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Feature Thu Mar 15 2007

The Life and Times of DJ Major Taylor

Is it a bird? A plane? No folks, it's one of Chicago's most charismatic DJs — DJ Major Taylor, the comic book inspired alter ego of Ralph Darden. Regular dude by day, DJ by night, the 33-year-old, Philly-bred DJ/musician moved to Chicago three years ago and has since firmly put down roots, best known for hosting infamously wild parties (where guests are granted free admission in exchange for arriving sans clothing [underwear only]) and for the faithful following he draws to his Friday night dance parties at the Ukrainian Village dive bar, Tuman's.

Darden's also been making headway (in Chicago as well as Europe) via another of his Philly imports — his eclectic, progressive reggae/punk/dub band, The Jai-Alai Savant (for which he is front man/guitarist/singer/songwriter), on the verge of releasing a debut album, The Flight of the Bass Delegate, (Gold Standard Laboratories) in April. Not to be outdone by Ralph Darden, DJ Major Taylor is soon to release an EP of his own, a mixed CD titled, Major Taylor's Needle Exchange Program. The ubiquitous Darden is an artist who pushes the envelope by defying both musical and racial boundaries. He's more of a trend-setter/creative innovator/personality/party starter than a die-hard DJ, but at the same time, he's also a musician to be reckoned with. Who is the real Ralph Darden and why does everyone seem to know who he is?

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The fact that Darden is an unabashed extrovert is something you notice straight off the bat. With his dramatic, gravity-defying, untamed mass of hair, full beard/mustache and stylish black vintage specs (they're not real, just part of his latest persona), he draws a lot of glances at Zen Noodles in Wicker Park — one of his favorite haunts. Buzzing from one topic to the next, Darden keeps me entertained, embellishing his stories with funny voices, including one of Cockney (and dirty) Trudy, in reference to his recent trip to London during a whirlwind, "banging" eight plus city European tour. He's not hesitant to express his opinions, discussing why he thinks Michael Jackson is lame, and why he loves (because it's cheap and big) and hates (because it's in a rough neighborhood) his 2-bedroom apartment in Humboldt Park. Pinned auspiciously to right side of his tan vintage jacket is a little bee patch, which he explains he's had since he was 16, a good luck charm that he, superstitiously, wears every times he performs. An open book when it comes to talking about himself, Darden admits that he lives like a twelve-year-old, with no real responsibilities, nothing to really tie him down. "I live in squalor," says Darden, with a laugh. "There is pizza on my ceiling fan," he says with a grin, making you wonder if he's kidding or not. A kid trapped in a man's body? Perhaps so, but there is also a side of Darden that is incredibly responsible — he's a teetotaler who, for eight years has been very successful in creating parties for other people, and is dead serious about his craft. "I'm a consummate performer," he notes.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Darden learned the art of keeping his audience satisfied at a young age. After his parents divorced, when he was five, he and his mom moved into his grandparents' house, a place filled with adults and teenagers. He put on shows for them, dancing and singing, captivating their attention. "I saw that I enjoyed having an audience, being the center of attention," he said. His hobbies included comic books, cartoons and music. "I was obsessed with this cartoon Starblazers," Darden said. His father, a jazz musician, "planted the seed of music." Darden's also a huge fan of Frank Miller, the creator of the Batman Returns series and from a young age, Darden decided he wanted to become a comic book artist. Following high school, he enrolled in the Philadelphia School of the Arts, but dropped out a year later.

At the time, Darden was in a band called Franklin, and was a huge fan of the Chicago-based punk band, Trenchmouth, which included members Damon Locks and Wayne Montana (both now members of The Eternals). In 1997, Darden paid a visit to Chicago, where he saw a poster designed by friend Locks for the reggae music events led by DJ Rickshaw and his Deadly Dragon Sound System. He was inspired. "No one gave a shit about reggae in Philly. I thought it was a great idea to create a dub/reggae night." Within two weeks of conceptualizing, Darden had his first reggae/dub night, back in Philadelphia. He came up with the name DJ Major Taylor from Major Taylor—the world's first black cycling champion and the first black athlete to win anything outside of boxing in the '20s. "On top of that I've always been a huge fan of comic book folklore—the concept of superhero and super villain, normal people by day and colorful, with colorful, alter egos of their own, so I decided to take on the alter ego of Major Taylor."

Darden, who has often been noted for his eclectic DJing tastes—including punk, rock, disco, reggae and dub—points out the musical experiences of his childhood, when there was an explosive array of new music coming into the fore at the same time. "I'm a product of the late '70s/early '80s, when disco was dying, punk was emerging, rap was being created. 1976-1986 was the Golden Age of music." Five years into a successful career as DJ Major Taylor in Philly, Darden moved to Chicago, because, he says, it was time to "step up his game." Part of what attracted him was the hard-work ethic combined with the opportunities. "There are tons of creative people here, working really fucking hard, and loving what they do, but it's not about being a celebrity [Like in LA or New York].

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The Jai-Alai Savant: Michael Bravine left, Ralph Darden center, D. Nash Snyder right. (Photo by Damon Locks.)

Sitting down with Darden, we got to talking about the band, his DJ sets, and the future.

Marla Seidell: Describe a typical Friday night at Tuman's.
Ralph Darden: The scene at Tuman's, it's very mixed, it's very me — I belong there. The crowd that comes to see me is very diverse, in terms of age and race. There's 40-year-olds, hipsters, black kids who come to see me. I spin everything—from dance classics from the '70s and '80s, to JayZ to Michael Jackson, Daft Punk, hip hop, rock, funk and disco.

MS: Having named your alter ego after a successful black athlete, it's clear that fighting against racial discrimination is important to you. Do you try to break down racial barriers through your music/DJing?
RD: I don't spin to enough black kids. They are very specific. The ones who go to a WGCI event are not going to come and see me. It kinda sucks, those are the people who need to be exposed. They're inundated with what the media tells them to like.

MS: How do you differ from other DJs?
RD: I never wanted to just be a turntabilist or real DJ. My roots are in reggae, and I debuted as a DJ in the hip-hop circuit, which influenced the way I put things together. That's how my whole persona came together. I want to play Tribe Called Quest and Rod Stewart.

MS: Describe the musical strains present in The Jai-Alai Savant.
RD: Lots of people say we sound like the Police or that conceptually we are a modern version of the Clash. Some writers have even gone so far as to compare us to TV on The Radio but I attribute that simply to the fact that I am black. I honestly don't care whom people compare us to just as long as our music engages them and they enjoy it.

MS: Where do you want to end up?
RD: I want to be the guy at red carpet events, with someone like Shannon Sossaman on my arm, not the focus of all the Paparazzi, but the guy who everyone says, why does that guy look so familiar? I want to be a C-list celebrity, a brown carpet guy, making red carpet money.

The Jai-Alai Savant performs at 9pm on 3/22 at Schubas. Tickets are $5 at the door. Starting at at 11pm, DJ Major Taylor leads the Schubas DJ Upstairs Night.

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The Jai-Alai Savant: Michael Bravine left, Ralph Darden center, D. Nash Snyder on the right. (Photo by Damon Locks.)

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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