It's after midnight in Las Vegas and it's still 80-something degrees outside. The blast of cold, filtered air exhaled from the Mirage—the 3,200-room hotel, casino, and white Bengal tiger habitat—hits like an invisible wall. The contrast is short lived—beyond the glistening lobby's throng of young, well-heeled, well-inebriated punters, through the doors of the superclub called Jet, is another blanket of heat. Unlike the crisp, moon-bright desert air, this heat's heavy and humid, the kind generated by human bodies packed into close proximity. Down a dark, candle-lined corridor, around a sharp bend to the right, there's Jet's dance floor, packed with a thousand writhing revelers, lit up and pulsing like a spaceship in a landing pattern. A long bar on the left plies Patron and Grey Goose like water to marathon runners; men in shiny button-down shirts and women in sheer, short dresses lean into or away from each other as the club's multimillion-dollar sound system pushes the air with a relentless beat. Jet is the kind of club where a young guy in an expensive suit doesn't look out of place, and he just might be security, a coiled cord snaking discreetly from his ear.
In a raised booth on the far side of the room, the DJ is dressed down in a T-shirt and cockeyed Mariners cap, pumping his fist to Mims's "This Is Why I'm Hot." The big-bouncing hit throbs for a minute—literally—before it's taken over by the guitargasm intro to "Sweet Child o' Mine." The crowd isn't just unfazed by the whiplash transition, it's electrified. The heat, the roar, the vibe all ratchet up a volatile extra notch. Few people know it back home, but nights like tonight prove that DJ Scene is Seattle's hottest hiphop export.
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Seattle clubgoers are more familiar with DJ Scene's years of local hustle. Back in 2002, along with DJ DV One, he founded Yo, Son!, the city's hugely popular, longest-running hiphop weekly. He's worked closely with underground favorites Boom Bap Project, DJing their live sets and playing on both of their acclaimed albums. He's got a prime-time slot, 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. daily, on local hiphop station KUBE. Most recently, he teamed with Fourcolorzack to promote the War Room's 2080s night, a free weekly hip-pop throwdown that's been attracting a mixed crowd of b-boys and hipsters with an off-kilter mashup of Top 40 club bangers and nostalgic '80s hits. His roots are planted firmly in hiphop—bred on East Coast rap since he was a teenager, Scene was the Northwest Regional Champion in the DMC DJ battle in 2002. But what he's doing these days—what's brought him into the big leagues in Vegas, Dallas, San Diego, and San Jose, and to pool parties at Drew Barrymore's house in L.A.—is something else entirely.
"He's into entertaining the crowd, he's into creativity," says Karim Panni of Boom Bap Project. "It's not mashup music—that's generic Vegas shit. He's trying to create new, funny shit, the craziest shit you can imagine. That's what's dope about it."
Las Vegas is a known haven for "entertainers," offering big-budget stages from which lukewarm crowd-pleasers dribble watered-down standards into uncritical, underdeveloped ears. (Just witness "Entertainer of the Year" Danny Gans, a born-again Christian and "musical impressionist" who's the permanent headliner at the Mirage's main showroom.) In a way, Scene—born Brian Herwander—fits into that mold. Over the course of his two residencies this past weekend, at Jet on Saturday and at Light at the Bellagio the night before, he'll play plenty of dopey Top 40 hiphop, Mims and Yung Joc and Rich Boy. He'll throw in plenty of overplayed '80s hits and classic rock as well—"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "We Will Rock You" and "Another Brick in the Wall." It's decidedly populist stuff, the antithesis of trainspotter-style DJs who play only the freshest or most obscure material, who aim to stump the crowd with the depth of their crates.
Scene has no crates—he uses a digital format that gives him access to over 5,000 MP3 tracks from his library, scratching and mixing them with virtual vinyl. His talent, his hook, lies in his ability to slide one song on top of another on top of another, blending hiphop and pop and a cappella rap vocals into a seamless, often hilarious symphony. You won't need to guess at the tracks—you'll know them by heart. But the inventiveness and technique it takes to pick three songs out of a nearly bottomless well and play them in synch is stunning. And as his crowds will attest—whether slicked-up sophisticates at Jet or Capitol Hill regulars at the War Room—it's the surprise of the familiar that makes Scene's style so unabashedly, hands-in-the-air fun.
"We want it to be familiar, we want it to be like you sing along to every song, like you go in and you're drinking and having a good time, you don't have to worry about the music—you instantly know the song and it's gonna bring back a certain feeling," Scene says, sipping a mocha days earlier, during one of the few days a week he's in Seattle. Ice-blue eyes, a square jaw, and a trimmed haircut give him a steely look, though his around-the-way demeanor is immediately disarming. "It sucks because I wanna educate and play some different stuff," he says. "Like, here's something you might not have heard before, but at the same time I just want people to feel carefree and have that feeling like, 'My dad used to listen to this, and now it's got 50 Cent over it! What the fuck?'"
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Scene's hiphop awakening occurred in, of all places, the Eastern Washington town of Yakima. At 16 years old, the Everett native moved there with his father, where he was headspun by the East Coast gangsta/hiphop film Juice. "I saw that and I was like, wow, you can really do that?" he says. "I started asking around all these people in Yakima, 'Yo, where can I get turntables?' They were like, 'What are you talking about?'"
Scene eventually scored a pair of basic, belt-driven turntables and a mixer for $300. The deal included one record, the soundtrack to the 1983 New York graffiti flick Wild Style. "Out of all the records, right? It was the classic, the best record. I thought I was all cool, like, yeah I got my turntables, I got my Wild Style soundtrack," he says. That record and the Beastie Boys' "Time to Get Ill" single—scored at a local Goodwill, as there were no record stores in Yakima—fed him for three months. At that point, though, his musical goal wasn't hiphop DJing.
"My plan was to be in this band, scratching," he says. "I was in punk-rock bands—I loved high-energy metal and stuff like that, and I wanted to add scratching to our tracks. At the time I was playing drums. I thought that would be a cool little sound for the band.
Even when he moved to Seattle at 18, DJing was secondary. Scene won a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Seattle via his high-school vocational program in video production; he came to the city to make movies. Enter the Madness, his documentary about the burgeoning local hiphop scene, was a modest local success, but eventually his talent as a DJ took priority. He met Marcus Lalario, who was promoting parties at Capitol Hill club Chop Suey at the time. Lalario introduced him to DV One, a stalwart of the Seattle hiphop community, and then gave the pair Sunday nights at the club to promote Yo, Son!
"That was my first experience in the club, DJing and also promoting, trying to tell everyone, yo, I'm 21 now, I got this club spot," Scene says. "And nobody's there, of course. It's totally dead. It was an awkward experience for the first few months. DV and I were just making gas money."
Things quickly blew up. Scene won a slot to represent the Northwest in the prestigious 2002 DMC Battle in New York City, hosted by Jam Master Jay a few weeks before his murder. He was brought into Boom Bap Project by Panni and his partner, Destro. And, despite Scene's inexperience—or maybe because of it—Yo, Son! became a huge Seattle club night.
"It was the combination of 'I don't know what to play so I'm just gonna play whatever'—disco, rock, just some crazy shit—and DV having a foundation in the club already. That was my favorite time, really playing anything. I remember playing 'Ghostbusters' in the middle of the summer, and DV and I were back there laughing. It was like a big joke, but it was just really, really fun and people were into it. We'd call it 'Weirdo Shit.'"
Driven by boundless motivation, Scene soon landed sets at KEXP and, later, KUBE (and more recently, XM Satellite Radio). He hooked up with multimedia hiphop concern Soul Gorilla, which brought him new gigs in Belltown and honed his hustle.
"He's a unique guy—he's built for speed," says Soul Gorilla director Josh Berman. "He's the hardest-working DJ I've met, hands down, and the most talented DJ to come out of Seattle. He used to walk around these old, well-known hiphop venues with a mini turntable and one headphone on. He was known for spending every waking moment practicing his craft."
In late 2005, Scene came to the attention of Josh Donaldson, a former Seattleite living and working in Vegas. Having scored huge successes managing Olympia-born house-music heavyweights Donald Glaude and DJ Dan, Donaldson was looking for a hiphop act to represent. He was introduced to Scene through mutual friends and realized this was the kid who had been sending him mix CD after mix CD. Scene's Vegas career took off at that instant, and it peaked this January with a major, yearlong contract from Light Group, the entertainment company that runs Jet, Light, and a slew of other Vegas superclubs. Now Light Group flies Scene down to Vegas twice a month, he rules his club nights, and then crashes at sunrise in a condo he shares with Donaldson and a local DJ. He's in Seattle three nights a week and at gigs across the West Coast, Arizona, and Nevada the rest of the time. Like his MySpace quote says: "No days off."
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If Scene has any qualms about abandoning the underground for Top 40 it certainly doesn't show. By 3:00 a.m. on Friday, he was shirtless in the DJ booth at Light, wrestling with the lighting guy while the dance floor was lathered in foam that occasionally spewed from the ceiling. The following night at Jet, the DJ booth was littered with beer bottles and Red Bull cans, and Scene was dancing just as heedlessly behind the decks as the crowd was on the floor. This is Vegas, after all, and the bacchanal is unavoidable.
"The '80s music, the classic rock have always been part of the set, but recently I've been trying to focus on it more and build more of a brand in that direction," Scene says. "That's where my heart is at. A lot of people from the past go, 'Oh, he's sold out, he's gone all jiggy now,' but I still love a lot of underground stuff. It's just that this is my job and I have to compromise."
There are qualms, though, and they arise not from the music but from the lifestyle. Scene's girlfriend of three and a half years recently became a casualty of his nonstop schedule, and the breakup clearly affects him. "It's kinda disappointing, man," he says. "She really wanted to get married. I kept putting it off, so it's my fault. It's all the traveling." But at this point in his career—riding on local respect and national success, "one celebrity wife away from going huge," as Soul Gorilla's Berman puts it—Scene has no choice but to keep on pushing. It seems he's hard-wired for hard work, whether he likes it or not.
Balancing the jet-setting on the one hand and the breakup on the other, Scene could go either way. "This is the first time in my life I've been gone this much," he says. "I never thought I'd be out of town every weekend. And then every other Thursday in Dallas and every other Wednesday in San Francisco. It just kinda came about that way. Really, Vegas has opened up all these other doors. I don't know where it's gonna go, man, I really don't. But I need to find some balance soon because I just want the normal, at-home-with-the-girl movie night. Just, like, normal shit."