The party starter 

DJ Preston Craig is determined to put Atlanta's club scene on the map, and he's not letting anything — including a debilitating disease — stop him

It's one of those perfect summer nights: clear and crisp, almost chilly from the afternoon rain and brimming with anticipation. Outside a courtyard just off the Decatur Square, a line of latecomers extends toward the parking lot. They're waiting to get in. On the other side of the courtyard wall, a few hundred people -- mostly twentysomethings, the trendy, pretty types -- have congregated on the patio, abuzz with $6 cocktails and pitchers of cheap beer. Inside the darkened club, a dance party is just getting going. Though it's 2 a.m., there's a feeling the night is still young.

Scanning the crowd – the girls with impossibly short shorts and the boys ogling them – it's easy to spot Preston Craig. He's the guy everyone seems to be listening to, even when he's not talking. He lords over the patio, keeping close watch on its patrons while glancing every so often over his shoulder. Those who know him compare his behavior to that of an anxious meerkat, which he sort of resembles as he checks the line outside to see how large his crowd might get.

Craig sits perfectly erect, and even though he's seated, it's obvious he's tall – 6-foot-4. He grips a bourbon and Coke in his left hand. Curling the fingers of his right hand deliberately around his left wrist, he bows his head as low as he can and, using what little strength there is in his slender right arm, slowly guides the drink to his mouth. It's one of the many adaptations he's forced to make as a result of the disease he's struggled with since childhood.

click to enlarge TASTEMAKER: DJ and promoter Preston Craig makes it his mission to bring new electronic music to the masses. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • TASTEMAKER: DJ and promoter Preston Craig makes it his mission to bring new electronic music to the masses.

It's close to 3 a.m. when he finally whips his wheelchair around and rolls back up the ramp leading to the club. A short while later, one of the scenesters who'd been sitting with him – a lanky guy with thick black bolts in his pierced ears – begins moving through the crowd to deliver the message everyone's waiting to hear. "Time to head inside," he says with a grin. "Preston's gonna play the hits."

As if under a trance, they follow him.

After four years of tooling with different venues and formulas, Preston Craig – club DJ, event promoter, prima donna and trouble-maker – has found his niche: a Friday-night party a few miles east of Atlanta's city limits, where local laws allow the bars to stay open an hour later than in the city. Though the event is hosted at Azul, a shoebox-sized bar and sprawling patio that flanks a popular burrito place, the venue is transformed on Fridays to the "Decatur Social Club" (or DSC to insiders), which draws a mixed crowd of Emory students, south-of-Ponce hipsters and Buckhead expats.

Craig regularly pulls in 400 people to each DSC event, which he considers a laboratory for testing bigger ideas. Along with his fellow resident DJ Meagan Lynn, he plays only new electronic music to a scene that would have scoffed at that a few years ago. He throws afterparties for the likes of Southern rockers Kings of Leon and has lured popular DJs such as Pittsburgh's sampling master Girl Talk. He launched one of the city's most popular music blogs, KissAtlanta.com, to promote club events and generate interest in new tracks and emerging talent. As a result, he's been asked to guest DJ at clubs such as L.A.'s Moscow and Le Disko, and to host parties for Vice magazine and HBO.

"When it comes to the dance-rock and electro scene, Preston knows what's happening before it's even happening," says Caleb Gauge, who manages Atlanta's DJ Klever and hosts one of the city's other big dance nights, Sloppy Seconds at the Royal. "I try to stay up-to-date as much as possible, but that kid is so involved with it."

Craig is among a handful of promoters trying to push the city's lagging nightlife landscape away from predictable, closer to cutting-edge. He wants to steer the masses away from "comfortable sing-alongs" and introduce them to acts such as Australia's new-rave revivalists Riot in Belgium and France's over-the-top-giddy Kissy Sell Out. In the process, he's given up his day job to make a full-time living as a promoter and DJ.

But his efforts have taken a toll.

One week in mid-July, Craig was scheduled to DJ on Wednesday at MJQ, the city's biggest underground dance club; he was double-booked Thursday, at the Mark downtown and at a friend's fashion show; he had his regular Friday gig promoting and DJing Decatur Social Club; on Saturday, his brother, singer for the popular indie-rock band Snowden, was flying home from a European tour to headline the Corndogorama festival (the gig would be canceled because of flight delays); and he was ending the week with a barbecue at his Grant Park home, sponsored by Smirnoff vodka and featuring several DJ sets.

The problem is that Craig's body – even without the strain of such a hectic social calendar – is literally falling apart. It's been four years since he was able to stand up, even with someone holding him. To go out for a few hours each night means he needs a full day to recover. To be out five nights in a row is torture.

But in Craig's mind he has to do it, to squeeze in as much as possible, because while his physical limitations make his work difficult, they'll someday make it impossible.

As Preston Craig loses ever more control of his body, he takes comfort in one thing: his increasing ability – through his choice of music and sheer force of personality – to shape the scene.

Craig was 7 years old, maybe 8, when he knew something was wrong. The community race, a fundraiser event held near his family's home in Clayton County, should have been easy. But he kept stumbling. Volunteers had to help him to the finish line. When he got home, his knees were bloody from all the falls. "That was one of the first times that I became very, very aware that something was different with me than other kids," he says. "As a child, you don't know how to process it."

Craig visited a parade of doctors before he and his parents ended up at Emory. Thick-gauge needles that measured the electrical impulses traveling through his muscles were pushed into Craig's neck, arms and legs. It took several nurses to hold him down.

The doctor pulled Craig's mother into his office. He told her he was pretty sure her son was suffering from facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD. What's more, FSHD is a genetic condition that can be passed only from parent to child. That meant that not only did Craig have the disease, but his mother had it, too.

FSHD is one of 40 forms of muscular dystrophy, and in most cases, one of the least debilitative. The disease typically has its most serious impact on the face ("facio"), shoulders ("scapula") and arms ("humeral"). Sometimes, FSHD doesn't become apparent until middle age, which is why Craig's mother didn't know she suffered from it. She had a few small symptoms – an inability to whistle, for instance – but nothing on the scale of her son.

Only one in five FSHD sufferers ever requires a wheelchair, and they often don't need it until they reach old age. Just one out of 20 shows symptoms in childhood. For some, FSHD amounts only to hunched shoulders, weakened arms and an asymmetrical smile – a smirk.

Craig's case was different.

As a child, he ran like a German shepherd puppy, loping along as if he were all hands and feet. He was clumsy. A picture of him at age 4 shows him holding a fishing line, a fresh catch dangling from the end, and his back is unnaturally arched. Only later would the family realize he was arching that way to compensate for lack of strength.

He walked relatively normally until he was 18. But after an experimental steroid treatment, which he says gave him a false sense of power and made him think it was OK to walk to his heart's content, one of his hips began to give out. Over the course of a few weeks in his senior year of high school, he went from walking with relative ease to barely walking at all. It was as if he suddenly forgot how to do the most basic thing. He was fine, and then he had no balance at all.

One day late in his senior year, he sat down at the lunch table at Eagle's Landing High School and couldn't get back up. He later determined that certain muscles could no longer bear his weight. He couldn't stand up from a seated position, but if he were to lean forward and kneel into another chair, he could lift himself up that way, using his hamstrings.

Still, there were only so many adaptations he could make before he had to turn to outside help: "It was prom, I think, that I first picked up my cane."

Craig walked with a cane until the first day of his sophomore year at UGA, when he traded it for a wheelchair. The chair was a massive relief. He'd been falling all the time and was stressing out about the shortest trip. To walk to the bathroom was a task. He says the wheelchair "was like getting my legs back."

He gained another measure of independence when, a semester shy of graduation, he was offered a job as a computer network engineer for K&G Men's Center. But even with a job, an apartment and a car (a minivan with a dropped floor that could accommodate both Craig and his wheelchair), he continued to devolve.

Within a year of graduation, he was having a hard time taking just two steps from his wheelchair to his bed. And then he had a bad fall. Because he's so tall, it was a long way to the ground. He bounced off three pieces of furniture. Somehow, he managed to grab his cell phone from the bed on the way down. Otherwise, he'd have been lying on the floor for a while.

But as his body continued to fail him, his ability to adapt to his situation improved. At the same time, he was strengthening his skills as a computer engineer. Craig was a lot greener than he should've been for the job he'd landed, and he didn't have anyone to lean on for help.

"That made me a better engineer later on," he says. "Just like with my handicap or anything else, I learned how to look for my resources."

His willingness to seek those resources and his intimate knowledge of computers would come in handy for another endeavor, a passion he discovered during the raver heydays of his college years, one that would help free him, in a way, from the constraints of FSHD: DJing.

In 2003, Craig hatched the idea for a dance night dubbed *KISS* (for "Keep It Simple, Stupid"). After a short stint at the now-defunct Echo Lounge in East Atlanta, *KISS* found a nearby home at indie dive bar Lenny's. The crowds were small at first, typically 50 or so people. Many nights, there'd be a max of 15 on the dance floor.

About a year later, after he decided *KISS* had outgrown Lenny's, Craig took it to a much larger venue, the Masquerade. He admits the move was too ambitious, and he canceled *KISS* in order to regroup.

Then, in the spring of 2004, he stumbled upon a courtyard and small dance floor while exploring Decatur. It was the perfect setting for a dance party.

click to enlarge CROWD CONTROL: Grooving to the music at the Decatur Social Club - JONATHAN STANCEL
  • Jonathan Stancel
  • CROWD CONTROL: Grooving to the music at the Decatur Social Club

"We did free alcohol for the first hour, from 12:30 to 1:30, and we had a great summer," he recalls of his early efforts to draw a crowd to the Decatur Social Club. "We had an OK winter, and then we had a fucking amazing summer, and then a better winter – and then we had an absolutely absurd summer."

With his ambition – and his ego – growing, Craig changed his format from rock and indie one year to dance-punk the next, then to indie pop and, finally, to straight electronica. He calls his current sound a reinvention of the rave days of the '90s – without the furry backpacks and pacifiers.

"People like Preston, who has a history well-embedded in the club culture, watched its rise and its demise, and now it's starting to come up again," says Gauge, the Sloppy Seconds promoter. "Because of his intelligence and what he knows about the scene, he's definitely going to be a pioneer of bringing it back."

Craig is convinced the local dance-club scene is capable of growing large enough to support some of the big-name international DJs who usually bypass Atlanta. Some of those DJs are already being drawn to DSC, including Australia's Riot in Belgium, a duo playing only eight U.S. dates. But Craig believes that he, Gauge and others are poised to merge the indie and the traditional dance-club crowds, and to fill a venue that accommodates more than a few hundred.

According to Gauge, Atlanta's club scene still has a lot of growing to do compared with its more sophisticated counterparts. But the digital world – and, to some degree, KissAtlanta.com – is helping speed up the process. When Craig blogs about the newest remix from the best international DJs, he gets people excited about them, building a level of appreciation in a scene that's had a hard time relating to what's going on in Chicago, Miami and New York.

Atlanta's club scene still lags considerably behind those of other major cities. But to Craig, it doesn't have to.

If not for the evolution -- some call it bastardization -- of spinning records, Preston Craig could never have started the Decatur Social Club.

Traditionally, DJs have used two turntables, crates of vinyl and a well-trained ear to match, or scratch, beats. With one table playing the waning end of a track, the DJ starts another track on the other table, overlapping the songs with the result, hopefully, of creating a flawless transition – and sometimes, if the overlap is long enough, a unique sound of his own. Alternately, DJs scratch the records during the overlap, for an effect more evocative of hip-hop than electronica.

But with the advent of computer software tailored to beat-matching, DJs have a third option: Let a computer make the transitions. The technology also affords the opportunity to ditch the vinyl for the convenience of MP3s.

Purists argue that mixing by ear is the true art of DJing, and relying on a computer is merely playing other people's songs. Others, including Craig, say the means to the end doesn't matter, as long as your mixes don't fall apart. "I just think that we've gotten to a point now where it's like a math geek telling someone that they're cheating because they're using a calculator," he says.

To Craig, the true art of DJing is to keep people interested – and to get them to dance. Never mind that, because he has such limited use of his arms, traditional DJing would be impossible for him. Because the technology allows the DJ to move in and out of a mix more quickly, it also affords more time to elaborate on other aspects, Craig says, including reading and responding to the crowd.

Early on, Craig didn't always connect with his audience. That was partly out of arrogance.

"There were nights where I was like, 'Fuck it. I'm playing what I want and I don't give a shit if they run out of the room. And they ran out of the room.'"

But these days, songs that once broke the crowd, such as We Are Rock Stars' "Does It Offend You, Yeah?" can galvanize the room.

"Now I'm really at the point where I can play what I want to play," Craig says. "It was an evolution. It wasn't easy."

Decatur Social Club regulars Kimberly Turner and Scott Lockhart, a married couple in their early 30s, say they immediately bought into Craig's evolution. When they arrived in Atlanta two years ago, they made the "mistake of moving to Buckhead." They credit DSC with introducing them to a "whole other world of people we didn't know how to find."

When they first showed up at DSC, they made the novice move of walking in at 11:30 p.m. (The event seldom picks up before midnight.) It turned out to be worth the wait. "It was the best night we'd had in Atlanta," Turner says. "When we left, we were giggly, dripping with sweat from the dance floor, saying, 'Oh my god, we have to wait a whole week for this again?'"

Over time, they gained a deep appreciation for what Craig does.

"Here's this guy," Turner says. "He can't dance. And he's made it his initiative to come here every week and make other people dance. He saw something that we needed in Atlanta, and he made it happen."

Being able to work a room the way a great DJ does -- to go from inspiring 15 people to dance to inspiring 100, to push them from their quiet shells to a point where they're screaming, to boost the mix with something even more high-energy and watch them go crazy, or to drop it down and watch them go crazier -- is an ultimate display of power. Imagine, then, what that must be like for someone who has so little power over his own limbs.

He can inspire others to do what he's incapable of doing himself.

Craig likens DJing to a drug. You constantly want more. It's a major boost to the ego. A DJ can change the mood of a room. A DJ can become immensely popular. And a DJ can let that go to his head. As a result, Craig has a lot of friends. He's also made some enemies.

At 31, Craig hasn't exactly mellowed with age, nor has he helped dispel a bit of a reputation as a pretentious jerk. Over the past several years, he got into a much-blogged-about feud with the staff and owners of the Majestic, the 24-hour hipster hangout on Ponce de Leon Avenue. "If you ask around town, everyone knows this guy," according to a post by Lucas Power on an Atlanta.MetBlogs.com thread about the dispute. "A few people know his name, but mostly people know him as 'that asshole in the wheelchair.'"

He also was charged with disorderly conduct after confronting a cop whose patrol car blocked the handicap entrance of a local convenience store. And on his blog, he hands out "asshole awards" to any recipient he deems worthy.

He admits his haughtiness might be exaggerated, rather than excused, by his condition. He's used to people having to do things on his terms, because their way is often inaccessible. "A lot of people say that's been a bad thing for me," he says. "I'm a control freak, and everything is my way. Even in my private life, everything is done my way."

For instance, his girlfriends have always had to sleep at his house, because their beds have been too difficult to navigate. Craig can only transfer from his wheelchair to another surface that's within 2 inches of the height of his chair – even his couch has to be jacked up on cinder blocks.

In addition to the bed, there's some explaining he has to do when he's first dating someone. He's quick to point out that no, he hasn't slept with all those girls who flock alongside him when he's out at night. He could have slept with them, though – at least he's physically capable of it. Though FSHD limits many things, it doesn't impact sexual function.

Another fortunate thing about his disease is that it doesn't affect the body's smooth muscles, most significantly the heart. Thus the condition itself is not fatal. The biggest risk of death is contracting pneumonia, because it's difficult for someone with FSHD to cough up fluid. The body doesn't always have the strength to cough.

But he's inevitably going to get weaker.

When Craig thinks about his future, he doesn't dwell on how he's going to deal with the inevitable: that he'll probably have to give up driving within the year; that the elbow on which he relies when he swivels himself on and off his wheelchair could blow out at any time, leaving him even more immobile; that his arms are falling out of the sockets because there's no longer any muscle holding them to his shoulder blades, which are fused to his ribs with a bone graft.

"My life is not exactly getting any easier," he says. "So I'm really trying to enjoy the time I've got now. Because eventually, I'm going to get too weak to keep on doing this."

Instead, he thinks about how he can continue to grow KissAtlanta.com and DSC, about what he still can do to make Atlanta nightlife better, and about how he might someday build a legacy that the city's club-goers will remember.

"People here always want to move away to some big, progressive culture," he says. "The fact is, that's easy. You can go and join a great scene, but it's a lot more rewarding to make your own."

There's no better evidence of that reward than at 3:30 a.m. on any given Friday, when the dance floor at DSC is full, and Preston Craig – deep in the throes of his mix and feeding off the energy of the scene he created – flexes his control.

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