DJ music, perhaps more so than any other concert experience, requires a fairly extensive pre-existing knowledge to get what’s happening on stage. There are musical genres (like drum and bass), subgenres (darkstep, drum funk), fusion genres (Raggajungle, Raggacore); the lineages of which are convoluted and highly debatable. Unlike “genre-defying” bands, DJs seems fairly comfortable with labels—but an ethnomusicology degree is required to correctly identify the components of a DJ’s set.
MingLE, the Asheville-based DJ perhaps best-known for his work with jazz-pop trio Ruby Slippers, concocted his own sonic brew at Stella Blue’s 11th anniversary party—a three-DJ event also featuring local artist Brett Rock and DJ Le Spam of Miami’s Spam Allstars.
If a DJ showcase sounds distinctly ‘90s-retro, Stella Blue upped the ante with a live painter—a touch more ‘90s art-rock than rave, but still smacking of a by-gone era. Onstage, the visual artist crafted a barren tree on a purple and yellow canvas before wandering outside. (Oddly, most of the sparse audience—despite the $12 cover—also spent the evening on the sidewalk.)
MingLE’s expansive set, despite what the ‘90s precedent might suggest, was largely meditative. His MySpace page pegs his style as down-tempo and lounge. Both qualifiers suggest languid beats and esoteric, moody tones: MingLE delivered. A sample of Lupe Fiasco’s “Daydreamin’” set a fanciful mood, but lyrics quickly gave way to a warm, mellow soundscape. The DJ cajoled robotic purrs from actual LPs, flipping records with the skill of a bartender spinning pint glasses. After a lengthy stretch of navel-gazing trance, a welcome series of timpani beats ushered forth a rhythmic, up-tempo number. As if on cue, local drummer-about-town Imhotep appeared, djembe in tow, and climbed on stage.
Now, Imhotep is known for sitting in. Aside from his work with LEAF in Schools and Streets, he’s performed with The Plowshares, Sirius.B and Rising Appalachia. But, even in Asheville, a live drummer performing with recorded music is a stretch. Still, the organic beats and Middle Eastern-meets-techno-by-way-of-vinyl worked well, attracting a few dancers to the floor.
MingLE is well-versed in collaboration. His MySpace page features not only a Ruby Slippers track (the sweetly-spooky “Lost and Found”), but “Twice Removed,” a haunting, pulsing number incorporating the vocals of local photographer Rene Treece. Treece was in the audience at Stella Blue but didn’t sit in—too bad: A live vocalist might have been just the infusion the lackluster evening needed. Then again, add a singer and a drummer and it’s a band rather then a DJ show.
In contrast, headliner DJ Le Spam dove into his set with a scratchy, bluesy 45 of Arlean Brown’s “Impeach Me Baby,” a vintage soul track made for dancing. I have no doubt that MingLE could turn out the dance floor-bumping tunes if he wanted, but his method is more about the layering of sounds and creation of subtle moods—more Jivamukti yoga studio fodder than sweaty club milieu. Anywhere else, the disparity might seem overwhelming. In Asheville, it can work.