Nick Baytala is a deejay. He is what he plays.
No, really. Like the head banger who recites lines from a Led Zeppelin classic as if it were Shakespeare or the rap fan who finds validity by emulating a poetic gangster (or even the journalist who borrows from David Bowie), Nick thrives on his music--deep and acid house--with similar gusto.
For the Dana Hills High School senior, house music is life.
"It's something I always had in me," says Nick, who turned 18 last week. To celebrate, he flew to San Francisco to spin at a few "parties"--ranging from intimate events to the warehouse blowouts once known as raves. He also delivered house sounds to a parking lot gathering at one of the Grateful Dead's Oakland shows.
Last weekend was another entry in an impressive resume that includes events in Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam and Paris, where Nick has flexed his turntable talents since debuting at the unusually young age of 16.
By then he was already a veteran of the house scene in New York City, where the Baytalas settled when Nick was 9. He and his parents have bopped around the globe according to the demands of his father's job as a chemical engineer, living in Nick's native San Francisco, Milan and Paris, among other places. Him mom is a language professor who has taught at Columbia University in New York and, most recently, Pepperdine in Malibu.
Nick was 12 when several friends took him to his first underground club. Raves, then, were based on the concept of global unity and communal happiness, a sanctuary from urban evils outside. There were drugs, as in any other scene, but they were not central to the vibe, and many opted to get intoxicated on the repetitive sounds that rang like a meditative chant.
The ballistic beat shot right into Nick. Here he was exposed to a diversity of music: jazz, acid house, techno. But house music and its variations would bend his ear.
"It's the range of it," says Nick, who's played the piano and saxophone. "The way it picks up and builds, like it's telling a story."
As compelling was the teller of these stories. Deejays in the realm of house, techno, trance and other computer-generated music can become international celebrities, as important to the draw and success of a club as any other factor. Those who earn a name for themselves often travel around the world, from a rave in the Arizona desert to an underground fete in Japan.
Nick says he knew within a few months of clubbing that he wanted to be the one rotating the vinyl, setting the mood, spurring revelers to get out on the dance floor. The star status and trips were secondary to the music, he insists.
"I never told anyone I wanted to be a deejay," he says. "I never thought I could be good enough. So I always kept it to myself."
He started collecting records and practicing on a stereo his dad handed down. "I'd always pay attention to the deejays, the way they mixed. I just taught myself." He befriended many of them and kept vigil near their tables, watching every move.
Finally, at age 16, shortly after moving to California, Nick got enough money together to buy his own turntables--Technics 1200, "the only turntables a deejay can use." Each table cost him $300; the needles ran $60 each. The money came from years of birthday gifts, baby-sitting and running errands for neighbors in his apartment building in NYC. "It took a lot of five bucks here and five bucks there to get it all," he muses.
All of the money remained safe in an Adidas shoe box. Nick's love for music seems rivaled only by his penchant for anything Adidas. On this day, he wears a long green shirt with the trefoil logo, green waffle shorts, black socks and flip-flops--all Adidas. Three pairs of sneakers, all Adidas, sit nearby, pointing in all directions. Adidas stickers are slapped on his speakers and record bags.
"I love Adidas," Nick says. "It's part of me. When people go to clubs they have to have a signature something that people know is their thing. I'm Adidas."
Within a month after buying the turntables, Nick was hired for his first public appearance. The move West hadn't dented Nick's social life, because he already knew several L.A. club crawlers from their holiday visits to NYC. Word about his ability spread via tapes disseminated to friends. It was a friend of a friend who enlisted him to guest deejay at a warehouse club in the Los Angeles area. The following weekend Nick was booked at three other clubs.
"My parents hated it, because it's all I would do," he recalls. "You can get caught up in it, the club scene." It's not just spinning, after all. He has to maintain a presence. "It's a lifestyle," he adds.
The bookings increased, as did Nick's clubbing. A few times he was dropped off at school after an all-nighter. When a teacher last year assigned poetry critiques, Nick was allowed to turn in a mix of music he felt reflected the poem.
Somewhat fortunate for Nick, the scene hit a lull and lost some of its drive last summer, and fewer parties were held. At the same time, he realized he wanted to concentrate more on school. "I wasn't going to mess up going to college," says Nick, who plans a career in film. "You don't know how long it took me to realize that."
Despite continuing requests to work, Nick has consciously decided to ease the pace to a few a month, being more selective about doing gigs that "mean something" to him.
Evening courses in film at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and a TV and video class twice a week are part of the reason. Nick, who wants to direct, write screenplays and compose film soundtracks, hopes placing in the top 30% of SAT scores will be enough to get him into NYU's film school. Back in New York, he also wants to work the club circuit by night.
"Don't get me wrong; these years have been the best time of my life. It still is. I've met a lot of friends. And it didn't affect my grades so much as my focus.
"My parents thought clubs were kind of bad: They keep you out late; you're never home. But I'm not just sitting around watching TV or going to stupid high school parties where everyone just cares about drinking. I've actually been doing stuff instead of getting drunk."
S tuff includes hanging out with Dennis Upchurch, a Laguna Beach High senior Nick met at a club last year. Hours are spent experimenting with records at Dennis' South Laguna home, where their equipment clutters his otherwise sparingly decorated room--save the empty water bottles, the contents of which they consume like camels. Dennis, 18, has only recently started "dallying, learning and getting it all down." If and when it leads him to deejay work at a club, he says, he hopes to follow the footsteps of other famed deejays (including friend Nick) to Germany, India and Indonesia.
"It took me so long to learn until I was satisfied," he shouts over Nick's frenetic mix. Dennis' girlfriend, Kate Mekkedson, 16 and a Laguna Beach High junior, prefers sitting in the corner, water bottle in hand, watching.
"It's the hardest thing I've had to learn how to do," continues Dennis. "Taking a record and finding another record to complement it--that's an art form. You have to spend hours with the music."
While his dad, "an old hippie," has been fairly supportive of Dennis' ear-splitting hobby, his schoolmates have been less open. "Most people at my school hear this music and say 'what drugs are you on?' " says Dennis, who supports his record-buying habit making deliveries for his dad's upholstery company. "But these are the same kids who like to go out, party and drink. We just like to go out and listen to music and have a good time.
"House music is repetitive, but it puts you in a different mind set. It's a psychedelic realm without the drugs, a higher level. When I dream at night, I dream about this."
Attention returns to Nick, who seems to have forgotten the presence of anyone else in the room, even the photographer and her flashing strobes. He juts back and forth, his dozens of tiny braids whipping around, occasionally pausing to press a headphone to his left ear to cue up the next record. He pushes his hands up and pulls them away like a bandleader, and, for a second, it seems like the inanimate vinyl is actually responding.
"Every deejay picks out his own records," Nick says. "So every record has something of that person in it. The ones you pick, the order, the way it's overlapped--all that distinguishes the deejay. Nothing's planned out. It's totally spontaneous.
"I know my records. I know what I want when I go to the crate," he continues. He has a good memory for sound too. "It's not like I think: time to change every eight measures. I just feel the music and go with it."
The Scene is a weekly look at the trends and lifestyles of Orange County high schoolers.