As the ashes smoldered from the riots of 1992, L.A.'s hip-hop scene reimagined the next quarter-century of sound. In what remains one of the most important years in Angeleno music history, Dr. Dre's The Chronic turned apoplectic gangsta rap into Technicolor party anthems; Pharcyde pioneered a whimsical funhouse alternative; Ice Cube redefined the meaning of a good day; and debuts from Rage Against the Machine and Sublime engineered an indigenous and eclectic Southern California fusion.
Unbeknownst to the industry, another landmark moment quietly occurred far from the torched strip malls of South Central. From the fringes of L.A.'s suburban sprawl came The Beat Junkies, the most important and influential West Coast DJ crew.
The story of The Beat Junkies practically doubles as a regional hip-hop chronicle of the last 25 years. During that span, the 13-man collective (J. Rocc, D-Styles, DJ Rhettmatic, DJ What?!, Symphony, Tommy Gun, Icy Ice, Curse, DJ Shortkut, Melo-D, DJ Havik, DJ Babu and Mr. Choc) irrevocably shaped the landscape of Southern California radio, music retail, mixtapes, nightlife and DJ technique. They won so many battles that no one can remember the exact number. Even the term "turntablism" comes from DJ Babu.
As hip-hop scholar Oliver Wang wrote in these pages on the Junkies' 10th anniversary, "There has never been a DJ crew in any American city as dominant as the Beat Junkies. ... To conceive of what they've done in the '90s, you'd have to imagine New York's DJ kings — Red Alert, Marley Marl, Frankie Knuckles, Grandmaster Flash — all coming from the same neighborhood, forming a crew and staying intact...."
It began inauspiciously in Cerritos and the neon anonymity of Northern Orange County, which most of the original members called home. They spun in various mobile DJ crews that rocked house parties, high schools and clubs.
"The roots go back to the late '80s, when DJing started to take a back seat to the MC. Everyone we knew seemed to stop DJing and we knew we had to stick together," Rhettmatic explains.
"J. Rocc was working at a comic book store in Westminster and grabbed these glow-in-the-dark Green Lantern rings and said we're going to start a crew," he continues. "We'd go up and battle in L.A., and at first it was hard to get respect. We were this crew with one black dude, one Mexican and a bunch of Asians ... walking into the lion's den."
Expanding on the genius of the original KDAY mixmasters, within a few years the Junkies became so ascendant that it was like Larry Bird taunting his peers in the three-point contest with the question, "So who's going to come in second?" They were practically unbeatable. In 1997 alone, they won the International Turntablist Federation Team World Championship and the ITF U.S. Team championship, and Babu took home the ITF solo trophy for scratching and beat juggling. Shortkut's "beat juggling strobe technique" became one of the most celebrated attacks in the turntablist arsenal. So did Babu and Melo-D's "echo scratch."
To be a hip-hop fan in L.A. was to be a fan of The Beat Junkies. If you wanted to buy the latest underground 12-inch, it usually required a pilgrimage to the original Fat Beats on Vermont in Los Feliz, run and stocked by Babu and J. Rocc. You'd inevitably cop a volume of their classic "World Famous Beat Junkies" mixes, too. If you went to a local rap show, you might catch Babu DJing for Dilated Peoples or Rhettmattic manipulating the Technics for The Visionaries.
Should you turn on your radio, you could hear J. Rocc and Mr. Choc on Power 106's seminal mix show, Friday Night Flavas. Over at the station's chief rival, 92.3 "The Beat," Melo-D cut up alongside Julio G. At KPFK (90.7 FM), Icy Ice and Curse unleashed Seditious Beats.
"That was the height of the turntablist explosion, which included the Junkies, The X-Ecutioners and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz," Babu says. "They all really went for it, but we opted to spread ourselves thin and cross-market ourselves while always shouting 'Beat Junkies' loud and proud."
The decision to keep the collective loose but the branding strong seemed like a potentially unwise financial decision at the apex of the backpack rap boom, but it allowed the crew to flourish in the long run. From their genesis, The Beat Junkies strove for versatility, so as the wave crashed in the mid to late 2000s, most of their members adapted to a hip-hop environment that prized party rocking over technical mastery.
Aligning himself with Madlib and Stones Throw, J. Rocc burnished his reputation as arguably the most artful and funkiest live DJ in the world. D-Styles took his scratch wizardry to Low End Theory, where he became one of the residents at the internationally revered club night in Lincoln Heights. Accepting an offer from his close friend, DJ AM, Melo-D spent several years as a sought-after club DJ in Las Vegas. Babu and Rhettmatic toured constantly with their respective groups and produced for everyone from underground legends like Ras Kass and M.O.P. to Vince Staples.
While the Junkies never quite broke up, a full-scale reunion didn't occur until five years ago. In commemoration of their 20th anniversary, the Junkies packed out the Echoplex, which not only reignited their old chemistry but set the stage for their third act.
"That was the catalyst," Melo-D says. "We'd stayed good friends but hadn't been getting together like we used to. After that show, we started vibing and exchanging ideas like the old days."
In an era when the importance of DJ virtuosity has been destabilized by the rise of birthday cake flingers and button pushers, the Junkies seek to once again reimagine their role in hip-hop and move the needle, incorporating tradition but refusing to indulge in nostalgia. They established an online record pool, their own radio station on the Dash network and, most recently, self-funded their own DJ school, Glendale's Beat Junkie Institute of Sound.
"I watch a lot of boxing and UFC and noticed how a lot of fighters have their own gyms that teach their style," D-Styles says. "I told the guys, 'How come we don't have our own school like Manny Pacquiao?' There are other schools out there, but we have our own brand and style and can pass on that foundation."
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The Junkies spent a year remaking the interior of the space, which opened in May, sparing no expense right down to a custom-made coffee table fashioned to look like a tape cassette. The room's centerpiece is "the Longtagon," a 14-station table designed to inspire a communal and collaborative feel.
If anyone can be a DJ in 2017, the Junkies are doubling down on the things that no YouTube tutorial can provide: a sense of community and the chance to absorb wisdom, history and technique from turntable Roshis.
"I'd love to turn some world champions out of our school, but at the least I hope we can connect people closer to the culture and history," Babu says. "I don't diss people making millions without their equipment plugged in, but there aren't any ones and zeros that can replicate the experience of getting together with someone and scratching together and building. The thing that made us The Beat Junkies was that we had each other to practice with — we had finally found our people."
THE BEAT JUNKIES | Agenda Festival, Long Beach Convention Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach | Sat., July 15, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. | $45 | agendafest.co