How vinyl-only party the ReDO is preserving the art of the hip-hop DJ

Andy Downing

The sign on the front door of Avalon notes that the Downtown club is closed on Sunday. But standing outside on a cool, rainy weekend night in mid-April, the deep, booming bass emanating from within the flat-roofed brick building situated near the intersection of Fifth Street and Mckee Alley suggests otherwise.

It's a sound that grows louder as one walks through the dimly lit space toward the back room, where hip-hop DJ Mr. King (aka “The Akron Ali”) spins vinyl records while positioned on a short riser situated between a pair of raised, VIP-style seating booths. In one, a woman occasionally lights flare-like fireworks, lifting her arms skyward as though she were directing an airplane toward some unmarked landing strip.

By 8 p.m., the crowd numbers around 45 people, and appears to be broken up into three distinct tiers. Toward the front, the turntable fanatics — perhaps best represented by the gentleman wearing the “Long Live the DJ” T-shirt — watch intently as the DJs craft their mixes; a few even film the performers or take photos with cellphones. The middle tier, which makes up a bulk of the crowd, fills the small dance floor, bodies moving in time to the rhythm. Finally, in the back of the room, a few couples, some old heads and the odd newcomer more casually take in the scene, noggins collectively bobbing to the beat.

Welcome to the ReDO, a long-running, once-a-month party that has gradually evolved into a must-see event that both celebrates and helps preserve a key, sometimes-overlooked element of hip-hop culture: the DJ.

A chance to recharge

Launched in 2011 at the now-defunct Arena District spot Garage Bar by DJs D. Boogie, Cornbread and Dommy Styles, the ReDO was initially established as a day party where turntablists could gather and spin the music that first inspired them to take up the craft, absent the pressure of pleasing an audience. (Hence the decision to host the event on Sunday, a day on which it would appear that both God and DJs rest.)

“It's always really been, for us, something to recharge our batteries,” said Dommy Styles, speaking from a recording classroom within the Ohio Media School on the East Side, where he's taught for three years, in addition to holding down an on-air role at Power 107.5.

“I have years of me playing shit I don't like,” said D. Boogie, who appears on-air at 106.7 the Beat. “And if you're doing something you don't like because you have to, it becomes a job. … We wanted to do something that would showcase our ability and the music we love, and still have a party.”

In short order, the hangout, the next of which takes place at Avalon on Sunday, May 27, attracted other pioneering local DJs, including O Sharp, Rich NYCe and Pos2, all of whom have become essential cogs as the party moves into its eighth year.

Early on, ReDO mirrored the technological progression of DJ culture, with most performers eschewing vinyl in favor of laptop computers running Serato, DJ and music production software that has become the go-to tool within the industry.

“Pretty much everyone stopped carrying vinyl [when Serato came out],” O Sharp said. “Why am I bringing out 13 crates of records for a party when I've got two terabytes of music on a hard drive?”

In addition to allowing DJs to access millions of songs, the technology automated certain processes, making it easier to create seamless live mixes.

“When you're using Serato, you can see the soundwaves, so when you see a DJ on his computer, a lot of times they're looking to see if the waves match. That way they know it's going to be flawless when they make a transition,” said West Side native Pos2, born Derrick Hill, who recorded himself scratching Michael Jackson's “Thriller” and “Bad” at age 4. “Also, with Serato, it shows you the beats per minute, so you can go, ‘Oh, let me pick out 20 songs that are 97 bpm.' Then you don't even have to wear headphones … because you know the songs are all the same speed.”

By increasing ease, Serato simultaneously leveled the playing field among DJs, masking those skills — an adept ear, elevated hand-eye coordination, a gentle touch — that had long separated great DJs from hobbyists. It also lessened the impact of a long-held DJ tradition: combing record stacks in the hopes of unearthing rare or overlooked vinyl to spin for a crowd.

“The computer killed that aspect of DJing,” Dommy Styles said. “No one has that exclusive record anymore because everyone has everything right at their fingertips.”

For some, this digital access has been a boon, allowing them to craft imaginative sets that hop across eras and genres, bound only by imagination. For others, like Pos2, this limitless reach can be an impediment. “Let me put it this way: I had Sling TV and this bundle where I had all these channels, and I could never find anything to watch. Then I got rid of all those channels and just kept basic TV, and now I can find something,” he said. “I work better with limitation. Give me 60 records and I can make those work — versus having 30 million songs on a computer.”

On several occasions through the years, ReDO embraced these limitations, hosting the odd vinyl-only night that forced the DJs back to their roots — most notably during a 2016 birthday party for D. Boogie. The event generated such a strong audience response that beginning a little over a year ago, the founders opted to make the ReDO exclusively a vinyl-only party, banishing much of the tech that, to some, had become a crutch.

“Now, when we spin, we're back at the Groove Shack. We're back at Flyers. We're back at Papa Jack's,” Styles said, name-checking a trio of now-defunct local hip-hop clubs. “It's the essence of hip-hop. The crowd is waiting for something, and then you drop that needle.”

“Vinyl don't lie”

When O Sharp was 11 years old, he attended a birthday party for a classmate where someone played a 45-rpm recording of UTFO's “Roxanne, Roxanne,” on which the group's DJ (and current Columbus resident), Mix Master Ice, transformed his turntable into an alien instrument.

“He was scratching, and he made that ‘aw' sound — the famous DJ sound that all DJs practice with now — and I wanted to touch that sound,” O Sharp said. “It was like, ‘What is that?' Drumbeats and rapping were familiar at that point, but I'd never heardthatsound.”

Shortly afterward, Sharp pooled resources with neighborhood friends, constructing a piecemeal DJ setup by pairing belt-drive Technics and Panasonic turntables with a Realistic stereo mixer — an admittedly rudimentary setup that still managed to ignite a lifelong love affair with the music; the DJ recalled holing up for hours on end to experiment with his scratches.

From the jump, O Sharp, as with other DJs interviewed, understood and appreciated the finicky nature of LPs — “Vinyl don't lie,” he said — and most admitted the imperfect nature of the form can be a part of its draw.

“There is a tightrope aspect to it I enjoy,” Styles said. “There could be a flaw in the record, or someone could bump the table and set you off. Some records are pressed different, and one could come in louder.”

“There's a certain feel with the needle on the record you forget if you don't do it a lot. A computer doesn't skip, but needles are jumping,” said Rich NYCe, pounding the table for effect.

D. Boogie said computerized MP3 files, in contrast, are too crisp, lacking the character a record provides.

“There's nothing like the sound when you're in the club … and you hear the hissing of a vinyl record,” he said. “It just sounds different. It's dirtier, but it's cleaner, if that makes sense.”

Even spinning physically flawless records comes with a unique set of challenges. DJs need to be aware of everything happening on a recording: when a break comes in, where a chorus lands, how much instrumental time is on a track, etc. In addition, many of the records played are built around live drummers — “And if you've got a live drummer, he might want to slow down,” Styles said — requiring a DJ to manipulate the tempo in that moment to ensure a seamless mix.

“I'm still remembering nuances about DJing,” O Sharp said. “I set up my turntables last night, and for the first time [since we went vinyl-only], it was like, ‘Ah, I can be me again.' It felt like my touch was back, which was exciting. I was up until 2 in the morning just playing around, scratching one record, which took me back to that first time I touched vinyl.”

It's a transportive quality O Sharp experienced even more intensely when Mix Master Ice performed at the ReDO in September, at one point even recreating his landmark scratches from the track “Roxanne, Roxanne” live onstage.

“I stood on his left shoulder all night,” O Sharp said. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is my life.' Standing next to Ice, watching him do the thing he pioneered, I was 11 all over again.”

The search for hidden gems

As the all-vinyl ReDO has inspired DJs to spend more time with turntables, it's also forced them headfirst back into the record search — both locally at places such as Used Kids Records in North Campus, as well as with online retailers like Discogs. (Dommy Styles said purchases arrive with such frequency these days that some ReDO-ers have even taken to hiding packages from significant others.)

In late April, Pos2 casually flipped through the dollar bins at Used Kids, flashing an encyclopedic music knowledge as he displayed classic records sampled by J Dilla (Sly and the Family Stone'sFresh), Tupac Shakur (Cameo'sShe's Strange) and local hip-hop duo Soul Position (Pointer Sisters'Steppin').

“If you're familiar with Soul Position, as soon as you hear [the Pointer Sisters'] ‘Going Down Slowly' you're going to go, ‘What the hell?'” said Pos2, turning a dog-eared copy ofSteppin'over in his hands.

This ongoing hunt for new sounds has even spilled over from local spots such as the Roots Record warehouse in Franklinton — “I'm in there digging through stuff, getting so dusty I need to wear a mask,” D. Boogie said — to nearby cities such as Detroit. Dommy Styles, for one, left early on a recent Motor City work trip to allow more time for record digging.

The process can be both archeological (combing through remote stacks in the hope of unearthing a gem) and genealogical, with DJs connecting musicians and producers to craft elaborate artist family trees.

“If you see [drummer] Clyde Stubblefield's name on a record, you're going to buy it, because you know what he did for James Brown,” O Sharp said. “Then if you're really particular, you start looking at engineers. [Columbus DJ] Bombeardo had a recent post about Bob Power, who engineered the first two A Tribe Called Quest albums, so you start to think, ‘What else did he do?' Oh, he engineered Meshell Ndegeocello. Those are the little things you're looking for on vinyl. You're digging for pieces that might never have been put together before, and then finding a reason why they fit.”

Each month, local music fans get to benefit from this work during the ReDO, where each of five DJs is given an hour on the decks — ample time to craft a set that ebbs and flows, to build in audio Easter eggs (one example: O Sharp mentioned bleeding the Beatles' “Hey Jude” into KRS-One's “Criminal Minded,” which samples the Fab Four classic) and to feature both fan favorites and deeper cuts designed to perk the ears of fellow spinners.

Of course, each DJ has a different approach to constructing a set. Dommy Styles doesn't like to prepare any material in advance — “That would feel like work,” he said — preferring to let the crowd's energy direct his selections in the moment. D. Boogie, in contrast, said he started preparing his May set following the April ReDO. “It was like, ‘All right, I didn't hear nobody play that song, let me bring it out,'” he said. Others, such as Rich NYCe, fall somewhere in between, selecting a few tent-pole tracks around which they can build.

While preservation of DJ culture wasn't an intent of starting the ReDO, everyone interviewed said that aspect of the event has taken on increased weight in an era where those pioneering tools — two turntables and a mixer — have given way to a high-tech combination of laptops, controllers and iPads.

“If you say you're a hip-hop DJ, and you say you're part of the culture, you have to [learn how to spin vinyl],” O Sharp said. “You can go from vinyl to controllers or CDJs (a digital music player for DJs) or whatever, but all that technology is built off that foundation. If you say you're a hip-hop DJ, start there.”

And it's that foundation that the ReDO pioneers hope to solidify, even as they craft music that points as much to the future as the past.

“Anyone from that Golden Era of hip-hop, whenever they see those [Technics] 1200s, they want to rock on them, no matter who they are,” said Dommy Styles, referencing the ultra-durable turntables that have long been the industry standard. “And that's the feeling we want to bring to the ReDO. … We want you to hear the crack of the record and have that old euphoria come rushing back.”