By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
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It's hardly surprising that Gregory Keltgen (a.k.a. DJ Abilities) doesn't go by his real name. Hip-hop DJs have been adopting new identities since a Joseph Sadler became Grandmaster Flash more than 20 years ago. But choosing Abilities as an onstage alias is audacious enough to invite skepticism--if not outright derision--from fickle hip-hop-heads. "When I started spinning, I had a bunch of names," Keltgen says. "But 'Abilities' is just the one that stuck."
And after only a short time on the local rap scene, he has earned his presumptuous nom de jock. Whether spinning with the Rhyme Sayers at First Avenue's hip-hop night, Soundset, or with his rhyming partner Eyedea in the arty group Sixth Sense, Abilities' DJing is as solid as any in town. His evenly paced, scratch-heavy flow sways apathetic nightclub audiences and diehards alike. "I want every beat to be different, every time," he says. "I want to keep challenging myself. Playing live is fun; it's great to rock a crowd. But I'm in it for the art. Scratching is you--it's your personality coming out--just as much as playing guitar. When I'm performing, I'm feeling it completely. It's like meditating. Like I'm inside the music."
So you'll have to forgive Keltgen's oft-noted self-aggrandizing sense of his, well, abilities. "I do have a cocky thing going on," the 19-year-old St. Paul native admits over a forkful of chicken enchilada at Little Tijuana on Nicollet Avenue. Yet beneath his chiseled good looks and linebacker build hides a goofy postteen whose cool arrogance has become a source of amusement for his friends in the hip-hop community. Keltgen recently garnered an onstage "tribute" from his pals in the Rhyme Sayers, in which he was sent up with cryptically offensive lines such as, "He's not gay/He's just narcissistic." (A few hours after my lunch with Keltgen, the Rhyme Sayers' Slug joked, "When you were eating, he was probably checking himself out in his spoon.")
Keltgen's easy assurance is a large part of his charm; he's courteous and kind, punctuating his sentences with a disarming smile. But his ease and self-confidence are hard-won. Born in Albuquerque, N.M., Keltgen moved north at age 7, when his mother Geanne brought him and his little brother Derek to her native St. Paul. Geanne had two more kids, and when hard times hit, she moved her family into a cramped studio apartment in St. Paul's Midway-University district--one of 14 places Greg and Derek lived as kids. Geanne worked an endless series of odd jobs while pursuing her law degree from William Mitchell, which she completed in 1995. Yet just as things were starting to look up, the family's problems became more grave, forcing Keltgen to leave home.
"I moved in with my girlfriend when I was 16," he remembers. "Then I lived with my brother. We had a tiny apartment with no furniture in it. We slept on egg crates."
In 1995, Keltgen, who says he was experimenting heavily with drugs, transferred from St. Paul's Central High to the Carmichael Studio School, where he planned to study drawing. "Two of my teachers, Mr. Wells and Mr. Peter, were a big reason I stopped using. They taught philosophy classes, but they were really teaching aesthetics, and the things they said gave me a lot of perspective on how to deal with things." Around the time he stopped using, Keltgen shifted his musical interests from the post-metal of Alice in Chains and Pantera to hip hop, and shortly thereafter, DJing. "I listened to rap in junior high, but none of my friends liked it, so I felt kind of isolated. The Public Enemy-Anthrax crossover [1991's "Bring the Noise"] got me hooked."
When Derek, who had just enrolled at Macalester, got a radio show on the campus station, WMCN, Greg, then 16, was enlisted to provide on-air scratches. Soon he was spending all his money on equipment. "Every month, my dad sent money to live on, but instead of buying furniture, I bought turntables," he recalls. "And from that point on, all I did was practice."
Keltgen learned a number of performance tricks--playing with his elbows and behind his back--only to abandon his hot-dog theatrics in early 1997 after catching a set by internationally acclaimed local hip-hop technician IXL. "That was the first out-of-body experience I've ever had at a live hip-hop show," says Keltgen. "After I saw him, I stopped doing tricks. I realized that serious scratching was what I really wanted to do, and stunts just fell to the side." IXL took the young DJ under his wing, teaching him difficult moves like "the Flare." "It's the hardest scratch to master," says Abilities. "You're moving the crossfader twice as fast as your scratch. It takes a lot of concentration."
The newly born Abilities landed himself a spot backing the Rhyme Sayers crew, which led to frequent gigs with the Rhyme Sayers' satellites Native Ones, and then the formation of Sixth Sense, whose debut full-length is tentatively scheduled for release between late spring and early summer. Eyedea and Abilities have completed more than 50 tracks for their inaugural disc, with more under construction, and Keltgen will soon be making appearances on a new disc by former Phull Surkle rapper Gene Poole. And with 1999 plans to compete in the two most important DJ competitions in the world--the Dance Music Connection and International Turntablist Federation--he'll have plenty of opportunities to make good on his name and chase his outsize ambitions. "When Sixth Sense's album comes out, I want it to be revolutionary," he says. "I don't just want to be a good Minnesota DJ, I want to be the best in the world, like the Miles Davis or the Jimi Hendrix of the turntable."
DJ Abilities, All Natural, Rhyme Sayers, Rusty Pelicans, and DJ Tone B. play 7 p.m. January 9 at the Hip Hop for the Homeless benefit at the Whole Music Club; (612) 624-8638.