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That Klever guy 

Atlanta's national turntablist champ buckles down to defend his title

Josh Winkler slouches in an oversized T-shirt, his baseball cap snug over his closely cropped, sandy blond hair. He's courteous and soft-spoken, and even bows his head to say a silent prayer before meals.

His current repast takes place at a local taqueria off Buford Highway. It's the part of town where the 24-year-old, who recently relocated to Cabbagetown, lived most of his life.

"Where I used to live it was black and white, maybe some Asians," Winkler says, peering through his emerald-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses. "Now it's black, white, Asians, Mexicans, Filipinos. It used to be just a Baskin-Robbins and golf and a gas station. Now you can't pronounce all the stores over there.

"It's dope," he continues. "It's a mixture of everybody learning to deal with everybody."

Even if this area wasn't actually Winkler's childhood 'hood, the sort of dislocation around him -- where first-generation Mexicans and Southeast Asians inhabit the abandoned strip-mall wasteland of the New South's inner suburbs -- would likely make him feel at home. After all, Winkler could appear to be dislocated himself. That's because the self-described nerdy white kid nibbling on tacos across the table is none other than DJ Klever, America's current hip-hop turntablist champion.

But not that it bothers him. "Behind the decks, you can be a nerd," Klever says, matter-of-factly. "I'm a nerd, I'm not hardcore or whatever. But when I'm battling, I want to hit you over the head."

When he's not out playing his part as a symbol of Atlanta's first generation raised under cultural diversity and international consciousness, Klever is probably at home practicing. His craft is turntablism -- the artistic manipulation of records to create new music. With his weapons, two Technics 1200 turntables, he battles against other DJs at competitions held worldwide by the International Turntable Federation and DMC (Disco Mix Club). In timed rounds, these turntablists construct seamless routines by rhythmically scratching, mixing and coaxing interesting new sounds and tricks out of stacks of vinyl.

Klever's determination has won him multiple titles since 1999, from the Guitar Center and Kool Mixx regional competitions to the DMC/Technics US Finals last year in New York, paired against champs around 20 other cities. Next week, the notoriously reserved Klever -- described by his peers as "that Elvis Costello-lookin' motherfucker" -- heads to San Francisco to defend his DMC title. Until then, he'll be spending much of his time behind the wheels of steel, practicing.

While "nerd" might be an unlikely characterization for the crowned prince of a subculture that has elevated the urban sounds of record scratching to the level of rock-star virtuosity, it actually fits Klever quite well. In fact, it just might be his secret to success. That is, if you define a nerd as someone passionate about studying his field as if it were a science.

There's certainly a science to scratching and turntable battling. After studying chirps and flares, transforms and crabs -- an array of techniques that sound cribbed from the Nature Channel -- DJs develop a system of communication built in their body language. They make brass symphonies out of a single trumpet note, and create sentences using multiple voices lifted from disparate source records. They perfect body tricks -- cutting and juggling records behind their backs and under their legs -- and develop a battle face. They also learn, of course, how to hype up the crowd and silence the rivals.

Klever's DJ education began in the early '90s, around the time he was 16, when he saw a kid in a "ghetto apartment" off Buford Highway mix Flavor Flav over an electro beat using two turntables and a crappy stereo system.

"I just basically love music," he says. "I played the drums when I was a kid. My father's a blues musician so he put music in my face, so I played for a couple of years. Then he wasn't there much anymore and our family basically split apart."

Klever's musical ambition, however, only intensified after witnessing the DJ. Living with his mom, Klever avoided the drugs and gangs some of his friends strayed toward. He worked construction for a year and saved up enough to buy some beginner gear. From there, it was full force toward his great obsession: scratching.

"I have rhythm inside me, I've always believed," says Klever, "and I wanted to do something with that. I had something burning inside me -- and I wanted to learn how to do this thing called scratching. I just started scratching -- before school, after school, all day, all night. I just knew that's what I wanted to do. And even if I couldn't get paid at it I'd still want to express myself that way. I think a lot comes from within my heart. The way a guitarist feels what he plays, that's what I do. I feel the funk."

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