Assignment for Boston University's Advanced Writing class, 2015.
Pedestrians walking past the bright yellow house on a quiet street in Allston, MA, wouldn’t expect to be greeted by the faint thuds of the beats to a hip-hop song pulsing through its walls. The creator of the beats is Tahani Roman, 38, full-time working professional, part-time aspiring DJ. She hurries down the stairs from her second floor room along with her teacher and friend, DJ Rugged One. Tahani, along with her roommate Ebony Conover, is one among the scores of people learning the art of mixing tracks and counting beats on their way to becoming DJs.
In the last ten years, the number of practitioners studying the art of DJing has grown in leaps and bounds, following the introduction of new technology and a surplus of new music in the market. With a growing number of music outlets and the receptiveness of the masses to new music and musical forms, aspirants are taking control of their interests and immersing themselves into mastering the art of scratching, beat-juggling, mixing, and a myriad of other DJ techniques. These individuals are heading to universities to learn the skill, or learning from private lessons offered by professional DJs.
An important demographic that really drives the growing number of DJing enthusiasts includes club goers. With club culture making a comfortable spot for itself in the social lives of millennials, good music plays a huge role in the popularity of a DJ. Roman illustrates one such instance at a club she frequents: “One time, we were at a local spot where a DJ was playing the best tracks of the time, but his transitions were terrible.” Conover, 32, agreed with Roman’s sentiments. She said, “It was frustrating to those dancing and having a good time to have to stop every time the song changed. His tracks were good, but because his mixing was bad, it just didn’t work.”
Enter, the Aspirants
Bad mixing practices implore the likes of Roman and Conover to learn the techniques of good DJing. As huge music fans, they were encouraged by friends and loved ones to pursue their passion and learn the art form that drives them to the dance floor. Speaking of how she got started with learning to DJ, Conover, a Massachusetts native, remarks, “One of my friends who I’ve known for a long time had been DJing since the age of 12, and he kept telling me that he thought I could do this because I had a good ear for music. He would tell me that since I was really passionate about this, I should take it up.”
Roman, on the other hand, developed her love for DJing and turntablism over the last decade, and is just six months into her lessons. “I always wanted to learn. I was really into turntablism in the late 90s,” she said. According to her, the art of turntablism isn’t so much as just playing music for parties, but playing tricks with records and using them to create different sounds through scratching, beat-juggling, using the crossfader, among other techniques. She continued, “I love the different and unique sounds people create with two records, and I’m always amazed by the new track they create by chopping it up and mixing it right.”
For aspirants like Roman, however, DJing also comes from a long-term admiration for DJs they’ve followed over the years and hours spent poring over tapes and videos of these performers in action. In Roman’s case, she was lucky enough to befriend one such performer—DJ Rob Swift.
Swift, who has been practicing the art since the tender age of 12, has gone on to teach a class on DJ Skills and Styles at the The New School for Liberal Arts in New York City, besides performing all over the world as a professional DJ. As a teacher, he mentions that the time it takes to learn the techniques for Djing could vary, depending on how much time and effort students actually put in to their practice sessions. He says, “We typically have classes twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes, following which students can spend as long as they want practicing in the lab on Thursdays. In the nearly three months since class began, 95 percent of the students are capable of scratching, mixing, and beat-juggling. While there are always a few who struggle to keep up, it all depends on the willingness, dedication, and practice hours students put in to perfect their form.”
Swift also encourages amateurs to participate in events to fine-tune their techniques. Having participated in the DMC World DJ Championships himself back in 1991, he believes it’s an imperative experience for DJs. The challenges such events present with performing for such a strong audience gives them the opportunity to really explore their techniques and practice their work. According to Swift, “I would say it’s wise to go ahead and participate in competitions like this—be it at as large a level as the DMC World Championships or local club competitions. For me, it was an amazing experience and really helped me tap into my potential that was previously undiscovered. If you’re interested in participating not just for the sake of winning, I think it would be a good platform just to practice your set and get it right for your crowd. You don’t need to be a professional—you just need to love the music enough to be able to mix it right.”
DJ Rugged One, who teaches both Conover and Roman, is of the same opinion. A professional DJ himself, he has been in the industry for 21 years, and teaching since 2011. A self-taught DJ, he began by practicing up to six hours a day for two to three years before he perfected his technique. “It all depends on whether you’re pursuing this as a hobby or if you’re keen on taking it up professionally. It boils down to how much effort you want to put in to study the fundamentals of Djing,” he said.
Tricks of the Trade
While music maintains a strong hold on a DJ’s set-list, the techniques s/he uses to execute his/ her set still remain a crucial element. In one of his lessons at The New School, Swift highlights the importance of execution versus technique. For him, it was important that his students didn’t just learn a piece by one of their favorite artists, but understood the way in which the piece was created. He was of the opinion that in this era of technology, students of any art form want to learn the technique that leads to a particular creation. They have access to all the music they could listen to, and discover new artists along the way for inspiration.
They know that to gain the same recognition as the influences they admire, they must learn the technique. However, learning the trick alone won’t help aspiring DJs create masterpieces. He says, “Students often think it’s enough that they just learn the technique, and end up creating duplicates of the work they attempt to mirror. They need to learn to use those techniques to execute their own ideas, and must be able to hear their own rhythm. There’s no point to learning a skill if you’re not going to contribute something substantial to the art form.”
It’s also important to remember that technique and music go hand in hand. The perfect set-list would be a good balance of both, in a manner that brings the good music to the forefront with the right use of mixing and turntable tricks. Understanding what turntable tricks mix well with particular genres of music is vital. Yi Yang, a Boston University student and amateur DJ notes, “It’s always important to try and make the transitions smooth and please the crowd. Music and technique go hand in hand. As long as you get it right with the crowd, nothing else matters. Observe your crowd and pick your tracks as you go along with your set so you know you’re giving the audience the music they want to hear.”
Play that Funky Music
It’s safe to say that the tracks a DJ picks to mix are equally important as the technique that s/ he uses to mix them. If the execution doesn’t match up to the quality of the tracks on a set list or vice versa, there’s a definite chance the DJ will leave the club with a less than happy crowd and a check that reflects that.
In an age where new genres of music are gaining popularity, it’s safe to assume that both Swift and Rugged suggest students play the music they like. Swift also thinks that students have more fun when they pick tracks from their own musical library, and a “standard” DJ set list needn’t include just hip-hop or R&B songs. Rugged goes one step further to mention that a DJ has to cover all the fields. According to the DJ veteran, “Your song choices as a DJ would generally stem from music that’s current. Put in a good mix of songs that you’d like, but also be sure to include songs that are real crowd-pleasers, and find the right balance between the two with the execution of good techniques. You have to find your area. Find what you like to play and take it one step further.”
Roman and Conover made some interesting mix suggestions. Roman believes that the genre(s) of music the two songs stem from don’t matter as long as the beats match and they transition seamlessly into each other. She said, “I like all different kinds of music, but my favorite genres would be hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk, disco, stuff like that. Things that my mom played around the house as I was growing up.” Conover drew her influences from rock and hip-hop. For her, mash-ups of rock instrumentals and hip-hop a cappella make for an interesting combination, along with mash ups of 80s pop rock and hip-hop.
Quite often, DJs are influenced by the musical choices of their families, as illustrated by Roman. Many draw inspiration from the songs they grew up hearing, as is the case with Rugged, who would listen to Haitian music because of his father. He reminisces about his childhood days and discusses growing up listening to hip-hop, pop, R&B, and dance. He discovered funk and jazz two or three years into DJing, and noticed that those were the sources other DJs sampled.
Swift’s familial influence extends beyond just the music he heard growing up, having been raised around a father and brother who were both in the music business. He would accompany his father, a Latin music DJ, to shows and events, and with his brother, would watch his father control the room with the music he played. He mused, “I would help my father transport his equipment to the location of the event, and would watch him work the turntables. At the age of 12, I asked my brother to teach me some of his tricks, since he was up and coming in the hip-hop, soul and funk genres. Without my father’s knowledge, we would mess around with the equipment and try our hand at a few tricks. By the time I decided to pursue DJing as a career, I had already mastered certain techniques and turntable tricks.”
A large part of the discussion around effort and practice hours required for DJing encompassed technology. With the numerous options in equipment now readily available for those keen on taking up DJing, it has to be noted that over the last decade, a larger number of would-be DJs have been trying their hand at turntablism and mixing. According to Rugged, “Manufacturers today have been putting out DJ controllers in contrast to the old school turntables which are large, bulky, and difficult to transport. While 85-90 percent of practicing DJs still use their turntables, a small but significant number of people resort to DJ controllers because of their ease of use.”
According to thenoisegate.com, the aspiring DJ revolution kicked off in 2014, and the numbers only seem to be growing in 2015, with new software and compact equipment readily available to those looking to learn the art. Back in the day, what could only be mixed with a complete setup can now be done with a few clicks on the laptop with softwares like Serato.
Age no Bar
The professionals are quick to mention they both have students from varying age groups, right from teenagers to individuals well into their 40s. Rugged notes, “I’ve taught a diverse group of people. The one thing I believe it is important to remember is that you are never too old to learn. With the students I teach, their faces show their admiration for the craft, and I think that’s all that matters.”
Swift delves deeper and mentions that students come in all ages, as do their approaches to DJing. While the younger generation is uninhibited and not afraid to try new tricks and possibly look weird while doing so, the older crowd holds back out of fear of what others might say. Swift states, “I once asked my students to scratch the records using their elbows, and while the younger students were enthusiastic about the approach and found it fun, the older crowd were very awkward about it and weren’t very open to trying this out.” Another important factor seems to be that the younger the students, the quicker they are at grasping the concepts of scratching and beat-juggling. They have a better understanding of percussion, whereas the older students are better at orchestrating a set.
With the diversity in music, the numerous sources of learning and the level of skill that goes into it, it’s safe to say that DJing goes beyond just mucking about with two songs on a turntable. The increasing number of aspirants goes to prove that DJing has its place in the field of music and holds a position just as strong as any genre. All it takes to master the skill is hard work, a good ear, and an excellent teacher. So why not play that beat, and give those records a whirl?