DJ culture, with its turntables, record scratching, and fashions, is ever-present in mainstream television, movies and advertising. An exhibit at a downtown L.A. gallery argues that East L.A. DJ's as far back as 30 years ago and the Eastside parties where they played constitute an overlooked chapter of DJ culture. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports about the gallery's efforts to unearth cultural history.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Around 1978, high school age entrepreneurs in L.A.'s eastside cobbled together home stereo and professional equipment to entertain at backyard birthday parties and quinceañeras.
[A mix of two disco songs plays]
Guzman-Lopez: John Guzman was a junior at Wilson High School when he started helping his brother's mobile DJ business, Face to Face.
John Guzman: A guy and a girl, Robert and Stella, actually hired us to actually play at this party. And I remember that party vividly, because people that didn't like disco were there.
Guzman-Lopez: If a DJ wanted to get hired, he needed many genres of music at his fingertips. In 1983, 13-year-old Gerard Meraz, a Lincoln High School student, got bit by the DJ bug at a party he'd heard about at school.
Gerard Meraz: So I show up, and it's, it's just like, people are oozing into the streets. I could hear the sound system very clearly outside, lights shooting, you know, against the walls over the freeway, on the freeway overpass. I see some people from school.
Guzman-Lopez: At the center of this party constellation was the DJ, and his, it was always a he, ability to go from one song to the next.
Meraz: Think about a guitarist. The guitarist has, he does a solo, it's, you know, what, 30 seconds, a minute at the most, and he goes through these various notes, you know, to, you know, bring out emotions and create a feeling. A DJ takes about two hours to do that, with each record representing a note, or a pluck.
Guzman-Lopez: Meraz took earnings from a summer job and practiced with his girlfriend's disco records. He formed the Wild Boys DJ crew. Thirty-seven-year-old Karen Salgado, a Franklin High student back then, remembers them. Going to these backyard parties was a big deal, she said. The right look included neon colors, big shoulder pads, and...
Karen Salgado: Big hair, lots of Aqua Net; I think we kept them in business and promoted the global warming with a lot of the hairspray. Everybody had big teased, teased, teased hair. I guess you would say cha-cha would be the style.
Guzman-Lopez: Teens in New York, Chicago, and Detroit were having the same kind of fun. But DJ Gerard Meraz, who's written an academic thesis on the subject, says Southern California's weather, car culture, big backyards, and Chicanismo sets the East L.A. DJ scene apart.
Meraz: We were born of a mix, and we are the mix. You know, we have Chicanos who listen to Bauhaus, Led Zeppelin, Stacey Q, Debbie Deb, Alice Cooper, Biggie Smalls, Eazy-E, and we can make sense of it all. Because that's who we grew up with, and we throw in the Chente, and we throw in the cumbia, and we throw in the other languages.
Guzman-Lopez: Gangster rap in the late 1980s drove many people from the scene. East L.A. backyard parties didn't die out. They continued with a more techno sound.
[Techno and house music plays]
Guzman-Lopez: Since the turn of this century, DJ's with laptops have made the backyard parties thump.
[Modern electronica plays]
Guzman-Lopez: Three decades of East L.A. DJ culture lives on in the current exhibition at downtown L.A.'s Gallery 727, and in an elaborate Web site designed by public TV station KCET. The site's an online repository for mixtapes of the music, copies of homemade party flyers, and photos of the shoulder pads and the big hair.
The mixing by those veteran East L.A. DJs still drifts into the late night air. Gerard Meraz and a new generation of DJ's spin on early Sunday mornings on Power 106 FM, just as the nightclubs are closing down.