5 min

Spinning free

From partygoer to party maker

A LOVE OF MUSIC AS WIDE AS THE SKY. Of all places, Toronto-based DJ Deko-ze honed his skills in his native Saskatoon, the Prairie town he calls "the best kept secret" in underground music. Credit: Paula Wilson

Called the hardest working DJ in Canada, Michael Babb, aka Deko-ze, had 33 gigs in May and is looking to surpass that number in June. His packed schedule includes residencies of varying frequency in clubs across the country, like Toronto’s Kool Haus, System Soundbar and Lüb Lounge, Hamilton’s Rude Lounge, Calgary’s Warehouse and Victoria’s Hush. How does he survive? “Lots of sleep and lots of sex,” he says, laughing.

Deko-ze has a reputation for being a partier as much a party provider. “I find the people that perform the best are the ones who enjoy what they do,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed music. I’ve always enjoyed communicating with people. I’ve always enjoyed seeing the energy on the dancefloor.

“If it means I’m going to be jumping around like an idiot, so be it. I’m just enjoying what I do.”

Deko-ze is a DJ who has been a star in small backwater bars to raves at their prime and fall; his new success is in the heart of underground club land. “I got started in 1992 and I started at the local gay bar in Saskatoon,” Deko-ze remembers. “At the time it was called Numbers; it was the only place in Saskatoon where you could hear that kind of electronic dance music.

“When you are from a small town, you’re not really exposed to a lot of underground music,” he says. “What was offered in the mainstream was like AC/DC, White Snake, Lee Aaron and that sort of thing…. So once I found this gay bar, and hearing my mentor at the time – and still the person who was the influence to this whole thing – his name was Techno Tom. And he would play Depeche Mode, things like Yellow and the new Orb track, all in the same set. And I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ I walk into the club and meet other gay people, people who were into this music and the sounds – I felt like I was home.”

For the time, small-town western Canada wasn’t considered the height of musical discovery; the club held to solid rules, such as half-hour country classics, plus standard Abba and Village People songs. But Techno Tom opened the town up, exposing them to the rumbling trends of underground music from around the globe.

Deko-ze was ready to hear the music. His father planted the love. “My dad would be at work,” says Deko-ze excitedly. “Every now and then, he’d bring home a record and I’d be ecstatic. When I was four years old he brought home a 1974 Diana Ross album. I just loved always having music around. It was apparent that music was going to be a part of my life, like when in grade two we had an art class and, in order to lighten up the class, our teacher would ask us if we’d like to bring in some music. I’d show up with a stack of tapes and 45s and end up not doing my assignments as I’d just sit there putting on new records.”

The shift from partygoer to party spinner was completely unexpected. “I was going to Numbers religiously every Saturday,” says Deko-ze. “If there was a Saturday I missed, because I was ill, I’d call my friend Crystal and I’d say, ‘ My God Crystal, what did he play? Did he play that track?'” He shrieks with schoolgirl excitement remembering the exhilaration. “This went on for a good year and half. And at one point, Tom had given us the warning that he was starting to become a little bit tired with the scene and he wanted to move on to other things and might quit. The first time he mentioned it, we were nearly brought to tears.

“He said to me, ‘Michael, you know all this music, you buy it a lot, we discuss it a lot, you’re always in the shops, you read the magazines. Would you consider taking it over?'” He pauses a moment to let the story sink in, smiling mischievously like someone who knows the ending.

He started completely from scratch, buying a set of turntables, practising at home and during the week at Numbers, until he felt secure enough to take over the show. “I fell into it,” he admits. “But at the same time it made sense.” The new skin fit perfectly. “My goals for the time have been to spread music,” he says.

“Back in Saskatoon, I was the only DJ, so I would have to spin for eight to 10 hours, and I’d have to play a variety of different sounds.” This versatility helped Deko-ze journey through the different scenes; he’s considered a huge crossover hit, with loyal followings in gay, straight, raver and club worlds. His success with Numbers melted into a highly regarded production company, Plastic Puppet Motive, that created a rave oasis on the prairies while the raver scene in Toronto was starting to turn ugly.

“What made Saskatoon so special? Because no one knew; it was one of the best-kept secrets. I find so many people here in Toronto only consider the dance community to consist of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. But very few people take advantage of what goes on in Winnipeg or Calgary or Edmonton. And they have some really wicked things going on. Because we weren’t under the influence of Montreal or wherever, we could do our own thing.

“[But] there really wasn’t any room for growth,” Deko-ze says. “We started up our own club, did our own one-off events, had my own radio show. And it just got to a point that there really wasn’t much more we could do.”

Coming to Toronto six year ago, Deko-ze blazed through the last glorious days of Toronto’s trendsetting underground establishments. Being front and centre as the scene matured and moved away from warehouses to the land of clubs. “It’s interesting,” he muses. “From my perspective the rave scene exploded, it got really, really big and it took in a lot of people who had never really experienced it before. It brought in a lot of new-comers, a lot of fresh faces and a lot of mainstream people who really weren’t there for the right reasons. You started having all of these huge parties but less and less people… understood or cared about what’s going on. It got too big, too fast and kind of blew up on itself.

“As the ravers, who really were into it and enjoyed themselves, discovered there wasn’t the opportunity for raves anymore, a lot of them grew out of the scene and migrated to the clubs. I mean a lot of the big parties, parties I played for like Destiny and Lifeforce, ended up moving to clubs.” That paved the way for Deko-ze’s continuing success.

Today Deko-ze is getting ready to dive into the world of production, creating his own tracks from scratch that express the variety of music he loves. He’ll return to the Sunday Wellesley Stage at Toronto’s Pride celebrations, spinning in front of thousands who will dance to sounds influenced from all levels of the underground scene.

“Pride, for me, means exactly that,” says Deko-ze, smiling. “It means being free and comfortable with who you are and with the people around you.

It brings out such a wild craziness in people, who are all very open, accepting and willing to hang out and party with whomever. And I just love that aspect, I love seeing everyone.”

* Here are Deko-ze’s gigs this weekend. On Thu, Jun 24 he’s at Lüb (487 Church St) from 10pm to 2am, then from 3am to 7am at Comfort Zone (480 Spadina Ave). On Jun 25, he spins from 10pm to 2:30am at the mixed Breathe party at System Soundbar (117 Peter St). On Jun 26, he’s part of Morning Glow from 8am to noon at Five (5 St Joseph St). At some point Sunday morning on Jun 27 he’s back at Comfort Zone and then takes over the decks at the Wellesley Pride stage from 8pm to 9:30pm; later that night he’ll return to Lüb.