We're all connected 24/7 to computers, tablets, phones and television. But there's more to life than being online – even for a digital media company – so this week we're excited to show you ways to connect with family and friends, even when there's no signal. Steinhafels presents OnMilwaukee Unplugged Week, a celebration of all things analog. Sit back, log into these stories and then log into the real world.
With music so heavily rooted in the digital realm these days, it’s no surprise that the image of DJs lugging milk crates full of 12" 45s to gigs, where they’d cue up tone arms at the start of record, work the faders and maybe do a little scratching is, in large part, an outdated one.
Two turntables and a microphone has morphed into a laptop and a microphone.
But not all club DJs have given vinyl the toss. We caught up with Steven Watkins, who DJs at numerous venues around town, playing a variety of music (see details below) to ask him about working as an "unplugged" turntablist.
OnMilwaukee: What's the DJ landscape look like these days in Milwaukee? Is there a thriving scene, including a lot of places to play?
Steven Watkins: Yes, there is a scene. But it's a mixture of music from new to old school. And as far as places, there are a lot of lot of them opening their venues to DJs and bands. I see a lot of DJs are going back to doing their own events. And a lot of DJ promoters, too. So they create events that they would want to go to. Which is super cool to me. So the scene is going again. It's just a lot of different music out there now.
OnMilwaukee: Let's talk a bit about technology. Are DJs still spinning vinyl?
Watkins: Not that many DJs are spinning vinyl like they used to. There's a handful of us that still do. Serato and Traktor software has taken over the DJ scene. I've played on Serato before and it was cool. But I'm too much of a vinyl head to switch over. But I do have full respect for those who use software to the fullest. I think it's cool but it's not for me right now.
OnMilwaukee: What do you think is the percentage of active DJs working vinyl vs. other technologies?
Watkins: About 20 percent out of 150.
OnMilwaukee: Do you think vinyl is a superior format?
Watkins: To me there is no superior way to play music. It's not about what you got, it's about how you come with your style of music.
OnMilwaukee: Is the resurgence of vinyl sales causing an uptick in the popularity of vinyl among DJs?
Watkins: For the new generation, yes, but for the older generation, no. Why? Because we've been buying it forever. It's part of my life and my DJ partners, too. I collect all styles of music on vinyl. I am a fan of everything.
OnMilwaukee: Are there some barriers now to using vinyl? Are some venues not really set up for it anymore in terms of equipment?
Watkins: The only barrier of using vinyl is carrying it. Most venues are not set up for vinyl DJs, so we have to bring our own gear. Some venues are, but there is always something wrong with the equipment. So we bring our own as a backup.
OnMilwaukee: What are the hottest records you're spinning these days? The ones that get the best response in Milwaukee, that is.
Watkins: The records I bring that get the best response are classic hip-hop and classic reggae, which is kinda strange to me sometimes. You never know what the crowd is looking for until you play it: from A Tribe Called to Quest to classic reggae artist Shabba Ranks.
OnMilwaukee: Where are your upcoming gigs?
You can catch Steve Watkins with Chalice In The Palace Reggae Vinyl Spin at Thurman’s on the first Friday of every month. He’s also at 88Nine’s Sound Travels Live event at The Nomad World Pub on Feb. 21 and Return of the Boom Bap at The Up & Under Pub on Feb. 25. You can find more events on his Facebook page.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.