Greatest of E's

It's 5 in the morning. Three hours ago more than 1,000 ravers were collectively leaving their heads as the energy of riotous dance music damn near launched this dingy St. Paul warehouse into orbit. Now, maybe 200 kids are aimlessly shuffling through the dingy, cavernous space, their ostentatiously enormous clothes hanging off them like ruined rainwear. Even the fanatics--those diehards that dance until they're covered in sweat and caked with the grimy venue's industrial residue--start looking for the door.

Few pay attention as DJ Mr. E-Tones (a.k.a. Tony Larson) steps to the decks. Small, quietly focused, and smiling, he puts on his first record. Slowly, the room's mood shifts. Tired eyes brighten. The exhausted are rejuvenated as E-Tones' subtle, melodic, selections revive the room. As if by some sort of dance-floor alchemy, the dead zone begins to bounce. Even the half-conscious are nodding in time. Dawn is breaking through the warehouse's overhead windows. It's exhilarating.

E-Tones has been doing this for years. Equally comfortable playing for an hour at raves or for six at the Gay 90's--where the 25-year-old jock has held a hugely popular residency for two years--this sweet, intense Pied Piper is the best underground DJ in Minneapolis. "If I were Earth's ambassador for music," says local DJ legend Woody McBride. "I'd want to take Tony with." The metaphor speaks volumes: By taking underground house music to an above-ground dance floor, E-Tones bridges the gap between mainstream clubgoers and die-hard ravers. And he does it with a grace and authority that are virtually nonexistent in the media's fabricated "Electronica Revolution."

"Tony's a really elegant DJ," says McBride, a longtime friend who's spun with Larson for years and just released E-Tones' debut single, "Detergent for the Soul." A typical E-Tones set works its way into your consciousness through a mix that's equal parts hypnotic and kinetic. "I like minimal stuff that has a really emotional quality," Larson says. "I like vocals that aren't over the top--nothing too cheesy." Though he does indulge in common DJ ploys like gospel-derived sing-chants, such pedestrian devices become something new when embedded in one of E-Tones' ethereal mixes. On a good night these can feel downright spiritual.

So, it's appropriate that our DJ savior is one of the truest believers in the transubstantiating power of the groove that you're likely to encounter. After eight years of hard work he's never made a living from DJing. Yet, he still evinces a passion for the craft of the set and the art of the mix.

In person this Iron Range-raised working-class kid is reserved and unobtrusive, almost self-effacing. Minding the counter of the all-vinyl dance-music shop in the basement of Let It Be Records, he leans forward, intently bouncing on his chair as he sips bottled tea. "Growing up in International Falls I was always really shy," he says. "Really quiet. Some people didn't even notice me."

Such a small-town rut will out, and Larson's teenage tastes leaned towards the nihilist blurt of goth pop and industrial dance music. "All they played on the radio was bad Top 40 and country," Larson says. "After we got MTV in sixth grade I got really into the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Stuff you like when you're a teenager trying to rebel." In 1989, he saw an MTV News report about England's blossoming rave scene. "I didn't even know what house music was. I just liked the concept of it: People would go to these parties and dance all night long." Soon after this discovery he would do just that--at the 7th Street Entry's House Nation events (led by his soon-to-be friend and mentor Kevin Cole).

The day-glo die was cast. "That was the first time I'd heard house. I couldn't believe it. It seemed too good to be true." That Christmas, his "cool" aunt, Julie, gave him a Kevin Cole mix tape. "That was the best gift I've ever been given. I thought he used computers to beat-mix; I didn't know how he did it. But I decided that I had to get the equipment and learn how myself."

After apprenticing under John Schultz (formerly of the Saloon) and spinning at dozens of warehouse parties, Tony was elected to take DJ Miss Miss's Sunday-night slot at the Gay 90's in 1996. Since then, it's been one of the most anticipated nights of the week for young clubbers. The place is always packed to the rafters during Larson's 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. set.

If you've seen him spin you know the scenario. The regular 90's crowd moves to the music with salacious abandon, as younger--possibly more serious--house heads vibrate in place, eyes closed, fists clenched tight against their chests as all senses lock in with E-Tones' seamless stylistic shifts. From behind the turntables Larson will focus in on a single dancer--a tiny, pig tailed rave-o-lette--and dig through the crates for the record that thrilled her last week. He'll put it on, and within four bars she's gone.

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