1 2 x 1 2: Twelve Interviews. A Dozen Answers.
Spring has sprung in Chicago and that means rolling around with your windows down and your speakers up. Thankfully, fresh sounds seem to surround this month’s subject, Mike Reuter a.k.a. Shazam Bangles. The Chicago soundsmith and I go all the way back to elementary school and the Arlington Heights Youth Basketball Association. I don’t remember much from those days except for the color of our jerseys (red and white) and that Mike was the best player in the league (we might’ve even won the Lakeman Tournament). Fast forward 20 years later to a rowdy loft party in Wicker Park, and I bump into a bearded Bangles behind the decks cuttin’ and scratchin’ with the same speed and dexterity he dominated the courts with when we were kids.
1) You’re a man with many monikers. Tell me about the titular evolution leading up to Shazam Bangles. How’d you get your start?
SB: I first invested in DJing in high school after being interested in the bubbling battle circuit across the globe at the time. I was listening to college mix shows and buying all the mixtapes I could get my hands on at stores such as Gramaphone, Beat Parlor, Dr. Wax, etc. I initially bought some Gemini belt-driven turntables and was given a meager, hand-me-down mixer. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I really enjoyed mixing acapellas with different instrumentals, so I stuck with it. I saved up until I could get myself some Technics. That’s when I started to get serious. DJ’s are often given their names, while others come up with their title on their own. You don’t necessarily have to earn it, but it definitely helps your name to hold more weight if it fits you as a DJ. My first name was D.J. Tanner, as suggested to me by my girlfriend at the time. That name came from Full House and I thought it was pretty funny back then and many people agreed. I wasn’t really sure if I was just an enthusiast at that point, or if I really wanted to take this profession seriously, so it worked. Then, when I was in college I noticed this weak DJ was using the same name so I added “The Surgeon General”. I thought of that handle because of an old Ronnie Gee record and the classic introduction: “Warning. The Surgeon General of Chilltown, New York has determined….” Kevin Beacham gave me the nod of approval and added that my cuts were surgical—so it fit. I was then known as D.J. Tanner The Surgeon General. Fast forward to 2006, I was sitting listening to “Clipse of Doom” by one of my all-time favorite MCs, Ghostface Killah. During GFK’s last verse he spits: “SHAZAM BANGLES/in the vault deep/and cruisin’ deserts mad heavy in assault Jeeps!” I loved the way it sounded. He said it with such ferocity that the line struck a chord in me. I first thought of the 70s TV show, Shazam! Tying that together with GFK, I thought of dinner plate-sized medallions with the lightning bolt logo and giant gold bands on the wrist, similar to GFK’s giant eagle piece he wore on his wrist from time to time. When you caught a glimpse of this super human truck jewelry it would gleam like, “SHAZAM!” It started as sort of a joke, but it began to catch on. For me, that name came to represent the most authentic expression of hip hop culture. Those that have the most outrageous jewelry are often revered, yet I wanted the music I played, manipulated and presented to be my “bangles” instead.
2) Damn. That’s quite a journey! You mentioned Kevin Beacham was an influence on your early career. Who are some of your mentors/heroes? Who would you love to DJ with that you haven’t already?
SB: I would say my mentor was Kevin Beacham. He put me on to so many records and taught me how to listen to music in a different way, not to mention how to blend and count bars. His undying commitment to the quest for good hip hop while understanding that a dope MC can come from anywhere helped shape my tastes. As far as scratching, I would say D.ST, DJ Magic Mike, DJ Joe Cooley, the Philly DJs of the 80s and DJ Supreme from Hijack were heroes of mine as I was coming up. The X-Men vs Invisibl Skratch Piklz era was pretty influential. D-Styles (formerly of ISP) continues to inspire me to get better along with many in our own scene. Hip Hop and House Music were still separate in many ways in Chicago during my formative years so I wasn’t that aware of our city’s mystic influence on dance culture. I have earned a new respect for Chicago’s Disco and House pioneers along with the next generation of selectors such as Ron Trent after speaking with him and realizing how serious he is about his craft. DJ Spinna and J Rocc have been favorites of mine for a while. I would love to play with DJ Anonymous, DJ Day, Eli Escobar or Cosmo Baker.
3) DJ Day and Cosmo Baker are two of my favorites, too. So let’s talk about your new crew: Cutz on Cuts. Who’s in it? How’d it start? What’s it all about?
SB: Cutz on Cuts! Our crew is DJ Moppy, Rice the Sound Transmitter and Shazam Bangles. Constance K is our lovely host. She provides a unique personality and sense of humor to put a smile on your face and let everyone know we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I know that Gloria, the host of the Discofunk radio show Ebony Cuts, was an influence on her approach to our show. She ties the segments together and adds a level of professionalism. She gets on the mic and introduces each episode and our guests for the week with a special brand of enthusiasm. The show started innocently enough after we all had a scratch session. Moppy and I had been discussing how we like to scratch to all kinds of music. We realized that people in the city aren’t really having fun with creative DJing as much as they could be. Rice brought a very sharp style of cutting that fit in perfectly with our concept. We decided to have a go at a Ustream show that focuses on quality—with one DJ/beatmaker/musician providing the groundwork and the rest of the DJs adding layers/cuts/samples in a tasteful way. I think we found our own lane by applying this formula to nearly any genre, at any speed. Many DJs will have scratch sessions, but only scratch to one BPM, only one type of beat. We wanted to be able to rock any kind of party with our sets while still being able to go off on the cut. By inviting our friends on the show, it has expanded and gained momentum due to the fact that our sound is always changing. Playing with Rob Swift was a definite highlight for us, and we are expanding on that, playing more live shows. We hope to establish a residency at a club implementing our own brand of turntable manipulation and continue to stimulate more energy in the scratch DJ scene.
4) Tuning into Cutz on Cuts at the end of a long Hump day completely transforms my week. And that Rob Swift show at Darkroom was ridiculous. I gotta admit, you have the best/widest taste in music of just about anyone I know. Since your sets are so eclectic, what shapes your sound? Is there anything outside the realm of possibility for you musically?
SB: Thank you! That means a lot coming from you. The drum influences me. Chicago influences me. This city is a capital of DJ culture. I love the fact that we have “bedroom” DJs of all kinds that can cook world famous DJs from just about anywhere else in the world. That lets me know that I always need to remain humble. Ego has no place in this culture. I have learned to pay respect and truly learn from the pioneers in the disco and house scenes which we created. Many of these DJs are playing their hearts out whether the sound is trendy or not, and have been doing it for years. I respect that type of dedication. My love of music and the sheer amount of great music out there to discover keeps me from getting too stuck on one style. We have a great world music scene here, too, and that is inspiring. I know a lot of vinyl collectors here that make me want to keep digging. I try not to limit myself. Of course other DJs/selectors are always inspiring me to tell a story through the music, finding songs and presenting them in an original way. I love playing hip hop, because that was my first love and can take you into other sounds through samples and influences. I have recently really enjoyed playing deep disco, modern funk and house because of the groove you can find when you are mixing. Music is my sanctuary.
5) That’s what’s up. With all the inspiration you just listed, what advice do you have for young DJs trying to get started. What’s it take to be recognized as worth a damn?
SB: If you are a young DJ looking to play out, learn your craft. Be versatile. One style = no style. Learn what you are worth and don’t play for free drinks. If you play for free, you will playing for free more often than not. Try to find a mentor or someone to look up to to show you how to play to different crowds and how to pace your set. You should also practice quite a bit before you play out because playing in your home is a lot different then playing in front of a crowd. While you’re practicing, work at developing your own sound and dig for music, get your fingers dusty. There are a lot of microwave DJs these days, and you need to be original if you want to make an impact. Grinding out shows with a level of respect for what you do and keeping your mouth shut will help you earn respect as you are coming up. We all know that every event is not going to be memorable, but you need to fight through those gigs and learn from them. Have fun and make your events the place to be and learn how to promote the right way.
6) Nice! I think that advise works for all types of creative pursuits. For people sleeping on Chicago’s DJ scene, tell them what’s good, what sucks and how you think we can make it better?
SB: Chicago’s scene is a dichotomy. It’s pretty damn segregated and that is NOT healthy. I have noticed an improvement, with more North Side kids heading South and vice versa, but it still could be a lot better. It sometimes seems like South Side footwork crews are in a completely different city when others are partying in Wicker Park. Many DJs look at the game as “me against the world” and forget that we can support one another without being in the same crew. We also have a lot of competing nights around the city, so developing a following can be more difficult. On the other hand, we have an impressive range of talent and I am endlessly amazed with new discoveries just by stumbling into a bar I haven’t been to on a specific night. It can be frustrating due to the mass audience’s desire to go to the bar/club with the most people instead of the best vibe/music/theme, but we also have something for everyone. The people here typically understand what a good DJ is and often allow you to play what the people should hear instead of what they are used to hearing. The listener needs to trust their guide in that respect. I think if Chicago’s government recognized the impact our music has had on the world and embraced the entire city that we could come together a bit more and have more city-wide events that would really help our city’s scene prosper.
7) Speaking of bars and clubs with the best vibe/music/theme, what are your top 5 spots to DJ in Chicago?
SB: Double Door, Darkroom, The Brickhouse, Simone’s and Rodan in no particular order. I like to go to Rude One’s Goodness events because I know it’s the “good” shit! Danny’s brings in world-class Deep Soul/Funk DJ’s and Disco Heads even though I haven’t been able to make it there much lately, the music is top notch in a relaxed environment. Push Tuesdays at LoKaL always provide something new. Also, private events/house parties seem to be the most fun when done right.
8) How would you characterize the differences between DJs, turntablists and selectors?
SB: A DJ is someone who mixes music but does not consider advanced turntable techniques such as scratching/beat juggling/drumming as part of their core skills. Meaning they mix and blend for the most part and focus on that. I never liked the term “turntablist,” although I guess it does make sense. Someone classified as such focuses on scratching/tricks/routines in their performance/set often times in addition to mixing, sometimes not much mixing at all. However, the lines are blurring because someone such as Rob Swift plays a cohesive set of music, then goes off into a beat juggle and then brings it back to a scratch routine that sounds like a new form of music without breaking stride. In addition, traditional DJs are incorporating cuts/trick mixing into their sets more and more. A selector is someone not as concerned with beat matching, but more with quality of music. It’s easy to get caught up with what mixes well together instead of what’s the best song I can play at the moment. So, we can all learn from each other.
9) Now that you defined those labels, how about taking a stab at settling a more complex score: vinyl, Serato or digital controllers? What’s the future of DJing?
SB: I would strongly recommend learning on vinyl. Learning how to mix without visual cues is key. Then, you can “earn” the right to use Serato. If you choose to go straight into Serato/Traktor/etc., learn how to mix before you start thinking you are out here doing it! As long as you are good at what you do, it doesn’t matter to me. I will say that vinyl will last a very long time, (albeit in niche markets) due to sound quality, feel and packaging. Digital controllers seem to be the next standard following the Serato era. The future of DJing is somewhat open-ended. I see more buttons, knobs and tidy designs, while purists dive deeper into vinyl collections and analog parties. I did have a dream that I was using a program that instantly loaded any song on a record just by thinking of the song. That would be nice. Ha!
10) I bet there are sonic scientists working on that technology right now…! You mentioned digging deeper into analog options. Have MP3 blogs replaced the mixtape? What are your top 3 music sharing sites?
SB: I love cassettes. I think cassettes are, to a lesser extent, in the same boat as vinyl. They will last because of the sound and the nostalgic format. I’ve noticed DJs in Japan putting out mixes on actual tapes. But CDs are pretty dead. SoundCloud is now the accepted platform. It’s a pretty decent format, but my top 3 music sharing sites are USTREAM, Podomatic & Stickam. I like the addition of live video feeds along with the audio. It’s more personal.
11) Sticking with the web for a sec, your Twitter feed (@shazam_bangles) moves faster than the NYSE stock ticker and yet the quality of your tweets remain top notch. How big a role does social media play in your music?
SB: Thank you for the compliment. I feel like Twitter is a blessing and a curse. I love the fact that you are instantly aware of events and the discussion can be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time, but it also supports a cheapened sense of value. For example, a trendy rapper will have a million followers while many of the true leaders are relatively unknown. I do use it when I want to write something without as many filters as Facebook for example. Twitter is also the reason we were able to link up with Rob Swift. He heard our Cutz on Cuts broadcast after getting linked by a friend of ours. Social media in general is an undeniable force in music right now, but I have noticed people are getting sick and tired of it. I was thinking the other day: “We should be busy living, not stopping in the middle of life and tweeting about it.” But, I’m as guilty as the next person. It’s not that difficult to promote an event without it, but people are so used to inviting an outrageous amount of people and people are used to finding out about parties this way.
12) In a word, what’s it all about?
Follow Shazam @shazam_bangles