Cincinnati's urban club scene responds to DJs in varying measures. Some DJs command response; some become disregarded centerpieces on the tables.
For one, few club-goers expect to hear anything that sets the DJ apart from the record. Second, much of the current technology allows amateurs to assume a DJ's position. But despite the genre of download-and-play, human jukeboxes numbing people's expectations, DJ Mr. Pillo grinds his needle into the groove until audiences feel him.
"Don't sleep on the Pillo," he says, half-teasing, but his facial expression reads, "Please believe it." Spinning in the city regularly since 1994, this Addyston resident is well aware of the local "come hard or go home" mindset that makes and breaks DJs. Of the friends he emulated in 1989 when he began teaching himself, Pillo's the one who made it his profession. His key to success? Learning to read crowds without letting them zap his creativity.
"By looking at my crowd, that tells me what I need to play," Pillo says. "I can't play all the music I like all of the time. I complain about some of the parties I do, but those are the things that keep me paid."
Pillo's first paying gig was a back-yard graduation party in 1991. It lasted more than eight hours and paid $35, but his real compensation came from crowd response.
"That's where I got to see if I was good or not," Pillo says. "When I did parties then, all I used to do was mix. My biggest concern was a clean mix, so my mixes were tight. Everyone was happy with that; more people came and basically the party went all night."
Prior, this self-described perfectionist practiced daily on hand-me-down turntables that became his instruments. As he developed, he studied his mixtapes for mistakes. While he never sought scratch techniques, his dedication to practice and record buying yielded a hybrid style between a block party DJ and a scratch DJ. Today, this makes him a welcome fixture behind the tables, and if he isn't present at an event, someone inquires, "Where Pillo at?" as if he'll pop up like the Whac-a-Mole and begin cutting.
But despite his growing local popularity, he feels that DJs of all genres are under-appreciated. Recently at Club Dream, Pillo played beside record-breaking Hot 97 FM mix-show host, DJ Red Alert, who received "boos" from the few young adults in attendance.
"I felt that was very disrespectful," Pillo says. "I mean, he's one of the first mix-show DJs. Mix-show DJ or not, he should've gotten his just due respect. Just due to the fact that they didn't know who he was to begin with, that lies a lot with radio."
Before station formats included Hip Hop, DJs were Rap promoters. Today, radio determines "what's good" before the DJ, and club audiences rate how well DJs obey the format.
"They don't understand that DJing used to be, 'play a record, take it off,' with spaces in between and all that," Pillo says. "They get spoiled to one particular genre of DJ or how a DJ plays."
But Pillo won't be objectified. Perseverance gets him booked at city-wide events like The Hood is Bigger Than You Think Tour, Cincinnati Fringe Festival and Hip-Notic Concepts' Tha Blast, and he's opened for Biz Markie, Grandmaster Flash, The Vinyl Junkies, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and Chuck D. Occasionally, he's summoned by da muttss or 4 Track Allstars for live appearances. Weeknights, he might appear solo or with DJs Perry Simmons, Rare Groove and Mr. LaMonte.
Pillo also points out that there's at least a decade of music ignored by radio and club formats, which explains why certain genres seem unfamiliar. Pillo suggests that urban radio do a better task of connecting the dots.
"Every now and then, just offer people something different, like Hip Hop music that may have been played at one particular time," he says, naming Souls of Mischief, The Goodie Mob and Pharcyde, who all grew in prominence in the 1990s. "If you only know old school and new stuff, you're missing out on almost a whole decade of Hip Hop, almost like Hip Hop coming through its teenage years."
An unseasonably hot afternoon, Pillo arrives at Elementz Youth Center where he's a DJ instructor. Prince, 22, and Dexter, 22, want a turntable tutorial. Warming up with two copies of the same record, Pillo shows off his tricks.
"Your turn!" Pillo exclaims, catching Prince and Dexter off guard.
"Just kidding," he assures. After briefing them on the basics, he teaches them phrasing, scratching four-counts of snares.
"Who wants to try?" he asks. Prince volunteers. It's harder than it looks.
"You gotta let it go 'on the one,' " Pillo tells Prince. Pretty soon, both master catching the beat. They even look like DJs.
"Do you know how long it took me to do that?" Pillo asks.
"How long?" they ask together.
"One whole year. Now you're a year ahead of me!"
Contact MR. PILLO at [email protected].