It wasn't pretty.
"I had the bright idea of playing rap reggae," he recalls from his sofa, looking a little dazed, "when people here are still really stuck on Bob Marley." The experience, spinning Poor Righteous Teachers, reggae-inflected black conscious hip-hop, and Super Cat, a popularizer of fast-paced Jamaican Dancehall, to a crowd that just wanted to hear the Wailers led to a mass exodus from the dance floor. It's a facet of Spokane's fragmented club scene that Pants has seen from all angles. "You get shot down pretty hard if you step out of line here."
That act, of seeking out lines and stepping all over them, drives Pants' art. He's OK with spinning bad sets because he isn't looking for weekly gigs as a reggae or hip-hop DJ the way almost everyone else is. He sets up gigs so that he can spin whatever he's listening to (right now: New Age researching a mixtape he's working on for Stones Throw records and music designed to make plants grow because, well, he and his wife have some stunted-ass plants). The trick each time is to work his way through the set, figuring out those elements of music that transcend genre and touch the primal thing that makes people dance. It's research, and it's led to some startling findings, like the one he had last Friday at Baby Bar.
"You can sometimes get away with medieval music," Pants says excitedly, running to his MacBook Pro and cuing up something seemingly written for a proper harpsichord, but recorded using what sounds like the harpsichord setting of an early synthesizer. "I couldn't believe people were stomping and clapping to this," Pants is beside himself, chuckling. Then he gets serious: "Oh, but I also learned you should never segue from medieval music to Color Me Badd."
The look on his face suggests the harpsichord-to-"I Wanna Sex You Up" transition seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. It wasn't until he saw the confused reactions on people's faces that it clicked. The archivist in Pants finds value in almost every kind of music. The artist in him, though, can't afford to be so inclusive.
That's why Pants needs DJing. It's the conduit that helps him pare down his encyclopedic appreciation of everything from Satanic metal to Christian psychedelia to only those choice cuts that move butts, zeroing in on the individual verses, hooks and bridges that get people hyped, discarding the ones that don't. "There's an energy," Pants says, "you can just tell." He then hops on his drum kit or Compurhythm 8000 or whatever, and puts that knowledge to work, creating an odd fusion of hip-hop, new wave and just about whatever else fits.
His first album of a three-CD deal with Stones Throw is in the can, awaiting a spring release to coincide with a short European tour. That leaves two albums to perfect the biggest, simplest lesson he's taken from all these cultural excursions into DJing: "I'm just going to make music that never loses energy."
Thats the kind of statement that any cut-rate schlub could make. It takes an absurd amount of ass-shake data, though, to know which Renaissance fair background music has that energy, which Michael McDonald choruses don't, and which Michael Jackson song is the absolute best way to wind down a great evening of dance. It's "Human Nature". James told me so, and I beleive him.
James Pants with Velella Velella at Mootsy's on Saturday, Nov. 17, at 10 pm. $7. Call 838-1570.