Thursday, October 15, 6:50 p.m. I’m in Vegas, on the way from airport to Palms Hotel. In half an hour, the DJ Hero battle will begin: West Coast Sound vs. Z-Trip. Focus. I’ve had 10 years to learn Technics technique. Countless hours in front of the decks, matching beats, absorbing breaks, tweaking pitch, all leading up to this moment.
7:18 p.m.: Arrive at Z-Trip’s room. The highly anticipated DJ Hero game is released to the public on October 27, but DJ Z-Trip has made tracks for it, so was able to score an advance, and an X-Box, which is set up in a hotel room.
Z-Trip’s practicing on his (real) turntables in an adjoining room. The following night, he will debut his weekly Friday residency at Rain, a Vegas mega–dance club. It’s a bittersweet entry: Rain is one of the most high-profile DJ club gigs in the country — Paul Oakenfold holds court every Saturday night — but Z-Trip will be assuming a residency that, tragically, became open after DJ AM died in September.
7:24 p.m.: Double beds, big flat screen, X-Box sitting on the desk, with two little toy turntables the size of textbooks. The round record platter has three color-coded buttons on it: green, red, blue, and next to it, a crossfader like you’d find on your everyday mixer. Pretty basic setup. Z-Trip is still next door practicing, psyching me out.
7:26 p.m.: Z-Trip — real name Zach Sciacca — arrives. He looks vaguely superstarish, with the confident air of someone who gets flown to Las Vegas to perform — like Frank Sinatra, Elvis or Celine Dion. We shake hands. He’s not so tough. I will smush him like a bug.
The contestants: West Coast Sound’s largest-ever crowd performance was about 700, at a warehouse party in St. Louis (Big Pink Brains, people!). Specialty: minimal German and Detroit techno, microhouse, Chicago house.
Z-Trip’s resumé is long: too many massives to mention. He’s the creator, along with DJ P, of the influential Uneasy Listening mixtape (which begins with a beautifully deranged version of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” reworked as “Rhinestone B-Boy”). His decadelong ascension has been gradual and deliberate. He’s done Coachella, has toured the world. He once deejayed Bonnaroo — between sets by Phil Lesh and Phish. (That takes balls.) He not only knows how to get the party started, he knows how to sustain it, push it, bring it to a sample/mash-up/chaotically organized fever pitch.
7:29 p.m.: Z-Trip shows me a little scab on his finger. “I cut my finger making a salad the other day.” So what? No excuses.
7:35 p.m.: The game allows you to pick your DJ avatar, as well as its outfit, turntable setup, turntable skins, and some other meaningless extraneous information. You can pick whether the event is at a big club or a block party. Z-Trip’s avatar is a skinny, meth-head, Mohawked hillbilly named Cletus Cuts. I pick a very muscular Marine-looking dude, named, oddly, Jugglernord, and am wearing camouflage like an S1W.
7:40 p.m.: Battle No. 1. Like in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the games that DJ Hero so closely mimics, you follow along with music and do maneuvers based on aspects of the song. In Guitar Hero, you strum and fret and move while, say, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” plays. In DJ Hero, you thump fingers, scratch, crossfade and tone-bend while, on the TV screen, players follow the needle along the vinyl groove. It’s a pretty cool setup, actually.
Z-Trip is in command from the start. Within 30 seconds, he’s leading. Punch with greater accuracy, idiot! Get rhythm. Here comes a scratch moment. I hit the blue button and zip the platter back and forth, causing a scratch to roll along with the 2Pac bed. Oh, yes. Funky. We plonk along. I’m gaining ground, taunting Z-Trip: “You DJs are frauds, all of you! This is easy!”
7:44 p.m.: It is. It’s too easy. Between beats, Z-Trip starts freestyling, scratching like he would at a club. But wait a minute. I’m winning now. Apparently his freestyling was costly, and points were deducted for playing outside the lines. We opt to start over.
7:47 p.m.: We up the ante, and move to Medium. Now we’re dealing with the crossfader as well. We begin, and I’m clumsy from the start. The mash-up is Daft Punk’s “Le Funk” vs. “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. It’s getting a little trickier: We’re expected to punch dots while scratching and sampling, and the crossfading comes while all this is happening. I fail miserably. I’m all over the track like a text-happy sorority girl on a highway.
Z-Trip wins No. 1 big time. He brushes off the victory like a true star: “I didn’t even see it happen,” he jokes. “I was talking to a chick.” Battle No. 2, however, something happens. Maybe it’s the track — Fedde Le Grand, “Put Your Hands Up for Detroit” vs. Sandy Rivera and David Penn, “I Can’t Stop (David Penn Remix)” — but I get on a roll with the scratching and the fading, I’ve found rhythm, and take a huge victory. Z-Trip acknowledges what is obvious: “You schooled me.”
7:50 p.m.: Z-Trip made three tracks for DJ Hero, he says, and his creations have lots of chaos going on. It’s locked higher up in the game, though, and we haven’t gotten to that level yet. He says that when he saw a demo, he watched some of the programmers play the game, and they were murdering it. “Really complicated stuff. There is one tune that the Scratch Perverts did that’s like an obstacle course. It starts out slow, and then gets crazier and crazier.”
7:55 p.m.: Bobby Bland vs. 2Pac is on again, and we’re going at it in the rubber match. It’s really close, actually, and though I mess up some crossfading and get a scratching cramp in my pinkie during a particularly rough spot, I recapture the momentum. As Bland repeats, “Ain’t no love” over and over, the game fades. Z-Trip has beaten me 76,350 to 75,930. I collapse on the floor and begin to weep. He kicks me in the stomach and leaves.
Friday, October 16, 10:35 p.m.: Z-Trip arrives at Rain to get ready for his midnight slot. He’s greeted by some Playboy bunnies, who award him a silver key to the Palms. Shit like that doesn’t happen in the DJ Hero game. Photographers take his picture; he’s the center of attention. The line to get in — at $30 a head — stretches into the casino. Despite the fact that I very nearly beat this dude last night, no one acknowledges me. They have no idea what I’m capable of.
Midnight: Rain holds 4,000 people, and by midnight the place is packed with Vegas-type dance clubbers — meaning lots of bachelor and bachelorette parties, lots of 20-somethings looking to get loose and laid, creepy 40-somethings watching the girls too closely, lots of people gambling with booze.
After an introduction, and a dedication to DJ AM — everybody screams and applauds — Z-Trip kicks off his residency with Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” and the beat will not stop for the rest of the night. He moves through hits and misses, a big break-beat rhythm making odd juxtapositions sound perfectly reasonable. He runs through snippets of Spandau Ballet’s “True,” John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane,” drops Lil Wayne and Kansas (“Carry On My Wayward Son”), slowly pushing the energy and the beat higher while the crowd gets drunker and rowdier. Go-go dancers in thigh-high tube socks and butt-high short shorts dance on pedestals.
He scratches and crossfades, screams into his microphone and pushes the crowd to wave their arms. When he senses a lull, he steps it up. The beat moves faster: He drops a wild-ass drum & bass version of Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and takes the crowd somewhere far away.
The night before, after we had finished playing DJ Hero, Z-Trip had told me about his early days in Phoenix, when he was playing a little club/restaurant. The dudes who were in charge were playing old disco records, and had a whole color-coded system worked out. They understood when to lift the tempo, appreciated the trajectory of a night’s music, how the slow gave way to the gradually faster, the way some songs worked with one group of people but not another. Those little nights taught him about intuition, about when to stretch and when to concede, when to push it up.
1:45 a.m.: Z-Trip has pushed up the pace. De La Soul arrives for a cameo, and the crowd loves it. The energy is thick, the sound is crisp and loud, and the dance floor is bouncing. Is it as rich and vital as a block party or a secret rave? No. This is Vegas, and any sort of renegade vibe has been checked at the lobby entrance. It’s a tough crowd, in fact, the flaky kind that will turn on you if you don’t give them what they want. They want recognizable music, but they want to be surprised by it. They want familiarity, but not wedding music. They want to dance, but they want an edge, and throughout the night, Z-Trip makes them dance.
That didn’t happen playing DJ Hero back at the hotel, which is where I’m headed. Not that anyone notices.