It's 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, and frenzied beats emanate from a tiny shop on Long Beach's Fourth Street. Inside Top Sekoms--a clothing and urban lifestyle store hidden among the dive bars on Alamitos and Orange avenues--a whirlwind of dreadlocks is spastically maneuvering around a DJ rig propped in the center of the room.
Roberta Flack is blaring from two Rok It speakers as hands inside that rig twist knobs, push levers and begin to tap-tap on a beat pad as though the buttons are piano keys, making the song more complex. The hands wave over a Leap Motion sensor placed atop one of the speakers, and the notes bend as if on a Theremin. A video-game joystick becomes another tool for sound, repeating sampled notes and beat refrains with every tweak.
This is how DJ Rahfee Zahkee performs, his matted hair flailing in all directions as he uses unconventional equipment to remix songs, layer live beats and combine G-funk era samples to create an ever-changing dreamscape of highs and lows, beats, and boom bips, slamming you into the floor with expert timing.
"I don't even think about it; it's just second nature," Zahkee says of the improvisational art form that often finds him soloing for the duration of an entire set. "I dream about music and always have songs running through my head. Using electronic instruments is the closest I can come to getting the sounds I hear."
Four years ago, Zahkee nearly severed his thumb trying to open a bottle of "two-buck Chuck," ending his budding career as a professional bassist. Not one to sit idle, the Long Beach-born musician and pre-law major took up "regular style" deejaying--playing songs for crowds and feeding faster beats over them--but that never satisfied him. At his first real gig as Rahfee Zahkee (a homophone of his Egyptian birth name), he easily got the crowd at the Prospector dancing.
"It felt good to get everybody moving, but I realized it doesn't take talent to be a DJ these days," he says. "I wanted to do something different."
Deep down the YouTube rabbit hole, Zahkee discovered the basics of controllerism, a segment of the DJ world that relies not on pressing play and wicky-wicky-ing with old vinyl, but on using intricate devices to control computer software in a live setting. Instead of investing in the turntable-looking boxes usually bought by young controllerists, however, Zahkee programmed his keyboard to do the same thing, so when he pressed a key, a beat or a sample would play instead of a note. Controllerists with online presences such as Side Brain and Mike Gao became mentors for Zahkee, teaching him how to take anything with a USB connection and map its midi components to interact with DJ software.
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His rig soon included a mishmash of decidedly un-musical equipment: a multibuttoned video-game joystick, an intense gaming steering wheel and, his latest toy, the Leap Motion sensor, a device marketed as a way to control computer programs with hand gestures. Combined with beatpads, looping devices and a Korg nanoKontrol, this mixed bag of controllers ("Some might call it a ghetto rig," he offers) is what Zahkee pulls from to create his live electronic art, whether at a desert festival or a midweek show at a friend's store.
But all of it is still just a feeble attempt to make the sounds in Zahkee's head a reality.
"As technology gets better, the more I can do what's in my head," he says. "I'll never be able to do exactly what I hear in my head because I only have two hands. If I had four, maybe I could do it."