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D.C. DJ duo Deep Dishwith a little help from Madonnais going global.
It’s not difficult to buy that Ali Shirazinia’s day has been, in his words, “a world of shit.” He wears a navy pocket-T, jeans, and a stoic, vaguely sad expression that I come to realize is a permanent resident of his face. Shirazinia and Sharam Tayebi are the DJ duo Deep Dish, which is also the name of the duo’s record labelone headquartered, along with their other label, Yoshitoshi, in a Georgetown building that sits a few doors down from their record store, also called Yoshitoshi. “I’m, like, sitting here opening records right now,” Shirazinia says, leading into a detailed account of the load of promos that he’s mailed daily, many of which he’ll consider for licensing or to play in a Deep Dish live set.
In fact, he’s not, like, sitting here opening records. Shirazinia is sitting here on the rooftop patio of his companies’ offices, which overlook the busy intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW. But the point is that he’s busy enough to be disoriented. He’s been holed up for most of the day in his Rockville home studio, putting finishing touches on a remix project. Tayebi is absent because he’s trying to wrap up the latest Deep Dish disc, Yoshiesque 2, which is slated for a February release. The partners are also preparing for an upcoming show in Montreal.
Shirazinia’s confusion is no doubt exacerbated by jet lag. In mid-October, Deep Dish released Renaissance Ibiza, a mix CD inspired by its bimonthly residency at Nottingham, England’s, Renaissance club, which is just one of its cool out-of-town gigs. “We also have a regular thing in San Francisco once a month,” Shirazinia mentions, “and at Twilo in New York every other month. In between that is just insane.”
A portion of that insanity is being fueled by none other than Madonna, who tapped Deep Dish to remix the title track of her Music album. Shirazinia and Tayebi are accustomed to slicing and dicing celebsthey’ve remixed Michael and Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones. But the Madonna assignment carried more cachet, and not only because it was followed by an invitation to perform with her at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, the singer’s only North American show of the year. These days, recapturing dance-club relevance preoccupies the Material Girl the way sex used to; the fact that she chose Deep Dish to help her in her task is a potentially king-making gesture. The resulting 12-inch picture disc features a pastoral, 11-minute-plus reworking of “Music” strung with recurring synth squeals and gurgling bass lines. It’s as much the remixers’ song as it is Madonna’s.
“It’s definitely given our PR company in New York something to run with,” Shirazinia says. “Especially with this Roseland Ballroom thing that we’re doing. And, of course, that’s going to get us, like, serious exposure. My brother’s been getting calls from his friends saying they heard our name on MTV News. Which is crazy for a bunch of underground DJs who play really twisted house music. But it’s cool.”
Yet Deep Dish has proved being twisted doesn’t necessarily preclude success. The duo’s Georgetown headquarters could easily be mistaken for that of a well-funded dot-com startup. It’s a spare space with color-coordinated iMac setups on every desktop. Aside from Shirazinia and Tayebi’s lawyer/agent, who occupies a spacious office on the second floor, the rooms are largely populated by eager youngsters who no doubt hope that the enterprise will grow along with them. It’s easy to see why: When Shirazinia talks about his decision to stay in D.C., he sounds like an e-entrepreneur holding forth on the boundless opportunities of a rapidly shrinking planet.
“Everybody always assumed we were going to move to New York,” Shirazinia says, “but there’s no point. We’re doing fine living here. When [dance] music sort of picked up, in the late ’80s, everything was territorial, where you had to be in Chicago or New York or London. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s easier to communicate with people through the Internet. Or you just get on a plane. You’re wherever you want to be. Plus, we wanna represent D.C.”
Early in Deep Dish’s career, things weren’t so simple. Both Shirazinia and Tayebi came to the D.C. area from Iranthe former in 1978, “right before the revolution,” the latter in 1985although they didn’t meet until 1992, when Tayebi happened into a Georgetown club where Shirazinia was spinning. Although the two hit it off well enough to join forces, founding Deep Dish Records and Productions, playing clubs overseas was not an immediate option. As Shirazinia puts it, “Sharam’s whole resident-alien situation wasn’t sorted so that he could travel, so we ended up doing a lot of gigs on the rave circuit.”
Deep Dish’s recorded output is still fairly representative of its nascent days playing all-night parties. The double-disc Yoshiesque, released last year, is rife with elaborately threaded house grooves and, like a live set, builds gradually to multiple crescendos. Shirazinia, unlike his partner, played a variety of different instruments in conventional bands before he was seduced by dance music, but he admits, “I’m not one to be nostalgic about the past.” The 20-something duo’s ambition, he says, is to build its various businesses enough so that retirement becomes an option at 40. If that indeed happens, it won’t be because the partners were banking on the winds of change blowing through mainstream popular music.
The DJ-as-self-styled-entrepreneur is a proven business model, and crossing over to MTV isn’t what makes it work. Shirazinia may respect Madonna, but his role models are dance-music titans like Danny Tenaglia, David Morales, and Paul Oakenfold, all of whom continue to produce highly regarded work at the cusp of middle age. Through live performances, their own recordings, label entrepreneurship, lucrative production gigs, or some combination of the above, dance music’s most prosperous impresarios enjoy the kind of fulfilling, self-sustaining careers that punks used to dream about. Although he’s gained considerably more crossover success than his peers, Fatboy Slim is the most obvious example of a pop star who fits into an old-school DJ mold.
“To me, [Fatboy]’s not pop,” Shirazinia says. “He’s just someone who’s gained a certain level of success. We have respect for that.” Sitting on his office patio, he gestures inside and offers, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Deep Dish’s house music doesn’t deliver the easy, bite-size rewards of Fatboy’s big beat, but its appeal is inarguable. “Our sound right now is really sort of dark and scary and percussive,” Shirazinia explains. The music couldn’t be better suited for the duo’s Halloween gig at Nation on Half Street SE. Deep Dish has played to larger audiences at raves, but the fright-night crowd is huge. The unspoken dress code is: the sexier the betterI notice countless she-devils and French maids, and there are at least three dead ringers for Lil’ Kim who may or may not even be in costume.
For his part, Shirazinia wears a wig over his closely cropped dome; Tayebi arrives late in his street clothes. The duo’s sartorial differences seem to reflect their unconventional musical partnership. In the early days, they’d work from their suburban homes with various engineers, Go soundtrack star BT among them. “Sharam took care of the mastering and pressing of records,” Shirazinia remembers. “I would take care of the paperwork. We sort of played off each other.”
Today, the duty split has evolved. “Sharam has an unorthodox approach to how he listens to music and how he translates what’s in his head into something that you can listen to,” Shirazinia explains, and he describes their recording sessions as sometimes contentious. “He’ll play something that’s out of key, and I’ll be like, ‘That’s out of key,’ and we’ll argue about it. Sometimes it’s out of key and it doesn’t work, and a lot of times it does work because it’s out of key. And that’s something that I wouldn’t necessarily think of. But that’s the way he operates, because he’s not a musician.”
But they co-own the music regardless of how it’s created, and the fact of the matter is that DJing live is a fairly solitary task. On Halloween, from the start of the evening until I leave at 2 a.m., Shirazinia mans the turntables alone at Nation. The sounds go from mechanical to loopy and back again. The DJ plays the crowd as much as it plays him. On the dance floor, no one’s too concerned about who’s up in the DJ boothjust as long as the music is dense and shifty and right. The guy at the tip of the iceberg is matching the rhythm to the moment, and for now the moment belongs to Deep Dish. CP