DJ A-Dog puts his own spin on the club scene
It's 11 o'clock on a Friday evening. Outside Burlington's Waiting Room, a crowd of about 20 people are restlessly gathered into a ramshackle line, impatient to gain entrance. It's one of the first warmish nights in March, yet those in the queue sway slightly, shielding themselves from icy gusts down St. Paul Street. Thick snaps of bass and snippets of a wavering, soulful vocal float through the air whenever the door opens.
Inside, DJ A-Dog has just taken the stage. Dressed in a baggy gray T-shirt and a blue-and-white mesh cap, he shakes a few hands, takes a slow drag off an American Spirit and settles in behind his two silvery turntables. Inching the volume higher on the classic funk track pulsing through the room's speakers, he cuts his hand across the record, sending forth a staccato flurry of notes. A soft murmur of praise rises from the assembling crowd. Heads nod in approval. A-Dog lets slip a thin smile, then turns to rummage through a black crate overflowing with 12-inch vinyl.
The Waiting Room boasts a swank, big-city feel, and tonight is no exception. College kids in sweaters and designer jeans mill about, sucking on bottles of imported beer. Black-clad waiters glide expertly through the crowd, balancing trays of martinis and dark microbrews. Inquiring eyes dart across the room, appraising one body after another.
Yet tonight is slightly different. Along with the suited business types and yuppies-in-training are skaters and club kids - even if their Gravis jackets and knit caps are also in the requisite black. As the older dinner patrons and their gold cards hit the street, they're replaced by a flow of young music lovers, thirsty for the sound of hip-hop, funk and soul.
A-Dog hunches his shoulder, cradling the headphones to his ear. Listening intently, he cues up a record, slides the fader on his mixer to the left and straightens as the first snaking notes of deep dub pour forth. Onlookers and friends meander up to the stage to pay their respects. A-Dog acknowledges each one with a smile or a high-five, lights people's smokes and sips casually on a Bud. After a few minutes he pauses, finds another record and seamlessly segues into a steamy slice of soul.
In the bathroom, a tall, heavy-set kid in a red hoodie bumps into a framed picture of Thelonious Monk."Oh, man, wouldn't wanna mess with the Monk," he guffaws, drunk. Outside, a guy brags with his friends about his own DJ gigs in New York City, how he's leaving his"old lady." The beats go on.
DJ A-Dog, a.k.a. Andy Williams, was born in 1975 in New Jersey. His mother had immigrated to the United States from the Philippines and worked a variety of odd jobs while raising her son. When Andy was 10, he and his mom moved north, to the decidedly less urban environs of St. Albans. An only child, he learned early on the importance of entertaining himself."I was never bored growing up," he explains during an interview at the Seven Days office."I was always good at making myself content, being busy with little projects.
" Another thing that developed early was his passion - make that obsession - for music."I got really into making mix tapes, you know," Williams says."I would switch back and forth from my one turntable to the tape deck, making these little mixes." He reports staying up until the wee hours, concentrating on this frustrating and time-consuming process and quietly creating his aural collages.
As he grew older, Williams got into skateboarding, making frequent forays to the streets of Burlington. Through the local music scene as well as skate- and snowboard culture, he was turned on to hip-hop and its roots - funk, soul and reggae. But that wasn't all."I always liked hip-hop, but I was also listening to metal back then, man," he admits."Metallica and all that shit."
After graduating from high school, Williams"just wasn't feeling" like going to college, and soon left St. Albans for the relative goldmine, culturally speaking, of the Queen City. He was 18 years old.
At a party that year, Williams observed a fledgling Burlington DJ named Matty L. spinning hip-hop."We were partying, you know, drinking beer and hanging out," he remembers Matt Lawrence with a smile."But as soon as I saw what Matty was doing, I was hooked. From that moment on, I was stuck.
" However, with no turntables and very little money to invest in records, getting started proved difficult. Riding his bicycle, Williams would spend each day cruising town and dropping off job applications. Finally he found part-time work at places like TJ Maxx and the Sheraton, which provided enough cash to pay the rent and feed his newfound infatuation.
A major breakthrough came when a roommate, who was into the club sounds of house and techno, purchased two turntables and set them up in their small apartment. Now able to practice, Williams quickly began to hone his technique. Using his old skateboarding nickname A-Dog, he started spinning at house parties and small clubs around town. Though the pay was poor, Williams found himself at the center of a growing Vermont hip-hop scene.
Things began to pick up. A friend announced he was selling two Techniques 1200 turntables - standard fare for professional DJs that usually retail at more than $500 apiece. Williams borrowed money from a friend and bought the used tables for a cool $650. To this day, they are his decks of choice for gigs around town.
After landing a job at The B Side, Williams began to meet employees of Burton and other 'board companies. Connections were made, and soon he was touring the country as the official DJ of Analog Snowboards, a Burton offshoot. Though not a team rider, Williams traveled to competitions and expos, providing a hip soundtrack for the team. Two years and one U.S. Winnebago tour later, DJing is a full-time gig for A-Dog, now 27.
"Anybody can grab a record and move it back and forth," he comments."But for me, it can be anything - a horn, bass, voice. It's making me feel good just trying to explain it.
"You know," Williams adds,"maybe everything was a little rough when I was younger. But I'm super-fortunate right now. I could be lazy, wake up each day, blaze weed and sit around, but I want to work, because I don't want this to ever end."
After a 45-minute set, A-Dog slips on a chill, downtempo instrumental and jumps from the stage. Weaving his way towards the bar, he shakes more hands, smiles, cracks a joke. With a cold Bud and a fresh smoke, he glances around excitedly at the scene as a fellow DJ steps to the stage and puts the needle to a track by reggae legend Horace Andy.
"My M.O. is really not MTV-style," Williams says, explaining why he likes playing for a diverse crowd."People here get into whatever I put on, though I'll play more "popular' hip-hop in the second set."
As if on cue, a tall, short-haired man in a long-sleeved gray shirt saunters over and asks,"Hey, man, when you gonna bring it off this crawl?" Another guy in black-rimmed glasses requests Gang Starr."Time to get goin'," Williams says with a smile and slides off his stool.
"The kid's relentless, man. Just relentless," opines Burlington MC Kyle Thompson, a.k.a. Fattie B."He'll watch a video for an hour and then go into his room and practice for, like, six hours. He's a fiend."
A former member of hip-hop/soul icons Belizbeha, Thompson has been a presence on the local scene for more than a decade. After meeting A-Dog six years ago, the two became fast friends and soon began working together. While Thompson was doing a stint as MC for saxophonist Dave Grippo's Funk Band, A-Dog asked to join in on turntables. It took a couple months to convince Grippo, but soon A-Dog was adding his chest-thumping beats and machine-gun scratching to the group's sound.
Eventually Thompson, Williams and fellow MC Konflik split from Grippo's group, concentrating on their own tight, performance-based hip-hop trio. Eye Oh You began as three friends jamming on tunes in Thompson's apartment; within a year they were holding down a Thursday-night residency at Church Street bar Red Square and winning opening slots for the likes of hip-hop legend Big Daddy Kane.
"Some people use scratching just as a way to create noise, to fill in spaces," Thompson notes."A-Dog uses his turntables as an instrument. When he has a scratch solo, he's playing notes, just like any other instrument. He's really about to break through," Thompson continues."I see so much improvement in him just about every day. One of these days, someone's going to come along, hear him and just say, "Come with us.'"
Just after midnight, A-Dog settles back in on stage. Cigarette in hand, he fires up one of the tables and dives into a jittery, bouncing beat. The Waiting Room crowd is younger now, a sea of puffy parkas and skate wear. Guys wander by looking ragged, as if fresh off the mountain. Impeccably dressed young women sip elegant glasses of pink Cosmopolitans. To the right of the stage, dreadlocked kids seated around a large table bob their heads, lost in the swaying sounds. One petite girl with a mass of dirty-brown hair sings along, gesticulating with small white hands.
The soundtrack flows on to steamy recent underground hits and old-school classics. A crowd near the stage has begun dancing, twirling and grinding. Two bottle-blondes glance across the room at a third, snidely hypothesizing whether she's"had her nose done." This is the new Burlington, cell phones and expensive haircuts all around. No Birkenstocks in sight.
Oblivious to it all, A-Dog spins with casual, effortless grace. As the evening winds down, he remains on stage, chatting with well-wishers, demonstrating his techniques and pushing forth a smooth mix of funk-filled grooves. People begin to meander toward the door and he surveys the crowd, smiling, smoking, clearly content with a good night's work.
Outside, the night has turned colder. A cluster of stars is visible through the shifting clouds.