The crowd is still spilling into Seattle's Showbox Theater -- most patrons heading straight for the side bar -- when a lone figure quietly steps onto the crimson-bathed stage, strolls behind the long DJ booth adorned with a giant Quannum logo, wraps headphones around his noggin, and drops the needle on a funky slab of vinyl. No spotlight flips on, no one cheers. Sure, the guy's name is on the posters hung all around the club to mark the upcoming performance. But for all anyone knows, he's just a roadie making sure the turntables are tip-top for the third date of the first full-roster national tour ever undertaken by Quannum Projects, the esteemed Bay Area hip-hop collective. (See Close 2 Tha Edge, this week)
As he smoothly mixes soul grooves into vintage hip-hop staples, one of the emergency exit doors opens and several of Quannum's recognizable faces -- DJ Shadow, Gift of Gab, Chief Xcel, Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and Jumbo and Vursatyl from Lifesavas -- pass through, ambling single file across the main floor toward the dressing room. Stares and whispers slowly follow, Kangol-capped heads nodding to their heroes in that "I love you, but I gotta look cool" kinda way as the crew disappears into the back.
An hour later the room is jammed, and it's just about showtime. But the guy behind the decks is still spinning, and now he's dropping some of the famous breaks heard on Quannum joints past and present, getting the fans all worked up. Suddenly the place erupts as Shadow and Xcel come out and take up their positions behind the DJ booth alongside him. Within moments, Lyrics Born is front and center, and the much-anticipated extravaganza is under way.
As the crowd throws back the unbelievable energy being fed to them -- and the five MCs and two backup singers slip in and out of their well-known configurations (Blackalicious, Latyrx, Maroons, and more) during the three-hour rollercoaster ride -- the two better-known DJs in the back yield the bulk of the tricky tablework to the still-mystery man at stage right, frequently glancing over and grinning at his stylish moves. The crowd takes notice, too, going apeshit after every deft cut and scratch. And near the end of the show, when everyone on stage turns and points in his direction during the introductions, the audience roars more appreciatively for him than for nearly every other member of the crew.
"Give it up for my man DJ D-Sharp!" Lateef screams.
No doubt about it -- everyone in the house knows who he is now.
"That was so sick ... man, that was dope," a humbled D-Sharp says a few days later. "I'm surprised that my name has even been on the marquee at some of these places. I don't have a record or anything like that. I've DJed for Lyrics Born, Latyrx, Blackalicious, so I've played a part in the crew on that level, but for them to put my name up there like that, I was blown away."
Born Derrick Robinson, the Oakland native might be relatively new to the Quannum fold, but he is long-familiar to the Bay Area. He's been spinning at clubs and parties around town since the early '90s, equally at home rockin' the upscale patrons at Sophie's as he was keepin' it a little more street at the old Maritime Hall a few years back.
Like most DJs who came of age in the '80s, D-Sharp was drawn to his mother's turntable and boombox after being dazzled by the 1984 hip-hop flick Beat Street, then honed his skills by emulating Grandmaster Flash and Jam Master Jay before lugging his modest system to parties at the local rec center when he was just an eighth grader. "Everyone loved what I was doin' because I had all the new stuff," he reminisces. "I'd get my allowance and go buy records -- the hell with the sneakers! And it was ill because, you know, I felt like everybody in the neighborhood was talkin' about me and the chicks were into it, and I don't care who you are -- everyone wants the little things like that."
In high school, he befriended fellow hip-hop head Lateef Daumont, even though they ran with different crews. After graduation, Daumont went up to UC Davis and helped form the label Solesides in 1991 (it would later evolve into Quannum Projects), while D-Sharp stayed local, trying unsuccessfully to land a record deal with his own crew, and establishing his solo DJ cred with mix tapes and all the gigs he could land (including a brief stint with Souls of Mischief). He reconnected with his old pal a few years later, a get-together that proved crucial to D-Sharp's creative future.
"Lateef invited me to spin at this Latyrx and Blackalicious show at the Justice League in like '99, and that's when I met Lyrics Born and Xcel and all those other guys," he says. "Everybody was real cool, and I just did my thing, and then Lateef called after that and was like, 'Yo man, umm, you think you might wanna DJ for Blackalicious? X thought you might be down.' And I was like, 'Hell, yeah!,' and that's how it all got started."
Since then, D-Sharp has DJed for just about every Quannum act at one point or another, including his current role backing up Lyrics Born on tour. He also has turned his attention to the production side, having crafted the hard-hitting beats and old-school textures on the growly rapper's battle track "Pack Up" (from last year's Later That Day). More of his stuff is likely to turn up on the next Blackalicious and Lifesavas releases. And, if all goes according to plan, D-Sharp will finally drop his long-imagined debut solo disc sometime next year.
"I've got all my gear set up in the hotel room right now," he laughs. "Please believe me that I am finally working on an album. It's gonna be a DJ record, but with other MCs, rappin' over my beats. Nothing has been officially set, but I'd love each and every one of these guys to be on it."
D-Sharp shouldn't have a problem with that, given the tight bond both personally and professionally that comes with being a part of the Quannum crew.
"It's all family, just like Shadow says in the show," he says. "Everyone shows everyone respect. No one is put higher than anyone else, no matter what their record sales are, so there's no ego trippin'. And for these guys to give me this opportunity when no one knows who I am, that is a beautiful thing. I can't even tell you how much of a blessing it is to be down with these cats."
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