A decade or so ago, electronic music in Asheville was mostly DJs who played weddings and an underground scene with some experimental artists like ambient artist John "Jon 7" Myers (who according to his Last.fm bio, "found the Asheville DJ scene too limiting and far too cliquish for a town of so small a size"). In a few short years, that once paltry scene has, by all accounts, exploded.
Take DJ and promoter Cleofus Williams (aka Selector Cleofus) who, when he lived in Birmingham, Ala., had pretty much given up on putting on shows. "The stuff that I was playing didn't really have a scene. By the time I left there I had quit DJing and all my gear was put up, CDs were in stacks everywhere," he remembers. "I got to Asheville and thought, 'I think I could play here.'"
Williams started with a weekly engagement at the Hookah Bar where he got to play "whatever I wanted. The owner gave me free range. That gave me the ability to explore."
These days, Williams says his sound is mainly Dubstep (a style created in the U.K. in the last decade) and what he calls "Shroomcore," a play on acid jazz. Williams is also part of Wondrous Temple of Boom, a local collective of DJs whose members include Quetzatl, Medisin and DJ Bowie.
"Asheville, to me, has probably one of the strongest electronic scenes that I've seen on the East Coast, especially for the size of the city," says Williams. "A lot of the DJs in Asheville are playing stuff that's on the cutting edge. I do a lot of traveling — we go to Charleston or we go to Knoxville — a lot of time the stuff that we're bringing and the stuff that we're playing here hasn't reached there yet."
According to Timothy Cross, a DJ (host of the long-running Dubatomic Particles on WNCW 88.7 FM) and promoter (One World Entertainment, One Vibe Reggae), "What has been interesting is that there's been this massive alliance of DJs that came together and decided to give it a go collectively instead of individual DJs all competing for spots. They represent a number of styles." Cross also points to a growing insurgence of outside artists, including some big names coming from as far as the West Coast, the U.K. and Europe.
"I had been a big fan of hip-hop when I moved here in '98 and there was this mentality that 'That wasn't live music,'" recalls Cross. "There had to be a guitar, or these traditional rock instruments. Anything else wasn't live. Asheville has transitioned away from that [because] we are in the computer age."
But local DJs have taken the art form beyond the mere laptop. "These kids are 21, 22. They grew up on laptops that had titanium chips from the beginning," says Williams. "Where many of us are using turntables, they're rewiring Wii triggers so they can control what they're doing with these controllers. It's amazing to see what they're doing with this technology they're embracing. It forces the rest of us to keep up."
Williams also believes that analog music inspires the electronic world. "There's that boost of creativity around just from being able to go out and hear a jazz band one night and hear a bluegrass band one night," he says. "When I approach a different town, I sometimes have to dumb down my set. I can play whatever I want in Asheville."
And, if the current trend continues, Williams and other DJs will keep bringing their sounds not just to local ears, but to far-flung audiences. It's simple economics (and Cross suspects the recent economic downturn supports this) it's cheaper and easier to hire a DJ than a full band.
"From a promoter's perspective, it's much easier to work with a single DJ coming into town. You're only having to worry about one room, you're only having to worry about one meal. With bands, it's a little more confusing," Cross says. "I can bring people over from Germany. It's impossible to do that with a band, because they essentially have to book an entire tour to make back their expenses. But if I want to bring someone over from the U.K. or Germany, these guys do a weekend and then they fly back."
Frugality aside, DJs aren't likely to totally eclipse full bands anytime soon. But there are other reasons — the creativity, the technology, the whole new range of sounds — to check out DJ shows. DJs are like walking music libraries, human Pandora programs if you will. "Many of the DJs in town don't play stuff that's on the radio," says Williams. "It's pretty underground stuff so [listeners] have to have faith that they're going to like what we're presenting to them."