You’d think that Springfield, Mo., would be one of the unlikeliest places on earth to find the future of hip hop. At least it’s the heartland, right? That place where kids by the millions suck down records coughed up by interchangeable mook-rock bands such as Puddle of Mudd and Nickelback. An area that is, for better or for worse, America’s cultural trough.
Springfield resident DJ P (aka Danny James Philips) is probably the most famous hip-hop DJ in the world who is still humble (and available enough) to play a wedding in Detroit, as he did on New Year’s Eve.
Coming of age in the 1980s, DJ P has made his living playing Top 40 clubs since his teens, doing his best to play only vinyl — even if this meant having to endure tipsy patrons requesting “track seven on the Mystikal CD.” Still, he gets the job done.
In fact, a little-known underground mix disc he and fellow hip-hop-and-then-some DJ Z-Trip made called Uneasy Listening Vol. One has shown up on critics’ best-of lists three years in a row. What’s more, said disc — according to Uncle Kracker — was mandatory bus listening on Kid Rock tours.
Uneasy Listening first surfaced in 1999 as a warmhearted free-for-all of genre-mashing. On it, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” effortlessly, hilariously morphs into Del Tha Funkee Homosapien’s “Funky Franchise,” and the Who’s “Eminence Front.”
Uneasy Listening was hip hop in the great tradition of flipping the script and doing your own thing. Picture the Beastie Boys lifted out of their jazzbo yoga jag of late, given 40-ouncers and put behind the decks at a basement party.
Just as Afrika Bambaataa looked past his James Brown-crammed record crates to use an unlikely pairing of two Kraftwerk records to found hip hop with “Planet Rock,” so have P and Z-Trip. In their own shamelessly FM radio-bred white-boy way, P and Z imagined a hip-hop party mix where Midnight Oil and Metallica might merge, or where Chuck D and Flavor Flav could rap “Bring The Noise” over Naked Eyes’ “Promises, Promises.” It was funny, irreverent, but most of all, good. That’s precisely why Uneasy Listening was just last month singled out as one of Rolling Stone’s “Top Ten Musical Moments of 2002” — a full three years after it first surfaced as a DJ-only CD.
But where Z-Trip has parlayed his more rock-and-roll-minded flamboyance into an appearance in last year’s DJ documentary Scratch and a record deal with Hollywood Records (the fruit of which will have DJ P’s “Like A Prayer”/ “Apache” breakbeat from Uneasy Listening on it), P has yet to hit it big.
P really is a small-town kid at heart. His first New York City appearance (he eventually held a monthly residency there at hip downtown nightclub, Fun) was by accident. In town to perform at a Disco Mix Club (DMC) DJ battle at a skate park, he found himself behind the decks at a yuppie loft party. There, he wowed secretary-types into Girls Gone Wild mode by combining Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow” funked-up with Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” From there he became a party fave. That is, until the Village Voice — a weekly paper prone to cynical fits of cultural cannibalism — called his blend of hip-hop/’80s faves “canned as corn.”
“Like I plan out what I play,” DJ P says dismissively in a patented Missour-ah drawl. He’s busy unpacking crates for his Detroit debut, which, in this case, is a wedding reception for a prominent Ford Motor Company marketing exec and his neo-socialite bride. “Man, I just want to rock the party.”
As he surveys the upstairs of New Center eatery Cuisine, P says eagerly, “I can’t remember the last time I played a house party.”
Unlikely setting or not, P does his thing. At midnight, as the wedding party of young Detroit professionals hits the dance floor, P opens with Run-D.M.C.’s “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” then launches into a beat-juggle of Busta Rhymes’ “Pass The Courvoisier.”
As P scratches back and forth, he is wonderfully oblivious to the older Grosse Pointe socialite couples, who are looking on in confused horror at younger twosomes breaking into exaggerated grinding. A middle-aged deputy editor of the Detroit News tries to keep up with his date. Soon the black-tie crowd is forming a break dancing circle. Women in formal gowns clasp their chests and do the running man. Guys go into backspins, one using his tux jacket to spin on his forearm. The scene is surreal.
P takes off his sweater and headphones and busts into his own moves. And this is certainly ain’t the first time P has broken out his own B-boy soft-shoe. He once brought the house down in front of an otherwise stern-faced crowd at the 1998 DMC DJ competition in San Francisco. There, he actually abandoned the decks to break dance to, get this, Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” melded with a Public Enemy beat.
At Cuisine, P does a series of floor-clearing backspins that see him end on an elbow and a knee. It’s a perfect body lock. The crowd erupts. He gets back behind the decks and spins Uneasy Listening’s Metallica/Midnight Oil — on vinyl.
“Some guys in England bootlegged it on vinyl,” he tells me, straining over the boom. “So me and Z-Trip shelled out a fortune to buy import copies.”
P hits the party finale: Biggie Small’s “Hypnotize” and Tears For Fears’ “Shout.” The groom gets up on a chair and thrusts his hips as the bride dives into a move. One can picture her butt cheeks moving in paradiddles under the wedding dress.
It may be a black-tie wedding in Detroit on New Year’s Eve, but it may as well be an after-hours party at the Outcasts’ MC headquarters just a mile up the Lodge Freeway.
Cynics — and hip-hop has many of them — will say there is an obviousness to P’s style. But that is just lazy. For lack of a better word, P’s style is all about familiarity, that which brings a raw hip-hop aesthetic (and this man has indeed won his share of underground DJ battles) to a crowd that could care less about raw hip hop or those underground DJ battles.
For stone-faced purists, P could be written off as hip-hop for the office-party set. But for the heads who really get it, and, in Detroit on this New Year’s Eve, P is doing what every great DJ does: he is simply rocking. No pretension, no outward self-satisfaction.
What makes DJ P laudable is that he’s bereft of the hipster cachet common to UK producers who doctor up Christina Aguilera and Strokes tracks. And he lacks the visibility of Z-Trip — so far. But in a world where the Beastie Boys Mixmaster Mike goes on tour with Guns N’ Roses to warm up the crowd with White Zombie, Naughty By Nature and Gary Numan, there is hope for P.
And for partiers from Springfield to New York City, and, as demonstrated here, Detroit’s upwardly mobile movers and shakers, it might be as close as they’ll ever get (or care to get) to a real hip-hop party. Even if they are having too much fun to notice.
For more information on DJ P, visit www.djpmix.com.Hobey Echlin scratches and mixes words for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org