Swinging in the Big Time
Colorado has produced more nationally known dance-music figures than many observers inside or outside the state realize. An example is David Winsett, known to the world at large as DJ Swingsett. This former local boy, now a resident of New York City, is a prime mover in the field of illbient, a burgeoning subgenre that draws from hip-hop and electronica. Dog Leg Left, an album credited to Swingsett and his occasional partner, known simply as Wally, was one of last year's most acclaimed electronic-music releases--and according to Winsett, its success wouldn't have happened without the musical knowledge he obtained while living a mile above sea level.
Winsett, 28, feels deeply connected to Colorado. "I have family all over the state," he says. But his formative years were only partially spent in these environs. "My father is a retired Air Force colonel, so I grew up all over the U.S. and the world as a kid," he reveals. As a result, his musical education was an eclectic one. "I started elementary school in Stuttgart, Germany, and I remember listening to funk and soul on the jukebox in the officers' club at the base. That's one of the things I am thankful for about my military-family upbringing. My mother and father always encouraged my awareness of different religions, different races and different backgrounds." Following a move to Uniondale, Long Island, in 1978, he dug deeper into assorted African-American music, including disco; he still loves many of the songs he taped off radio station WBLX as a youngster.
When it came time for college, Winsett headed back to the Rocky Mountain region. "I went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins and worked at the college radio station, KCSU, for three years," he remarks. Toward the end of his tenure at the institution, he spent a summer in London on an exchange program. ("The main reason I went was for the dance music," he says.) He returned to Colorado with approximately 100 records and a new enthusiasm for spreading the word about his favorite sounds. In addition to hosting shows at KCSU, he began writing for The Seed, an area 'zine dedicated to dance culture. He also met several Denver dance luminaries, including DJ K-NEE, founder of Step On Productions. "I heard an ad--on KTCL, I think--for an acid-jazz night at Rock Island hosted by DJs K-NEE, Tank Girl, John Chamie and L72," he recalls. After the event, Winsett developed a rapport with the crew, and before long, he was not just a fan, but a colleague. "I got my start as a club DJ at Rock Island with Step On Productions," he says.
In 1992, after graduating from CSU, Winsett bused tables at Pasta Jay's until he had earned enough money to move to New York. "I was green when I arrived in the city," he says. "I didn't have any family or friends except for one guy from Queens who I knew from London. I stayed with him for three weeks until I found my first apartment in Alphabet City, in Manhattan's East Village." He soon submerged himself in the music scene, freelancing reviews and trying to establish himself as a DJ. At first he spun for free in restaurants and lounges, but as his name became better known, he moved up to better venues, including Giant Step. There he backed such acid-jazz legends as Groove Collective, Jazzy Nice, Donald Byrd, Carleen Anderson and DJ Smash, whom Winsett calls "a big influence on me. He mixed up a lot of different styles: hip-hop, soul, funk, dancehall and deep house."
Variety was also a trademark of Winsett's approach. He intermingled the rare Seventies grooves he learned to love during his childhood radio days with the latest jazz-based hip-hop from labels like New Breed. These elements can also be heard on his first recording, "Peace on the Streets," which he put together with the assistance of house-music notables Peter Dao and Tony Edwards. After the song appeared on a well-received compilation, What's Cookin', in 1994, Winsett's career as a producer and musician was launched.
Wally entered the picture that same year. "A mutual friend of ours, Martin Santiago, who's also known as Nitty, introduced me to Wally," Winsett comments. "Martin used to hear me play at the Konkrete Jungle club, New York's original drum-and-bass party, where I've DJed since it started. One night he told me, 'You've got to meet my neighbor. He's making music that sounds just like what you're playing. I know you guys can do some crazy shit together.'" They hooked up a week later and, Winsett says, "we had instant chemistry as friends and as collaborators."
Together the DJ duo hyped Wally's label, Samz Jointz, and created the 1996 EP Kind Budz. Tracks assembled by the pair subsequently turned up on compilations issued by Liquid Sky, Edwards's Freedom Sound Recordings and Freeze, an imprint associated with Todd Terry. But it was San Francisco-based Ubiquity Records, whose products Winsett had touted in some of his earliest writings, that put out Dog Leg Left in August 1997. Produced, mixed and engineered by Wally and Winsett, with assistance from Santiago, the disc is an illbient primer. One listen and you'll understand why many would-be hip-hoppers are now playing around with techno.
Dog's title selection, a blend of drum-and-bass, booming jazz percussion, staccato samples and atmospheric computer noise, is a standout, but it's hardly the only one. "Omeiomie" sports the almost-Eastern vocals of Winsett's wife, Lisa Shaw, as does "Tell Me Something," which is powered by a bluesy riff; "Buckweet Stagger" blends acoustic bass plucking with chunky hip-hop beats; and "Wiggin'" finds the two DJs scratching next to trumpet blasts and mournful guitar chords. Because Dog Leg Left, like all the best illbient, takes its musical cues from the down-tempo side of the electronica spectrum, the numbers fuse into a hazy, ominous mishmash that obscures individual sonic characteristics in much the same way that psychedelic-based music does. But the palette utilized by Wally and Winsett is sufficiently broad as to seduce just plain listeners along with members of the disco intelligentsia.
Despite the popularity of his debut full-length, Winsett hasn't toured much--as he puts it, "I'm in the underground music scene, you know; I'm still paying my dues." But when he was invited to star in the fifth anniversary of DJ K-NEE's So What! club, now firmly ensconced at Ninth Avenue West following a long association with City Spirit, he couldn't say no. "K-NEE has always been on top of his game with promoting left-field soul music and hip-hop," he gushes. "I don't visit Colorado very often, but I remember the scene there--especially the raves. And I have a lot of old friends that I haven't seen for years who encouraged me when I was just getting started. I'm very excited to come back and play."
DJ Swingsett, with DJ K-NEE. Tuesday, April 7, Ninth Avenue West, 99 West Ninth Avenue, $6, 899-4936 or 572-8006.
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