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Holler Than Thou 

Diplo's debut delivers on the promise of his Hollertronix DJ skills

Wednesday, Jul 28 2004
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Let's go over some vocabulary. First, the word "jawn," as in the phrase, "Pierced jawns get low on the flo'."

"'Jawn' is just like a Philly word," explains Wes Gully, aka Diplo, in his slow, meandering drawl. "It doesn't make any sense. It means anything from, like, a pencil to your girlfriend."

Hmmm. So I could say, "I jawned you"?

"No, it's definitely not a verb. The verb version of 'jawn' is probably 'stole.'"

As in?

"'Oooh ... he stole you' -- you got slapped in the face."

I see.

Welcome to the world of Hollertronix, as quirky and inviting as it is mysterious and strange. Though technically the name of the DJ act comprising Gully and partner Mike McGuire, aka Low Budget, Hollertronix refers not just to two dudes, but also to the scene they have created and the musical outlook that goes with it. For a little over two years, Hollertronix parties have been going down at an out-of-the-way venue called the Ukrainian National Home, located in northern Philadelphia, "right in between my neighborhood and the projects," says Gully. Every five to seven weeks, Hollertronix rents out the Ukie, as it's affectionately known, and takes a hot, sweaty crowd through a whimsical, pangenre set that sounds like someone spinning an endless FM dial.

This approach is exemplified by the duo's now-infamous bootleg mix-CD from last year, Never Scared, which, despite being commercially unavailable, made a number of critics' top 10 lists, including that of Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times, who called it, "A near-perfect party mix." On Never Scared, we find Missy Elliott rapping over the Clash's "Rock the Casbah," the Cars' "Just What I Needed" set to an electro beat, crunkdified dirty Southern rap layered over Annie Lennox's "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," as well as heaping helpings of dancehall, new wave, bhangra, and reggae -- all of it mashed up as ass-blasting jams. The dance floor has long been lauded for its ability to unify disparate races and cultures, but rarely has that idea been so effectively applied to the soundtrack as it is when Hollertronix is manning the decks.

"It's like street-neighborhood style, it really is," says Gully of the vibe at a Hollertronix party. "We can play New Order, and big black kids in the neighborhood start to know the lyrics and like the breakbeats behind it, and we can play dirty South [hip hop], and little white girls will be, like, grinding -- it's a weird mix."

Lately, however, Gully has taken the phrase "weird mix" even further. His recent AEIOU 2 mix CD, made in collaboration with DJ Tripledouble, winds its way through psychedelic guitar jams, fuzzy '60s pop, '70s funk, obscure world music full of sitars and tablas, and ... a special appearance by hotshot rapper Kanye West. Then there's the just-released Favela on Blast, a mix compiled by Gully after a recent beat-mining trip to Brazil, described by the record's distributor, Turntable Lab, as "a hybrid hip hop/miami bass/electro funk/ house sound. Kinda like Hollertronix if it was based in Rio."

Whether he's spinning of-the-moment party-pop or obscure Brazilian rock, Gully has proven himself a master collagist, able to create new works of art out of pre-existing materials. If there's a critique to made of his oeuvre thus far, however, it lies in the term "pre-existing": Aside from a few obscure underground releases, which Gully himself describes as "really terrible," the DJ has yet to prove himself as a producer -- until now.

"I was just trying to make something that might last for a little while," Gully says of Florida, his full-length debut, set for release next month. "Because if you just release club music -- the quintessential party mix, every other dance track that's on [Never Scared], hip hop, the stuff I listen to -- it's really disposable."

Perhaps the most striking thing about Florida is that, at first glance, its slow, methodically produced songs sound nothing like what you'd expect from a guy who's made his name spinning exuberant mash-ups for heaving crowds of revelers. As Gully puts it, "People who do get the record and are like, 'Yo, yeah, I like those mix tapes, I wonder what this is gonna be like,' they'll be like, 'Whoa, what is this all about?'"

And they'd be right to be confused, because Florida is a dense, challenging, and, above all, amazing record. It's about a lot.

For one thing, it's about Gully's upbringing in the state, where he lived for 14 years in nearly as many cities, sampling the region's vibrant rave culture as well as the Miami bass and electro scenes that would eventually feed into the crunk sound of Southern hip hop -- all of which find their way onto the album in one form or another.

"I lived all over Florida," says Gully, "every city, from a metropolis like Fort Lauderdale to Daytona Beach, a weird city, Orlando to Ocoee to other small towns. Basically, if you can't represent where you're from, if you're not a product of that, you don't come from anywhere."

While Florida is very much about Gully's roots, it's also about what he's grown into: a culture-mulcher of the highest order, acting as a kind of reverse musical prism, transforming a rainbow of styles into a bright, focused light -- his vision. But whereas Hollertronix DJ sets have the extemporaneous energy you'd expect from something geared toward the dance floor, Florida offers more of a calculated statement, a hypothesis that a cohesive identity can be created out of the fragmented bits of culture that fly out of our iPods, iBooks, and televisions.

The album opens with what sounds like crickets and other insects chirping in a glade somewhere, then melts into the regal floor-stomper "Big Lost," bursting with stately cello samples and slap-happy boom-bap beats. As with some of the other tracks here ("Sarah," "Works"), "Big Lost" exemplifies Gully's ability to chop up drums, pianos, and other organic instruments and rearrange them into head-nodding, if slightly pedestrian, downtempo. What makes Florida impressive, though, is its more experimental excursions, such as "Indian Thick Jawns," a slow-rolling hip hop beat composed of diced bhangra samples, over which guest MC P.E.A.C.E. spits rapid-fire verses, creating a tune that comes off like an impromptu freestyle by a Southern rapper who just happened to wind up in a Bombay nightclub. Another example is "Summer's Gonna Hurt You," a dense, gauzy cloud of potent sounds that range from samples of Icelandic band Múm to skittering drum 'n' bass to the distant whispers of a melancholy male vocalist singing, "Beautiful Sky/ Summer's really gonna hurt you."

If you think all of this sounds pretty remarkable for someone who describes himself as "just a club DJ," you'd be onto something. But then, as Gully points out, "I'm a DJ in 2004. I'm all over the place in my mind, because music is all over the place ... so I'm already a product of what I'm doing with my music. So that's what the input is, and that's what it turns out to be."

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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