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POP MUSIC : Spinning in the Spotlight : Today's dance music is full of beats and blips but often lacks such established delivery systems as traditional musicians. As a result, deejays are taking center stage. And you thought they just spun records.

June 25, 1995|Dennis Romero | Dennis Romero is a staff writer for The Times' Life & Style section

The house is rocking, but the stage is empty on a Saturday night at the Dome.

Hundreds of excited eyes and death-grip fists aim the other way, at a booth that hangs high above the floor at this Hollywood Boulevard hot spot. That's where Keoki, a slight man who wears spiked wristbands and enough silver to start his own pawnshop, plays his music.

The girls screech and the guys lose their heads in his sound. But he's no Elvis.

He's the deejay.

If electronic music is the future of pop, as some critics say, then the club deejay will likely be the star bringing it to you.

"Deejays aren't just record players, they're performers, and that's being recognized on a larger scale," says Michael Mannix, editor of Street Sound magazine.

What does a deejay do but play records?

It's a matter of matching the beats, key and vibe of different vinyl using two turntables and a mixer. Good deejays, it is said, can "move the crowd" by speeding up the tempo, using bursts of silence and collating songs to produce nonstop sound.

"Deejays," one record company scout insists, "are artists."

*

The emerging worlds of ambient (New Age for a new generation), house (modern disco), techno (rapid-fire dance) and a dozen other derivatives (jungle, trip-hop, dub, et al.) necessitate the rise of the deejay-as-deliverer. These sounds often have few lyrics, bandleaders or even traditional musicians. It's programmed and pressed on vinyl. And besides, performing material that consists of blips and bleeps live can appear quite awkward.

"Deejays are the public figures and the celebrities because the dance scene is so anti-artist-oriented," says techno musician Moby, who deejays on the side. "You couldn't name five people who make this music . . . so club fans associate their good time with the deejay."

The sight of 27-year-old Keoki spinning records for hundreds of screaming kids at the Dome makes it look like the deejays are starting to take over. Sweat, adrenaline and pheromones ooze from the crowd as the New Yorker makes a choppy beat funky and a faint bass line chunky. A trance-inducing vibe wakes up and skyrockets to sonic climax, although it isn't clear whether this is his work or just some record working its own magic at 45 r.p.m.

Keoki, small, dark and handsome, has all the eccentricities of a star (although he doesn't seem to catch the symbolism of his upside-down Elvis belt buckle).

Born Keoki Maurice Franconi and of Hawaiian, Italian and Spanish ancestry, he was named for an island prince. He migrated to New York from his native Hawaii in 1986 and got his shot at the turntables when he was a busboy in a nightclub. After spinning records in the shadow of master deejays like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan and Frankie Bones, Keoki made his name playing the fast, spacey techno called "trance" on weeknights at the legendary Limelight.

At a friend's West Hollywood bungalow before his L.A. show, he takes a hit of ecstasy (an illegal hallucinogen), tokes on a cross-shaped pipe filled with marijuana and tries to wrest a one-of-a-kind record from another deejay who's visiting. Keoki's still grappling with stardom.

"I just tell people, 'I'm your humble servant,' " he says. "A pied piper."

Far from a humble pastime, the male-dominated deejay industry is growing. Instead of begging Mom and Dad to buy them Les Paul guitars for their birthdays, many kids in Japan lust after a set of Technics turntables, notes author Karl Taro Greenfeld. In the United States, deejay shops often report shortages of the $550 Technics SL 1200 MKII--the deejay standard. And Technics says there are 6 million amateur deejays in America.

"Everyone wants to be a deejay," says L.A. jock Jason Bentley.

They want to be like Keoki. His second deejay-mix album, "All Mixed Up," on Moonshine Music, is coming out July 5, and he's working on a new single, due in September. And during his recent gig at the Dome, groupies ask for his autograph.

Not everyone can rise to the level of club gigs, record contracts and production deals. In fact, like a generation of rocker wanna-bes before them, most deejays subsidize their $1,000-plus equipment and $10-a-pop records with day jobs.

"I think it's still a bedroom sport," says Todd Roberts, managing editor of Urb magazine.

Yet the deejay-as-star phenomenon, long a strong trend in Europe, is starting to take hold with fans stateside:

* The organizers of this summer's Lollapalooza rock fest are planning a separate dance musicand deejay tour--to be called Enit --for select markets. Artists on their wish list include Moby, the Orb and Leftfield. The wish list of jocks includes Keoki, Germany's Sven Vath and England's Paul Oakenfold. None of the dates have been confirmed.

* Thousands of kids from San Diego to Greensboro, N.C., go to their local clubs to see such hot deejays as Orlando's Kimball Collins and San Francisco's Hardkiss collective on tour.

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