Twenty Years and Counting
In 1977, when Gary Givant got his first job as a DJ, his mother wished he would get a real job instead. Two decades later, she's still wishing. In a profession where career longevity is often measured in months rather than years, Givant remains a powerful force on the Denver night-life scene. On Saturdays he can be found laying down the law of Hi-NRG Eurodisco for the screaming queens at Club Proteus, and he's just added a retro-disco night Thursdays at the Church, a club that's desperately vying for the disco crown currently held by the I-Beam. Moreover, his role as a Denver-based club reporter for Billboard, the official bible of the music industry, has given him the chance to influence sounds from coast to coast. "This period in my life is a big stepping stone for me," he notes. "It's funny that after twenty years as a DJ, my career hasn't peaked yet and that it's just now beginning to head in the direction that I want. I'm more focused than ever."
As this comment implies, the role of the DJ is finally being recognized by the music industry at large, thanks largely to this year's electronica frenzy. But at this point, it's difficult to predict what the future will bring. The excitement and the frothing at the mouth that has accompanied the rise of dance music in America is beginning to abate to some degree, leaving a number of former rock stars belly-up on the beach and a host of new bands with the pressure to prove that they can transcend trends. For their part, DJs must continue to demonstrate that they're creative entertainers in their own right rather than simple technicians spinning other people's records for well-meaning suburbanites.
Givant succeeds in this regard because he has established an extremely recognizable sonic trademark. Whether he's spinning disco, electro, Hi-NRG, house, old school, R&B or techno, his calling card is music that makes a body dance and move its hips--music that leaves a crowd of partyers bathed in sweat and crying out in exultation as the last song reverberates in their ears. Which is why Givant is likely to be DJing long after many of his contemporaries have gone the way of the dodo.
Back in the Seventies, however, Givant wasn't an elder statesman; he was just another kid who loved music. His first break came when he was eighteen. "This huge club in Des Moines, Iowa, called Uncle Sam's hired me as an assistant DJ," he remembers. "It was the same place that had kicked me out for being underage the year before. It was a fabulous club. Neon red and blue lights ran underneath the opaque Plexiglas dance floor." At the time, the latest trend in the DJ universe was known as BPM, or beats per minute. "BPM was the best way to mix a new vinyl format called the twelve-inch single, which was just being introduced," he says.
KC & the Sunshine Band and the Bee Gees were two of the era's biggest acts, and their twelve-inches, which spotlighted percussion and rhythm, kept Givant's dance-crazy club patrons shaking their booties into the wee hours. "This new music was so uncategorizable, and I loved it," he says. "It wasn't rock and it wasn't soul. It was something new--the beginning of disco--and I was shocked by the intensity and the quality of it. It put out the volume of a live band, but it was a recording."
Since then, Givant has seen many genres of music come and go and come back again. Of those, his personal faves are soul and funk, two important influences on house music and electronica. "There was a lot of soul and funk in the mix back when disco was created, and I see that moving back into the music today," he remarks. "DJs like Masters at Work and groups like Brand New Heavies are going back into the studio and recording music with live bands on top of the sequencer tracks." Another act following in these footsteps is Jamiroquai, whose frontman, Jay Kay, hobnobbed with Givant at this year's Billboard Dance Music Convention in Chicago.
To many techno heads, Jamiroquai and its kin are the enemy, but Givant says, "I'm very excited about what's going on in the world of R&B today. The New Jack Swing fad in the late Eighties and early Nineties was too processed, too electronic. Bobby Brown's 'My Prerogative' just left me cold. Now, like dance music, R&B is moving back to warmer, richer tones of sound. The only thing that I'm leery of with this soul-funk revival is groups like Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim ripping off old-school Eighties songs, right down to the bridges and the choruses."
Such opinions are valued by the folks at Billboard, with whom Givant has been associated since the early Nineties. "I started working at Wax Trax five years ago, which automatically made me a retail reporter," he reveals. "The record labels would call me on a certain day and track their artists to see how they were selling. After a while, these reps got to know me and found out I DJed at a number of clubs in addition to my job at Wax Trax. Then, in 1993, Billboard went to Soundscan--so instead of basing the charts on word-of-mouth from the retail outlets, they were based on actual sales figures scanned and compiled in the retail outlets' computers. That's when the reps suggested I become an official club reporter, and with the help of a friend of mine, David Henney, who worked for Elektra, I got the job."
Today, Givant says, "I send in my Top 25 list, based on dance-floor response and my own personal taste, to Billboard central command--and they really pay attention to what I tell them." He adds, "I receive so many records through Billboard, and I'm obligated to listen to every one of them. I think that's only fair. Someone took the time to put these tracks together, and as a club reporter, I need to give these people a shot. Many DJs don't agree with me about that philosophy. I admit that after all these years, I'm sick of seeing Madonna's twelve-inches. But I can't afford to be a purist and skip over half my new vinyl acquisitions because I think I don't like the group or the remixer. DJs miss a lot of great tracks hidden in those piles of rejects."
Word of Givant's integrity is getting around. "People are realizing that my credentials are substantial," he says. "And I'm finally landing some national gigs, like Back Tracks in Washington, D.C., a fall AIDS fundraising event I've been DJing on the local scene for eleven years now."
Even if demand for Givant outside the area keeps building, though, he has no plans to abandon Denver. In addition to his slots at the Church and Club Proteus, where he's been working since the venue's 1995 debut, he has two more intriguing local projects in the works: a night of left-of-center house music at the Compound and a still-blossoming tag team with DJ Heckler, a Wax Trax co-worker. He's also been known to take an occasional dive into the pool of one-off DJ sessions. For example, he recently DJed a ten-year high-school reunion as a favor to a Club Proteus staffer. "It was so dull," he grumbles. "I brought all my choice Eighties vinyl, but the place was not happening. When they broke out the time capsule from 1987, I was ready to fall asleep."
Obviously, this is an exception to the rule: Givant's turntable skills generally prevent thoughts of slumber from entering anyone's mind. "When I DJ, I want to take the people on a trip," he says. "I don't want to change the energy or misdirect it. I want to keep them going till the lights come up and they don't know what hit them.