At the Mill Hill Basement — a music venue under the Mill Hill Saloon on South Broad Street in Trenton — the room is small but the vibes are big. And on the first Sunday evening of every month three hip hop DJs hold court for those who remember how hip hop began: with two turntables and the DJ.
It’s called the DoJo, a nod to the kung fu havens where those interested in the craft of martial arts can come to learn the culture and skill, an event for established and aspiring DJs from all around the area, and especially Trenton.
At its center are Courtney Wade — known as Rocky The Promoter, a Trenton-raised DJ, events promoter, and co-founder of Cap City Entertainment recordings — and three DJs: Travis Nagy from the Jersey shore, plus Trenton’s Kelvin Smith and Darnell Story.
Liz Cisco, another Trenton hip hop emcee and singer, has a Sunday night shift tending bar at the Mill Hill Basement. Cisco was the catalyst for the whole experiment.
“I know the DoJo is certainly not the first producer or DJ-focused event, but what gave me the thought was honestly just having the right people in a room together,” she says. “The night of Kelvin’s website launch event Darnell, Travis, and Kelvin were spinning, and I wanted it to become a monthly thing. I spoke to them and to Rocky The Promoter about starting a Facebook group chat, hoping that would help things fall in place. It took a few months to come to fruition, but once the guys were in touch, the ideas just started flowing. I cannot take any credit beyond bringing them together. They’ve been putting in the groundwork and are incredibly enthusiastic. I sure as hell enjoy listening to their sets every month,” she says.
The room is dark. Trenton-based DJs like It’s Just Ahmad and DJ Fatha Ramzee Shabazz, who spins exclusively 45 RPM records, mix it up with talent from the region and places like Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Old kung fu flicks, 1980s classic boxing matches, and goofy vintage cartoons play on the big screen behind the DJ tables as the artists spin.
Without emcees, hip hop heads can reacquaint themselves with the art of spinning records and how it was the DJ, not the emcee, who innovated hip hop music.
“The idea is really to start bringing back that good vibe and to hear different sounds. There’s so much interesting music. I want to inspire,” says Nagy, 28, who goes by the moniker King Who? while he’s spinning. “There are some people who might be spinning music everybody knows. I like to play what people may not be that familiar with. I like the idea of a DJ who can be the person to present stories to people. I want a place for young producers and beat makers to come and do their thing. Have some fun with it. Be around some people without their guard up. Nobody has to be too ‘cool,’” he says.
Nagy does a mix of DJing, mixing, and composing. He is three years in now and has quit working day jobs – like the one he had at Sbarro on the Garden State Parkway. Lanky and laid back with long locks usually under a ball cap, King Who? has a friendly, humble energy that’s as infectious as his music. He explains that his DJ name is an extension of that humility.
“The idea is that I’m not a king of anything. I don’t believe in the ‘status’ thing,” he says. “My whole life has been about music. My dad used to play old Slick Rick records in the car when I was young. He was into a lot of different music so I got put on to a good selection as a kid. I’m not really a talker like that but I could talk all night about music. Once you see how someone else treats their music, you kind of gravitate toward each other,” he says.
Kelvin Smith, known while DJing as Flea Market, is a huge vinyl collector. That is where the stage name comes from. He has been interested in the DJ game since he was a teenager but lacked resources for the equipment and the full set up. For years he never had the physical space. He was in school and lived overseas for a while, but was always supportive of local DJs and attended a lot of DJ events. Trenton’s It’s Just Ahmad, who does regular gigs at Trenton Social, is his personal mentor. Smith told Ahmad he was going to start getting some equipment and right before a 12-hour event Ahmad asked if Smith wanted to use his set up. He has been a DJ ever since.
“I take credit for the start of the DoJo event because of my solo website release party in September, 2017,” Smith says. “I wanted people whose style I admired to DJ with me. I didn’t want to do a four-hour set. So I reached out to King Who? and Ill Omega. That night was magical. It was one of those things where everyone felt it was a special night,” he says.
Smith fell in love with hip hop in 1992. It was pretty much Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown up to then, until Kriss Kross came out with Totally Krossed Out and his parents let him get that record — it had no cursing. And in 1995 or ’96, when he was old enough to walk around the mall by himself, he bought something with the parental advisory sticker on it. Then he was introduced to Method Man, Das Efx, Redman, and EPMD, now legends in the game.
Smith grew up in Hamilton on the East Trenton border, attended McCorristin High School (now Trenton Catholic), and went to Heritage Days and to church in Trenton. His dad is a certified public accountant and his mother is a human resources department senior manager. He also has two hard working sisters. He lived in East London for about four years as a graduate student at Middlesex University, where he earned a master’s degree in psychology. He now works as a full-time social worker for the state.
“I love working with people who are at a disadvantage; I love learning how to work with them as well as provide the skills and knowledge that I’ve gained over the years to assist in my clients’ needs,” he says.
Smith never wanted music to be a thing that he relied on to pay his bills, however.
“I just want to see us get better as artists. Exchange ideas in a positive way through our music. It’s a learning process, and my job as a DJ is to introduce new music the audience may not have access to,” Smith says.
And Smith loves interacting with other DJs and hearing their interpretations of the art form. He gave the third DJ in the trio, Ill Omega, a very obvious middle finger at a DoJo event this spring, while he was playing something that really got his energy going. “He played something I hadn’t heard in a while. And if a good DJ plays something I hadn’t heard in a while or never thought of playing …I just get so excited,” he says.
Ill Omega is named Darnell Story in real life, and he and Nagy met for the first time at Smith’s website launch party. D. Montana was his DJ name before — he’s a big Scarface fan — but as he thought about what the word Omega means, how he makes beats, and about all those legendary producers like J. Dilla and how creative they are, he decided to change it. Story grew up on West State Street in Trenton, then moved to Lawrence and went to Lawrence High. His dad is a jazz musician and his mom was an avid record collector. He and his dad always bonded over music. He took him to jazz clubs where he would be coughing from all the smoke.
Story, now 31, fell in love with hip hop and wanted to participate in it was when he heard Wu Tang Clan’s “36 Chambers” — because it was like a full length kung fu movie. He wanted to learn how to do all those sounds. He would play that CD with his headphones on and be in his own world.
Story and Rocky The Promoter created the label Cap City back in high school. Rocky was more of the rapper and host, good with lyrics. Story made the beats. Around that time the local hip hop scene was exploding, and he started getting more equipment and learning more about recording.
“If I was 18 and wanted to check out DJs and what they were doing, this is for the love of the craft,” says Story, who works at Merrill Lynch as a tax analyst during the day and is a father to a nine-year-old son, Darnell, Jr.
Story, who also wants to get more female DJs, like Desiree Tsunami, involved in the DoJo to show the guys up, adds,“I want the DoJo to be a boiler room, like a lo-fi media hub in Trenton. There’d be no hip hop without the DJ. I want to bring that back and put the spotlight back on the DJ.”