Hooked on Sonics
August 22, 2002
It’s dark, concrete surrounds, and there‘s a line of riot police wearing smiley faces. London’s Banksy has painted one of his signature ”weapons of mass distraction“ murals on the walls of this downtown industrial warehouse, into which a stream of young urban bohos slowly pours. Keyboardist Money Mark is scheduled to vamp it up later, but right now the Funky President is holding court — J Rocc of the Beat Junkies. With fellow Junkie Rhettmatic waiting in the wings, J Rocc makes it look ridiculously easy, mixing one-handed so he can smoke a cigarette. Like Banksy‘s blend of pop iconography splayed on the walls, J Rocc is a one-man soundclash, bringing together everything from obscure ’70s funk to exclusive hip-hop remixes, his body in perpetual motion as he fluidly adjusts pitch, volume and fidelity.
A 15-minute trip up the I-5 later, and J Rocc‘s still in the mix, only now he’s exchanged the murky warehouse for the brightly lit DJ booth at KPWR, a.k.a. Power 106. Jurassic 5, fresh off their triumphant Smokin‘ Grooves show at the Universal Amphitheater, are tossing freestyles back and forth as J Rocc coolly bounces beats off the station’s new digital CD turntables. It‘s Friday Night Flavas, and J is hosting as part of the Fantastik 4our, alongside DJs Truly Odd, C-Minus and host Mr. Choc, the latter yet another Beat Junkie. At the same moment, across town, Junkies Icey Ice and Curse are presenting Seditious Beats on KPFK, while back downtown, Rhettmatic has taken over the mix for Banksy’s after-party. The Junkies are anywhere, everywhere in Los Angeles tonight. They don‘t belong to the city. The city belongs to them.
There has never been a DJ crew in any American city as dominant as the Beat Junkies, who celebrate their 10th anniversary on August 17. Since forming in 1992, the Junkies have helped anchor L.A.’s hip-hop scene in the clubs, on the radio and in retail, not to mention broken ground as innovative scratch DJs. True, the Bay Area‘s defunct Invisbl Skratch Piklz had more international prestige, and New York’s X-ecutioners have achieved more commercial success. But to conceive of what the Junkies have done in the ‘90s, you’d have to imagine New York‘s DJ kings of the ’80s — Red Alert, Marley Marl, Frankie Knuckles, Grandmaster Flash, etc. — all coming from the same neighborhood, forming a crew and staying intact for the next 10 years. And even then the comparison might not be adequate, since, at the end of their first decade, the Junkies are only getting better.
The Junkies inherited the mantle formerly worn by pioneering L.A. hip-hop DJs like Uncle Jam‘s Army, Dr. Dre, Greg Mack, Alladin and Joe Cooley, otherwise known as the KDAY Mixmasters. Indeed, all of the Junkies cite AM 1580 — the nation’s first 24-hour rap station — as a common inspiration. ”They actually gave the DJs a break, and gave them some time,“ says J Rocc. The problem for the Junkies was that they weren‘t from L.A. proper, but grew up behind the Orange Curtain in Cerritos. ”Coming from O.C., you had to work 10 times as hard just to prove yourself,“ says Rhettmatic. J Rocc notes that while Orange County hip-hop strongholds like Santa Ana boasted luminaries such as Alladin, ”They didn’t have the same light as L.A.,“ even though ”they were on the same shit.“
It was under this shadow that J Rocc first assembled the Beat Junkies in 1992, pulling together a multicultural bunch of 20s-ish DJs who were already in different crews but shared an affinity. According to J Rocc, ”These were the guys I was deejaying with at the time. Since we were all deejaying, we were all hanging out, I said, ‘Yo, let’s go start a crew.‘“ The original group included J Rocc, Rhettmatic, Melo-D, Curse, Icey Ice, What?!, Havic and Symphony. A couple of years later, Rhettmatic invited Bay Area ”honorary“ members D-Styles and Shortkut to join, and the Junkies’ lineup was completed in 1995 with the addition of Oxnard‘s Babu and Bakersfield’s Mr. Choc.
The crew‘s completion coincided with their rise in notoriety, beginning in 1995 with Beat Junkies Radio, a weekly one-hour show on Santa Ana’s KWIZ. ”Radio was something that I wanted to do from day one, just growing up, hearing the radio, getting the New York tapes of Red Alert and Chuck Chillout,“ says J Rocc. Besides playing the newest hip-hop singles, the show also featured up-and-coming artists who would later become icons in the Southland, such as Dilated Peoples and Ras Kass. Around this time the Junkies became heavily involved in the growing scratch-DJ battle circuit. Melo-D, Rhettmatic and Babu all held down a variety of regional, national and world titles, while the Junkies, performing as a four-person team, won the ITF (International Turntable Federation) World Team titles in 1997 and 1998, after which all the members retired from active battle competition. Babu, credited with coining the now-ubiquitous term ”turntablism,“ reflects on the Junkies‘ battle days: ”Battling was a way to get your name out there, but I think we were all on a mission, more than anything. More than trying to get props, we were on a mission to put new styles out there that hadn’t been touched yet.“
The five years since have been a blur of activity, as the Junkies have compiled a resume too massive to fully list — but here‘s a handful of highlights: opening the Fat Beats record store (Babu, J Rocc), designing the industry standard PMC 05-PRO mixer for Vestax (Rhettmatic, Shortkut), musical director for Vibe’s late-night television show (Melo-D), DJ for Dilated Peoples (Babu), DJ for the Visionaries (Rhettmatic), mixshow coordinator for Power 106 (Mr. Choc), countless mixtapes, singles and production credits (all of the above). ”We don‘t know anything else,“ jokes What?!, a longtime party promoter and currently on tour with Dub Cat and Scientist. ”It’s just everyone‘s nature, just trying to do something.“
The Junkies’ greatest accomplishment has perhaps been simply to stay together. Hip-hop‘s competitive — if not straight-up divisive — atmosphere has decimated crew after crew of MCs, DJs and breakers over the years. And though the Junkies have seen a couple of people come and go, for the most part the core group has stayed intact for 10 years, despite all the projects each is involved in. Their secret to group harmony isn’t complicated: The Junkies began as friends and remain bonded through that camaraderie.
”These are my friends, who I‘ve gotten to know through thick and thin,“ says Rhettmatic. ”I’ve gone through a lot with these guys, and not to sound cheesy, but I would die for them.“ The other members pause at the weight of the statement before breaking into smiles. When asked what he appreciates about Melo-D‘s unique qualities, J Rocc says, ”His strong point is getting beaten by me in Foosball,“ and the table erupts in laughter. As J Rocc gets serious with his praise, it’s obvious that his admiration for his peers is heartfelt, even if coded in snaps and caps.
As this circle of friends embarks on its second decade, the immediate goals include building up Beat Junkie Sound, the crew‘s new record label. For a group who’ve basically earned their livelihood by playing records, the Junkies are now getting serious about making them. Any which way, the Junkies aren‘t behaving as if this is the golden time of their careers; it’s more like the first 10 years were just a warm-up.
”We‘ve definitely tried to spread ourselves around as much as possible,“ says J Rocc. ”As long as we keep doing what we’re doing, it‘s wide-open, man, sky’s the limit.“