Bodywerk: Memphis’ DJ Superteam

By Ezra Wheeler  (Cover photo by Buck Billings)

A few years ago, I heard someone claim that Memphis is “so far behind, it’s ahead.” While I chuckled at the clever wordplay, there was also an undeniable truth to the sentiment. We Memphians cling tight to our cultural traditions and are often late to the party when it comes to outside musical forces, but isn’t that part of the city’s charm?

I mention all of this to announce once and for all that the “Age of the DJ” has finally arrived in Memphis, and like we always do, we’re leaving our distinct mark on an art form that gained supremacy in other cities decades ago. At the center of Memphis burgeoning DJ scene is bodywerk, a DJ collective that includes Michael “Qemist” Ivy, Ramzi “Rmzi” Abdoch, Jessica “DJ Chandler Blingg” Jackson, Ross Devlin, and Nicolette “NicoTheGoddess” Hatchett. Together, they are the embodiment of Memphis’ current dance scene, bringing an eclectic mix of house, drum ‘n’ bass, electronica, and hip-hop to the masses both through dynamic live performances and through their individual radio shows on community station WYXR.

We reached out to the members of bodywerk to learn more about their individual backgrounds, how they first came together as a group, and what they have planned for the future.

Before we get into bodywerk as a collective, tell me a bit about each individual’s musical background:

Ross:

I taught myself to play bass when I was 10, because I wanted to be in a band with my friends and that was my opening. I composed music on my laptop, played in heavy metal bands, and wrote about music for years. At one point I moved to Scotland and unexpectedly encountered house and disco. My world kept expanding, and over time I found myself focusing more on physical presence, physical sound, and the immediacy of the moment. DJing has become, for me, a medium to explore that immediacy.  

Ramzi:

Ramzi began his relationship with music as a radio DJ on WBAR at Columbia University. There, he managed a band and scoured NYC for shows for over a decade. He began producing mostly in hotel rooms from 2016 – 2020 while traveling each week as a consultant, and finally began mixing properly at 29 years young when he moved back to Memphis during the Pandemic. Since then, he’s taken every opportunity to spin and share his love of music with others.

Jess: 

Born in Memphis Tennessee, Jess Jackson had an early introduction to music. Both of her parents were incredibly musically inclined, not to mention her extended family being music royalty. Jess & her sisters also sing, write & produce together in a band called JCKSN AVE. She grew up in recording studios where her parents’ sessions had a huge impact on her engineering skills. It wasn’t until the age of 16 when Jess began experimenting with remixing songs & mashing up mixes for her dance team. Jess has always had a love for the vast creation of music and how colorful it can be. Since DJing her first live show in 2017, Jess has been on the move DJing shows in Memphis, Los Angeles and New York.

Michael:

Michael Ivy started his musical journey at age 8 with piano classes that would eventually lead him to join his school band. Sometime along the way he formed his moniker/identity Qemist, and has been a staple in the Memphis underground community since 2014. He has multiple releases under Memphis-based multimedia label/lifestyle brand Future-Everything and was a core member in the Memphis-based internet coalition Rare Nnudes. He continues to reshape electronic music in the city and is a pillar in the Memphis dance music scene. With his keen ear to house, techno, footwork, and club music, Qemist has created his own musical atmosphere. He has been able to meld multiple production techniques to create his own signature sound.

Nico:

Nico is a singer/songwriter, classical violist, and DJ from North Little Rock, AR. Training at Viola at the young age of 5, she went on to compete professionally in regional and state conferences. Receiving high honors in both voice and viola led her to Memphis where she learned to create her own sound. Through meeting the members of bodywerk she found her love for mixing. 

Photo by Ben Callicott

How did you all meet, and when did you decide to join together to create bodywerk?

Jess, Michael and Ross have been DJing in Memphis since 2014. In 2017, Jess ran a residency from the Hu Hotel that brought the group (and many other impressive DJs) together under one bill. 2018 – 2020 saw each individual grow as DJs, but during the pandemic, we all met while beginning to spin for WYXR. We all heard and loved each other’s shows and Ross and Ramzi ended up connecting for Ramzi’s weekly “High Five” series on Twitch. After having a few events at Lamplighter to test the waters of throwing shows during that time, Ramzi organized the very first bodywerk show at the Crosstown Green Room. We’ve had our bodies werkin’ hard ever since.

What sub genres of music does bodywerk typically play, and what does each individual member specialize in musically?

Generally speaking, the team does a great job of blending classic soulful house,baile funk, and R&B on the lower tempo side of things, but then we all have our own bag of high-energy drum n’ bass, jersey / Bmore and juke / footwerk jams that we love to play. That isn’t to say we avoid other styles, and you will most definitely hear some Memphis music when you see us play. 

    • Ramzi likes to bring out some Ethiojazz 45s and super rare funk classics, but his heart beats at 160+ BPM as he plays footwork / ghettotech bangers
    • Michael is the expert on up-tempo house and underground club music as well as jungle and techno. His sets are usually big on blends and clean edits that get the club going.
    • Jess likes to play an unpredictable mix between mid-tempo house, throwback underground Memphis hip-hop mixed with garage with a heavy dose of drum n’ bass. 
    • Ross’ selection is an extension of his experience with friends, community, and life in all its complexity…in two years, this simple mode of discovery has yielded an eclectic mix. As far as genre, he keeps it focused on the hips: the instruments should all sing, like birds in a forest or cicadas in the suburbs. As an animal and an endurance athlete, Ross sets a pace for dancers to keep up with. 
    • Nico likes to play a fusion of old school/alternative R&B, hip hop, and electronic, blending into jersey and jungle

In the past, you all have hosted “Teamwerk” events, in which you team up with another local DJ such as Strooly, Mado, and DJ Alpha Whiskey. Tell me a bit about those shows and your overall goal for the series

The TEAMWERK series was our first opportunity to have a consistent, weekly gig that our community could count on to see us play. It was also an opportunity to showcase many of the other relationships we have with other DJs in Memphis. The series was a hit overall! We had so many opportunities to play side by side with legends such as DJ Spanish Fly, DJ Alpha Whiskey, Strooly, MANIIA, and our other WYXR compatriots. In the future, we hope to do similar residencies around the city with the ultimate aim of building the dance culture in Memphis to include the various styles of music we love.

Photo by Nate Packard

As mentioned earlier, each member of bodywerk hosts a show on the local community radio station WYXR. Tell me a bit about your experiences on the radio and how hosting a show differs from live performances.

Ramzi (Host of “HabibiBeats”):

As mentioned earlier, there’s a bit of a dichotomy in terms of the music I love. One side of the coin is the soul, funk and afro-centric music that I usually play on the radio and at home with my family, and on the other side of the coin is the high-energy electronic music that I like to sweat to. Since I spin often in bars/nightclubs in Brooklyn, I often find myself on the higher BPM booty-shakin’ side, but I also like to spin earlier sets where I bring out the wax. Both are different meditations, but they are that – meditations. Spinning live is an opportunity to sink into the music and share pure vibes with and react to the crowd, whereas playing on the radio is an opportunity to vocalize my relationship to the music with facts and stories.

Jess (Host of “Mahogany, Vol. 1”):  

For me, the atmosphere is the only difference between DJing a live show and DJing on WYXR. Yes, the radio has its rules & regulations, but I still get to play songs that make me feel good and have a great time while doing so. Playing music that resonates with people and that lifts the spirit of the listener is really all that matters to me. 

Michael (Host of “Computer Noise Radio”):

I do enjoy having a show every week to select tracks for and being able to showcase my friends’ music and artists that I find through my analog and digital crate dives over the years. It’s a different vibe from the fast paced, high energy atmosphere of DJing.

Ross (Host of “Thrust”):

The radio and the club are transcendental for different reasons. DJing is immediately communal, and a service, whereas hosting a radio show is more like a journal, or a scripted exhibition. WYXR accelerated my growth as a DJ—it gave me a space to focus my energy on crafting a good hour of music, along with a community of similar-minded folks to motivate me. Both live and in the studio, my approach is improvisational. I have the music and I have a sense of the mood, all that’s left is to sync it up. 

I’ve recently seen you all perform at both Tone’s Juneteenth event and at the Silly Goose. Where can readers plan to see you next?

We’re currently in the middle of BODYWERK EAST, our excursion to the East Coast as we focus our efforts outside of Memphis. Jess and Ramzi have been holding it down in Brooklyn, playing every other week at Rise Radio, which is streamed live on their Twitch, and have upcoming sets at The Lot Radio and Jupiter Disco. The crew reunites in Washington, D.C. to spin in collaboration with 44.21co for an all-day festival called FIELD DAY at the Kennedy Center.

In Memphis, we’re hunkering down on a few monthlies that we want to make sure folks know about. First, we’re bringing back our LAVA LAMP series at Lamplighter Lounge. The Lamp is our home, and we love it. Secondly, we have a semi-monthly service night series at PANTA focused on bringing a smooth, sultry vibe.

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