There's still no line at a little after 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday night outside the Treehouse club on Chapel Hill's Rosemary Street. A velvet rope stretches out into the gravel parking lot. Inside, neon and black lights win the battle but lose the war, trying to overcome the low-ceilinged venue's chipped-tile-floor and trailer-style wood paneling. Way off in the back corner--so much so that it's almost not in the club--two lights highlight the paths of the styluses on each of the two spinning turntables.
The DJ, a man of medium build sporting clunky, smoke-gray, Gucci glasses and a form-fitting white baseball cap, bounces around, his knees pumping skyward like he's back in junior-high gym class. He's wearing headphones as he twiddles knobs and flicks buttons, trying to fix the monitors while he jumps around behind a tiny tiki-style barrier elevated only a foot or so above the (at this point) empty dance floor. Saula Finau is spinning two-step garage. And, as of yet, not that many people in the Triangle know what that means.
Two-step has nothing whatsoever to do with the country dance step revered in these parts. Two-step garage is also called U.K. garage, and its beat goes (approximately) BOOM-boom ... boom-BOOM-boom, BOOM-boom ... BOOM. While it's technically similar to hip hop, two-step does a lot more than just increase the tempo of hip hop; it takes the heavy repetition of popular music and makes it look a bit cheap and obscene--as if to suggest, "Well, you could only manage one groove/beat-emphasis per track. How 20th-century!" Unlike much of techno, rap and hip hop (and pretty much any music that's popular in America right now), two-step doesn't wear a tireless groove throughout songs.
"To me, it's hip hop," says DJ Finau. "Basically, the global ambassador for it right now is Craig David--he puts out a new single every month or so," he adds, also mentioning Artful Dodger. If you're wondering where to find the sounds, Finau recommends Wax Works in Raleigh.
"Another [local] guy also spins [two-step], but he's not really into the vocals. I'm sure there are a lot of cats spinning it," he adds.
Finau traces two-step back to the Miami rap and hip-hop scene, likening the sound to instrumental hip-hop records on 45 rpm instead of 33-1/3, or sped up dancehall, or Miami booty bass music. "Everybody in the U.S. recognizes it more as a booty-bass beat--you can go further back and go to Afrika Bambaataa. We've been listening to this beat for a long time, but just basically as rap," he says.
Now, Finau explains, people are doing R&B vocals and dance-hall style vocals over the tracks. And--in a world of soul divas and female hip-hop acts--the two-step vocalists have been predominately male. "I've never heard this many male vocals," he says, adding that it's nice to be able to mix it up, rather than "having to listen to women sing all night."
"It's more vocal than any uptempo stuff has been ... weird bleeps or clangs ... remixes, and then people toast on top of it kind of like a dancehall reggae--that's the U.K. garage version," Finau says.
And the music doesn't sound like run-of-the-mill Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom (repeat throughout) techno. Two-step is, in a way, the urban contemporary music of London. It's an offshoot of English hip hop, without the ubiquitous self-proclamation found in American hip hop. Some tracks do feature special-guest musical-artist types toasting the DJ or themselves, but in a very British, light-hearted, almost fey, self-effacing way. "It's the most exciting form of uptempo music I've heard in a long time," Finau says.
But here at the Treehouse, buff white guys in wifebeater shirts and baggy jeans and enormous Hawaiian print shirts just draw the beat into the flow of their pool game, bouncing and jumping from one rushed shot to the next. At this point, the crowd seems more interested in college mating rituals: One guys grabs a tightly dressed young woman in a white top, flared pre-faded jeans and sneakers and pulls her toward him forcefully, more or less making her kiss him. She seems pissed, but not all that sincerely. She doesn't even leave afterward, so the guy believes his technique to be effective. A few missed pool shots later, he breaks his cue on the table, sending one small, sharp shard flying at people minding their own business. He's soon asked to leave.
At this exact moment, the two-step beat becomes undeniable--a glance toward the dance floor reveals the now-dancing crowd. The actual dance floor--the largest area not interrupted by floor-to-ceiling support beams--is now crowded with neatly groomed 20-nothings, all the colors of the Benetton rainbow, shaking their groove things and grinding.
[Note: Dancing at a club is like jogging. It's difficult to initiate from either a stiff standstill or an anxious walk, or to ever feel comfortable being seen doing it.]
Against the back wall, a 2-foot-long section--somewhere between knee and waist height--allows go-go-esque dancing by the more outgoing of the crowd. Two-step seems to be the music of good vibes and seduction: Everyone else is trying very hard to be desirable and to feel like, somehow, their existence is validated and that they are good and worthwhile.
As the dance floor continues to fill up, two-step has mysteriously left the building without so much as one smooch or ever even saying "Goodnight" or "Call me!" The two turntables predictably pump the Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom (repeat to infinity) that the well-groomed, young people of the area seem to devour like cole slaw at a fish fry.
Finau now has time to relax a little. He now takes time to indulge in a cocktail, suspiciously inquiring if the single glass of orangey beverage that just arrived for him does, in fact, mean that his drink has been mixed and not left as independent elements (e.g. a shot and a chaser). When the congenial, manager-ish guy claims ignorance of Finau's drink choice with a weak "I thought maybe you were mixing it up tonight," or some other such inadvertent pun, he's dismissed with an earnest, "It's no problem, really." Finau will deal.
"They just weren't biting on it," said Finau, an amiable fellow. But it did almost seem like the kids were trying to bite for it. Certainly not to the degree of the club-crowd musical vultures of San Francisco or London, people whose nights are organized to a publishable degree: Weeklies like The Village Voice and Time Out New York feature dance night listings along with the monthly FlyerNYC club guide, which even has little featurettes on guest DJs.
So Finau is doing what he can, it seems, to bring a music he grooves on to an audience that probably isn't really ready for it. He does it by feeding them a new kind of music they might not immediately grasp, and later spinning songs that they recognize and know and sing along to, like Jay-Z and Ludicris.
"I don't claim to be a two-step DJ," Finau says, "I'm just infected by it. I want to play it because it really fits me. But I'm basically the club jock, so I'm dealing with a cross section of the entire town, trying to make all those people dance."
At a little after midnight, still early by traditional dance club standards, there's a line outside waiting to get in. Two-step, however, has long since faded from the club speakers. Finau will have to try again next week it seems.
Finau spins Thursday through Saturday, 11 p.m.-2 a.m. at the Treehouse in Chapel Hill, and you can occasionally catch him spinning at Gotham, also in Chapel Hill.
Where to hear two-step:
There is, as of yet, no dedicated night of two-step in the Triangle. Other two-step DJs in the area who spin at a variety of clubs include Dave Mann, DJ Uzi, and DJ Cooper. Mann is scheduled to spin Wednesday, Sept. 12, at Gotham in Chapel Hill. DJ Uzi often spins some two-step at a free, weekly Sunday-night event called "Family" at the West End Wine Bar. And DJ Cooper, besides spinning recently at Club Oxygen and other clubs, spins some two-step as host of a radio show on WXDU-FM on Friday nights from 8-10 p.m. Web sites with information on upcoming two-step and dance events include www.resonanceproject.com and www.sonicboommusic.com. On the two-step horizon, the much-rumored club called Envy, expected to open this fall in the old Ram Triple theater space on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill, is slated to feature a Friday night two-step night with Dave Mann, although--as the club has so far been a year-plus in construction--that could all change.
We can't guarantee that the DJs will be spinning two-step, but other Triangle clubs to check out include the "Blue Light Basement Night" at Five Star in Raleigh, where you can hear Mixmaster Mooney and DJ Merlin mix it up. And there's also ASCEND (an event that features three DJs) every Sunday night at the Pour House in Raleigh.