Amateur turntablists take note: The Bay Area scratch bubble burst before the dot-coms did. Why? Because watching vinyl masturbators can make audiences hurl, whereas good old showmanship beats any new trend.
Proving this fact is longtime Bay Area turntablism survivor Mike Relm, who starts a 62-date US tour this week with an Oakland Arena gig opening for Blue Man Group. The San Francisco native is among the first local DJs to successfully combine cutting-edge video sampling and old-school DJing into a momentum-filled set.
Known for his trademark black suit and horn-rimmed glasses, Relm says he's suiting up with Blue Man's "How to Be a Megastar Tour 2.0" because of its audience-first ethos. The 29-year-old SF State film editing dropout participated in the rise and fall of the insular scratch culture that culminated in the mid-'90s with events like Skratchcon an American Idol-style battle of the most dexterous DJs. But that got old real fast, Relm says.
"It seemed like the possibilities were endless, but they weren't," he says, sipping an espresso and smoking Parliament Lights at Cafe Greco near his place in San Francisco's North Beach. "Everyone was focusing on technique, and that's like watching a piano player showing off how many scales he knows. Whoop-de-doo. When it came down to it, there was only a few guys that were making music that people would appreciate, and that moves people."
Skratchcon died after 2000, so Relm hit the road and developed his current habit of heavy international touring, with some local side action. Dance crowds are bigger in Europe, he says, and everyone wants a DJ with a San Francisco pedigree. Relm can still cut it up with the best of them, but his current draw comes from a more narrative show that includes video and audio clips from School of Rock, Led Zeppelin, Björk, and Peanuts specials all made possible by a 2003 invention called the DVJ.
"I can't dance or sing," Relm explains. "I need to have a reason for me to be onstage. I'm trying to push it as far as I can with the tricks onstage, but that still isn't enough.
"The DVJ came out at the perfect time," he continues. "Now I was like, 'I need to switch things up and compile some visuals.' Everywhere I go, I don't go to a record store anymore; I go to a DVD shop."
The loaf-sized DVJ, Pioneer's DVD turntable, lets its operator cue up video samples the way DJs cue up audio ones. Moving a hand back and forth atop the gadget's plastic turntable lets the VJ wind the video forward and back, exactly like vinyl scratching. Cue Brad Pitt taking Edward Norton's punch in Fight Club, manipulate the turntable, and the punch gets thrown over and over. Cut and combine the video with others, as well as audio clips, and Relm saw the potential for highly referential pop-culture medleys that could rescue audiences from the idle boredom of DJ-watching. Moreover, he ditched thousands of albums for Serado Scratch, a vinyl emulation program that lets him make transitions faster than he previously thought possible.
Blue Man Group follows a similar arc from simplicity to technical dominance. The show started in the early '80s with three guys dressed in latex and blue paint miming and drumming on New York streets. But the company has grown steadily into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with seven venues, including European franchises and a 1,760-capacity show in Las Vegas. In addition to commercial spots for Intel and Swatch, Blue Man has a line of best-selling kids' music toys.
So overexposed and successful and hence loathed are these Blue Men that they became a running joke in the TV sitcom Arrested Development. In the show, comedian David Cross plays Tobias Funke, a discredited psychiatrist who tries to become an actor. In the second season, he becomes so depressed that he seeks out a support group for male depression, and mistakenly auditions for Blue Man Group. Relm says Blue Man's involvement with the second season of the show indicated a similar sense of humor.
"I was talking to Chris Wink; he's one of the original Blue Men," Relm recalls. "We were talking about our theories and approaches and we matched a lot. They're hard to describe they have the mime thing going on, the music going on, almost got a circus act going on, they got science. We were talking exploratoriums, and I was like, 'Wow. That is really exploratorium-ish,' 'cause it's got the lights and the rock music. A lot of their audience-participation cues are visual. I think it works great 'cause I do the same thing."
What to expect for your hard-earned $60 on February 10? Blue Man Group says the show will take audiences to a satirical workshop on how to create the perfect rock concert experience. "We want people to walk away feeling like the real magic of rock concerts comes from their tribal and communal elements of the live show, as opposed to 'megastardom,'" co-founder Wink states. "The real star of a good rock concert is the euphoric vibe created by everyone in the building."
Look for further audience-friendly fare from Relm this year via his appearance on the soundtrack for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, as well as his first-ever album of original material.
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