Julian Pena, Dysqo, DJ MTM
When Sun 1/14, 8 PM
Where Subterranean, 2011 W. North
If you should ever happen to visit DJ MTM--aka Murry the Magnificent, aka the King of Breaks, aka 25-year-old Murry Berry--at his Wicker Park apartment, be careful when he shows you to his room to check out his turntables. To get inside you have to step over a semicircular fortification of vinyl 12-inches piled almost knee-high--hundreds of records, more than most people will ever own. And that's just for starters: past the doorway there are even more, some of them on shelves but most of them scattered everywhere. Almost every flat surface in the room supports a precarious stack of funk, soul, hip-hop, and rock vinyl. The big desk that holds the turntables takes up as much space as his bed. His room is less a place to rest than a round-the-clock musical laboratory, where he practices obsessively to live up to the grandiose nicknames he's given himself.
What he looks for in all those records are breaks, the building blocks of his crazy-quilt music. A break is just an element of a song--a drum pattern, a guitar riff, a bass line--that can be isolated, looped, and stitched to other snippets. The Bronx party DJs who developed the technique in the 70s ended up inventing hip-hop as a by-product: old-schoolers like DJ Kool Herc would bounce between two copies of the same record to keep a single break going for long stretches, which made a perfect backdrop for an MC. Berry is pretty old-school himself--when he spins live he uses only vinyl--but his style is more frenetic. He constantly switches from record to record with reckless disregard for genre, creating a hectic series of transitions rather than a steady groove. These days most hip-hop DJs use bigger pieces of songs and aim for the smooth segues and steady tempos of dance music. The most notable exceptions are probably west-coast DJ and producer Peanut Butter Wolf and his Stones Throw crew--in Chicago, DJs like Berry are a rarity. "People always ask me why I don't play the whole song," he says. "But I figure if you want to hear the whole thing you can listen to it at home."
Finding good breaks requires a good ear, a crate digger's exhaustive knowledge of obscure jams, and a bit of one-upmanship--to excavate racks and racks of dusty vinyl, you really have to want to find that one awesome break nobody else has. "Technology makes it easy for people to play the same records," Berry says. He points out that software like Serato's Scratch Live, which allows DJs to "spin" sound files via an encoded vinyl blank, means that instead of hauling back-breaking boxes of 12-inches many of his peers carry just a laptop full of easily traded MP3s. No matter how special your vinyl collection is, it's hard to compete with global file-sharing networks. "Back in the day the DJs used to cover up their records because they didn't want other cats playing them," says Berry. "You can't really do that now."
Berry, who was raised on the south side, got his first set of turntables from his mom for Christmas in 2000, when he was a communications major at Southern Illinois University. Shortly afterward he decided that spinning records all day suited him better than going to class, and he dropped out. He moved back to Chicago in summer 2001 and soon hooked up with three like-minded DJs, forming a crew called the Analog Addicts. Three of them, Berry included, had a place upstairs from Bar Vertigo in Ukrainian Village and worked the door at the club to help pay the rent. When they weren't on the job they refined their techniques in daylong apartment sets for an audience of whoever happened to be hanging around.
The Analog Addicts were all devoted hip-hop heads, but they understood that hip-hop drew on a whole range of music. Berry's dad had spent the late 70s spinning parties as part of a crew put together by legendary DJ Herb "the Kool Gent" Kent, and though he had to find steadier work after Berry was born, in 2000 he gave Berry his records to go with the new turntables. They formed the nucleus of Berry's own collection, and he realized he'd long been hearing samples from them in rap tracks. Along with funk, soul, and R & B, he says, "my old man used to play Phil Collins, the Rolling Stones, Chicago"--basically anything he could get a crowd to dance to.
When I asked Berry to play a couple songs for me, he reached into a nearby pile and pulled out Alice Cooper's 1974 Greatest Hits. Cooper isn't exactly known for rocking the dance floor, but when Berry dropped the needle on the cut "Be My Lover" I could hear how it might work in one of his sets. Sure, the guitars were loud and Cooper sang with his usual sneer, but the bass was surprisingly fat and the double-time tambourine set up a great segue into funk pioneer Jimmy Castor mixing up Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and "Purple Haze," a precursor to the blended sets hip-hop DJs would later develop and the mashups they in turn would inspire. (It took Berry a minute to find the Castor record, though, so he played George Harrison's "I Dig Love" as an interlude.) He followed up the Castor with one of his current favorites, the brassy early-70s rock jam "Vehicle" by locals the Ides of March, and from there jumped into "Heart's Desire" by Don Blackman. I'd never heard horn-heavy hard rock and smooth 80s jazz-funk hang out together so comfortably.
Berry also makes mix CDs under the MTM name--one of the few circumstances where he uses computers and digital loops--but for now he's just burning copies to sell or give away at gigs. He's making his own beats too, with the aim of formally releasing a solo record. And he's back in school, studying marketing and communication at Harold Washington College. But in his own words, his primary goal is to become a "world-class DJ." He's made a pretty good start, landing warm-up slots for Lupe Fiasco, Blackalicious, and Sean Paul, among others. In November Jay-Z's people tapped him to spin the Chicago stop on Jay's one-day, seven-city U.S. tour, though he was bumped off the bill at the last minute. But he's still working relentlessly to sharpen his skills. "I try to practice an hour a day," he says, "but a lot of times it ends up going six, seven hours." He admits that this has put a crimp in his social life and laments his atrophied flirting skills. Recently a girl told him his timing was terrible, he says. "I got good timing on the turntables, though."
Berry spins the first Saturday of every month at Dulcenea with the Analog Addicts, at Subterranean the second and fourth Sundays, and at Moonshine the first and third Sundays.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): phtoo/Carlos J. Ortiz.