Members Only's Mixed Business

How two of Seattle's busiest DJs stepped from behind the decks to become its newest record execs.

With one ear buried in his headphones, DJ Swervewon appears to have found a mesh point between the record spinning on his turntable and the song pulsing through the house speakers at Nectar Lounge on a recent Friday evening. Crafting a seamless transition into his set isn't crucial with an early crowd of only a dozen or so nearly three hours before the headliner—L.A.'s DâM-FunK—takes the stage, but it seems natural to the longtime DJ, and he starts the night on a smooth note. The wobbly-named Swerve (real name, Louis Berntsen)—fittingly license-less, thanks to a recent DUI—is spinning an all-vinyl funk set in tribute to the headliner, and the early audience is gravitating toward the dance floor. Sitting on the stairs built into the stage's left side, Berntsen's friend and business partner dj100proof says he plans to follow up with the same kind of set, although his take is much more '70s and '80s than Swerve's older-era selection. "We're each better at different things," says 100proof, known to his daytime photo-editing co-workers as Jeff Lawrence. "We each have our own style." If you've been to a club in Seattle in the past year, simple probability makes it likely that you've seen these two at work. There's hardly a day of the week that these local impresarios don't find their names attached to a DJ showcase, club night, or concert bill, including some of the biggest hip-hop events in recent memory. In addition to their residencies at the Capitol Club and HG Lodge every Monday and Saturday respectively, and Lawrence's behind-the-scenes work on KEXP's Streetsounds on Sundays, they've found time to share the stage with the likes of The RZA, Big Boi, Digable Planets, and Aloe Blacc, to name a few. Their most impressive work, however, has been in the formation and success of the city's most street-level record label and promotional team, Members Only, which for over a year has been pumping out local music and bringing prime national acts to town. After signing their first band, State of the Artist, to a record contract last December, the group's debut album has been getting play on KEXP, and the popular music video for their first single, "Extrahelladope," has been making the rounds on the Internet. The MO team also enjoyed a successful non-roster release after financing the pressing and promotion for Champagne Champagne/THEESatisfaction's dual 7 Magnetic Blackness, which has become a local underground hit. In addition to releasing a digital album from Hi-Life Soundsystem this month—to feature Seattle Weekly's Best MC of 2009, Khingz—the Members Only crew hopes to release a project a month throughout 2011. "We've got a lot of talented people that we're working with," says MO co-owner Rob Milliron. (All five members—Berntsen, Lawrence, promoters Milliron and David Pomeranz, and writer Will Johnsen—own equal stock in the label.) "We're just working towards being able to release one thing a month—which is the hope and dream—and do it right, and give each project its shine, and just continue to build with our friends and new people . . . that are doing great work in the community." The five owners say they hope not only to release a ton of new music and throw a slew of killer parties, but to diversify their investments as another homegrown entertainment company, Stuck Under the Needle, has done. Its manager Marcus Lalario has invested in nightclubs like Captain Black's, HG Lodge, and even Batch 206's line of spirits. "Marcus is kind of like our big brother," explains Milliron, "and he has definitely seen that we are following in his footsteps. He [started by] doing club nights, then he bought the club, then he bought the booze, and he just constantly worked to cut out any middleman." Milliron says that MO has discussed investing in a venue, but that their moves will be slow and deliberate to avoid "getting in over our heads." "If you do a little bit of everything, your name is gonna get out through various sources," concludes Lawrence. "And the best part is that none of them get boring, because you're always doing something new." As fast as things seem to be moving now, these successes have been a long time coming for the co-owners of Members Only. Case in point: Berntsen, now 35, who, he says, spent years honing his skills—in an era when lugging two to three hundred records to a show to fill a set was common practice—before any kind of break came his way. He spent the bulk of those years in musically isolated Billings, Montana, and now says he views his early efforts as "trying to teach the audience to like something else besides what's popular." Lawrence maintains that the focus of his sets is simply to "keep the asses shakin'." True to his handle, Lawrence has already wandered to Nectar's bar a few times for Red Stripes and some sides, which he claims are more assets to his style than handicaps—a skill he perfected as a resident of UW's Sigma Chi house. "I'm a functional drunk," he boasts. "I end up giving less of a shit and get better [at DJing]." Lawrence has barely begun his set, and the growing crowd is all over the dance floor. The night's co-headliner, legendary Northwest DJ Supreme La Rock, has just arrived, and sets up his gear alongside the others' onstage. In a business in which many artists distance themselves from those seen as competitors, confirmation from a local legend like Supreme (aka Danny Clavesilla) is golden—one of the ways Lawrence says he knows he's spinning the righteous wax. "I feel like I made it after Supreme wanted to DJ with us," he laughs. Likewise, Clavesilla says he feels proud that his understudies have breathed such fresh life into the game. "They're doing some good shit for the town that's overdue," he says. "They're so excited, so ambitious about it. You can tell it's from the heart." Members Only says what's overdue is mainly the element of excitement that was missing in the city before the summer of 2009, when they began pulling off caper-style concerts with rough BYOB guidelines at less-than-official venues. "We were figuring out things to do," says Lawrence, who also designs all the firm's posters and advertising, "things to kind of shake the foundation of what we thought was a stagnant Seattle scene. No one was doing anything all that exciting." Though they've pulled back a bit from the guerrilla-party circuit in an attempt to enhance the legitimacy of their business, they still bring the same energy to the stage. And as Lawrence wraps up his set, the party-starters have nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the show. music@seattleweekly.com

 
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