Highlandtown bar gives aspiring DJs chance to mix it up

Shorty's lets contestants practice skills on the crowd

Scene: clubs, bars, nightlife

November 06, 2003|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SUN STAFF

So, you want to be a DJ - a superstar who rules from behind the turntable and has the power to control the masses on the dance floor.

If you think you have what it takes to get the crowd pumping, and you're ready to test your skills in public instead of your club basement, then Shorty's Martini Bar and Lounge in Highlandtown is the place to go. Wednesday nights, the bar holds open DJ nights where local amateur and struggling semiprofessional disc jockeys compete for status and a chance to show off their style.

There aren't a lot of bars or nightclubs that would literally take any person off the street and let him or her play with several thousand dollars worth of equipment.

There are some ground rules, though. DJs who want to compete must submit a demo tape or CD to Shorty's bartender Scott White, the organizer of the competitions. White will take any type of music style for the contests, although the majority of DJs spin house, drum 'n' bass, progressive and hip-hop. Surprisingly, he has yet to receive a demo tape so horrible that the DJ was not allowed to compete.

"DJs are their own hardest critics," he said. "By the time they feel confident enough to submit a tape to someone else, they've usually developed their skills."

The idea for the competition was the brainchild of the bar's owner, Charles Fields, aka, "DJ Feelgood."

Fields got his start as a DJ in Baltimore in the early 1990s as one of the founders of the weekly party "Fever" at the Club Paradox. Today, Fields is an internationally recognized house disc jockey and was named one of the top 40 DJs of 2002 by BPM Culture Magazine, a Southern California-based publication that caters to DJs and fans.

When Shorty's opened almost three years ago, Fields was the resident DJ every Wednesday. Fields now makes his home in Los Angeles and, with his current touring schedule, can appear at the club only about once every six to eight weeks.

The competition not only fills gaps when Fields is on tour, but "they're a way for Charles to give back to the DJ community," White said. Fields knows what it's like to be a young DJ looking for a place to perform.

"When Charles was just starting out, he wasn't very good," said Brendan McElroy, Fields' longtime friend from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who manages Shorty's.

When Fields would DJ at events, McElroy would bring friends to fill the dance floor and cheer him on. "It made him look like he was the greatest DJ in the world," McElroy said, "even when he wasn't."

That concept of DJs bringing their own fan base works well for Shorty's contestants, where they are judged by crowd response. White tries to make sure that the three DJs who compete on a given night all spin the same type of music.

"That way, people vote for the best DJ and not their favorite type of music," he said.

The eliminations run for six weeks, followed by two semifinal rounds and the finals. "The DJs that lose almost always sign up for another spot to try again," White said.

Except for the final competition where the winners split the evening's cover charge, the contest doesn't pay the competing DJs, though some have paying gigs elsewhere.

So why would someone want to work for free? Partially for the status, White said.

"A lot of kids just starting out like to say, `I used the same decks [turntables] as DJ Feelgood. ... I was in the very same DJ booth.'"

Nick Hill, 24, who goes by the stage name "DJ Sleepy" and spins drum 'n' bass, said he doesn't mind working for free.

"I do it because I love the music," said Hill, who has been a DJ for almost eight years. "If I wasn't here, I'd be home spinning records," he said.

Hill has won the competition at Shorty's four times and came in second at the last semifinal. Even if he doesn't win the final competition, he'll still keep coming back, he said.

For Mark Benson, 23, who spins house music as "Japan4," DJing at Shorty's is a way to get a little publicity. "I'm not doing this for the money; I just want to get my name out," he said.

Both Hill and Benson got into spinning records the same way: They liked the music and started collecting vinyl - a lot of vinyl. Each has more than 500 records.

The contest has given one local unknown a boost: Samson Stout, who won the last final competition, is now Shorty's resident DJ on Mondays.

"I'd love it if we could get more residents from the contest," White said. "That's our ultimate goal."

For more club events, see Page 39.

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