gives Chapman the chance to revel in the house and techno he loves. A high-BPM mix tape recorded live at the party last fall is typical of his work there. A progressive stormer concocted at almost alarming speed, the cassette places killer tracks like Thomas (Daft Punk) Bangaltier's "Colossus," Mac Zimms's "Saxshop" and Thinkhead's "Rise Up" alongside pop hits such as Orgy's "Blue Monday (DJ Dan mix)" and Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You (DJ Sneak dub)." The result shows off Chapman's rare ability to bring together accessibility and adventure.
Next month, Chapman is scheduled to make his first appearance in San Francisco--but the young DJ isn't ready to leave Colorado for good. "Denver may be a little bit behind the other cities musically, but it's catching up," he says. "I look at magazines like Mixmag and Mixer--all the underground-culture magazines--and they're all talking about Colorado right now. You know, talking about clubs like Soma. I mean, I could be in Delaware or Nebraska, and then where would I be?" In his view, "I'm so young now that I really shouldn't be worrying about moving and pursuing my career as a professional DJ somewhere else."
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Indeed, Chapman is a sophomore at Metro State College, taking courses with an eye toward working in journalism. "Sometimes I'm coming home from work at 3 a.m. and having to wake up to go to school at 6 a.m.," he points out. "It's hard, but my body has adjusted to it. I'm constantly hyper, and I like to stay awake and keep active all the time." He admits that "the harder I try to stay awake, the easier it is to fall asleep in class. But I always get my work done, and I keep my grades up."
Right now Chapman is maintaining a 3.0 grade point average, much to the delight of his parents, who've always supported his deejaying ambitions; his mother even drove him to some of his first I-Beam dates. "At first they were a little worried that I would get overwhelmed and forget about school," he says. "But now they've come to terms with it and they see what's going on. They see my name on fliers and whatnot, and they're seeing that I have a future with it.
"My mom made a photo book of, like, everything I've done up until now," he continues with pride. "The cover of it just says 'Little Mike' and has a picture of me as a baby with a pair of headphones on. I think it was meant to be."
DJ Little Mike. 9 p.m. Thursdays, the Church, 1160 Lincoln Avenue, 303-832-3528; 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Rock Island, 1614 15th Street, 303-572-7625; 2 a.m. Fridays, Synergy, 3240 Larimer Street, 303-296-9515; 9 p.m. Sundays, Jaded, 4501 East Virginia Avenue, 303-394-1403; 9 p.m. Tuesdays, the F Stop, 1819 Wazee Street, 303-292-6999.