We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
“I can’t believe this crap,” growls 17-year-old Marqus Brown, swaying back and forth in front of the mirror in his bedroom. Brown holds the telephone receiver to his right ear and drags the cradle along the floor. He is pissed. He expresses his agitation the way many teenage boys dosucking his teeth repeatedly and muttering mild oaths under his breath. For the most part, Brown’s room also appears typical for the average teenage male. His bed is not made. His walls are covered with posters of musical groupshiphop being his genre of choice. Oddly, the posters show mostly older artists: Public Enemy instead of Puff Daddy, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince rather than Will Smith. Around his mirror, he has sloppily taped photographs of adolescent amours posing cutely or sitting on his lap. More conspicuous, however, are his old James Brown 45s and stickers for brand names like Shure and Technics.
It is a sunny Thursday afternoon in Alexandria’s Kingstowne Village, but Brown, just home from school, is not in a bright mood. He’s on hold with the local music store trying to get some satisfactory service. So far it’s not working. “I swear, man, these people…” he groans. “Why’re you going to go get the [needles] and not know the price?” Here he is, two days away from the regional DC Regional DMC Contest, and Brown, aka DJ Fresh, has managed to break one of his needlesone of the Shure model SC-35C needles he normally orders by mail from New York. Luckily, a store nearby has two left in stock.
As he waits impatiently for the salesperson to come back to the phone with the price, Brown, who practices four to five hours a day, gives his own needle another spin. A desktop computer sits awkwardly on the floor while the objects of his greatest affection dominate his desk: two Technics turntables less than a year old, linked by a gold, streamlined Vestax 06 mixer. A stopwatch sits atop the mixer for timing his routines. Brown tries some simple scratching over a copy of Chic’s classic “Good Times,” but the record skips again and again. The busted needle simply will not stay in the groove. Brown is devastated. He has been saving his money to visit the historic Frederick Douglass Home with friends from Hayfield High School, and now he has to replace a piece of equipment at the last minute with only 10 bucks in his pocket. The salesperson finally gets back on the line.
“Fifteen dollars?” Brown confirms.
Oh well, there goes the trip. And he’s still short a finn. “Dad,” he calls upstairs, “can I borrow five dollars?”
As DJ Fresh, Brown took second place at the Pure Love DJ battle in Richmond, Va., at the beginning of this year and was called back to judge the next competition a few months later. He won another DJ battle at George Mason University in March. Born in Maryland, Brown moved out to San Jose, Calif., when he was 6; he and his father returned from the Bay Area last year. He has been DJ-ing since the age of 9, when a cousin gave him his first turntable.
Brown began as most DJs do: with beat matchingsynching the tempo of one record with that of another. Owning only one turntable, Brown practiced with an old tape recorder given to him by his grandfather. His father later pitched in another turntable and an old Realistic mixer, which became the foundation for his first system. While nearly every professional and aspiring DJ in the country worships the superior design and performance of the world-famous Technics 1200 turntable, Brown was still using inferior equipment until about a year ago. “Sometimes when people start out on the top-notch equipment,” Brown explains, “they don’t appreciate it as much as someone who comes from terrible equipment.” His father keeps his old Sony table as a memento.
By 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, the panicky, short-of-needles Marqus Brown of two nights earlier has been replaced by the cool, confident DJ Fresh. He strolls up to the front door of the Black Cat for the DMC competition with his Yankees cap cocked to one side and his hands in the pockets of his bright-red jacket, seemingly oblivious to the other two dozen contestants waiting anxiously in line to confirm their registration. Inside the club, he leans back against the stage and chats with Ginsu D, the humble turntable virtuoso who bested him in January’s Pure Love battle. Ginsu hasn’t entered the DMC competition this year; he is on hand only to watch. Roc Raida and Total Eclipse, members of the celebrated X-ecutionersgods in the mixmaster pantheonare two of the judges for the event. (The other four judges are local spinners.) Fledgling DJs and fans recognize them immediately and rush to shake their hands. Finally working their way to the stage, the two give Brown “dap” and strike up a conversation. He has met them before on trips to New York and has kept in contact with both, frequently getting advice from Raida. Brown has an abbreviated, direct way of speaking that, combined with his youth, could make him seem curt and dismissive. Nevertheless, he somehow makes excellent contacts.
In a battle (hiphoppersDJs, graffiti writers, and breakdancersare the only artists who refer to every exhibition of skill as a battle, maintaining an increasingly fine line between competition and combat), Brown’s attitude can no longer be mistaken for anything but cockiness. His self-important smirk, his mocking hand gestures, and the big gold F hanging from his neck help to make up for his small stature, his slight build, and his youth. Intimidation and confidence are as much a part of every DJ contest as transformer scratches and beat juggles; the competition here at the Black Cat is vicious in every respect. The combatants cut their respective records down to the bone and create complex new rhythms from old ones with the help of cross-faders, tone arms, and pitch adjusters, all the while hurtling analog “suck my dick”-style insults at each other.
The day, as it turns out, belongs to DJ Rholi-Rho, a portly Asian DJ from Queens who grimaces wickedly and flips off his opponents on stage as if he were Buddha’s evil twin. Rho’s response to his victory unveils the irony of this event, however: He accepts his award awkwardly. His soft voice trembles as he expresses his desire to move from head-to-head DJ battles to less adversarial exhibitions where the goal is not to humiliate other contestants but simply to show mastery.
Despite the incredible crowd response to both his first and second routines (“Look at that smile,” the host gushes. “Look at that baby face!”), DJ Fresh takes second place. Total Eclipse, a dapper teddy bear with a pronounced lisp, remarks that Brown is “constantly elevating.” Raida calls him “someone to look out for.” “He upped his level, like, 10 times,” says Rho. “He used to be slow; now he’s quick and precise.”
Among the prizes, Brown takes home a Numark mixer, which he promptly announces that he will sell. Now he will be able to pay back his dad for the needle and still go on that trip. CP