Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hot Music: A Love Story

This is the first piece of music that really stole my heart.

Omarr and I had no business on Fifth Street trying to get into Roc's Lounge. I can't even imagine what possessed the doorman to even entertain us. I guess it was a slow night and they really needed the money.

Roc's Lounge was a shady, smoky, dank, shadowy, hole-in-the-wall club on the roughest street in the roughest neighborhood in my hometown of Greenville, North Carolina. Every week, Roc's Lounge would have an "18 to get in, 21 to drink" night in a noble, if slightly misguided attempt to give young people somewhere to be instead of on the streets. A couple of high school friends of mine, Jamel and Little Jessie, were frequent visitors to the Lounge. They both were good dudes and always generous in extending an invitation to Omarr and I to hit the club with them sometime. Understandably, I had a few reservations. But knowing my concerns would most likely conclude in one of the many epic insult contests between Omarr and I (which I would almost certainly lose), I opted to keep them to myself.

We arrived around midnight. I remember the place smelling like 1000 packs of cigarettes and bathing us in a dim, golden shade of light. There weren't many people there, and the ones we did see obviously knew we were from the south side of town. And the music was INCREDIBLY loud. By this time I was a rising senior in high school, and I had already been to two proms (holla at me!) and more than a few house parties. But I had never heard speakers so powerful. We were a little worried when we couldn't get a fix on Jamel and Little Jessie. We noticed a set of stairs leading up to what we could only assume to be a second level, so Omarr and I decided to head up and see if they were awaiting us.

Sure enough there they were. We all dapped each other up (which means shakes hands for all of my uninitiated friends) and eased into the pocket of the evening. There was very little talking due to the music, but there was really no need for words. A phrase here and there of course to check in, but the club spoke for itself. It didn't take me long to begin feeling comfortable in what I wrongly assumed would be a much more tense, or perhaps hostile environment.

Eventually, I began to notice a strange sense of anticipation, that we actually seemed to be waiting for something. I suppose it was either the energy level of the people in the club or Jamel and Little Jessie's response to each new song, but there was a progression to things that I couldn't quite pinpoint. As the dj continued his work, blending records one after another, the underlying tempo of this hour long soundtrack was gradually gaining speed. Where were we going? What was about to happen?

Just then, as if sensing my curiosity, Little Jessie says to me, "They're about to play Hot."

Hot? What the hell is Hot?

Not even 30 seconds later, the dj completely kills the roaring hip hop music and spins up the first real dance record of the night, "Coffee Pot (It's Time for the Percolator)" by Chicago house musician Cajmere. Almost as if everyone swallowed a sudden dose of pure adrenaline, the club erupted. The track was remarkable, with its relentless pounding and a coffeemaker-like "melody" serving as its musical party piece. Omarr and I stood marveling in the immediacy and urgency of the sudden inspired outburst of movement. Everyone lost their minds!

Everyone, that is, except for Jamel and Little Jessie. They were dancing, yes, but there was still a sense of hesitation, of something yet to come.

It may have been a minute or two before the dj decided to slide into the next track, a surprisingly uplifting and inspirational house song titled "Follow Me" by Aly-us. For me, this track was even better than "Percolator", partly because it actually had words and something refreshingly meaningful to say, and partly because of its use of a majestic, sweeping orchestral sample in conjunction with classic house music pulse and vibration. The energy in the club was more intoxicating than Omarr or I could have ever dreamed.

Yet, Jamel and Little Jessie remained focused.


I think the first bits we heard were the sampled voices in the track shouting their repeated mantras, "Get up! Come on!" Then came the subtle bleeding of piano chords mixed with a manic snare drum, ricocheting all over the place. After that followed the drunk but determined bass hits. The dj was taunting us, intravenously feeding us the new track while gradually allowing the previous to retreat. By the time "Hot Music" was fully unleashed into the room I realized that in one single crossfade, I'd fallen in love with this song. It was primal, sensual, organic, aggressive, bewitching. I needed it in my life.

Jamel and Little Jessie knew this sensation all too well. Before the track even had time to fully shift they had exploded in a frantic, trance-like dance that looked like the lovechild of b-boy uprockin' and kung-fu. A circle of onlookers took shape around them as they swooped and gyrated to the music. Little Jessie was clearly the technician of the pair; his specificity and direction were laser-like, as if he was making a statement. Jamel's style was more soulful, more impulsive. At times it seemed he didn't even know who or where he was; his pure exploration of the rhythm had us mesmerized. There were a couple other cats who took their turn in the circle, each one inheriting the stage from the other. Omarr and I must have watched this go on for at least four or five minutes, totally stunned by the level of passion and daring. Even though we'd lived in Greenville our whole lives, we'd never seen anything like this. It wasn't until the night was over when we finally caught our local term for this style of dance. Everyone called it "flexin'."

Over the next four months or so, I searched every record store and asked every clerk I could find if they knew this song. I was eventually given a tape with "Hot Music" blended on its front side by "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E. Z. Rock and on the back by "Treat 'em Right" by Chubb Rock. I practiced my flexin' relentlessly in the secrecy of my room. However, Omarr was never fooled. He could see I wanted to be in the circle from day one, because I really wasn't great at containing my excitement. Almost a year after my first encounter with "Hot Music", I finally jumped in at one of the legendary parties at Mendenhall Student Center on the campus of East Carolina University. After the party, Omarr said to me, "You've been practicing, huh? 'Cause you were wack when you first started!"

Every party I've attended after leaving Greenville, no matter how spectacular, has always seemed to be missing something. I'm always waiting for "Hot Music" to come charging through the clutter to save the night, save the crowd, save me.

"Hot Music", I love you.


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