"I don't want people to think that I'm throwing in the towel," says Kenton Schawe, aka DJ Nutmeg. "I'm just not going to do it for a living anymore."
Schawe, long a cornerstone of the local house scene, is pulling up stakes and moving to Kona, Hawaii. Faced with losing two of his primary residencies -- at Rox, which closed late last month, and Lotus, which recently replaced Nutmeg's regular night with a new format -- he's opted to pull the plug on his DJ career in Denver.
"I'm taking a huge financial hit with these two nights going away," Schawe explains. "And the realization that I was going to have to make ends meet doing something else basically prompted my decision. If I'm going to have to get another job, I might as well do it somewhere beautiful like Hawaii. I could probably have convinced somebody else to let me throw a night in their club, but I don't really feel like there's any guarantees. It's such a crap shoot right now, and the odds don't seem to be in your favor that something's going to work."
Schawe's concerns are definitely warranted: Once viewed as a trouble magnet, hip-hop is now the dominating soundtrack at local clubs, especially in LoDo. Shift Fridays, his house-themed night at Lotus, was toe-tagged a few weeks ago in favor of the hip-hop-oriented Club Cranberry's, which debuted this past Friday, April 22, to record numbers. And clubs around town are following suit. "I've just noticed a turn in the music that people prefer," notes DJ Ty Tek, aka Ty Tekavec, another lauded local house jock. "Electronic music is not as hot as it used to be. Top 40, hip-hop stuff, that's what's in right now."
Tekavec himself is without a full-time residency for the first time in eight years. Still, he appreciates the pragmatics of switching things up. "A lot of club owners, I think, are just not wanting to take the risk or waste a lot of time and money trying to get something going that's house-related," he says. "It takes a long time for house-related events to build. And a lot of club owners are looking for a quick return rather than trying to wait it out. With the clubs I worked at -- I still have a great deal of respect for them, and I'll still probably play off and on for them -- they kind of just wanted to take a different musical approach. I think people get tired after a while. I think they like to try new things, and I do, too."
Of course, house music's diminishing popularity in the clubs could also be attributed to the fact that its core audience has grown up and stopped going out -- a theory bolstered by the motto cited on milehighhouse's website: "Music by big kids, for big kids."
"I just don't think there's been a big push," Schawe says of house's declining viability. "I mean, it's never going to go away, but I haven't really seen any younger generations of people coming into it, either. Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four-year-old kids -- they definitely don't have any real knowledge or appreciation for house music. I think it was because about four or five years ago, if you were in high school, going to raves started being uncool. Now those kids are grown up and have never been exposed to this type of music."
Not that this type of music has evolved much over the past few years. Although house has given birth to various offshoots, its core sound remains essentially unchanged from a decade ago. "I've been listening to a lot of different styles of music," Tekavec admits. "I've been trying to be more open-minded. I think for somebody to survive as a DJ in Denver, they have to have something to fall back on and be able to adapt to change."
Tekavec has done just that; he had to, after at least two-thirds of his income disappeared when his residencies dissolved. So now, when he's not managing Sweat Records, a retail outlet owned by Zac Larsen, he's producing ring tones for a Boulder-based company; creating music for Phrunky Records, an imprint he owns with fellow DJ Little Mike (Chapman); and touring out of state at least twice a month. To further supplement his income, he's also back to playing parties: Although house music's profile has fallen in the clubs, it's once again thriving in the underground.
"Here's a little twist," he reveals. As the rise of hip-hop "has been happening in the club industry, in the last five months there has been a surge in the party scene again, which is kind of strange. This whole time that I was playing clubs, I didn't really play parties, because they were almost non-existent. And not even three weeks after I had lost both of my jobs there, a bunch of parties started popping up, and I've actually been playing parties at least once a month now. The Triad Dragon guys, they've been doing parties. They had 5,000 people at their last party. I played the late set at around 4:30, and there were still probably about 2,000 people when I got there.
"My career used to be solely based around that scene, and when it started diminishing, I moved to clubs," he continues. "I don't know. It's kind of strange how this is happening again. I don't know if this is going to continue -- if this was maybe just a fluke kind of thing, or if people are genuinely getting interested again in the underground."
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If you ask Schawe, he'll tell you that true house music never really emerged from the underground, even though it flirted with the mainstream in the early '90s -- filtered through artists like CC Penniston and Robin S. , and later via acts like Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx and Crystal Method. But its spirit continues to flourish, thanks to the efforts of the milehighhouse crew, Humble Souls/Mother Earth and Juke Joint, as well as other jocks such as DJ Fox and Jack Roland, who continue to represent in the clubs.
"I think house was just a remix of the disco era," Schawe says. "It was centered around dancing, eccentric outfits, drugs, the lifestyle. In the '80s, people were dancing, but it wasn't like the '70s. And in the '90s, people really started boogeying and getting down again. And it seems like now the dance scene is a little bit in a lull. I don't believe that nightlife in general is centered around dancing anymore. It doesn't seem to be a dance culture as much as just a social culture. People are going to go out and dance, obviously, but it just doesn't seem to be as important to the evening as it used to be. But I think house will eventually reinvent itself."
In the meantime, Schawe plans to get his own house in order. The soon-to-be former DJ plans to "find a job, pay my bills and figure out what my next adventure in life will be," he says. Before he assumes Baywatch duty, though, you can still catch him on Saturday nights through May 14 at Lime. And on Sunday, May 15, Nutmeg will be joined by DJs Idiom and Footer for a night of old-school hip-hop -- how's that for irony? -- at Moscow Underground.