Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Mocha Latte Acid Test

By Amy Lawrence

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Otherlands Coffeehouse in Midtown glows with the light of votive candles on Friday nights. The atmosphere is usually low-key. Customers laze on futon couches or fill the chairs around the many tables set up throughout the large main room. In a corner, a deejay works over a pair of turntables, churning out the beats of acid jazz, the coffee joint’s featured attraction.

Acid jazz, like other categories of deejay-driven music, isn’t easy to define. The term “electronica” encompasses acid jazz, as well as jungle, hip-hop, house, and techno. Acid jazz tends to range wildly from a calm and soothing blending of old-school records to a more frenetic and dance-oriented sound, complete with thumping backbeats and sampling. The emphasis on creating new forms is prevalent, and often, when very different records are mixed, they create a sound that’s distinctive.

Brad Johnson, co-owner of the electronica record shop What’s That Sound? and sometime Otherlands deejay, pegs the music as “a free-form style of jazz, be it produced digitally or performed live with instrumentation.”

He explains, “It can be broken down in a couple of different ways. The live aspects of jazz with some programmed effects are in the music of Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock.” Deejays, he says, also produce acid jazz, but in their case they make it by blending music that’s been produced digitally.

“The basic premise is the blending of two records,” says Johnson. “Usually, it’s always focused on being danceable.”

Naturally, the music that forms acid jazz varies wildly from deejay to deejay. On a recent Friday night in November, a deejay who goes by the name Charles Ben Wa experiments with a variety of styles. An informal poll of people listening to the music reveals the elusive nature of the sound and shows the difficulty in trying to classify it. “It’s a mix of hip-hop and trance,” says one listener, while others offer that it sounds “dissonant ... with a lot of samples,” and then classify it as “jungle – there are fast beats that aren’t repetitive.”

Photo by Daniel Ball

Lorin Vincent, 23, a University of Memphis psychology major who works at Otherlands, hatched the idea of inviting local deejays to spin records back in May. “It’s a different deejay each week coming from a pool of six of my friends,” she says. “They do it for free, mainly to expose people to this kind of music. People think electronic music is all about dance, but this is different. It may have a beat, but it’s really enjoyable to hear. People can hear new music here instead of cover bands.”

The idea grew out of Vincent’s own passion for the music. She’s learning to deejay herself and brings her own equipment to the shop for the guest deejays to use. But since she plans on graduating from the U of M in May, she has been too busy to spend as much time as she would like learning the art of spinning records.

“The last thing I want to hear after I’ve been studying is train-wreck noise,” she says, referring to the irritating sound that occurs when beats do not match between two records. Vincent plans to devote much more of her time after graduation, hoping one day to work raves under the name “Vince.” In the meantime, she has immersed herself in the music, and adds, “This is a culture that I’ve been around through raves. We’re obsessed with it and want to turn everyone on to it. Even a lot of people of an older age group come in and have a really good time.”

A one-drink minimum is the cover charge on Friday nights, and a diverse crowd usually turns out, often bringing their children and dogs along with them, either to listen to the deejay or to enjoy the night from the vantage of Otherlands’ outdoor porch.

Deejay Alex Westphal, who describes his music as “soundscapes,” explains that his goal “is to put people in a good mood and keep them in a good atmosphere.” When asked why he plays on Fridays at Otherlands for free, he says, “I love to do it and I’d be doing the same thing at home if I had record players there. It’s fun.”

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