News & Politics

Spin Doctor

Scott henry loves being behind a turntable. To his fans, he's as big a star as the artists whose records he plays.

It's midnight, and a techno beat throbs on. One teen looks toward the ceiling and blows bubbles through a wand. A twentysomething with a head of Medusa-like braids mechanically moves her arms and sways her hips.

They're two of nearly 2,000 revelers eyeing the disc-jockey booth. Each is waiting for tonight's headliner, DJ Scott Henry. Tonight is Henry's CD release party, and he's spinning a four-hour set of techno and trance music at Buzz, a ravelike dance party he produces every Friday at Nation nightclub in Southeast DC.

The young crowd–mostly white, suburban teens and college kids–dances halfheartedly to the opening DJ. Behind the booth, a select group sips mixed drinks and chats in the VIP room. Henry arrives, and the room quiets.

Two photographers approach and snap shots. Henry, with his scruffy blond hair and sweet smile, works the room.

Close to 2 AM, he strolls into the DJ booth. The crowd recognizes his surf-shop style and cheers. After 17 years of DJing in more than 70 cities–including hundreds of times in DC–Henry still gets nervous spinning. He is pacing back and forth between his case of albums and the turntables.

"If I had my choice," he says, "I'd DJ from behind a curtain." Henry puts his headphones on, places an album on the deck, and drops the needle. A trippy synthesized sound spins around a heavy bass line.

The energy level at the club skyrockets. Hands reach into the booth trying to touch him. One kid begs to come "backstage." Some start break dancing; others let their bodies flow to the music. Henry leans over and squeezes the reaching hands, then pumps his arms in the air. The crowd imitates him.

"Certain songs evoke certain emotions," he says. "I try to take the crowd on a journey. The rush comes when I feel them following."


Henry, 35, is one of the pioneers of the Washington/Baltimore rave scene, which exploded in the early 1990s and spawned DJs like Henry, who now have rock-star-style followings.

Raves, which have a reputation as drug free-for-alls, are parties, usually held in large rented spaces like the DC Armory, where concert-decibel sound inspires continuous dancing. At the heart of the experience is the DJ, who through a mixing of songs sets the mood, the energy level, and the scene.

Henry is popular because his fans feel he can read their musical minds–and their moods. He seems to always know the right groove that will keep them moving, even when it's 6 AM.

"Scott's able to translate his enthusiasm for the music into the sets he plays," says Stacy Osbaum, an editor at Los Angeles- based URB magazine.

Growing up in the Baltimore suburbs, Henry was a shy kid who loved music and collected 45s. As he began college at Towson State, a friend's brother opened a bar and needed a DJ. "I figured I'd try it," he says. Not long after, Henry began planning his own dance parties.

He would rent a club for a night, promote a party, spin until dawn, and then split the profits with the owner. In 1990, two years before the rave scene immigrated from England, Henry created Orbit in Baltimore, an underground dance party that changed venues each month.

Then he created a similar party called Fever. Henry says it was luck that brought Fernando and Giavanni Baez, the brothers credited with holding the first raves in the area, to Fever. After hearing him spin, they asked Henry to be their resident DJ.

Henry got an agent and soon after also was spinning at popular nightclubs like Twilo in New York and Groove Jet in Miami.

Last fall, Henry signed a three-CD deal with Ultra Records after a bidding war among three companies. The company expects his first nationally promoted CD, Buzz: The Sound of the Nation's Capital, to sell 20,000 copies, a lot for a boutique techno CD.

Buzz is a compilation or, more accurately, a manipulation of 15 dance songs. He speeds songs up, slows them down, fiddles with volume–melding rhythms and beats for 75 nonstop minutes.

He's known for playing very different types of songs back to back, like Madonna's "Music" with a mystical trance beat.

"While some DJs get pigeonholed into a type of music," says Pearl Lee of Ultra Records, "Scott can mix two completely different songs and make the crowd go crazy."


When Henry isn't in his Goorgetown office doing business plans for Buzz, he's on the road. One week this July, he was spinning in San Francisco on Wednesday, Houston on Thursday, Los Angeles on Friday, and New York on Saturday.

He's paid well to do it. Club DJs make $1,500 to $20,000 a gig, depending on how large a crowd the promoter expects. Though Henry won't say how much he makes a night, his forest-green Land Rover Discovery is a hint.

"But it wasn't until I bought a house," he jokes, "that my mother thought I'd arrived."

His house is in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington. He needed space for his three cats and 75,000 albums and wanted to live near the Buzz office.

In the coming year, Henry is launching a slick clothing line catering to clubgoers. He's doing it mostly for the same reason he started spinning music–a disinterest in what's already being sold.

It's not what anyone expected: While many kids grow up dreaming of being a star on the music scene, Henry did not.

"I never thought my life would look like this," he says. "In high school I wanted to be an electrical engineer."