The drum 'n' bass is kept up front at Philadelphia's Cue Records, which makes it all the easier for DJ Sage to home in on exactly what she wants to find. “Oh! You have this in!” she exclaims when she sees a 12-inch of Illformants' “The Bizarre” up on the wall just to the right of the store's entrance. Even though it is featured on the Sage-mixed first volume of Moonshine Music's Drum & Bass Elements CD series, it is the DJ's first encounter with the track on vinyl. It seems to spur her, as she begins scouring the neatly stocked section with renewed vigor.
Andy Sine, a local DJ and Cue's resident drum 'n' bass buyer, wanders by to muse over the latest selections with Sage. Within the blink of an eye, he has pulled half a dozen discs from the wall for her to listen to, and off she goes for her first round.
A DJ unafraid of doing off-the-cuff sets, Sage (born Laura Totten) admits that she sometimes hasn't even heard some of the tracks that she plays out until they're on her turntables. “It helps you learn your mistakes quickly,” she says. But she's certainly quick to decipher the hits from the misses. At her Cue listening session, it takes an average of 10 seconds for her to either jump into the groove in her headphones or abandon it for the next 12-inch.
Until recently, Sage's lifestyle has been similar to her quick, on-the-move method of listening to records. As is often the norm for international DJs, she's been somewhat of a gypsy — but not just due to gigs: Sage used to live full-time in San Francisco but landed in Philly this past February after a nomadic global stint following her father's death. “My mum's from Ireland, and my father passed away a year-and-a-half ago, so I had to keep things going over here, and I was still trying to keep my family life situated,” she says, traces of an Irish brogue peppering her words. (“It comes out whenever I get off the phone with my mum, which I just did,” she says, chuckling.)
“I was flying back and forth all the time, sometimes just for a night from Ireland to play gigs, and then, gradually, I was spending far more time over here between gigs,” Sage continues. “For a couple of years, I was just sleeping on people's couches and floors and living out of bags, and I just needed somewhere to settle down.”
Philadelphia, a city that more people have spent time attempting to leave than to arrive at, was an unusual but eventually satisfying choice. “It's a good middle ground,” Sage says. “It's only a five-and-a-half-hour flight to Ireland, and it's really close to D.C. and New York. When I lived in San Francisco, I felt like I was always entertaining people who were coming to stay. I just wanted somewhere that I could be a little more productive myself, to work on music and take it easy, but I still wanted to be in a big city.”
Philly has a small but thriving drum 'n' bass scene, which DJ Sage fits into seamlessly. National star Dieselboy is a friend, and Cue's helping hand Sine is a resident at Platinum, one of the city's top parties. Venturing out of town, Sage is also a DJ for D.C. Shoe Co. The apparel company was looking to add female drum 'n' bass DJs — mixers whose music complemented its underground edge — to its event roster. DJ Sage worked in both categories, and she impressed the company enough to land in its pages several years ago as a model.
Unlike a lot of drum 'n' bass DJs who attempt to work the crowd into a frenzy by playing as aggressively as possible, Sage has gained notoriety by heading in the other direction. “Probably of any of the drum 'n' bass DJs, I'll end up playing the more soulful stuff, at least of the ones who actually play out and circulate,” she says. “I find that, sometimes, people aren't into my sets because I don't play ‘hard’ enough for them. I don't know … you just can't compromise yourself. You just gotta do it, and if people aren't into it, oh, well. I like a lot of different stuff. I can't play hard and crazy all night long because it won't satisfy me and it doesn't make me feel good.”
Drum & Bass Elements 01: Mixed by DJ Sage (Moonshine, 2003) displays Sage's ability to maintain an energetic vibe while bringing a deeper melodic edge to the table. J.T.'s “Merge of Realities,” from her own Phylum Recordings label, is on the disc. A collaborative effort between Sage and producer John Tejada (J.T.), as well as solo efforts by each, make the cut alongside genre stars Klute and Cyantific. During her shopping trip at Cue, Sage is particularly excited to find several of the tracks on her album on vinyl, as her advance acetates are getting worn out.
“Grunge 3”/“Mass Hysteria” (Human)
These are actually remixes on Dieselboy's label, Human. The one I've been playing for a long time is the Ivory mix of “Mass Hysteria,” and I'm really excited to actually get it on record now. It's such a good dancefloor tune. Any time I play it — any time I've heard anyone else play it — it just really gets people going. The other side is a Dieselboy, Kaos and Karl K mix of “Grunge 3,” which gets people going, too.
“The Bizarre” (Subtitles)
I actually have “The Bizarre” on my mix CD, and, now, I'm going to have it on record. I have a lot of things on acetate, and after a while, they just don't sound too good, you know?
“Still Dreaming”/“Then”/“Hacienda” (Space)
There's a cool vocal chant in [“Then”]. It's another vocal, but I like what they're doing here.
Oh! I recognize this. Andy has been playing this for a bit, haven't you, Andy? This is big. (“They're a local crew from here in Philly,” Sine says.) “I knew that I knew this one!”
Here Comes Trouble LP Sampler, Vol. 2 (TOV)
The original song is Dillinja's “Twist 'Em Out.” It has this pretty intense riff that when people hear it, they all start screaming and stuff like that. I was playing the Skibadee vocal mix, and it has an MC vocal throughout the whole thing. I was playing that on acetate, too, but I just listened to the DJ Fresh — from )EIB( — mix, and that's pretty slammin', so I think I'll play that, too.
Soul:ution Series 1, Part 3 (Soul:r)
I pretty much play everything that this label releases. They are definitely on the more soulful side of things, but the beats are really heavy, and the bass is thick enough that it gets a good response. I'll probably play every one of these songs. I've been playing Calibre's “It's …” for a while on acetate. I like the vocals. Some people aren't into vocal stuff, but I can get into it if it's not too diva-y or all over the place.