This past weekend was the Canadian finals of Red Bull Thre3style competition, an annual DJ battle extravaganza that originated on Canada's West Coast—it now runs throughout the year in a whopping 24 different countries. Thre3style isn't your basic '90s-style scratch battle—over eight rounds, DJs are judged based on their skill spanning across at least three genres of music, meaning there's lots of electronic dance in the mix. Possibly even more important than the battle itself are the pre-parties, which read like a who's who of Canadian DJ experts. At the Calgary show a few weeks ago, Grandtheft, Smalltown DJs, and Thre3style ambassador Skratch Bastid party-rocked alongside former 2011 World Champion Hedspin (of the Eh Team DJ crew) and last year's World Champ Four Color Zack.
My friends couldn't really understand why I had FOMO while watching all of the Thre3style excitement unfold on my Twitter feed (which is populated by all sorts of Canadian DJ friends). I'm based in Brooklyn, so why do I care so much about a DJ event in a place nicknamed Cow Town? But having played in Canada from Toronto to Saskatoon, Calgary is always one my favorite places to touch down, and I'm sure any traveling DJ will tell you the same. Not only is Calgary the place to dig for obscure 80s records, visit North America's coolest synth museum, and bug out at the Chasing Summer Festival, but it's also home to HiFi, one of the most revered clubs in all of the land.
When you arrive in Calgary it's immediately obvious that something strange is afoot. The first thing you see when you hop off the plane is a huge statue of a velociraptor wearing a pink boa and rummaging through its luggage. You will laugh and put it a photo of it on Instagram, and then a few of your DJ friends will comment: "I know where you are" with a wink emoji. I usually head straight from the airport to hang out with "Mama" Miche Stirling, who runs Stirling Agency. She represents a bunch of internationally known DJs including OWSLA's Nick Thayer, Fools Gold's Sammy Bananas, Main Cource's Astronomar, and me (full disclosure). We will drink tea, watch Netflix, and catch up on all the Canadian gossip because DJs have such exciting lifestyles.
It's thanks to Miche and Smalltown Pete of Smalltown DJs—the duo that owns HiFi and its sister bar Commonwealth—that I ever came to Canada. The first time I ever touched down on this maple-laced soil, I went on an extreme ten-date tour through the mountains from West to East. I'm pretty sure no one had a clue who I was, but being cosigned by Miche and Pete was enough. I don't really know why Pete thought it was a great idea to bring me to Calgary before I even had a record out, but I guess that's kind of his thing.
When I say that's "his thing," I mean I'm not the only one whose DJ career was propelled by the Pete seal of approval. HiFi resident Mandeep Ubhi—better known as Wax Romeo—became a Calgary DJ staple quite by accident. "These two idiots (Smalltown DJs) thought it'd be a good idea to get me to open for them on their night, not knowing that I didn't really know how to DJ, or what the fuck how to anything," he recalls. "I was picking the needle off the wrong record or letting records run out. I didn't know how to use the monitor.
"I figured the monitor out," he adds with a smirk. Wax Romeo is not only a totally Sikh house and disco DJ, but he's somewhat of a party legend. His name means "light of the sages," which is pretty appropriate given the kind of profound wisdom we've seen him come out with whilst in party mode. Everyone loves his moody music and has a different funny story about him, like the time he was got lost after DJing and we found him asleep in the broom closet.
By this point you might be asking yourself, who are these Smalltown DJs, anyway? Pete Emes and Michael Grimes—otherwise known as Smalltown Pete and Smalltown Mike—met in the late 90s after Mike came back from Korea, where he was teaching English and DJing for "the Korean Beastie Boys."
"I had just moved back from Ontario where I went to school and learned how to DJ and rave," Pete recalls. "I used to go see DJs like Derrick Carter and Carl Craig at house parties in London, Ontario and it was crazy. Me and Mike both ended up back in Calgary and liked all the same tunes, so it was a no brainer that we started doing nights together." After opening a record store together called Giant 45 (R.I.P.) and booking some great DJs—including a very young A-Trak and a pre-Major Lazer/MIA/Express Yourself Diplo—the duo opened HiFi, where they've made a lot of magic happen over the past few years.
For almost the entire life of the club, incoming DJs have been greeted by general manager, talent buyer, and all around swell human Sarmad Rizvi. "I applied for a position literally the day the club opened," he told me. "I was hoping for a bartending job but the guys gave me an Assistant Manager position and I kinda took it and ran with it. Eight plus years and I am still very happy about my decision." Eight years is about 200 years in the life of a club manager/owner if you haven't figured that out by now, but I can't imagine Sarmad leaving any time soon.
HiFi's success, and the influence it's had on Calgary's dance music scene, has a large part to do with them not being afraid to take risks on booking new acts—many of whom later become huge superstars. "It was a struggle trying to tell people who Diplo was the first time we booked him," Sarmad remembers, also noting that the club booked Steve Aoki way back in 2006, way before the cake-throwing superstar was a household name.
Calvin Harris is also a HiFi Club alumni member. "I am still a big fan of him, by the way," says Pete. "He played his first DJ set after I Created Disco had come out. That's a great record but overall people were bummed about him DJing. He only played a few of his own songs and I think people left disappointed. It was hard to predict he would be the biggest guy on the planet. We kind of pride ourselves in bringing in acts before the get huge. The Smalltown DJs connection always helps finding upcoming artists, but we are also only a 200-capacity room so we need to stay ahead of the curve if we want to get artists we love." There you have it folks. Calgary is, suprisingly, the place to hear new talent first. Just go there already!