Cover Story: Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

Butch Gibson itches for a scratch

Nov 23, 2005 at 2:06 pm
James Mckee

DJ Butch Gibson's sets are so hot he keeps large fans nearby.

"But can you detect what's coming next from the flex of the wrist?"

— "Eric B. Is President," Eric B and Rakim

Your love of Hip Hop, like anything else, can often be traced back to a single, defining moment. Like the first time you first saw the Rock Steady Crew's breakdancing scene in Flashdance or the first time you heard Jazzy Jeff perfect his "transformer scratch" on Live at Union Square.

According to Butch Gibson — DJ, old-school Hip Hop activist, audiophile and music iconoclast — his moment went a little something like this: One night back in 1984 at Cincinnati's famed Golden Skates, the house DJ, a man known as Silk, blended the a cappella version of an obscure dance single called "Ex-Attack" over the 12-inch instrumental of "Jam On It" by Newcleus.

Gibson remembers that moment well. But even prior to that night, he was known for playing music on his own terms and for doing the unexpected.

In the early '80s, not to be outdone by a boom box ban at Walnut Hills High School, Gibson could be heard walking through the hallways blasting Rap music from a black briefcase rigged with high-powered car stereo speakers, an in-dash tape deck and a rechargeable battery. And he somehow never got caught.

But hearing Silk that night in '84 was different. Something about Silk's uncanny ability to, well, move the crowd would become Gibson's "red pill" moment and the catalyst for a 20-year career DJing, doing radio promotion and music activism.

At 41, Gibson usually reserves the tricks of the trade normally associated with Hip Hop Djing — scratching, phasing, beat-juggling, etc. — for live performances. Yet he recalls how he won a Golden Skates DJ contest in 1987 by scratching a copy of Hashim's electrofunk classic "Al-Naayfish" with a pencil eraser and the tip of a walking cane.

"Man, that night it was all theatrics," he says, admitting that the cane bit was a gimmick he'd planned beforehand to win over the crowd.

While Gibson now enjoys the laidback atmosphere of his weekly gig at Springdale's Chequers Nightclub, it's clear that his on-air stint at WAIF (88.3 FM) from 1988 to 1994 had the greatest effect on his musical worldview. At the community station, Gibson had free reign to build a grassroots, community-oriented show that embraced local heads who were part of Cincinnati's burgeoning underground Hip Hop movement.

Liberating, yet difficult, he recalls, as he had to transport his own catalogue of 12-inch singles to the studio to prepare for his 7 a.m. show.

"And I was broke as hell," he says, laughing. "At WAIF, you had to be your own music director, program director, everything."

Some of Gibson's early mixes, including his immensely popular WAIF Audio Collage Album Project, foretold the transition from early '80s party-oriented Rap to the message-driven, political Hip Hop popular in the late '80s and early '90s.

Young, idealistic and perhaps a little angry, Gibson saw his craft (and his choice of music) as a mechanism to raise the consciousness of his audience. He concedes that his cultural outlook at times influenced the music he played at WAIF, as evidenced by the Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan speeches dropped over several Hip Hop instrumentals on his 1989 Audio Collage mix.

"Man, I would be lugging my records into the (WAIF) studio at, like, 6 in the morning and see these homeless guys sleeping in the street and think that maybe I could do something to make a change through my music," he says.

The logical next step would be to take his community-focused Hip Hop format to a broader audience. So in 1994 Gibson joined WIZF (100.9 FM), then Cincinnati's only FM urban formatted station, to host their 10 p.m.-2 a.m. mix show slot.

Gibson's six-year career at "The Wiz" lead to an invitation to the 2000 Source Music Awards in New York City and a seat on the magazine's 5-Mic Council, plus gigs DJing high-profile events in and around Cincinnati. Not bad for a guy who used to blast Kano's "I'm Ready" from a homemade, stealth boom box.

Yet when the discussion turns to the politics and playlist battles that define the business of commercial radio, Gibson remains guardedly critical of the industry. I begin to suspect that he has another hat trick or two up his sleeve to salvage what's left of Cincinnati's urban airwaves.

Lord knows we need it.

"I don't regret my time at WIZF, and I'm leaving my options open," he says. "Commercial radio is just different. But I had to try to push the music forward."

Surrounded by a blinking maze of CD players, laptop computers, a mixer and light machines, Gibson discusses his legacy to the local scene in the sound booth at Chequers. It was clear that his journey from Cincinnati's early Hip Hop underground to the mainstream through to his current comfortable existence somewhere in between was rooted in a quest for that ethereal effect that good music has on people's lives.

"I just like focusing on the music, and I like the challenge," Gibson says. "I want to be able to throw on that one record, that one beat, that makes people throw their hands up."

Kind of like Silk did back in '84. On that night another DJ was born.

DJ BUTCH GIBSON spins every Friday night at Chequers Nightclub in Springdale.