Me: Well, I want to come through and interview you for that write-up.
Abel (in affected Italian accent): What did I do? What did I ever do to you!? Why you always do this to me, ah?
Your mellow is chuckling already…
He’s a man of unassuming physique, yet with a mind and skill set that could cast a shadow on the sun. He’s both the Robin Williams and the Stephen Hawking of this record game and if you consider yourself a vinyl enthusiast or a DJ in Southern California and haven’t heard of Abel Sisneros or any of his aliases (DJ Abel, Abel the Table Guy, etc.), I have one question for you: Where you been, buddy?
Even if you’re a young blood, he’s been there at every major step of your evolution as a DJ. You saw him on the main stage of Rock The Bells in 2004, opening for the Wu-Tang reunion; that’s when you elevated from wanting to become a DJ to knowing you were going to be a DJ. Besides, you had already been stepping up your vinyl game and this was just the dude you always caught up-close, behind the counter at Stacks Vinyl, laughing it up with the peanut gallery. My, how much bigger he looked on stage. That time you realized turntables were going to be your next big expenditure, people told you to call him. You might not have listened. Then you heard the same chorus when the RCA shorted out on those tables. Should have took heed the first time. And so-
What’s that? All that didn’t happen to you? Ok, I apologize- maybe that’s just my story. The point is, the guy is omnipresent in the SoCal DJ scene, and has been for the last couple decades for more reasons than one. An intrepid turntablist and bonafide crowd-rocker, Abel has DJ’d as an opening act for seminal hip-hop artists like Brand Nubian, De La Soul, MOP, Hieroglyphics, and Little Brother. Often sought out for b-boy competitions, his resume is graced with appearances at Freestyle Session in Tokyo and B-boy City in Munich. He’s been a regular in many past and present culture-brewing hotspots including the widespread hip-hop collective, Foundation, Long Beach’s The Goodfoot!, and LA’s premier funk night, Funky Sole. You can also catch him on both Red Alert Radio and BReal TV once a week. Being the renaissance man that he is, Abel is a turnable-restorer to boot, servicing decks for artists of high-esteem like Mike Nardone, Tony G, DJ Skills, and Bobo of Cypress Hill. If you’re willing to hang out, his repair services come with complete science and history lessons in everything from motor mechanics to musicology, free of charge. I spent the day with Abel to get the inside story on this man of character.
I pull up to to Abel’s home in Cerritos, California. Such a reserved city seems an unlikely home for so many DJ greats, such as Beat Junkie heavyweights Rhettmatic, DJ Curse, and Melo D; but, one must recall that middle-class suburban neighborhoods have long been innovative breeding grounds for hip-hop culture- a little label named Def Jam and some group called Public Enemy come to mind. Abel stands at the summit of his driveway with the composed bearing of a preacher before his sermon on the mount. He awaits the arrival of three more turntables to add to the six already sitting in his garage- the products of the morning’s earlier business affairs. Dubbing these six broken turntables “products” makes me grimace though. I actually see them as a wretched bunch in line for baptism. Today they will be reborn, saved by their redeemer, “the chosen one”, Abel… the Table Guy. Am I dressing this up too much? After all, Abel is wearing sweatpants and his garage is a disastrous mess- the natural environment of a mad scientist. But I’m powerless, records and turntables, even just standing alone, effuse a quality of sanctity that I believe is owed reverence, for this quality, whatever it is, arouses a deep calm, a sense of piety within me. A grand performance with these tools and I’m stirred into a religious fervor just short of speaking tongues. As I inspect these turntables, enthralled by how photogenically they sit amid the maelstrom of wires and circuit boards, Abel is in full swing, speaking (somewhat inaudibly) to me.
The thought with which Abel tells a story reminds me a bit of the great Colombian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Every piece of furniture in a room will have such a detailed and branching story behind it, the influences and historical movements behind the architecture so laid out, that one forgets why the character had entered the room in the first place. And as soon as you begin to question the digressions, you realize that each sub-story is just a complementary build-up to the central one about to be told. Abel doesn’t ramble, he delivers thoughtful prefaces on the fly- prefaces that build a 360-degree panorama piece by piece, with the listener finding themselves in the center. He does all this while dodging the label of “long-winded”, because the other always has space to engage at any time. Sometimes, however, if Abel is particularly enthusiastic, you might just want to listen. At this particular moment, he is leaping and bounding through a summarization of his job history, firing off references to production companies, artists, label execs, and the movers and shakers of local and mainstream entertainment (think Dennis Miller hopped up on Redbull). Although at times I feel a couple steps behind, and I’m not sure where he’s going, I always arrive at the end of the story up to speed. I initially wrote that you do not “hold” a conversation with Abel, you really just buckle up and “hold on”-but that’s not necessarily true. It’s just that this guy is a beacon of information, and his brain stores that information in such an organized manner, that he’s able to pull out any factoid on the draw- and yet, his garage… This DJ’s mind moves likes his hands on the decks, drawing connections between entities that you wouldn’t think had anything in common. He beat-juggles ideas then drops punchlines. I have to let go of typical interview expectations because after all, I’m just here for the ride. Abel starts talking about his initial interest in music and I realize the interview has already begun.
Abel: “Well to take it back to single digit times, I grew up in a household where, [if] I got an A on a spelling test, mom would take me to Temple Records or Norwalk Records just to buy a couple 45’s because we had a jukebox. My dad bought a jukebox in ’80. And that’s basically how I learned my ABC’s and 123’s because A1 got me “Long Train Ride” and B5 got me “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by The Gap Band…”
He rattles off the catalogue and the reference numbers he still remembers. I move diligently to keep the conversation within the bounds of Abel’s adolescence, fishing around for what kept that initial interest in music and machines alive.
“Seeing the DJ’s setting up at Casa Maria’s when my family was leaving after dinner as a kid was part of it, but even more was Skate Depot [Rest in Peace]. I watched a documentary called “Maestro” and the patrons of that used to go to that club in the 70’s and 80’s said there was sort of an angst and anticipation when you were standing in line because you heard, outside of it, the low bass rumbling. It was that kind of feeling approaching Skate Depot. The only parallel to it I can think of is when you’re standing in line at Space Mountain. An other feeling that describes it is just before you go on stage. ‘Oh it’s about to happen’- that kind of thing. That’s the feeling I got. Mind you, it was Skate Depot. That’s not necessarily the point of it- it being a skating rink or anything. It was the first massive sound system I had ever heard. Lighting and everything, you know- it was reaching for it.”
Abel runs down where the pizza, roller skates, Pacman, and chairs were in reference to each other. He’s setting something up…
“On Friday nights people were break dancing and battling. I remember IceMan telling me ‘Yeah, that was the spot Friday nights in ’83/’84.’ Not on the ice rink but off to the side they would let people dance. Like for real, for real.”
It’s not hard to see what provided Abel with the impetus to become one of the premier breakdancing DJs in the circuit. However, the road to becoming a “DJ’s DJ” maybe looked a bit like a sound wave, undulating from trough to crest.
“When I was in 8th grade, just started off DJing, I DJ’d my old junior high party. Here I am, all Mr. Hiphop, throwing on all these twelve inches. The only problem was that the whole hip-hop dancing thing had completely died out by that point. Nirvana was in, so all I had was these white girls that wanted grunge. I didn’t have any of that on wax. The whole time I was like, ‘Oh, man’. Even though there’s so many DJ’s out of Cerritos, it wasn’t really that hip-hop. There was just a handful of us doing it… Nowadays, if I have all or almost all of the music that people request at an event, then I’m doing well. That sort of stuck with me. It made me realize, you gotta know what you’re signing up for. If you want to play to a particular niche then you gotta find that niche. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way.”
However, if you want to thrive as an entertainer, leaps into the unknown are not just necessary but imperative. About a decade later Abel found himself in a much more precarious situation.
“The craziest gig I ever encountered was when I was working at Stacks, we were DJing the Rock the Bells Wu-Tang reunion. I wound up opening for them directly. That was perhaps the most exhilarating, scariest gig I have ever done ‘cause they basically wanted me to keep 10,000 people at bay while they figure out how to get ODB on stage. I mean, it was something out of Lord of the Rings- DJing for a restless crowd of that many people inside an enclosed area. It was in one of the hangars. Through the hangar, you could see the air sucking in and blowing out.”
Most of Abel’s stories include sound effects. Here, he makes noises that letters can’t convey. His hands expand wide, then meet, animating air being taken in by behemoth lungs and blustering out.
“As if you were going to Mordor or something like that- that intensity. Actually, it was that hot too, while we’re at it! 10,000 people is a living, breathing thing.”
Abel pays homage to the DJ’s that helped him in his evolution from that hip-hop kid trying to satisfy a junior-high grunge party to opening for Wu-Tang in front of thousands.
“There were actually several people that were very responsible for the outcome I had. One of them being former managing editor for Rap Pages, Arun Sharma. DJ Dwenz from Foundation, partially because he was the co-director of it all, and basically the reason why I started doing open mics and b-boy practices. I just started participating, I didn’t care if I was getting paid or not. Four or five years later I was helping them through b-boy events. None of that would have happened had I not joined Foundation. C-Los from Fatbeats, DJ Gabereal, Mark Luv, Icy Ice were also intricate parts of it all for me.”
The modern world has moved away from the archetypal master-apprentice relationship. Today in the United States, people most often learn trades in packed classrooms or over the internet (both are removed and sterile ways of honing a skill), and for that reason, people are less likely to be an heir to the family craft or business. The pedagogy within vinyl DJ culture is one that has generally stayed true to the traditional master-protege approach. If you started DJing ten or more years ago, chances are, someone older took you under their wing and let you watch them practice. Then during their breaks, you got to practice on their gear. DJing apprenticeship is also often communal- a group of kids (like the Beat Junkies) all getting together and pushing each other forward. But with the rising accessibility of equipment and the increasing role of technology in DJing (with its functions such as “Auto-mix”) the common way for kids to learn DJing is looking more and more like the rest of trade-learning in America: just get on the computer and figure it out.
The person we’ve been waiting for finally shows up with the three parishioners- I mean- turntables to be fixed. Abel loads them in the garage with the others and we’re off to ProSound to pick up some parts. We slide into my Cadillac and talk records along the way. He talks about his favorite shop when he was younger, Noise Noise Noise (now Factory Records) the independent punk rock record store in Costa Mesa.
“Noise Noise Noise taught me to like just one type of music is boring. The fact that these punk rock kids, the ones with shit in their faces and tattoos, knew who Blackalicious was- like- ‘we only five presses left- they’re gonna go quick- you better jump on that’ and me and Josh One are like ‘You gonna get one? I’m gonna get one’- just that kind of thing. And all the different genres within the store. Noise was a place where if things got hectic in my life and I wanted to get away from it all, I’d hop in the car, with 50, 60 bucks to my name and go to Noise Noise Noise.”
Abel fields a phone call from somebody who has a couple questions about tables. Abel is in cahoots with people who find broken tables for him to fix, so they can resell them. Abel starts rattling off statistics to the stranger.
“You see, since 1982 Technics made 3 million turntables in 9 different styles and most of them are in the south coast. You’re going to find some with or without me. These things change a lot of hands in both directions. DJing is very much a revolving door.”
He hangs up and keeps going as if the phone call never happened, but I interrupt him.
“Was that for some tables?”, I ask, even though I know the answer.
“Yeah, I became like the gatekeeper for this shit. It’s really weird.”
We swap digging stories and philosophies…
“It’s not enough for me to collect the record, I want to understand the record: how it was used, who actually used it besides hiphop artists, who danced to it, how did they dance to it… that kind of thing. What was going on at the time the song was coming out, how was it relevant to the style after the fact. So when I look for stuff there’s all that going on.”
“What about online record shopping?”
“Those horns from the Lethal Weapon by Ice T, I was like, ‘I don’t know what those are’… breaks.com. “Razorblade” by Little Royel and the Swingmasters- alright! Gemm.com? 11 bucks for a 45? Click. Three days later it came in the mail and I was like, ‘Yaaaaay! This is magic! If you dug before the internet then you appreciate it to umph degree. Because it allowed me to not have any expectations when I go to the record store now. Something is often rare because it’s imported and you should be more realistic about finding that in a record store. Plus, websites like Discogs give me a lot of information I need to know about the record.”
Nothing beats a great come up, though. The feeling of finding a long-desired record in person is a spiritual experience- one that can inspire long-lasting jubilation. Most collectors have a story or two about how they found that “one” record, or how they stumbled upon a treasury of “burners” “goodies” or “grits”. By the way they tell it, you’d think they slayed a medieval dragon and rescued a princess on top of it. They’re expressions vary widely but they way they express them is uniform- one that is unmatched by any online shopping story I’ve ever heard. Abel agrees.
“GNG entertainment is a distribution company- they rented out jukeboxes and maintained the 45s for them for various establishments. They evolved from 45s to CDs to servers. So GNG was sitting on roughly 5,000 45s they had extracted from all of the jukeboxes. They were trying to get rid of it and thought I might be a buyer. I only raided it. Had a stack this high! Doubles of “Numbers” by Kraftwerk, doubles of “Funky Drummer”, doubles of “Hector” by the Village Callers, doubles of Itch and Scratch, doubles of “Scorpio”- it was stupid! 100 bucks. Probably about $3,200 worth of stuff. And all my older competition already had these records so I had to play catch up. I walked into my b-boy spots the next week and was like, ‘BLOWWW! FUCK ALL OF YOU! FUCK EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU! The older Gods are coming over and saying, ‘What are you doing with all these 45s? You don’t anything about any of this.’ I was like, ‘Says you’. Shoot, fair game for the plastic.”
Despite his popularity, Abel seems to miss the rapport he had with both the “older Gods” and the break dancers in those days. I sense he misses being the underdog and impressing them with his new finds.
“My status now is I’m kind of a boogieman, like, go to sleep or DJ Abel will get you.”
I walk into ProSound with Abel but it just as easily could be Cheers with Norm. They have his parts waiting for him and the affair lasts only minutes. On our way back to Abel’s house, I almost get on the wrong freeway and he saves me.
“I swallowed a Thomas Guide when I was eight. I was always kind of into maps cause of Pacman and Indiana Jones and games like that.”
He points to the crux of his fascination with playing video games.
“At a very young age I loved computers. I loved how logic worked, how signal flow worked through various computer games that I thought were just computer games, but then realized the same laws applied in the actual logic world: AND gate, OR gate, NOT gate and things of that nature. I rediscovered that love while working at Xtra… Yes, the TV show.”
It becomes clear why Abel is such a good entertainer. He’s worked within just about every form of multimedia and entertainment. Not to make him sound old (because he’s not), but he’s a valuable primary source because he’s been involved in the heyday of events and clubs that are now long since dead. What’s impressive is that as these dinosaurs fall around him, he’s always moving on, getting involved with the new. That common denominator that runs through different generations, turning the youth on- he gets it. It also explains why he’s such a character himself. He plays the humble when I ask him about his adaptability within the hustle.
“I guess it’s more of a Forrest Gump type scenario. I’ve always just been a curious cat and that helps keep me relevant. People younger than you can just as much be teachers to you as older people because they have the fresher view.”
He explains how the transition from Xtra to Stacks went down.
“When I was working at Xtra, I brought my turntables in and the engineering department helped me fix them. All my tools you see, I bought from where Xtra bought their stuff for their lab. Well, cause I asked. Electronic City in Burbank. I knew I was leaving soon, so those last couple checks I blew on tools.”
He’s built quite the name for himself with those tools. We get back to Abel’s house and he begins the day’s work, taking apart one of the nine turntables from this morning.
“A friend once said, ‘If you don’t want to get fired, with whatever piece of equipment you’re working with, know how to take it apart and put it back together again. They’ll find plenty that can operate it, but not many that can do that’.”
Abel runs down the surgical procedure he’s performing on the table- he seems less like a priest and more like a doctor at this point. I refuse to see him as a mere mechanic. To see how the motor works on the inside is inspiring- something about revolution that turns a lot of us on. Now I feel a bit silly- to think of how much time I’ve spent with this instrument and have never seen the inside of it. Before you can say, “Mothership Connection”, the turntable has a new tone arm and pitch control, and he’s onto the next one.
“It’s a little anti-climatic when you fix a turntable. It’s not like the earth and seas part or anything, it’s just not broken anymore.”
As he works, I walk around his room, snapping mostly photos of him and his photogenic cat, who seems to jump into every shot on purpose. I turn the camera to his collection. It’s such an odd thing standing back and gazing upon a grand collection of vinyl. They all look so uniform from afar, kind of like looking at housing tracks from an airplane. But each one of those slots has got lifetimes of stories behind it, from their creation to their enjoyment. Abel points me to some his most prized records: out come doubles of Creative Source’s Migration, 7th Wonder’s Climbing Higher, and the classic album, The Spread of the Future by The Chocolate Jam Co. What can I say? Dude loves funk.
“I remember things DJs play. If you play something that really hits me, I’ll remember it forever.”
He’ll remember it better than you will, and that’s what makes Abel, Abel. That photographic or in this case, phonographic memory, and avid spiritedness. He carries tradition on his back while walking the path of the new. Although much younger, he’s from the line of kids like Grandmaster Flash, taking apart radios just to see how they work, then applying that to music; and yet, you’ll never catch him wagging his finger at the younger generation. I’ve seen him DJ with people not nearly as skilled as he, and have only heard encouragement from him. He’s the best DJ I know personally, and he’s also the most accessible. And that’s what the world needs more of: masters who want to share their craft in exciting and encouraging ways. Abel is a cornerstone for DJs in Southern California and most people are lucky to be half as passionate about their crafts as him.
The sun is on its way down and I realize I should be on my way. I thank him for his time and insight and he thanks me for the company. “Any last words?” “Hi mom… I love my momma.”
You don’t even have to leave your house to enjoy the man’s work. You can catch Abel on Red Alert Radio, Tuesday nights 8-11 and B-Real TV on Mondays 6-8.