Philadelpia Underground Dance Culture: DJ Argo of Broken Beat Radio
Argo’s passion for djing began back in the early 90’s in NYC while checking out the weekly Giant Step parties, Soul Kitchen, and assorted funky bizniz at S.O.B.’s. Around 1995 in Philly, the hands down favorite party and source of inspiration was King Britt’s Back to Basics. It was at these clubs that Argo was exposed to some of the initial phases of a worldwide improvisational jazz meets dancefloor phenomenon which was to be the major stepping stone for the sound currently known as “broken beat”. The amalgamation of sounds found in this music inspired his direction as a dj: to make musical mappings between disparate traditions, by exploring, innovating, educating, and experimenting.
In 1997 he hooked up with the a Philly crew called MilkToast and opened for various funk/groove bands including Brooklyn’s Justice League, Galactic, and the Jazzyfatnasties. He became a resident at a night called HomeCookin’ where he mixed and scratched live with the jazz and hip-hop group, Fathead. At Silk City, abstract trip-hop and downtempo jazz set the stage for a weekly party called Dippin’ where he dropped records along side of hip-hop icons, Schooly D, and dj Kid Swift. It was around this time that Argo was guesting at Crasta’s Nebula parties at Club 1415, Cozmic Cat’s Groove Lounge, Soul Samba, and had a weekly internet show which was broadcast live on Media Bureau Networks.
Argo has spun on radio stations WKDU, and WPRB, kept a Saturday residency at the long running Grass night at Silk City and has organized large outdoor summertime events in the park for the past 2 years in both West Philadelphia and Center City. He has been a recurring guest at Blake’s legendary Don’t Fake The Funk, NYCs weekly broken beat party, Royal Flush at Coz, and has opened up for artists such as Goldie, Fauna Flash, Mj Cole, and Titonton.
Argo was a co-founder of Mud People. These were packed, late-night, underground warehouse parties which took place in an intimate lounge setting, scattered with plush couches and filled with sound. Various multi-media was mixed realtime with live cameras which were fed into a video projector and multiple television sets. A graphic designer by trade, Argo was instrumental in the visual side of these events as well as the creation of all printed promotions.
Today Argo runs Broke & Beat Radio with dj 99. A weekly archived, online radio show which features the very latest in broken beat and neo-soul. As many as 400 listeners per day tune in from all over the world including the UK, Japan, France and the Netherlands and is ranked high in all the major search engines. Broke & Beat radio has received support from friends at Giant Step (NYC), Compost Records and IntoSomething (Munich,Germany), RythymLove Records (NYC), Freaked.co.uk, the Acid Jazz Listserve, Cosmic Sounds Records, and Soma Records, as well as receiving press in UK magazine, Straight No Chaser. The show has aired guest appearances by Rich Medina (Philly), Nik Westion (London), RhythmLove’s Nat Rahav (NYC), and is the home of King Britt’s Full Circle archive.
Mundovibes spoke with Argo on his DJing activities and the Philly scene.
Mundovibes: First, I want to give you big props on Broke & Beat radio. It’s been a source of great music for me, and I’m sure for a lot of people.
Argo: Well, thanks.
MV: You’ve got a strong presence on the web, so you’ve probably got an international crew that’s checking you out?
A: Yeah, we do. The traffic is constantly growing. We have a core group of users but it’s like anything: you toss the stuff out there and it’s really hard to get a specific read on exactly how it’s going over. We get occasional feed back, but that doesn’t necessarily give an accurate assessment of the big picture… then i’ll see people putting us at the top of their list, next to fuckin’ Gilles’ show or something. Thats a nice feeling.
MV: It’s definitley influencing a lot people’s listening habits.
A: Yeah, it seems like that.
MV: How do you get your guests to submit sets for Broke & Beat radio?
A: A lot of the people are people we’ve met, people we know. We don’t really take submissions from random people. It’s more like people we contact or know already. I have a list of people who’ve promised sets. It’s one of those things, like ‘the check’s in the mail.’ It’s tough to get onto the top of people’s priority list. I’m definitely on the lookout for getting more guests in there. Even when I run into people, and I touch down, it’s still difficult.
MV: Would you say it’s making an impact in the states or in Philadelphia. Do people check it out there too?
A: Most of our listeners are from the US. It fluctuates quite a bit, but there’s a lot of people coming from Japan. First the US, Japan, the UK then France. The “broken beat” thing is definitely an underdog over here though.
MV: It’s not even registering with a lot of people here.
A: Yeah. Even in New York. I short while ago i touched down with Hiro, who does a night called Royal Flush in New York and it surprised me to learn that his crew was one of the few acts in town that were focused on broken beat. I guess just because it’s the big apple i figured there would be more of a positive response to it but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case.
MV: Well, I’m here in Chicago and we have Groovedis, which is a big promoter ‘broken beat’ is here. Although, it doesn’t mean there’s a lot of people spinning it that much here.
A: It’s a different world: the nightclub world and the ‘home listening’ world are completely seperate for a lot of people. There’s this kind of fantasy PR land of names and personas that some people need in order to motivate them to show up. Jazzanova played here in Philly on a weekday and packed the place with a crowd that consisted mostly of people i had never seen before in my life… which was bizarre.
So trying to do nights that focus on lesser know genres or trying to bring lesser known artists to town is not a piece of cake. I get the impression that people think the broken beat scene in Philly must be amazing. There’s some great things happening and a huge amount of talent in this town: Ivan Ross just released a track on Skin Deep, Rob Paine of Worship throws the hot reggae party Solmonic Sound System, Alma Horton plays fairly regularly, the Black Lilly thing and Rich Medina’s night is pretty off-the-hook, and you have Vikter and King. But, as far as going out and hearing somebody drop a significant amount of broken beat: it aint’ gonna happen.
MV: It’s either hip hop or house, it seems.
A: Yeah. Rich’s nights are really good. He plays a lot of Fela (Kuti) and he’ll drop broken beat in his sets but it’s very house centered. I’m talking about his ‘Afro-Rican Vibes” night.
MV: The point is that broken beat is kind of a post-club vibe.
A: Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be and it shouldn’t be. Broken beat is so hot in a peak hour dancefloor setting and there is no reason why there shouldn’t be more of it here. I try and do as much as i can because I know it’s possible to blow the spot with it, and so few people are doing it. King Britt is one. He had a night called ‘Harmony’. The selection was dope: it was all over the place from classic acid jazz and trip hop tracks to house and the latest broken biz. We would all show up, lurk in the shadows, try to name the tracks, and he would drop the latest broken CD-R jammies for us music geeks.
MV: When was this?
A: This is the past six or seven months. But, the turnout wasn’t as big as you would expect. You would think, like ‘OK, King Britt has a weekly, of course that will blow up’. Not so. It’s a shame too because people around the globe would love to be able to go check him out on a weekly basis but for some reason the crowd wasn’t there. He’s a really tight dj — technically as well as from a taste standpoint.
MV: He represents, in so many ways, the new school of Philly soul.
A: And he’s been pushing that sound here for a long long time. Back to Basics was the jam. Anyone who was into acid jazz or into this stuff now looks back longingly on those parties, ’cause there really hasn’t been anything else quite like it. Like anything though, things kind of run their course and new crowds start to dominate and push the old out. I often wonder where all those back to basic acid jazz heads went.
MV: They stopped going out, and then the next generation just didn’t latch onto it.
A: It’s not like it’s been all downhill since then. There was a Saturday night called Grass in that same club, called ‘Silk City’ that i was lucky enough to be a part of. Grass had a three year run and it was a mix of drum’n’bass, trip-hop and assorted jazzy dancefloor stuff. That was one of the longest running parties in Philadelphia at that time.
MV: Well, let’s back up and get some background on you. You’ve been immersed in this scene for some time and how did you get turned on to it?
A: I’ve always been a big fan of music, jazz and soul mostly, but it was around ’95-96′ when I really started latching onto things like Metalheadz, UFO, Krush, Jamiroquai, Dego, 4 Hero. So, a lot of the influence came from that. Another inspiration was going to the Giant Step parties up in New York, seeing DJ Smash and Chillfreez, Groove Collective. And just really getting into that ‘live musician versus dancefloor DJ vibe’. Then it was probably around ’99, I went on a record quest with backpack to London, and that trip musically knocked me for a loop. This was right around when the Neon Phusion album had just hit the racks, and I was like ‘what the hell is this jazz stuff? It doesn’t sound like Acid Jazz.’ I just knew it sounded completely different from Acid Jazz — Uptempo techno tracks with live drum sounds. I picked up every Laws of Motion and Main Squeeze record I could find. And then I really started finding out about these guys: the I.G. (Culture) and the whole People crew. And I’ve just been on a mission since then.
MV: To expose the music?
A: Yeah, to find out more about it… see if i could turn people on to it. I can kind of understand why it didn’t blow up right away. A lot of that early Main Squeeze stuff can be hard to get your head around and really latch onto in a dance floor setting. That influences what DJs buy, the stock in stores, the amount able to be pressed and the availability which directly effects the popularity of the music. I did seem to notice a certain point that experimentation was kind of dulled down generally speaking.
MV: Did it become a formula?
A: No i wouldn’t say that, i don’t really have a negative take on it. But it seemed like there was a period of time where there was an effort to make things more dance floor accessible. It’s hard to make a blanket statement like that, but it definitely seemed to me like ‘Wow, they’ve taken these broken sensibilities and made something that people could dance to’. But the people still don’t want to dance to it! (laughter). That’s is so frustrating. This stuff is so bangin’, it’s so danceable, it’s like ‘they did you a favor, they cut out a few of the beats. What are you a fuckin’ moron?’ (laughter). But people seem to need the thumpy-thump or something they recognize, and this is every dj’s struggle — it’s just a universal dancefloor thing i guess and not really something to complain about. You have an obligation as the dj to make it happen so…
MV: So, you’re kind of on a mission here in a sense.
A: I guess the mission is more of a symptom of a passion for the music. I’ve definitely pushed this sound. We’ve done a number of things here. One was starting a series of free outdoor parties in the park in center city and west philly. We did a number of these events over the years: July 4, 2000 was our first one. It was really crowded, so many people came out and there were dogs running everywhere, frisbees, a drum circle and plenty of ice cold ones. We wanted to something of an outdoor jazz thing and it really took off.
MV: Do you go up to to New York to spin?
A: I went up not too long ago with the ‘Royal Flush’ cats. I got to play with Titonton when he played up there, which was very cool. I’m on that tweaky minimal Nu Era, techno tip right now.
MV: How do you contrast New York with Philadelphia since they’re so close.
A: In what way?
MV: Is New York more receptive?
A: Well, it’s definitely apples and oranges, because New York is so much bigger. All of the friendly peeps i met up there recently seem to have a certain amount of frustration and were itchin’ to come to Philly to see what was going on here. I didn’t notice the broken beat thing being all that different, as far as the crowd that comes out. You have a certain ratio between heads and people who don’t care that is pretty similar. The overall dynamic in Philly is different though. New York has got the borroughs happening, whereas in Philly the bulk of the nightlife is just Center City. There are lots of great little vibrant neighborhoods in areas of South and West Philly that are refreshingly different from Center City, but Center City is where the majority of the club life is. It’s tough to have a consistent venue and try to build a following anywhere else, in my experience. However a friend of ours takes over a dive bar in West Philly, brings in some self powered speakers and those parties are a blast! But unless you’re doing something in a warehouse space, or throwing a one-off renegade or something, it’s tough.
MV: And then you’re talking about a different kind of music.
A: Yeah, most of the North Philly warehouse parties are more of a rave or hip hop scene. I’ve been to some B Boy battles that have been pretty amazing. But it seems with broken beat you are stuck in the middle as a promoter: you can’t get the young raver warehouse kids out since a lot of them aren’t of age, and and older crowd may be less accepting of more experimental stuff. Our target audience always lies somewhere in the middle, so you really have to supplement it with house and variety. Its important to keep some education in your sets. Gotta give the people what they need, along with what they want.
MV: Well, with Broken Beat radio, that’s something where you don’t have to compromise?
A: That was actually the reason we started it. Stephanie 99 and I started a night called “Broke and Beat” which was a bit of a learning process. I don’t know why I didn’t see the signs sooner but you have to be a little flexible instead of trying to force your way into peoples’ heads saying, ‘Broken beat. It’s amazing. You need to get with this. We’re doing a whole night of it’. You have to present them with ‘There’s a really hot party. Everybody’s going’. and put a cool slant on it, get the right people involved, promote the hell out of it and then drop the broken beat on em’ at the end of the night. Gradually you pull people over to your side.
So, at any rate, when we started that night it was pretty slow. It was a Wednesday, and this place is just far enough from center city that you need a car or take a cab. And it rained. We had some Afro beat drummers come in and set up their drums. We did this broken-beat-slash-live-afro-beat thing a number of times, and it was hot, but it was a tough day of the week to make happen crowd-wise.
So the radio show motivation came out of the feeling ‘this sucks. I’m so over dealing with these fucking club owners, I don’t want to have to twist peoples’ arms to come out. There’s so much stuff that i’m buying every week that I want people to hear, and so what if we have 10 people listening to us on the web?’ So we just did our thing… and it turned into something a lot bigger than we imagined.
One other thing that I’m currently doing is are Mud People parties. That’s with a couple of different cats. One of the guys, Lorne, has been one of the group of us acid jazz pushers here in town and his taste is impeccible. You can hear his latest track on www.fromphillywithlove.com. Edwin you can catch on the radio show and his sets speak for themselves. So the Mud People plan was to give a moving party an abstract name, push the house thing a little bit but more geared toward organic and rootsy, and have no boundaries, don’t define it.
Mud People is probably the most successful thing that I’ve done to date. We started with Fauna Flash but the ownership of the club changed hands. So, we wound up setting up shop in this warehouse space that is called Media Bureau.
MV: I’ve heard of them.
A: They used to do online broadcasts and video streaming and now they do more web design. But it’s a huge warehouse, like half the block. So, they have an office area and then there’s a huge space that looks like a thrift store exploded. There’s couches everywhere and they have TV sets and a video projector and a huge soundsystem. We had a disco ball and funky lights and I made these looping video collages, since they have a video mixer where we could overlap different images. And we had our little lipstick cam on the DJ booth. It was kind of like a Ninja Tune kind of thing where we were playing with all the different video. The vibe in there was so thick and we’d go until 5AM.
MV: And this was an underground event?
A: Yes, this was all BYOB, just a house party but like a club. It’s the same place where Rope a Dope records is now. They moved above the space, so basically that whole area is for music: Rope a Dope, us doing Mudd People and then Rich Medina lives on the third floor in this amazing apartment. And then King Britt’s Five Six Media is there. We did a few parties with Rope a Dope records as well; they threw a party with the artist collective Heavyweight, with them painting live. But, the sad ending to that story is the cops showed up one night and we got raided. There were about 6 cops and a licensing inspector and they came in before the party started. They had some questions about the flyer: it said something about a ‘booming sound system’. It was all subjective, grey area bullshit but when the inspector came in and started shining his flashlight around saying, ‘if you’re charging a cover and opening it up to the public, you’re all of a sudden held to this other standard. So, they can’t do parties and charge a cover there. Since then they shot a DVD there for Charlie Hunter but it was invite only and no cover. But not any five in the morning, drunkin’, rockin’ out parties anymore. But it was really good for a while.We just moved to Fluid nightclub and it’s been a couple of months since the Media Bureau.
Argo’s Guide to Philadelphia’s Dance Music Culture
617 S. Fourth St.
This is one place that is a must stop for all. Downstairs is one of the dopest hip-hop selections in the city. They have a used jazz and soul collection that rivals the best. Staff buyer Dj Botany 500 has impeccable taste and will dig you up that original Dom Um Romao on Muse if you buy him a cheesesteak.
Some of the other genres they carry include, Dub, Jungle, Breaks and a solid assortment of current nu-jazz. Another nice thing about Cue is their back stock. Records by Compost, Far Out, Laws of Motion, Schema, Stereo Deluxe etc that may be scarce in other places but are still here collecting dust. (I know they still have 2 copies of the Total Science remix of Vikter’s Messages)
One final note… Cue is going to be cleaning shop with a 5 year anniversary %50 off sale soon. So keep your ear to the grapevine, show up in the morning, and get ready to throw some elbows.
611 S. 4th Street
Essential stop two doors down from Cue with a different vibe. They focus a bit more on house, techno, and jungle. You probably have more of a chance at finding that elusive Goya promo (and things of that nature) here, than anywhere else in the city. All the very latest deep and funky house. Plenty of four to the floor mixed in with bossa tres jazz, osunlade, guidance, afro art, theo parrish etc. Take your time in here….
About the Beat
1106 Pine St.
Definitely a store to check out if you’re on a shopping spree for current dance tracks. No promises though because the shop just changed owners so go down there and steer them towards Archive and 2000 Black.
1102 Filbert St.
215-592-7003 or 215-592-7973
Great spot for everything from house and nu-jazz, to hip-hop and dusty reggae 45s. Joey Blanco, Paulie Paul and Kenny Meez are guaranteed to hook you up with the latest jamz. Make sure you wear earplugs for the loud booty music on the system if you want to stay any length of time though.
Sound of Market
15 S. 11th St.
Great place to find domestic house, with an occasional broken piece that goes unnoticed. Really good prices on current and classic hip-hop.
813 North 5th Street
A warehouse full of soul jazz goodies… i imagine a visit being similar to being invited into the wine cellars of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Not open to the public however you can check them out online at the above url.
Philadelphia Jazz Record Exchange
608 S. Fifth St.
A Philly institution with great prices on used jazz and soul. Pharoah Sanders to Lorez Alexandria to Cymande… you know the deal.
Princeton Record Exchange
20 S tulane st, Princeton NJ
One of the largest selections of 2nd hand vinyl around. Plenty of sweet jazz and soul nuggets hiding in there. Lots of pricey rare jazz if thats your bag. They do order current Ubiquity titles and other “dance” records, but it’s not their strong piont. No listening booths…
26 W. lancaster ave, ardmore PA
If you have time to sort through stacks and stacks of 2nd hand vinyl you may get lucky. My search for the 1st Dream Warriors LP ended here.