If ever there were a poster boy for globalization’s best-case scenario, Ali Shirazinia would certainly be it. He left the town of his birth — Mashad, Iran — with his family in 1978, fleeing imminent revolution and a devastating war with Iraq. He was seven years old when they arrived in America and spent his teenage years playing in bands. Later, he would go on to work as a DJ, collaborating with the likes of BT and John Selways. But it wasn’t until he bumped into Sharam Tayebi at a party in 1991 that the venture known as Deep Dish — a venture that would eventually become world renowned — was finally realized.
Tayebi, an Iranian as well, was still living in Tehran in the mid 1980s. Ayatollah Khomeini was in power, Iraq had invaded and Tehran was being pummeled by Scud missiles on a daily basis. He fled to the U.S. at the age of 15 to avoid mandatory military conscription.
Since their beginnings in the early 1990s, Deep Dish have been D.C.’s worst-kept secret. They are easily the city’s most recognizable DJs, and have earned the local scene more exposure than anyone would have though possible ten years ago. Their dual record labels — Deep Dish Records and Yoshitoshi — release music sought by DJs from here to the Middle East, and no visiting DJ leaves town without stopping by the Yoshitoshi music store on M Street in Georgetown.
“We’ve planted our roots here over the years. We’ve called it home with our family and friends,” says Shirazinia. “We didn’t want to get involved with the politics permeating the scenes in New York, Chicago or London.”
But moving to D.C. to escape politics isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. Following their Grammy win last February for their remix of Dido’s hit “Thank You,” Deep Dish found themselves fielding flack from their peers, some of whom felt that the song was too mainstream. Shirazinia scoffs back, calling such reactions “a combination of ignorance, immaturity and lack of knowledge.” He cites the well-regarded Debbie Gibson remixes by the highly-respected Masters at Work in the 1980s.
“I don’t think you can get any more pop than that,” he says. “People at that time didn’t really slag off participation within the commercial industry.”
“When I was young I didn’t like it when bands that I discovered became suddenly mainstream and widely-known,” he continues. “I wanted to keep it underground for myself. As I grew older, I realized that’s an immature way of looking at it.”
But Deep Dish also recognize the importance of the underground music that resides closer to the fringe. Their goal with the Yoshitoshi record label is to give these less-conventional releases an outlet. But their chemistry at the decks doesn’t always translate to the business end of things, Shirazinia admits.
“Sharam and I are complete opposites in our personalities, but it’s that tug of war that helps us ultimately arrive at a compromise that people seem to like.”
This polarization is common in DJ teams, but Shirazinia points out that many DJs work with a cohort that never gets seen.
“When Sasha produces, he works with Charlie May, but since Charlie’s not a DJ he gets no name recognition. John Digweed has someone who does all his work. Timo Maas has someone who does all his work.” Shirazinia considers these behind-the-scenes collaborators the “unsung heroes” of the club scene.
Deep Dish’s most recent release was a double CD put together for the British label Boxed. Recorded in Moscow two decades after Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan — and in the midst of the U.S.’s — the album brings the pair’s post-Cold War allegory full circle.
Shirazinia’s, who’s not an American citizen, gets many suspicious glances these days, especially from edgy Capital City security forces. As for the “Axis of Evil” label recently affixed to the country of his birth, he tends not to take it personally.
“I don’t know if [Bush] is really aware of the people of Iran,” he says. “The younger generation embraces Western culture and doesn’t care so much about the differences.”
This view stands in contrast with media images of rifle-hoisting Middle Eastern teenagers, reflecting Shirazinia’s view that this conflict is more about “two cultures misunderstanding each other.”
“Religion is a wonderful thing, but not religious might handed down forcefully, which is what the East is doing now. As an artist, I believe in freedom of expression.”
Concerning his own mode of artistic expression, he keeps it uncluttered of politics.
“I just show up with my records. If the room is dark and the sound system is good, that’s all I care about.”