Dance floors between the heyday of disco and house domination encompassed a wild mix of disparate sounds – New Wave, electro, freestyle, Italo disco, hip-hop, post-punk, Latin jazz, Hi-NRG, synth-pop – held together more by the charm and skill of the DJ (and the marketing and reputation of the club) than any particular genre.
In the Midwest, this mish-mash style was called “progressive,” on the East Coast it was “club.” On the West Coast, where the style was known simply as “beat,” no DJ commanded more devotion than San Francisco’s Cameron Paul, who passed away this year of cancer at age 60.
With his slim figure, further elongated by his choice of skinny ties, abbreviated mustache and well-tousled mullet, Paul towered over the early ’80s to mid-’90s SF scene as a radio and club DJ, remixer, label owner, dance music media champion and pioneer of turntable education. On a grand scale, Paul was known as the gold-record-scoring remixer of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” and George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” adding snappy percussion and hooks cribbed from electro dance floors. Other remixes, like those of CCCP’s “American Soviets” and Beat Club’s “Security” are hard-driving, sample-heavy dance floor classics. His subscription remix service, Mixx-It, which provided specially commissioned reworks to “only highly qualified” DJs for an annual fee, brought dozens of mix-friendly versions of pop hits to dance floors.
Paul’s career was Bay Area-centric. He introduced the “powermix” format of continuous live music-mixing with his era-defining shows on local stations KSOL and KMEL, and filled dance floors at San Francisco teen-oriented clubs City Nights and Studio West. “Cameron transcended the ‘club DJ’ by incorporating turntables, a keyboard and reel-to-reel,” said DJ Billy Vidal of Q102, one of the many young locals who DJs Paul inspired and took under his wing. “He really was remixing a song, by hand, in a DJ booth. He took things to another level.”
Paul, born Cameron Paul Graubart in 1957, was a San Francisco native obsessed with music from an early age. He was playing the piano by three years old, and at around eight was using his parents’ reel-to-reel tape recorder and any records he could find – pop hits, advertising jingles, children’s songs – to create his own facsimile radio station, KCAM. “First I’d play a song and then say a little something like, ‘Well, that was ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ by B.J. Thomas,’” he recalled in a 2006 autobiographical blog post. “‘And now a word from 7-UP!’ Cut me some slack, I was only ten years old.”
After graduating a year early from Serramonte High School in Daly City and dabbling in film school at San Francisco State, Paul had an ear-opening experience at 18, when he heard Bay Area disco legend John Hedges play at the debaucherous Oil Can Harry’s club. “I was entranced with what he was doing. It was absolutely hypnotic,” Paul recalled on his blog. “I couldn’t tell when one song ended and a new one began. There was a door to the DJ booth that he kept open all night long and I would stand there in awe.” This was the era of faster disco, fostered mostly by gay DJs at underground venues, which eventually gave birth to the Hi-NRG genre. Hedges’ music drove Paul to scour local record stores like the Tower Records on Columbus in the North Beach neighborhood for music that encompassed a more chaotic, downtown energy, like Brainstorm’s 1977 “Lovin’ is Really My Game,” which he called the perfect disco record.
Paul first stepped into a DJ booth at 19, armed with his new record collection and techniques he’d culled from watching Hedges. Some of these were unnaturally challenging: Hedges was so good at mixing that he didn’t use headphones, preferring instead the more difficult route of mixing through the booth monitors. And then there was the mixing itself. “I had no idea there was such a thing as a turntable with pitch control,” Paul wrote on his blog. “And yes, back in 1977 there were Technics turntables with pitch control. I just had never been close enough to Johnny Hedges to see what kind of turntables he was using. I assumed you had to get two songs that were so close in tempo that you could speed them up or slow them down enough with your finger.... I truly believe that learning how to mix on tables without pitch control helped make me as proficient as I later became.”
Paul scored his first gig later that year at North Beach’s Broadway Power & Light Co. At the time, Paul recalled, DJs spoke over records like radio DJs, something he refused to do, out of a combination of shyness and distaste for public speaking. Instead, influenced by the rap music that was emerging from New York, he started substituting spoken segments of other songs or drum breakdowns. Sometimes, he opted for extending songs to surreal lengths: using two copies of the record, he seamlessly stretched the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” to 15 minutes, one of the first DJ tricks that brought him attention and a fanbase.
In the early ’80s, Paul made the jump to radio with a show on KSOL that helped define the beat sound. There, he developed more acts of DJ prestidigitation, like “stop mixing”: Two records of the same song were played simultaneously, then, on an upbeat, Paul would hit the stop button on one of the turntables, superimposing a slow motion explosion effect over the track. His reputation drew hordes of young dancers to nightclubs City Nights and Studio West. There, among the Aqua Net clouds, fishnet stockings and bared midriffs, he defined the club-going experience of a diverse generation. Patrons raved about his mixing prowess. (A story about him DJing on seven turntables at once hasn‘t been confirmed, although he did utilize several at once during a mid-’80s West Coast DJ contest winning streak.)
“I interviewed all manner of then-underage wannabe DJs who’d sneak into Studio West, not to chase girls or try to score a drink but to watch and learn from Paul’s legendary nonstop disco mixing style,” wrote music critic Oliver Wang after Paul’s death. “Before Q-Bert or Apollo or Mixmaster Mike or any of that ’80s generation, Paul was Daly City’s original disc jockey giant.”
In the record business, the early ’80s was a time when older models of copyright and distribution were being challenged by dance music’s rise. DJ record pools pushed hundreds of exclusive mixes and mix-friendly edits into DJs’ hands. Surreal megamixes that incorporated everything from the Shirelles and Bob Marley to The Clash and Afrika Bambaataa were common. The demand for gatekeepers with taste and experience was on the rise, and Paul capitalized on this first with his work for DJ remix service Hot Tracks, then branching out on his own with Mixx-It as his name grew into a brand.
“We both started doing tape re-editing for Hot Tracks around the same time, in 1985,” said longtime Bay Area DJ Jim Hopkins of the San Francisco Disco Preservation Society. “He was the technical guy that I dealt with when I first started submitting my reel-to-reel edits. He was the one that told me the gear that I needed to buy to start tape editing professionally. We spoke on the phone quite a bit, talking about techniques. He was an inspiration and gave me some good advice on editing techniques.”
“The first time I had heard of Cameron Paul’s name was in 1985, when his special mix of Madonna’s ‘Into the Groove’ came out on the San Francisco Hot Tracks label,” said Paul Goodyear, a DJ originally from Sydney, Australia, who moved to San Francisco to become part of the post-disco music scene. “There was no extended mix of ‘Into the Groove‘ at the time and Cameron mashed it with Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel for You.’ He took Madonna to almost seven minutes in length. I used to get a lot of people asking me to tape this special mix for them as you could only buy it on Hot Tracks, and only a limited number of copies were being pressed.”
Breakthrough success came when Mixx-It was commissioned to remix a Salt-N-Pepa B-side called “Push It” in 1987. Paul completely redrummed the track, and debuted it on his new show on KMEL, which had hired him away from KSOL that year. His version became so popular that it was released as a single in 1988 and became a platinum-selling top 20 hit. From then on, Mixx-It was the go-to service for remixes of Janet Jackson, George Michael and any number of major pop artists, but Paul still kept one foot in the underground, championing emerging artists from the house and hip-hop scenes in both his radio mixes and the signings to his label Tandem, which he launched in 1988. (His own productions on the label, “Sexy Dancer” and “This Is a Test,” became West Coast regional dance floor staples.)
Around this time, Paul was influencing an underground movement two thousand miles away. His vinyl DJ tools series of beats and breaks called Beats and Pieces, launched in 1987, was being passed around the south: An early release from the series, 1987’s “Brown Beats,” is credited, along with the Showboys’ “Drag Rap (Triggerman)” as the progenitor of New Orleans bounce music. “DJs decided what the streets needed, and for some cosmic reason two of the tracks that tapped into the raw energy of this city were ‘Drag Rap’ and ‘Brown Beats’ by Cameron Paul,” New Orleans DJ Brice Nice told Acadian radio station Hot 107.9. “Neither song made much noise anywhere else, but in New Orleans they are the backbone of bounce music, the soundtrack of p-poppers and hustlers, the beat of the street.”
In 1989, Paul branched out into DJ education. His VHS tape Cameron Paul Tells All is a comprehensive seminar on mixing for DJs (and an incidental time capsule of vintage studio equipment and DJ fashion). “If you were really serious about mixing, you had to have that tape,” KMEL DJ Big Von told Bay Area station KPIX earlier this year. “We passed it around and watched it 100 times. If it wasn’t for that, a lot of us wouldn’t be able to DJ at all today. The reel-to-reel, with the cut-off shirt with the muscles, crazy! It was funny because he was so legendary among us young people before the tape, that you would say to people, ‘Have you ever seen him? Did he have a cape on? Did he fly by?’”
Throughout the 2000s, Paul worked to make his mixes and tools available on the web, telling his story through his blog and distributing beats through his Mixx-It website. In the 2010s, perhaps after receiving his cancer diagnosis, he retired to his sister’s care in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but from there he kept up a lively social media presence. He passed away on March 26, wreathed in Instagram and Facebook laurels from practically anyone who had set foot on a dancefloor in the Bay Area over the past 40 years. They had absorbed his message of dance music’s cathartic nature and the DJ’s primary mission, as he stated during a 1989 TV interview: “There’s so many problems in the world today, and so much pressure on the young adults, that they need to get it out of their systems every week. And we provide that.”
Illustration: André Gottschalk