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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Change the tune: Madison DJs adjust with the times
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Credit:Sharon Vanorny

Let's play a little visualization game: Imagine you're standing on a stage or in a booth, a protective wall of sound equipment just in front of you, colored lights flashing, and there's a crowd of sweaty, madly dancing people whose soaring happiness is your doing.

If that's an appealing proposition, then you can understand why so many are attracted to the work of the DJ. It's making mixtapes for your friends, writ large. It can bring attention and accolades. It's facilitating one of the oldest and most fundamental human needs: to dance.

It's also, for anyone actually looking to make a living at it or just get asked back to a party or venue, hard work.

What's so difficult about playing prerecorded music for a mob of probably impaired revelers? For one thing, the world of the DJ is evolving faster and faster every day. What with the Internet and iPods, DJs have had to find new and innovative ways of keeping people's attention.

While some DJs still use the tried-and-true vinyl-on-turntables method, new software makes it possible to have a nearly infinite number of tracks on hand, incorporate videos, work in all manner of special effects, do live remixing and mash-ups, and even do away with the turntable entirely.

For a relatively small city, Madison can claim a fairly large and diverse lineup of DJs. And whereas a person looking for non-canned tunes used to have to wait for the weekend to roll around, venues all around town now feature live mixing nearly every night of the week.

For instance, the Inferno (1718 Commercial Ave.) brings in a wide range of both local and touring DJs for shows throughout the week. At Plan B (924 Williamson St.) there's a clubby vibe with several regular DJs who tend to stick to the house and pop sound.

There's something available for most musical tastes. Downtempo, hip-hop, techno, dub, reggae, funk, house and more are all on tap at local venues, and no one DJ seems to have a monopoly on any one style.

For local DJs, that's a fact born of necessity. Whereas the person at the decks used to be a tastemaker, someone you went to in order to hear the newest underground cuts, the Internet has made that increasingly impossible. Instead of focusing on beats no one else has found yet, the DJs of today are pushed to play favorite, familiar songs.

"When I first started DJing, people would come out to hear what new records I had," says Nathan Foulks, a.k.a. DJ Vilas Park Sniper. His first love is reggae, but he can be heard spinning hip-hop at Alchemy or electronic at the Inferno. "Now people say, 'You better play my five songs!' Everyone has the music now, not just you. And they expect you to bend genres a lot more, too."

In scale, Madison DJ events range from grand to intimate. In the last couple of years, big DJ shows at places like the Majestic Theatre (115 King St.) have revived a version of 1990s rave culture, complete with the modern house and techno that's being pumped out by outfits like Madison's Dirty Disco Kidz.

At a recent Majestic show, Dirty Disco Kids - DJs Vinnie Toma, Mr. Physix, Black Kennedy and Special OPS - stood behind an array of decks and mixers and kept the crowd rapt. The house was fully packed with an all-ages crowd that danced into the wee hours of the morning. Today, as in the 1990s, dancers stocked up on glowsticks.

On the other end of the spectrum, smaller clubs and restaurants have also picked up on the value of live DJs. In the cozy, dimly lit corners of Natt Spil (211 King St.) there's a different one every evening. Nearby at Madison's (119 King St.), DJs have been incorporated into the regular schedule. The Great Dane at Hilldale features a live mix every Friday and Saturday night. The brewpub has become a regular home for Madison stalwarts like Mike Carlson and Nick Nice.

Both have been on the scene for decades and have, each in their own way, contributed a great deal to the environment for DJs here. In addition to frequently playing out, Carlson owns and operates MC Audio (515 University Ave.), which has become a hub for aspiring and professional mix-heads alike. Carlson is often cited by other DJs as a sort of godfather-like figure for the scene.

He's so well liked that when, earlier this year, his house burned down, fans quickly rallied to throw benefit shows and donate new equipment to replace the old.

Wyatt Agard, himself a DJ who frequently plays at clubs like the Inferno and Jolly Bob's, also works at MC Audio. "Mike models this place on a golf pro shop. These days it would be impossible to compete with online retailers in terms of music sales, so you have to diversify," says Agard. "We hold a lot of classes on everything from scratching to using live mixing software."

The store is regarded as a safe place for people to get nerdy about music, learn about new mixing gear or pick up a few DJ skills.

As for Nick Nice, he's been around long enough to have noticed significant changes in the scene. "There are a lot of younger DJs and a younger crowd in general getting into it," he noted recently, in a rare moment of downtime while taking care of his newborn baby. "We've got lots of theme nights now and not a lot of regular nights, except for maybe places like Natt Spil and Plan B."

Nice agrees that new technology has had a big impact. "Smaller, more portable rigs and the fact that you can have all your music on a hard drive instead of lugging out crates and crates of records have made it possible for more places to have a DJ now. And, I think, more and more places are seeing the value of having a live DJ instead of just canned, boxed music."

The adaptability of the DJ's craft is a big part of its appeal, for DJs and audiences alike. So says DJ Pain 1, an accomplished and nationally known producer who lives and works in Madison.

"Any one situation may call for different styles, different eras of music, so I don't usually arrive at a show with too many expectations," he says. "I have to spend time seeing what the crowd reacts to, and eventually the crowd and I reach a point of understanding. That's when the fun starts. It's a big musical negotiation."

That ability to read a crowd is a key component of a DJ's success. "Integrity and willingness to communicate with an audience help," says Pain. "The job of a DJ is to contribute to a collective energy, not take from it."

Foulks says that treating the gig as a serious job helps, too. "Be on time, don't be drunk, get someone to cover shifts you can't make," he advises. "Don't be a dick. Be humble. Everyone's in it together."

That can be hard to remember when a promoter or venue owner doesn't want to pay for DJs' services, when unruly patrons try to push too many music choices, and especially when DJs play a certain kind of music that's liable to land them in hot water with the city.

It's no secret that Madison has a rocky relationship with hip-hop shows. They're a vibrant part of the DJ scene, though, and they're not going anywhere.

"People love to say that there is a causal relationship between hip-hop and violence in clubs and bars or that a few bad apples have ruined it for the rest of us," says Pain. "But let's consider what else has happened in Madison.

"A person was stabbed to death in a State Street[-area] bar over a dispute regarding a jukebox," says Pain, recalling a September 2008 killing outside the Plaza Tavern and Grill, 319 N. Henry St. "Did the city rush to condemn jukeboxes?

"So as long as we keep lying to ourselves and assuring ourselves that hip-hop is the problem, hardworking and respectable hip-hop DJs and artists are the ones who suffer."

No matter the hurdles, the task of the DJ is to make people happy - even for the people in the quiet booth in the back corner. They may be only half conscious of the good feeling they're getting from the music playing in the background. But they're getting it.

For most DJs, that's the biggest reward. Sometimes that means laying back and making the sound almost peripheral. At other times, it's all about putting on a show.

Says Nice, "You're only limited by what your imagination can come up with."

Spin City

If you're looking for expertly selected and mixed music to dine, drink or dance to, Madison DJs offer plenty of regular sets.

DJ Vilas Park Sniper helps host a hip-hop variety show on the last Monday of every month at Alchemy. It's a laid-back evening featuring everything from spoken word to break-dancing and emcee battles. You can also catch him at Madison's every Thursday night at 10, spinning a wide variety of styles, and at 10 p.m. almost every Saturday at Jolly Bob's, where the tunes skew toward reggae.

Wyatt Agard spins at Jolly Bob's every Tuesday evening alongside a variety of guest DJs. Nick Nice currently enjoys regular Sunday gigs at Maduro (10 p.m.), as well as several weekend nights at the Great Dane Hilldale. You can also catch him at the Majestic Theatre on May 28 for the Gomers' anniversary party.

Saturdays at 11 p.m., DJ Pain 1 hosts a show on the hip-hop radio station 93.1 Jamz called "Planet Jamz," along with MC Starr.

Other highlights: DJ Lizzy T and Prof. Shame, Plan B, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. DJ David Muhammad, Cardinal Bar, Thursdays, 10 p.m. MadCity DJs, Scatz, Fridays, 9 p.m. DJ Surprise, R Place on Park, Fridays, 9 p.m. DJ Chamo Candela, Frida Mexican Grill, Fridays, 10 p.m. DJ Reeves, Club 5, Fridays, 10 p.m. DJs Real Jaguar, Wes3, Jeremy Thomas, Maduro, Saturdays, 10 p.m.

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