DJ Perry Simmons (aka DJ Sol) knows the ledge. That is, he knows how to walk the fine line between introducing new, independent/underground Hip Hop and relying on the tried-and-true commercially popular singles that populate urban radio playlists across the country.
To sway too far in either direction could jeopardize his reputation and credibility as one of the most popular mobile DJs in the Midwest.
Though we're from opposite sides of the DJ booth, Simmons and I have a lot in common when it comes to our perspectives on Hip Hop music and culture. For instance, we both long for the days of Hip Hop's golden era when it wasn't uncommon to party and kick some positive messages at the same time. In addition, we're both dismayed at how little younger folks know about the true history of Hip Hop music and culture.
Simmons, who also teaches in the Mt. Healthy school district, tells me that one of his students thought Eminem invented Hip Hop.
Eminem? Not good.
We've both also grown weary of the shallow, materialistic direction that Hip Hop has taken in recent years.
Where we differ is that I'm the eternal optimist, hoping that someday there will be a mass movement toward worldwide Hip Hop consciousness. But Simmons, the realist, doesn't plan to stand around waiting for this to happen in the foreseeable future
Meantime, he's doing what he can to open people's minds to his signature, unconventional mix of underground Hip Hop, Neo-Soul and Old School classics.
Whether he's spinning late-night mixes for "The Wiz" (WIZF, 100.9 FM) or performing as the featured DJ for such high-profile events as Allen Iverson's NBA All-Star Weekend parties, he does what he can to "break" singles that are often overlooked by other DJs in this market.
Though he has an appreciation for music that falls outside the norm, he recognizes his primary role as a DJ is to, what else? Get people to dance.
To this end, he often opens sets with proven tracks that entice people to the floor and then surprises them with a sneak attack of lesser known, though equally danceable, singles.
Still, he warns that it takes more than a new sound to break through. He suggests that when independent artists submit demos to record pools or radio stations they must "be creative and cannot try to sound like everyone else they hear on the radio."
This is perhaps easier said than done given, as he suspects, that most labels want to shape new artists into one of three currently popular profiles -- the cute boy band, the sexy diva or the tough street rapper.
No need for names. We know who they are.
A powerful and hypnotic beat doesn't hurt, either.
"A successful single has to have that hook," he explains, citing 50 Cent's smash hit "In Da Club."
Produced by Dr. Dre, the club anthem is an example of how lyrics might take a back seat to a mesmerizing loop. You know the tune and beat but maybe not the lyrics: "I got the X if you into takin' drugs/ I'm into sex, ain't into makin' love..."
Interestingly, "alternative" Hip Hop groups with equally seductive loops such as Little Brother, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Gang Starr and others continue to struggle to find a home on urban radio playlists.
The good news is that as a mobile DJ -- the DJ for hire -- Simmons has greater flexibility to test new singles in a live club environment where radio "street team" personnel might be present. According to Simmons, if people respond favorably to a newly broken single, it's not uncommon for program directors to add the song to their playlists.
That's why he cherishes his regular second Saturday spot as the featured DJ at The Vibe at Plush above Carol's on Main downtown. Unfettered by the politics surrounding the industry, he builds his mixes according to the real-time reaction of his crowd. He's careful to stay ahead of his competition by blending an unpredictable collage of sounds, always rising above his listeners' expectations.
"We already know what other DJs are going to do," he says. "They might come with one (record) crate of the latest hits. I come to the party six crates deep. You never know what to expect from me."
Though Simmons has the freedom to give new and independent artists a chance to be heard, an irrefutable law of the industry binds him, too: Give the people what they want. He's simply trying to give people a few more listening options than the recycled "hits" offered by the status quo. ©