About the same time Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya stepped into the ring in Las Vegas, a distinctly different kind of champion was being introduced at the Hammerstein Ballroom. "My man's from Morocco," announced emcee D.J. Red Alert as D.J. Mouss sauntered onstage to the cheers of the sold-out crowd.
Mouss -- along with 26 other D.J.'s who came from as far away as Malaysia and Tunisia -- was competing in the thirteenth annual DMC/Technics World D.J. Championships, which combine the intricacies of avant-garde collage art with the sports-arena theatrics of NBA basketball and the trash talk of professional wrestling. Hip-hop has always celebrated the D.J., but the DMC Championships are for the "turntablists," the elite, acrobatic D.J.'s who make music on the fly by switching furiously between beats, interpolating oddball lyrical snippets, and scratching records until they're all but unrecognizable. And the competition was as extreme as the art. Every scratch of the six-minute sets could be seen on an instant-replay-style screen over the stage, and the judges focused on originality and musicality as well as pure sleight-of-hand.
Pacing around backstage, the defending champion, Craze (Aristh Delgado), said he was "amped as hell." He had already caused a minor stir by publicly bragging that his competitors shouldn't even bother to show up. "Everyone's saying, 'It's all about the music -- peace, love," he explained, mocking hip-hop's expressions of solidarity. "I'm like, 'Fuck that!' "
Even if the contestants were the sort of geeky tech-heads who patiently honed their craft in their bedrooms while their flashier friends were trading rhymes out on the street, they seemed every bit as heroic to the teenage male hip-hop obsessives pumping their fists in front of the stage. Ireland's D.J. Mek scratched his records with an actual knife during the semifinals (he didn't qualify), Craze ended his set by tossing his Cincinnati Reds cap into the crowd, and Australia's D.J. Dexta sent a message to the judges by stalking offstage as his turntable played Frank Sinatra singing "It's up to you . . . New York . . . New York."
But as at any sporting event, the home team had the advantage. Mek complained that British D.J. Tony Vegas deserved to win, but one of the judges said privately that he would have had to "set his hair on fire" to beat Craze's crowd reaction. And when Craze walked onstage and held up his prize -- two gold-plated Technics turntables -- he had all the humility of Muhammad Ali. "The big question is," he said, basking in the glory, "am I gonna do it again?"