For two years, San Antonio-born-and-raised DJ Donnie Dee (Dontia Twine) wanted no part of Red Bull’s Thre3style competition, in which DJs have 15 minutes to pump up the crowd while mixing at least three different styles of music. Super Soul Shakedown’s Scuba Gooding Sr. (Steven Balser), a longtime friend, kept pestering him about it, but he would have none of it.
“[Balser] was very persistent, telling me how this would be a springboard for my career and all that shit,” Donnie Dee told the Current while preparing his regular Friday night gig at the Revolution Room. “I understand friends want to help friends, but I was a little burnt out and he kept bugging me, to the point that we had an argument about it and didn’t speak to each other for a while.” (Balser, who two years ago joined Red Bull as Cultural Event Marketing Manager for the 13-state Mountain South region, said he couldn’t speak for this story due to “company policy;” ironic, considering that all Red Bull energy drinks do is keep you awake and wanting to talk.)
Dee had burnt out despite being a two-time U.S. finalist in the prestigious DMC world DJ championship, tired of a slow decline in the local DJ scene, especially after the demise of party-hearty FM radio station Power 106.
Dee also had doubts about this new Thre3style competition. “I just didn’t see it,” Dee said. “I’m so stuck on DMC and how that’s run, and being part of that whole world. I didn’t feel I belonged [in Thre3style].”
Eventually, Balser convinced his friend and, on January 25, Dee went to Austin to represent San Antonio in the regional qualifier facing Austin’s top DJs. He killed it, pulverizing the opposition in 15 minutes of glory that then took him to Dallas on February 22 to compete against the South’s top DJs. He won again, and on April 5 in Los Angeles he’ll represent the South against the nation’s top five DJs for a chance to wear the red, white, and blue colors at Toronto’s Thre3style world finals in the summer.
“This is all so unbelievable,” said the 33-year-old Dee, who started DJing when he was 12 but up until now had only competed in six-minute sets at DMC, the world’s top DJ competition launched in 1986. “I never thought I was going to win Austin or Dallas. And just for you to be interviewing me, it is so weird. I’m not used to it.”
Red Bull’s invitation-only Thre3style started in Canada in 2008 and quickly grew into an international event in more than 24 countries. Unlike the DMC, which focuses on shorter routines and emphasizes pure technique and mixing ability, Thre3style competitors are judged in track selection, creativity, mixing skills, stage presence, and crowd reaction, and DJs must mix at least three music styles in their 15-minute set. Qualifiers win $5,000 and regional champs receive $10,000. Dee used his cash prizes to fix his mother’s Toyota Prius and saved the rest. If he continues his run, he may have enough to do one or two more tune-ups: the national winner gets $20,000 and the World Champion in Toronto will earn $50,000.
Though relatively new, Thre3style 2012 attracted stars like Erykah Badu and Salt-N-Pepa’s Spinderella, who is quoted in Red Bull’s press materials saying “This is the best DJ competition or event I’ve ever seen on so many different levels…The talent, production, competition format and everything were top-notch.”
The opinion of local DJs and a closer look at the judges confirm Spinderella’s perception.
“Red Bull is all over the place,” said DJ Tone, Best Club DJ winner in the 2012 Current Reader’s Poll. “They’ll send people to outer space to find DJs, and the winning DJs go to outer space too. I would rank [Thre3style] number two in the U.S. and in the top five in the world, maybe fourth or third.”
Thre3style’s invitation-only nature has its pros and cons. On the one hand, unknown (or PR-impaired) but skillful DJs get a break when Red Bull scouts “discover” them at a club and invite them to be part of Thre3style. On the other hand, more accomplished DJs feel undeservedly left out. What no one argues is the quality seen at Thre3style.
“I wish there was like an open invitation,” said DJ Tone. “But these unknown people really deserve it, and the judges are first-class. They’re really out there.”
DJ Tone thinks one of the reasons Thre3style works is because Red Bull reps were already in the clubs looking for new talent and then aggressively promoting the events (and the winning DJs). And when it’s time to court potential new stars, Red Bull won’t take no for an answer. Take Donnie Dee, for example.
If Dee was a tough one to crack, Balser (and Red Bull) were tougher. In a last desperate attempt to have him compete, they invited Dee to Austin. He accepted reluctantly and met Balser and several Red Bull representatives at the W Hotel in Austin last November.
“I go in, and they gave me a case,” said Dee. “I open it and there it was: a fully functional turntable with big letters reading, ‘Congratulations on becoming a Red Bull Thre3styler,’ or something like that. They charmed me and won my heart. When there’s more than one person who shows interest, you say, ‘I want to be part of this thing.’”
In Austin and Dallas, Dee performed sets that he conceived like all the others: in the shower.
“That’s when I figure everything out: ‘What can I do? What can I make fun of? What can I put in the middle to throw people off? What’s the climax?”
On paper, his choice to start could not have been worse. Live, the crowd went bananas.
“In Austin, especially, I went first, so I had to catch them off guard,” Dee said. “So I started making fun of ‘Gangnam Style.’ They wouldn’t expect the only black man there kicking things off with that and doing it the way I did it.”
How did he do it?
“I just let it play, man,” he laughs. “That’s all I had to do.”
From Psy’s “Gangnam Style” he went to Will.i.am and Britney to Jacko (solo and with the Jackson 5), in an explosive, scratch-filled mix of dance, hip-hop, funk, electronica, and rock. It was enough to beat local Austin heroes Nicknack, Chorizo Funk, Kid Slyce, and Bird Peterson. In Dallas, Dee took care of the regional champions: DJ Spinstyles (Kansas City), DJ Jive (New Orleans), OG Bobby Trill (Houston), and local favorite DJ A1.
Listen to Dee's winning Austin set here:
“Do I feel like an underdog? Always,” Dee said. “And I thrive off of proving them wrong. Because it’s not just me — [SA] has super talented DJs. I’m representing all.”
The Austin judges (Chicken George, current Thre3style World Champ Four Color Zack, and Baby G) had solid reputations, but the Dallas judges — who will also judge the finals in L.A. — were legends: DJ Jazzy Jeff (of early Will Smith fame), A-Trak (the first DJ to win the “DJ Grand Slam” of DMC, ITF, and Vestax) and mashup pioneer Z-Trip (2009 America’s Top DJ by DJ Times). They’ll be the ones who will determine how Donnie Dee fares against the nation’s top Thre3stylers: DJ Scene (West Coast champ), DJ PHSH (East Coast), DJ Konflikt (Southeast), and Trentino (Midwest).
The sixth rival, Orlando’s Arock, is a wildcard finalist chosen by social media.
“They’re all great DJs, but I’m not nervous,” said Dee, who used to mix the old-school lunchtime show for two years at the defunct Power 106. “I’ve done many DMCs and I have no problem stirring up the crowd.”
Not only is Dee experienced in DMC-styled battles, but he was close to winning it, twice. In a particularly glorious year for SA DJs, he came in third at the 2005 U.S. DMC championship, while fellow San Antonian DJ Kico took first prize.
“Soon after that, things cooled off a little for the SA scene, and we’re trying to change that,” Dee said. “But it’s not just about ‘winning,’ you know? It’s about having fun. If I don’t win I’m not going to jump in the pool and kill myself. If you’re too competitive, you worry too much. If you do it for fun, it just shows what you can do, it’s natural. And that’s how I want to come across: as a natural-born DJ.”
DJing is all Dee does, and he doesn’t have a day off. “I’m always practicing,” he says. But the requests for his services are steadily increasing. For the first time in his career, he can feel the hype.
“I’m so accustomed to winning competitions and not making any money, always thinking in terms of ‘next year,’ ‘next year,’” he said. “And all of a sudden something happens and I have to be on it. If somebody asks me to do something in L.A., I gotta go do it because these opportunities just don’t happen.”
That’s exactly what Dee’s going to do after April 5’s Thre3style finals: when he comes back from L.A., he’ll host the regional DMC battle at Fitzgerald’s on April 13 (with two-time DMC U.S. Champion DJ Precision) and then, at the end of the month, he’ll return to L.A. with a surprise up his sleeve.
“It’s a different kind of battle, and nobody knows I’m in that one yet, not even the people throwing it,” Dee said. “All I can tell you now is that it’s going to shock the hell out of people.”