That Klever guy

Atlanta's national turntablist champ buckles down to defend his title

Josh Winkler slouches in an oversized T-shirt, his baseball cap snug over his closely cropped, sandy blond hair. He's courteous and soft-spoken, and even bows his head to say a silent prayer before meals.

His current repast takes place at a local taqueria off Buford Highway. It's the part of town where the 24-year-old, who recently relocated to Cabbagetown, lived most of his life.

"Where I used to live it was black and white, maybe some Asians," Winkler says, peering through his emerald-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses. "Now it's black, white, Asians, Mexicans, Filipinos. It used to be just a Baskin-Robbins and golf and a gas station. Now you can't pronounce all the stores over there.

"It's dope," he continues. "It's a mixture of everybody learning to deal with everybody."

Even if this area wasn't actually Winkler's childhood 'hood, the sort of dislocation around him — where first-generation Mexicans and Southeast Asians inhabit the abandoned strip-mall wasteland of the New South's inner suburbs — would likely make him feel at home. After all, Winkler could appear to be dislocated himself. That's because the self-described nerdy white kid nibbling on tacos across the table is none other than DJ Klever, America's current hip-hop turntablist champion.

But not that it bothers him. "Behind the decks, you can be a nerd," Klever says, matter-of-factly. "I'm a nerd, I'm not hardcore or whatever. But when I'm battling, I want to hit you over the head."

When he's not out playing his part as a symbol of Atlanta's first generation raised under cultural diversity and international consciousness, Klever is probably at home practicing. His craft is turntablism — the artistic manipulation of records to create new music. With his weapons, two Technics 1200 turntables, he battles against other DJs at competitions held worldwide by the International Turntable Federation and DMC (Disco Mix Club). In timed rounds, these turntablists construct seamless routines by rhythmically scratching, mixing and coaxing interesting new sounds and tricks out of stacks of vinyl.

Klever's determination has won him multiple titles since 1999, from the Guitar Center and Kool Mixx regional competitions to the DMC/Technics US Finals last year in New York, paired against champs around 20 other cities. Next week, the notoriously reserved Klever — described by his peers as "that Elvis Costello-lookin' motherfucker" — heads to San Francisco to defend his DMC title. Until then, he'll be spending much of his time behind the wheels of steel, practicing.

While "nerd" might be an unlikely characterization for the crowned prince of a subculture that has elevated the urban sounds of record scratching to the level of rock-star virtuosity, it actually fits Klever quite well. In fact, it just might be his secret to success. That is, if you define a nerd as someone passionate about studying his field as if it were a science.

There's certainly a science to scratching and turntable battling. After studying chirps and flares, transforms and crabs — an array of techniques that sound cribbed from the Nature Channel — DJs develop a system of communication built in their body language. They make brass symphonies out of a single trumpet note, and create sentences using multiple voices lifted from disparate source records. They perfect body tricks — cutting and juggling records behind their backs and under their legs — and develop a battle face. They also learn, of course, how to hype up the crowd and silence the rivals.

Klever's DJ education began in the early '90s, around the time he was 16, when he saw a kid in a "ghetto apartment" off Buford Highway mix Flavor Flav over an electro beat using two turntables and a crappy stereo system.

"I just basically love music," he says. "I played the drums when I was a kid. My father's a blues musician so he put music in my face, so I played for a couple of years. Then he wasn't there much anymore and our family basically split apart."

Klever's musical ambition, however, only intensified after witnessing the DJ. Living with his mom, Klever avoided the drugs and gangs some of his friends strayed toward. He worked construction for a year and saved up enough to buy some beginner gear. From there, it was full force toward his great obsession: scratching.

"I have rhythm inside me, I've always believed," says Klever, "and I wanted to do something with that. I had something burning inside me — and I wanted to learn how to do this thing called scratching. I just started scratching — before school, after school, all day, all night. I just knew that's what I wanted to do. And even if I couldn't get paid at it I'd still want to express myself that way. I think a lot comes from within my heart. The way a guitarist feels what he plays, that's what I do. I feel the funk."

DJ J-Sun, owner of Atlanta record store More Dusty Than Digital and a member of Klever's Break Mechanics crew, grew up with Klever. "We started messing around with turntables around the same time," he says. "He used to come over to my house because I had [Technics] 1200s [turntables], and I'd go to sleep and he'd be cuttin', and I'd wake up the next morning and he'd still be cuttin'. You could tell he wanted it even back then. Some people are just born to do that, and he was just one of them. He's always been ill at it, since day one."

Before the days that Atlanta boasted internationally recognized urban-music stars and a thriving DJ scene, turntablists were scarce at best. So Klever got most of his early lessons from watching snippets of the Battle for World Supremacy DJ competition on "Yo! MTV Raps" and listening to "Rhythm & Vibes" on Georgia State's WRAS (88.5 FM), hosted by DJ Jaycee.

Soon, however, Klev came face to face with some local battle DJs, including internationally acclaimed turtablist Faust and Shotgun, Goodie Mob's DJ. "I didn't even know what to do," Klever says. "I knew just how to cut on the beat from listening to the radio. But Shotgun, he had routines, it was timed. He did body tricks, cutting, juggling. It was fucking crazy. And when I saw that, it opened my eyes."

Klever began practicing even harder, learning in a New York/Philly style, heavy on the transforming like Jazzy Jeff and Premiere. He appeared regularly with the Break Mechanics, doing club gigs where they'd showcase their latest cuts. But Klever's head really got twisted one night when he heard DJs including Craze, Faust and Shotgun on an 88.5 freeform show demonstrating scratches totally new to him. He taped a program and listened to it again and again. Then, borrowing a mixer from J-Sun, Klever started practicing those cuts until he was ready to show the Third World Citizenz (featuring Faust and his partner Shortee, as well as Shotgun and, at that time, Craze) what he'd learned.

Klever would soon join those who'd inspired him as peers in crews such as the Third World Citizenz. It was by practicing regularly with Shotgun that Klever felt confident enough in his routines to compete in the DMC/Technics 2000 regional held at the Masquerade, where he won, leading him to the US Finals, where he won again. And after impressing three-time DMC World Champion Craze at the 2000 World Championship in London, Klever hooked up with Craze's esteemed Miami-based Allies crew. Joining Nicaraguan, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Jewish-Moroccan and Asian turntablists, Klever became the Allies' only white DJ.

As a crew member, Klever now performs, records and competes with the biggest names in Southeast turntablism. "Klever is living proof that if you work at something hard enough, it can come true," Faust says.

Last month in New York, the Allies held a turntablist competition of their own — the All Star Beatdown — the first non-DMC/ITF battle in 10 years. Due to scheduling problems, Klever only made a short appearance behind the decks, toward the end of the night. But he definitely made an impression. Wearing a T-shirt featuring goth-punk band the Misfits, Klever signified outsiderness both literally and figuratively.

As Klever launched into his set, though, nobody seemed to give his fashion or musical identification a second thought. After all, earlier that night, Oklahoma's DJ P hyped up the crowd by dropping Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Journey, among others, over dope hip-hop beats. And half the contestants were either Asian-American or Canadian.

"Back in the day [we] got hated on," Klever says, "maybe because we sucked, maybe because of color of skin, I don't know. It was kind of weird back then, but it's loosened up a lot. Now there are a lot of Filipinos, white kids, Spanish [speakers]. It's all just melting in to its pot. ... So much goes into DJing. Timing, confidence. If you have all of that, it doesn't matter, you could be purple."

Because most mainstream hip-hop is focused around the rapper, it still very much carries the identity politics of black America, from which it came, even as it now reaches deep into the white population. DJing and turntablism, though, have been able to develop unshackled by image and street signifiers.

"In [DJ] battling," Klever says, "you can be a rich kid from the suburbs or a kid from the inner city, because it just comes down to how ill you are. With MCing, there's a persona of 'I live it' shit. Everything is vocal, so you've always got to be talking shit. DJs talk with their hands."

But at the taqueria, Klever hasn't used his hands much. He's barely touched his food. Today, as usual, he's less interested in what he consumes as what consumes him. The DMC finals are coming soon, and Klever's got homework to do.??