Philly-born DJ Excel started his DJ and musical career at just 11 years old and later sold mixtapes in high school. A turntablist at heart, he founded the Skratch Makaniks crew of DJs, known for their legitimate turntable skills and ability to rock any club. Having moved to L.A. 19 years later, and with a history of inimitable mixtapes, Excel shared his thoughts with us on the Philly sound, and what sucks about Top 40-focused club nights and their crowds. He plays the Parlor this Saturday.
How did growing up in Philly shape your DJ career?
Philly is rough. The bar was high. There was a bunch of local DJs who were really dope, and being able to have all that talent as a study guide was crucial. It absolutely made me the DJ I am today. If you were garbage, they made sure to tell you. It made you practice that much harder.
What was the original idea behind putting together your crew, the Skratch Makaniks?
SMC was the idea of this particular group of guys who grew up together, respected each other, and were also influenced by one another. It was about bringing these supertalented guys together and helping each other out. We all shared the same idea and goals: to achieve as much as possible in a culture that we loved so much.
Philly never really had DJ crews like that. Of course there were “crews,” but that was way back in the day. The first two crews to make a move like this was SMC and Illvibe Collective. We rode for each other from the beginning.
There is often talk of the “Philly sound” by artists like Jazzy Jeff and ?uestlove. How do you define it and what does it mean to you?
The Philly sound is that soul and funk. It’s being able to chop up the records but not lose that groove. It’s being able to drop records and set up songs to build the intensity of the night. It can’t be taught. It’s in your blood. It’s an attitude. Not every Philly DJ has it, but most of them do. It represents a love for the culture that’s deeper than one can put into words.
You have always been prolific in releasing mixtapes. What’s one of the most memorable and why?
Some of my most memorable are the ones I don’t even have, all my early ’94, ’95, and ’96 mixes. From what I can remember, they were just full of good music and I had so much fun making them. I’d really like to find them somehow and put them back out.
Out of the mixes I do have, I guess, all the classic hip-hop “Summer Klassiks,” “95 Klassiks,” “Skratch Sopranos,” etc. Those took time to make and got mad love from the stores and streets. It was rad to see those mixes grow legs and become a demand for some people.
Can we expect any new mixtapes from you this year?
I haven’t actually released a produced, preplanned mixtape in a while. I’ve been recording and releasing live sets quite often. I want people to hear those. I want people to hear a difference, to see what they’ve missed, to hear what they can expect when I’m in that city. I may put out a mixtape or two before the year’s out; I just haven’t come up with an idea or theme I want to run with as of yet.
You were a self-taught DJ. How much different is the meaning of that term today?
Today, it means nothing. It means “I have iTunes with music and I want to DJ, so I DJ, too, now.” Most of these people don’t even own equipment.
I played a gig last night, where some dude who was a friend to the promoter got to play a set. Garbage! He couldn’t mix and the songs didn’t even match. Then it got hot when it was time for him to step. Like, “For real, homeboy? You got 20 more minutes than anyone ever would have got?” Keep it moving, broseph.
Being a hardcore turntablist, can you tell us if there’s a formula for dropping turntablism into those club party type of setting?
It’s simple, kind of, just knowing when and how to get your shit off. Working in radio and listening to Jay Ski and DJ Ran really helped me with that. Watching and listening to those guys destroy records without destroying the crowd was incredible. It only takes a few seconds to go off a little too much before you ruin the party.
If you can understand the idea that people have a natural “body clock” that moves with the music, then you can understand that once you throw them off, it’s a wrap.
You moved to Los Angeles in 2009. Is there more competition in terms of getting club nights?
Most definitely. Not just here in L.A., but everywhere in general. There’s way more people who DJ now. The pay scale is messed up and the promoters and people are clueless. It’s heartbreaking. But, as I’ve said before, I never came here to be the local dude. I came to L.A. to network so I can travel more and play better gigs for better people. I’m not really concerned with L.A. gigs. I love to play here and I’ve had a lot of fun playing some of the local parties, but it’s not my main concern. I could have stayed in Philly and did that without having to turn my life upside down. I was humble before, but this absolutely humbled me even more.
Why do you think Top 40 bottle-service clubs often get a bad reputation?
I like those nights, just as much as all the other nights. The bad reputation for me and my homies is not so much the crowd as it is the people in charge, or the people who think they are in charge. Once there’s too many chefs in the kitchen is when shit goes downhill. For example, the guy who spent X amount of money and feels he is entitled to have the music catered to his taste, or the promoters who want to hear the opposite of the next song and what you’re playing, regardless of how spot-on you are in tune with the danc floor.
There’s also the club owner who then wants to tell you what and when to play what he wants, when he has no clue of what he wants. Then it’s my birthday girl who writes on a napkin a 30-minute set of songs she listened to getting ready, listened to in the car, and now wants to hear them again in the club because she popped out of a woman’s vagina that day, oh so many years ago.
Seems like there’s an influx of those scenarios.
The thing is, we never had any of those issues on the East Coast. I played a bottle-service night for six years. It was one of the best clubs/nights I’ve played, ever. There was an understanding of what the club wanted and they trusted me to do my job, which is what I was paid for. The club supported me on what I did and played. There was no special attention given to any of those people, and it was at my discretion. It was my dancefloor where I was behind the wheel. You came to [the] place because that’s where you went if you wanted to be in that scene and you went along with what you heard because that was the shit.
The promoter brought the people, the club owner counted the money, the birthday girl brought her friends and had a blast getting drunk. I occasionally played you a song because you were cool about it. The baller dude heard a song or two he liked, again, ’cause he was cool about asking, not because he was entitled or he threatened the manager that he would not spend the money. And everyone had a blast, weekend after weekend, for six years.
So what’s a club DJ to do now?
You pay a DJ because of what he brings to the table; there is no reason for you to want every DJ to do the same thing every week. DJs are supposed to have personalities that translate through song selection and how they play. The idea of letting all these other elements or people dictate what and how your club night is, is preposterous. Straight up! That being said, bring out the sparklers, I’m going in!