Peter Black on growing up around music, So What! and the importance of community
How did you get into deejaying?
Buying records you're really aware of it, especially in the '80s. You can't even see a Jazzy Jeff video or whoever was on Yo! MTV Raps without quickly becoming aware there is some pretty standard equipment. Turntables and, being somebody fairly smart, you wonder about the real stuff like Technics 1200s. I scrounged up and bought those. At eighteen and nineteen, I hustled and hustled' while everyone was around me was buying the cool car to make everyone think they were cool. I didn't have a car forever, but I had turntables. I had numerous pairs of turntables, and I bought collections of records.
I would say the number one person, my mentor, was DJ K-Nee. He founded So What! Ken Hamblin. His dad was a famous talk show host. His crew was called Step On Productions. They were running a few years before me. K-Nee was a DJ at Rock Island. So before I was old enough to really go see other DJs -- this was when LoDo still had all the viaducts -- we all hung out outside of Rock Island, and they had one teen night a week. That was really the intro for me.
Like how we talked about music across all boards, there was the goth, there was the new wave and K-Nee was playing soul stuff. The '80s were how we think of New York: Jean-Michel Basquiat and everything else. Everything coexisted peacefully. That was literally happening. All the guys I knew -- John Chaime was a legend, and he lives in Berlin now, K-Nee, a lot of the gay DJs, like the people at the Grove -- so you'd go and see them, and I was like, "Man, that's incredible. That's what I want to do."
The minute I was old enough to be really old enough to be in a club at 21, K-Nee was doing a night which was the birth of So What! Most people think of me being one of key partners in it or whatever. He had started a party at City Spirit Cafe. The Zeppelins owned it, they've been huge in the development of Denver, but that was kind of their baby then.
My age range fell perfect when Denver went through every year as you went up, you could drink at 18, 19, 20 and then 21 when it became the real age. I was grandfathered in. I went down to the party and I was blown away. It was a scene influenced by London and Acid Jazz. A Tribe Called Qwest was coming out, and De La Soul and the whole Native Tongues movement in New York.
I started heavily going to the party and instantly connected with K-Nee and said, "Hey, I have all these records. I'd love to come play!" I don't know how or why, because people didn't just do that then. It took years and years to even get in on being a DJ. K-Nee was like, "Sure, come down. Play." It was one of those moments where you connect with someone where you have similar musical taste or you hit it off.
It meant you can't just show up and play, which is what DJs do now. You had to be there an hour early. You need to help haul in the sound system. You need to learn how we plug in the subs that separate with crossovers into the rest of it and this and this. Literally everything that I teach every kid I know right now was from years and years of going through K-Nee showing me how things work and from there all the people that came through go through the same thing.
So he basically gave me my break, and with him there was a small group of people who were really big heads at the time. John Chaime, this guy named Swingset, who went on to be really famous, L7 who went on to be part of the first wave of jungle and drum & bass in the U.S. when it barely rolled into New York -- all branches of the Step On Crew.
How do you feel about how electronic dance music has evolved from a truly underground, kind of subversive, subcultural phenomenon to where it is today?
I felt like when we came up, because people will say it's always recycling itself, we were really pushing for the underground. We were wanting to see it go more mainstream. It was in its infancy. Whether it was hip-hop, a lot of things we were about, house music, you name it. Sure, we were aware of its roots, but it was not in the form it would be yet. We were really interested in pushing it and moving it on. We feverishly believed in it so much, electronica -- or whatever you want to call it, I didn't ever really call it that because there was such a soul element to it. It was below the radar. It was underground.
I believe now that it's mainstream when you have people like AEG, all these people vying to buy every independent promoter and do all these festivals, whether it's Girl Talk hitting Westword's thing, to Pepsi Center and the biggest shows this year at Red Rocks are electronic. There's no question in my mind that it's gone overground. I've read numerous articles about how everyone is trying to buy everybody. It's going through what the '90s did with grunge rock right now.
Anyway, point being, for me, whatever my role in that paradigm has happened. It's probably taken it to the limit as far as I want to be involved as a DJ. There's other things that go on. You know, a million other things in technology that can be explored. But as a DJ, I think our role in pushing that up has done what it was supposed to do, and maybe this is a good time for me to leave the building and let it be whatever it's going to be from here on out.
It seems as though with every event you've curated, a sense of community and building community is central to your thinking behind that.
Everything about it is related to community. From my mentors bringing me up and his overwhelming spirit of community -- they were the nicest guys I've ever met [and] had a real genuine concern. We don't see much of that anymore. We don't see many people that want to help other people, that want to show people the ropes. There's so much of how to make it as opposed to showing people how to make it in providing stepping stones and community.
You say that some of the things I've done have a curatorial aspect to it, that's exactly what it is. I try to very much think about, not only whether it's a DJ night or anything, who's involved. There are elements about them that fit together, but there are differences. Would they get along well with people or should they be interesting to me? So there's this symbiosis of, "You haven't met him before?" I'm the king of that when I go out. Lauren Zwicky is one of my right arms right now, and I've made a conscious effort to really bring her up, because I've seen this really good thing in her soul of who she is. Almost like Kenny Hamblin, my mentor, did with me. I've given her everything. If there's any questions, I go out of my way to answer every question and anybody else wanting to know that.
But a lot of people don't want to take advice, because they're too cool for it, or "You're old school," and this and that. But it's like, "Maybe you have a lot to learn, because I had a lot to learn from some of the oldest people ever." To this day, some of the coolest things I've done, I never would have thought of from that aspect because they put a different spin on it and opened my mind. We have too many people that want to know it all but aren't as committed to community.