Don’t ask whose idea it was to get Jerry Blavat, a.k.a. the Geator with the Heator, a.k.a. the Boss with the Hot Sauce, together with deejay Wesley Pentz, a.k.a. Wes Gully, a.k.a. Diplodocus (Diplo for short), at a local nightclub for an evening. But as the Geatormobile pulls into the parking lot of Transit at 6th and Spring Garden, it’s clear that the scenario will require a Maker’s Mark or two to withstand.
“My darling, listen to me, I just don’t like rap, all that bitch and fuck and kill your mother stuff. … You can’t dance to it.
“Pretty lady, I’m not saying all hip-hop is bad, it’s just who is going to remember it 20 years from now?
“It’s okay for everyone to have his opinion on politics, baby, it’s just I don’t think that stuff really has a place in the music.”
And after the cell-phone chat with Paul Anka: “You gotta understand, pretty lady, no one does what I do. … ”
Such was the circular discussion in the car on the way here from the Geator’s Monday eve gig at the Bubba Mac Shack in Somers Point. The Geat was beginning to seem, if not the average Matlock-viewing Lipitor patient, not entirely ready to get down to the sounds of a PLO-sympathizing, reggae-tinged hip-hop chanteuse named Maya, who’s singing tonight at Transit.
“Deep-low! I’ve heard about you!”
Geat sheds his curmudgeon as a snake sheds skin, and all 64 years and maybe 64 inches of him sizes up Diplo. “Geator” is a derivation of “gator,” an animal with whom the Geat was said in younger years to have empathized because it “would lay in the mud and bother no one unless you came close. Then it would snatch you up.” But in his spry, silver-haired, breathable-cotton-clad old age, he’s more like a gecko next to the comparatively massive and unflappable Diplodocus, all baggy jeans and bedroom eyes.
“Anyone ever tell you, if Russell Crowe looked like you he’d be a star!” says the Geator to Diplo.
Diplo smiles sleepily, sheepishly, as if the Geat is appearing in a dream.
“Naww,” he drawls, thinking about how to respond to this, then invoking the Geat’s signature line: “You’re the best, man!”
Diplo is the Geator of today: He got famous throwing the modern equivalent of sock hops — namely, a party called Hollertronix, in a mess hall below the Ukrainian-American Citizens Association in Northern Liberties. Like the Geat, Diplo’s fame has transcended Philly; he dates the aforementioned Maya, a hot new musician from London by way of Sri Lanka; the New Yorker is scheduled to profile him; Hollertronix was the subject of a recent New York Times Sunday Styles piece. Diplo will be in 12 cities on four continents this month, and like the Geat, he makes decent money, but doesn’t flaunt it; in fact, he needs to go lock his bike up before he goes inside Transit.
“I ride my bike everywhere, too!” the Geat says, pleased. He follows Diplo over to where a few hundred 20-somethings in wife-beaters and jeans have assembled, waiting for Transit’s doors to open. There are more tattoos and piercings than on the kids in the pictures from the Geat’s ’60s heyday, but he is nevertheless satisfied. “They look just like the kids who used to come to my hops,” he says.
“You say disc jockey these days,” laments longtime New York deejay Russ DiBello, a.k.a. Famous Amos, “and people think you’re talking about the guy in the club who gets all the chicks.” Indeed: There are towns these days where all the radio stations are owned by Clear Channel and some don’t employ a single deejay; the playlists are researched, tested and programmed by computers a thousand miles away.
But while radio deejays are finding themselves out of work, deejays who play parties have never been more influential. This is particularly true in Philadelphia, which has always been sophisticated enough to be easily bored by radio, but small enough that one or two guys can reign supreme when it comes to getting the party started. That hasn’t changed since the ’60s, when the Geat gained national renown not only by bucking the radio industry and buying his own radio time so he could play what he wanted, but by throwing six sock hops a weekend. Thousands of kids would show up, jumping and yearning and reeling with the feeling, eyes wide as 45s. Philly kids in the ’60s could “break” a new record; if they liked a song, it was a sure sign the kids elsewhere would come around. They were picky: They hated the Beatles (“Their early stuff was bubblegum!” the Geat insists), and appreciated obscure “oldies” — tracks as much as five years old — if there was a good dance beat.
In ’66 the Saturday Evening Post dispatched a writer to examine the phenomenon that was the Geator. “As we approached the ballroom,” he wrote of his visit to one of Geat’s hops, held at hotel ballrooms and downtown clubs, “its very windows seemed to bulge with music and generalized pandemonium.”
There are no windows at the “Ukie” in Northern Liberties, but if you happened to walk by during Hollertronix, you would get a heaping helping of the bulging thing. Upon waiting your turn and paying your $10 and venturing down the steps, you might be briefly distracted by the cafeteria tables, or the black-and-white photographs of Ukrainian citizens past on the paneled walls, or the 50-something barmaids’ helmet hairdos. The humorless barkeepers of the Ukie are like the parental figures in music videos or Peanuts films, and maybe that’s why they’re here, so everyone else feels young. A few swigs of Obolon beer, and even a guy in his 30s, a kid with his own kids, can’t help but be swallowed by all the mysterious biological forces that unite to propel one into the throes of the beat.
“Dance” is the wrong word for what they do here now, and even what they did back in Geat days. Prior generations called this getting down, getting funky, getting into the groove; “crunk” is what they say they’re doing today, and it makes sense. It rhymes with “drunk,” but sounds more good-naturedly belligerent. The kids have been getting crunk in droves at the Ukie in the three years since Diplo and his partner, Mike “Low Budget” McGuire, started playing parties here.
And that is really what joins the Geator and Diplo; they have trained their audiences to get down. They both play oldies: the Platters in the case of Geat’s audience; Nirvana and Naughty by Nature for Diplo’s. But the groundbreaking thing about Hollertronix was the new stuff, the hip-hop Diplo played, often that particularly raucous brand of rap from the so-called “Dirty” South, also called “crunk.” It was stuff you might hear occasionally on New York radio, or more likely on Black Entertainment Television, but never at the bars and clubs white Philly kids were going to.
The problem was that the kids who were really setting the trends, the kids who were comfortable going out and getting sweaty, were art-school kids and bike messengers and baristas and tattooed graphic designers who’d grown up commuting to South Street. They were kids who dug the hip-hop stuff only slightly more than their parents did; maybe for the same reasons the Geat’s contrarian yon teenagers loathed the Beatles — they were just so goddamned ubiquitous — but probably because it was so repetitive, and
un-self-aware. And it was so loud, it almost could make a college kid feel old.
Whatever the reason, the kids hated it. Until, of course, they realized they actually loved the stuff, one night at the Ukie, and suddenly all anyone wanted was to get crunk. And once again, the most popular thing to do was to go watch a white guy spinning black music. Just like 1965. Even black kids started showing up.
Diplo continues to use his power to influence the tastes of his partygoers and break records, his most recent fix being a form of hip-hop-inflected Brazilian slum music called baile funk, which he likes to “mash” into poppier songs. And then there is the girl he says he’s going to marry, tonight’s performer, Maya, a.k.a. M.I.A., who’s stunning, with wide-set eyes, black waist-length waves, and a heavy Cockney accent that is somehow mellifluous. Like much of the music Diplo loves, her sound is new and young and difficult to describe, except to say that listening to it renders the average youngster hard-pressed not to display moderate levels of crunkness.
The Geat, of course, is not a moderate guy. M.I.A. begins to sing her radio single “Galang,” with Diplo manning turntables. The Geat’s whole presence somehow expands and contracts, head bobbing, shoulders thrusting forward and back, like a video camera zooming in and out in time with the beat, and Diplo watches, laughing good-naturedly. Kids learn to dance this way from MTV; Maya makes these precise moves in her “Galang” video, and though the Geator never watches MTV, he somehow knows, because whether they’re calling it crunk or crazy or rad, or just getting young, the only important thing is that they’re still doing it.