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Spring 2001, South Beach Discotheque and Lounge: Brent Bartel (a.k.a. DJ Echo) is charming his way through circle after circle of wannabe discotheque divas. Clad in a rough-and-tumble wife-beater-and-backward-cap combo, he appears to exemplify everything annoying about house DJs. Proving to be an A-plus multitasker, Bartel digs through his record bag with a drink in hand, a cigarette tucked in the corner of his mouth, and shades almost slipping off his nose. Bartel, in all his tattooed glory, is a hardass.
It doesn't matter that he's spinning innocuous disco records pressed in a post-Donna Summer era. Bartel's breed of soulful, vocal house (with a hint of Chicago flavor) is a favorite among the ladies, who strive to keep an eye on bad-boy Bartel while keeping the beat. As an insider on this scene, you might assume that Bartel is just your typical, locally prominent 22-year-old: cocky, yet laboring nonetheless to maintain buoyancy in the sea of on-the-come-up house DJs that swamps this metropolis.
Winter 2001, Twilight Tattoo: A calm Bartel chats with me while drinking to-go coffee at Twilight Tattoo, where he moonlights as a skin artist. Six months ago Bartel told me his life story in fast and fluid street-speak over a bottle of Stoli from his downtown luxury apartment. Today, it's the same story, but told by a stunningly different Bartel.
Having been kicked out of three high schools in four years, Michigan-born Bartel started living on his own at age 15. He says that he didn't have much more than "a skateboard, a 19-inch television, and an outfit of big pants for each day." It was around this time that Bartel found raves; he'd found drugs even earlier. "I don't remember--from the time I was in eighth grade to the time I overdosed in 1997--being sober for longer than two days," he now admits.
Sitting next to me on Twilight's cushy couch, Bartel recalls waiting weekend after weekend in line outside of warehouses in Detroit's packing-plant district. "We'd go to a party in a Bloods district when the Bloods and the Crips were at war, and they'd end up driving by and shooting up the whole party," he remembers. "Ravers were getting shot--it was like going to war every weekend, and we stuck out like glow-in-the-dark paint."
It was this kind of commitment to rave culture that started to make Bartel into a spectacle of sorts. In August 1997 he moved to Chicago to attend art school, and he ended up at a two-day bash one weekend in the fall. "I had broken my foot skateboarding on ketamine," he recalls. "I didn't want to be that kid on crutches hogging the speaker, so I taped glowsticks to [them] and went hobbling around the party."
Next thing he knew, Bartel experienced a vision that would change his life. The "spiritual awakening" took him out of his body and behind the turntables, where a voice (which Bartel believes to have been God's) revealed to him that he would become sober and, with work, would become a DJ.
Bartel spent the next seven nights in Chicago-Mercy hospital with drug-induced schizophrenia. "I had hit the lowest of my lows," he says, bowing and shaking his head. "Here I am, dressed in some gown, wobbling around on crutches with my ass hanging out. I owned nothing. I had been kicked out of art school after only a month due to this huge drug problem. That's when my parents told me I was going to go to Hazelden in Minnesota for rehab."
Bartel's story may sound like the typical music-biz cliché: the drugs, the danger, the hard-knock life. But that doesn't change the fact that when you hear a certain record or attend a certain show, it can have as significant an impact on your life as Bartel's Chicago awakening did on his. And maybe that's why, after having an epiphany and sobering up here in Minnesota, Bartel was moved to buy his first decks.
While teaching himself to spin, Bartel adopted the name Echo from an ad in an urban-culture magazine. Later he learned that in Greek mythology, Echo was a loudmouthed character. "He became cursed with the plight that he couldn't speak before being spoken to," Bartel explains. "How fitting."
He initially made his name locally as a promoter before showing his skills as a DJ. An infectious smile creeps across Bartel's face, and he laughs as he thinks back. "No one believed I was going to be a DJ. I'd just be like, No, really, I heard it in a vision."
That revelation made the discolicious Bartel into the entrepreneurial ace behind the First Avenue-backed team of house jockeys known as Down to Earth Productions. The group collectively commenced their clubland quest in 1998 with the aforementioned club's "Ghetto Blaster" bang-outs (now on their 16th installment). The club night has progressed steadily, and Bartel himself has turned over a new...record. "I found myself in house music," he says. "House is roots, and it's who I am."