UP NEXT | DMV Deep
UP NEXT is a new series by Blisspop aiming to highlight underground artists, events, and organizations that are pushing D.C.’s dance music scene forward and are on the cusp of breaking into the spotlight.
Standing still beneath the glow of the Backbar’s basement entryway, Saad Ashraf and Kori Fogle pause for a moment to catch themselves. After weeks of anticipation, and over an hour maneuvering the hustle of Saturday night traffic into the city, their party DMV Deep: The Residency is set to debut in just under an hour. It’s a huge milestone for the duo almost two years in the making, as their online community has quickly grown from an idea between two friends into the most active group of house music enthusiasts, DJs, and promoters in the District. Now, for the first time ever, the crew will be making their official dive from the cloud into reality, hoping to finally claim a share of the city’s competitive nightlife as their own. With no real budget, headliners, or captivating lighting, the show is set to be as lean a cut of a clubbing experience you’ll find in D.C. and is a faithful gamble by Saad and Kori based off speculative attendance. As the warmth from venue thaws their nerves, the weight of these facts are not lost on either of the group’s founders, and the pair remains silent as their eyes each size up the room and envision its potential. Looking out at the dancefloor, the two pose side-by-side in portrait mode, soaking in the colors from the ceiling like a blacklight poster. Saad’s half-illuminated face is a mix of sentiments, as his thick, tensed brows contrast the confidence in his grin; meanwhile, Kori’s silhouette remains pensive, with his lips pursed out in a cool gaze. As the two break in unison, Kori heads to find the room’s focal point as Saad lands in the DJ booth at the opposite end of the floor. Turning on the decks, Saad finally breaks the tense silence as he looks out to his friend with a white-toothed grin: “I love it” he says.
“Yeah,” says Kori, “shit is perfect.”
Considering the mystique and prestige that surrounds those who rule D.C. nightlife, Saad and Kori’s rise to distinction within the local scene has been a break from the norm, reaching this milestone at just 21 years old each, without any financial backing, marketing strategy, or egotism. It’s these characteristics, however, that have worked to distinguish the DMV Deep movement as an antithesis to what EDM club culture has become over the past decade; becoming a community of equals where one can not only bond over their passion for house music, but find personal connection in the sense of brother and sisterhood that its grooves are world famous for stimulating. This, in addition to the momentum the genre has been gaining recently in the United States has provided an ideal climate for DMV Deep to not only shift the future of D.C. nightlife but give it a new sound to call its own. Even more impressive, however, is how this sense of authenticity has been present in the founder’s vision from the very start.
“It’s a circle that you can count on to be there at the club whenever you find your favorite underground DJ is playing”
Late in the summer of 2016, Saad and Kori felt there was something missing amidst their hype and banter over news that house music legend, Green Velvet, would finally be playing the area’s lone EDM festival, Moonrise: they didn’t have anyone to share it with. “For the longest time we thought, ‘where are the people who like this kind of music?’” says Kori, “That was the catalyst you might say, to create our own community.” On a more subliminal level, the two also wanted to adjust the way their style of sound was perceived not only in their city, but on the greater scale of electronic music in America as well. It wasn’t simply about raising the recognition for the music, Saad says, “we really thought people would benefit from knowing our world,” that surrounds house music culture: the people, the places, the nights, the feelings. This is a passion for underground music he and Kori have bonded over since high school, years before they were even allowed to set foot in a real dance venue: “I heard this Maya Jayne Coles track one day…’Little One’, and it changed my life” says Saad, “It just clicked with me as a young kid that this was my passion.” With this in mind, he says, the growth of DMV Deep “couldn’t be a lone wolf thing,” and has always aimed to be fueled by the passion and presence of its members. Now that the community has grown to a population upwards of 700 strong, Saad and Kori’s feeling of remoteness from one summer afternoon two years ago has all but subdued —the DMV Deep crew has earned their reputation as a force in numbers throughout D.C. clubland. “It’s a circle that you can count on to be there at the club whenever you find your favorite underground DJ is playing at the spot for the night.” Saad says, “No more feeling alone whenever you’re out at the show … whenever you got that one tune you’ve been holding onto, [and] no more feeling like an outcast for just being into underground dance music.”
“It’s a cult,” says Kori with a grin, as his buddy rolls his eyes.
To understand how DMV Deep has become such a force of the area’s underground music landscape, it’s important to first consider what has come before them, and how the past decade has shaped up to this moment. Like any major city, D.C. is a hub of artistic expression and one that often mirrors its own unique, transient way of life in this fashion. Whether it be the music, the politics, or the people, the nation’s capital has become a place where not many things can stay hot (or put) for long; fads die, jobs end, culture shifts, and the city recycles its dead cells to make way for the new blood. Consequently, this creates a cycle of impermanence that does not foster many movements or talent in the city, also due in part to the perception that it is a small market in contrast to the mojo of New York just a few hours north. It is here, however, that dance music has found a natural groove as one of the rare exceptions to this norm, as the rapid evolution of the genre has only been matched by the intensity to which D.C. demands something fresh. For this reason, it’s no coincidence that from the time of EDM’s repatriation in the American mainstream in 2010, the District’s club scene has been a faithful reflection of the genre through its raw initial craze and subsequent growing pains in presentation, style, and sound. From the juiced up glitz of big room house to the blur of dubstep’s era at the top, the city has had an outpost for almost every phase and trend within dance music over the past decade. Over time, however, this catering to the top layer has allowed the underground to mature and come into its own as a familiar set of clubgoers, DJs, producers, collectives, and friends alike that have become the backbone of house music’s rise in Washington D.C. These have become the members of DMV Deep.
“so many great places to dance in D.C. has softened up our hometown to new sounds.”
While D.C. is behind the group’s sense of identity, it is hard to imagine its formation and subsequent explosion in popularity without the pioneers of the District’s club culture nurturing this new generation of househeads into existence. Put simply, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for people like Nadastrom, Will Eastman, Tittsworth, Marcus Dowling, or places like U Street Music Hall,” says Zachary Eser, better known around the city for his tech-house DJ alias Zacheser. Looking out from the DJ booth as The Residency’s inaugural opener, Eser stands out both amongst his colleagues and the crowd filling in as a veteran presence; someone who has witnessed the best and worst dance music has had to offer over the years, first discovering “blog house” and “dance funk” in the infancy of American EDM. Now as one of the leading tastemakers and producers within DMV Deep, his experience has helped him recognize how remarkable this new era is for the city and the importance of paying homage to those aforementioned who paved the way, “so many people that have come before me to set us up for this period of growth … having so many great places to dance in D.C. has softened up our hometown to new sounds. We’re honestly spoiled.” Despite this experience, however, the loyal patron of U Hall and house shows throughout the District also has perspective, keeping him in touch with an understanding of not only who is taking off in D.C., but why they are worth supporting: “For a while, I felt like the D.C. area was very ‘every man for himself,’” he says, “but in the DMV Deep group, everyone is not only supportive vocally, but they actually engage and promote the scene being built around them.” It’s a culture first mentality, as many within the forum see it, that has allowed DMV Deep to simultaneously flourish on its own and inspire its members to connect and start their own creative projects under its umbrella.
For the opening night of their residency, this recognition of the talent within DMV Deep’s membership is something Saad and Kori are committed to featuring, with hour long DJ sets from both Eser and his label mate Rawle Becerril; together the two are the founding members of the budding D.C. based tech-house label, Chub Rub, which found its initial footing and fanbase through DMV Deep’s online forum. Sporting the label’s mascot behind them in the DJ booth, a hysterical cheeseburger pinata with googly eyes and smile, the two friends reflect on the impact the community is having on both the District’s house music scene and their own personal artistic endeavors. “Without DMV Deep, I’m unsure if Chub Rub would have happened as soon or as quickly as it did,” says Eser, who credits the momentum of his current success to the viral activity happening daily on the group’s forum. It’s for this reason he is a big believer in the group’s future success to “become a major player in taste and determining what trends the D.C. area seems to be paying attention to.” Rawle, who is one of the most active posters and eccentric personalities on the DMV Deep forum, has seen first hand how the group has shifted the city’s clubbing landscape: “it’s awesome because everyone in it is actually involved … the beauty of DMV Deep is you can post a song, then meet up with everyone that was a fan of it later in the week! It’s not just a group of people idly sitting at their computers.” While Chub Rub has been a direct benefactor of the energy and passion of DMV Deep’s members, they are far from the only ones who have taken advantage of this “hub” of creative expression and positive feedback, Rawle says, “as member favorites the ‘Get Stroked’ Squad has shown!” To those unfamiliar, Get Stroked are a squad of the most hardcore Claude VonStroke fans who follow the Dirtybird label founder, producer, and DJ to practically all of his tour stops around the country; with their distinct cracked egg festival sign and T-shirts helping them to be officially recognized by VonStroke as his most loyal followers. This in addition to other labels and collectives, Sous La Terre, NightFlight, and Sticky Fingers Collective, all have membership within the network and have gained a following through its platform. Now that the momentum of the group has earned them an offer to show out in the flesh, its members are giving back, hoping to help establish DMV Deep into a lane of its own in D.C.’s panorama of nightlife: “DMV Deep is a community for us and by us” says Rawle, “so it’s nice to finally have a place to play all the music we send each other [and] freak out about in our own daily experiences … that’s kind of the whole point!”
At its core, DMV Deep operates as a community in a tangible gray area that words are elusive to describe. While people connecting over the internet has become an almost involuntary act in 2018, taking the next step to meet face-to-face is still a tense undertaking for most. Increase the volume of that interaction to hundreds of people, and one begins to grasp challenge and risk Saad and Kori face with their attempt to capitalize on DMV Deep’s potential and transition from the internet into the real and physical. While the network of their group is filled with club regulars, DJs, producers, and promoters from all corners of the District, all of whom contribute and chat with each other daily on the page, it’s true that most of the DMV Deep crew only know each other up to this point through their online profiles. This aspect of the community, however, is something its founders and fellow DJs embrace on the opening night of The Residency, as the event aims to not only set trends in sound and style, but also stand for what defines their community, bridging the two worlds of the house music experience into one: “It’s an odd transition for sure,” Eser says frankly, “[but] we’re all active, so we know we have to hang out with one another sooner or later, [and] being able to build something this active is honestly a lot of fun, so meeting new people has become less and less awkward — especially as we all begin to play out more and see so many familiar faces support everything our community is making.”
“I could see it being a little jarring with other groups,” Rawle adds, “but everything about my involvement in the DMV Deep page has seemed so natural … It feels like I’ve been part of it forever.” For now, though, everything will remain speculation, and all that matters to the crew at this moment is the night in front of them.
In the backdrop of this discussion about the makeup and vision of DMV Deep lies an obvious question with a not so clear answer: how exactly do you join? Before the creation of their residency, the community has operated and expanded as a movement strictly through word of mouth, in the smoking areas around Flash and U Hall and on the Facebook event pages for upcoming shows. As it stands today, there are two ways one can become apart of DMV Deep: get invited by a current member or search the internet and find it yourself. For this, Saad and Kori face a dilemma, as their collective pledge for inclusivity for all house lovers in the District is likewise juxtaposed by the group’s underground identity. This is an issue, however, that DMV Deep’s founders hope to mitigate through establishing themselves as a regular amongst the District’s weekend gauntlet of music venues and events, where if one wants to get involved, all they have to do is show up: “you just gotta get real cozy with the scene here and show an authentic interest in the music,” Saad says, “If you come out to shows … be cool with us and we’ll put you on.” The most important thing, in the eyes of the founders and their friends, is to continue to “foster a sense of realness” within the community, says Rawle, so that DMV Deep can continue to expand but stay true to itself; regardless if one becomes involved in the group through The Residency or any channel around the city, the goal is to remain authentic and “for the people,” says Saad. With this in mind, in the majority of the cases where new members are added to the community, DMV Deep is usually the one to approach them, recognizing a person’s passion and presence within the scene. For those who are dedicated enough to become involved on their own merit, however, Saad reiterates that all you have to do is say hi: “We don’t bite,” he says with a smirk.
At the turn of midnight, the side avenue off V street where Backbar is located is unusually calm for a Saturday night in this part of Northwest D.C., with a seasonable, chill gust in the air that keeps a static mind attentive to sensory input. As soft raindrops begin to tap-dance the sidewalk, most people passing by Backbar’s modest sign, half-hid by the building’s overgrown vines, do so unaware of the venue that exists in the shadow of one of Washington D.C.’s most storied dancefloors, the 9:30 club. Out here, the only hint that DMV Deep’s residency even exists is in the buzz Backbar’s subwoofer sending vibrations through your Nikes. It’s this location and facade (or lack thereof), however, that makes Backbar an ideal rendezvous point for underground groups to share their sounds and cultivate their budding communities. Thus, at the peak of the opening night of DMV Deep: The Residency, the faces that seek the secluded stairwell leading down to the dancefloor all do so with intent, ready to embrace the sound they love and a party that is uniquely theirs.
Eager to exit the cold, two friends push forward on the venue’s dense, black door and enter into an immediate flush of heat that fogs up both their glasses. Moving down the hallway of fluorescent blue in a daze, they finesse past the long line for the bathroom and arrive at the doorman who separates them from the dancefloor. Just a few feet before them, a dark sea of people vibrate seemingly in all directions at once, with Kori’s dance moves commanding the attention of his peers as Zacheser closes out his set with a self-produced tech-house roller. Handing off the headphones to Saad, the crowd erupts in anticipation of one the group’s figureheads who is trying his very best to suppress his grin. Pulling up into his first tune of the night, Mall Grab’s “Pool Party Music,” he pauses for a moment, unable to hide his shy nature, and picks up the mic to greet his extended network of friends: “Raise your hand if you love house music!” he says with a shout. Hands raised high, the head of DMV Deep takes in the roll call of those who will shape the next era of dance music and club culture in the nation’s capital. They all smile. They all sing.
DMV Deep: The Residency continues this Saturday, February 17th, at Backbar D.C. More details can be found here.