No matter what genre(s) you play, to be a DJ you need to have a ravenous, unending passion for music. Sure, most people can admit to having at least some sort of passion for or interest in music, but I think to be a DJ you really have to be obsessed with finding, collecting, and sharing music with an eager and willing audience. I buy dozens of vinyl and digital music files every month, and you should see my Beatport Hold Bin: there are hundreds of tracks in it and I keep adding more.
My love of music started at an early age when I was first exposed to classical music. I remember being in 3rd grade and everyone in my year had to learn an instrument. I guess that was supposed to make us culturally well-rounded. You either went with the woodwinds or brass, which typically put you in band, or you picked a stringed instrument, which means you would be in orchestra. I chose violin for two reasons: 1. because I didn’t want to be a “band geek,” that horrible nerdy trop you still see in Hollywood movies about American school kids and 2. because I liked the way it looked. I thought it sounded prettier than all the other instruments and, ever the esthete, I chose the prettiest thing on offer.
When you first study a stringed instrument the teacher puts little pieces of masking tape on the fingerboard to help you learn where to naturally place your fingers to make the right kinds of sounds. Nothing too complicated, just simple notes in first position. Our string teacher taught us notes not by telling us what the notes were — we couldn’t even read music yet. She taught us with numbers. So “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was not A-A-E-E-F#-F#-E, as it is notated in real music, but A0-A0-A0-A0-E1-E1-0 — the “1” indicating where you should put your first finger on the E string, the “0” indicating an open string.
I didn’t know that picking up a violin in the 3rd grade would turn into years of violin lessons, orchestra rehearsals, recitals, sectionals, auditions, competitions and hours and hours of practice. More than that, I was always the only black guy in the orchestra, a joke my grandmother just loved to point out every time an orchestra I was in took a group photo.
“Where’s’ Madison,” she’d ask. “There he is!” pointing right at me, the brown spot.
The lack of black orchestral musicians and recitalist is why I thought that I wanted to be a concert violinist, or an international artist who makes a living simply by performing as a solo artist in recitals and with orchestras. I’m talking along the lines of Anne Sophie Mutter, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg or Joshua Bell, all of whom are white. I wanted to be one of the first black concert violinists and I was steadily towards that goal if I might say so. I loved the idea of being an artist and making a living doing something I loved to do.
I stopped playing violin after nearly 15 years for reasons I won’t go into, but because music was such a big part of my life it’s hard for me to imagine not doing something musical.
I always describe myself as being of two minds: the first mind is deeply intellectual, loves ideas, theory, high art and the like while the other is seemingly superficial, loves nightclubs, popular culture and dance music. This was even the case when I was in the violin world. So at the same time that I was dealing the classical music world I was also going to nightclubs and loving dance music.
One summer I was a fellow with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. It was a position that brought together the best high school string players from around the country for an eight-week apprenticeship. There was a lot of trying to “out play” one another. They put you in a dorm and you had a member from the NSO as your private teacher for eight weeks. We were also given a pretty nice stipend, almost all of which I used to buy CDs from Tower Records. Seriously. We got our allowance of $200 per week which was meant to cover food and other expenses but I probably used $100 of it on CDs every week, everything from techno and electronica to my favorite concert artists performing Bach, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.
I told you I loved music.
II. Hey Mr. DJ
When I stopped playing violin I needed another outlet to express myself musically. I can’t sing at all so that wasn’t an option. The only thing I loved as much as music was going out to nightclubs. I was so drawn to the fantasy the club offered, to how loud the music was, and to how a nightclub was a similar social situation as an orchestra concert: people gathered together to hear music. Though, admittedly, there are more people asleep at an orchestra concert than in a nightclub which makes an orchestra concert a very expensive nap.
I had my first DJ lesson in New York in 2009. I learned on a vinyl emulation software program called Serato, which allows you to play digital music files with a special piece of timecoded “vinyl” that’s virtually indistinguishable from traditional vinyl. The nuts and bolts of the software is that you can take the traditional DJ set up — two vinyl turntables and a mixer — and play all of your digital music files straight from the time-coded vinyl, as if you were playing a “real” record. You can control the digital music with the timecoded vinyl.
Probably the most exciting thing about DJing is the ability to touch the music. It’s not just pushing “play” on a CD player or on iTunes. You actually pick up the needle and place it where you want it to go on the vinyl. And then there the music is, spinning right in front of you.
I took lessons for a few weeks before my tutor told me I knew everything there was to know. All I needed to do now was practice.
But as with any new hobby, you have to invest in the materials if you want the best results.
All budding DJs know that it is a fairly expensive affair. You need turntables, which can easily run from 200 to 1000 dollars a pop, and you need two of them. That’s at least 400 dollars right there. Then you need two cartridges to play the vinyl. You need a mixer, some type of sound system, and, if you’re going the Serato route, you need to also buy the software and required equipment.
The cost to entry for beginning DJs can be as much as 1,200 dollars for a basic set up.
As a graduate student living in New York City I just didn’t have the extra resources to dedicate to such an expensive hobby. So I tabled my DJing, knowing it was definitely something I wanted pick up again later if I had the chance.
Now, as part of my work with Modern Moves, I’ve been studying DJing and music production at the London Sound Academy in Camden and have made my first two mixes, Hexagon and Suprematism, and I’ve even had my first performance at Roadtrip in Shoreditch on Friday, February 27th.
III. Nuts and Bolts
When I first learned to DJ I learned on vinyl emulation software, but this time I’ve been learning on CDJs or digital turntables that play digital music files from a CD or USB stick. If you’re a tech geek like I am, standing in front of a CDJ 2000 Nexus, standard equipment for the industry, is really exciting. You’re in the DJ booth! You’re touching some very expensive equipment that is meant to set the tone for the evening.
One of the things we did during my first lesson at the London Sound Academy was beat matching. Beat matching is tricky because you are essentially trying to play two tracks at the same speed but in a way that is imperceptible to the audience. While one song is playing you’re trying to sneak in a brand new track and you have to make it go the same speed as the one that’s already playing. If you don’t it will sound like a train wreck and is very noticeable.
Beat matching, for what it’s worth, is in some ways a lost art in the age of the digital DJ. Now it’s possible to use the “sync” button on your DJ controller or software program in a way that the computer’s algorithms will actually match up the waveforms for you so that the music automatically plays at the same speed.
Is that cheating? Some might say yes, but I think it’s all about your own taste and what you’re aiming to do with the music. Some people prefer to use the “sync” button so they are free to play with effects and do all sorts of crazy things to the music.
By the second lesson we were covering musical phrasing, which is essentially about how you mix one track out of another in a way that makes musical sense. Usually when you mix you lower the high, mid, and low frequencies of both tracks and essentially swap them out as the new musical material is brought in. But when you mix by using phrasing you’re actually trying to match up the musical phrases of the song going out with the phrases of the one going in and blending them together in a way that no one will notice what you’re doing.
So first you’re attempting to beat match or play two records at the same speed, and while you’re doing that you’re also thinking about how to bring in a new musical idea in a way that makes sense and won’t clear the dance floor. This is essential in techno and house music because there isn’t usually a break in the music over the course of the night, whereas with other styles of music there is often a perceptible end of one track and a beginning of the next.
It’s really hard work.
For what it’s worth, there are different styles of DJs and different styles of mixing, and each musical scene can require a different kind of DJ technique. With turntablism, for instance, it’s about the art of playing music but additionally using the record to make radically different sounds. “Cutting” allows you to drop the bass in and out in a way that “shapes” the musical content.
The DJ, who works with prerecorded material, uses the equalizer settings, filters and other effects to shape the musical content to make it his or her own. The bass can be dropped out entirely or swapped so that you are hearing track A but hearing the bass line from track B. These materials make it possible to shape even pre-recorded content to make it personal so that the DJ doesn’t just play song after song but takes your track and mixes and distorts it in an interesting way.
It’s easy to think that a DJ has a list of songs he or she wants to play, cycles through them in that order and then the night is done. Part of the magic of DJing, for me, is the improvisatory quality of the form. Not only does the DJ attempt to reflect a musical personality but she or he also usually tries to respond to the demands of the crowd or what the crowd seems like it wants at that time of the night.
When I made my first mix “Hexagon” I had no idea what I was going to play. Actually, I didn’t even know I was recording a mix that day. I went into the studio and my tutor told me, “Okay, you’re making a mix today.”
I knew which two songs I wanted to start with, and I knew which songs were in my playlist, but that playlist had probably 60 songs in it and I was only making a 45 minute mix. I wasn’t going to play 60 songs in 45 minutes.
Choices had to be made. Are the tracks in similar or related keys? Is one grossly faster than the other? Would they mix well? These are the questions that preoccupied me in the mix.
My tutor told me that all of the tracks you have in your arsenal, whether that’s 200 or 20,000, these are the tracks that make up your sound. Between gigs you might play the same 10 songs but you might play them differently or in unexpected ways. Figuring out which tracks work together is part of the fun.
When I was asked to record my mix, on some level I was just trying to do the exercise and get through the thing. But as soon as I realized I would be recording something I wanted other people would hear I began to think about the kinds of sounds I’d put in my mix.
I love the droning, driving, relentless sounds of techno that can sometimes seem nonmusical and without a sense of melody. I love this style because it is so focused on rhythm and to me it is a much more difficult to access and much more difficult to like than music that has a defined melody or a singable chorus, or something else a bit more tangible to grasp. With this style of music you really do have to focus on the rhythm itself and allow yourself to be entranced by it completely. For me, droning, minimalist, rhythmic music is powerful because of its connections to ritual and that even without drugs or artificial substances you can lose yourself in just the undulating drum line alone.
But I also love the powerful gospel techno of Robert Hood/Floorplan, an interesting style of music that still punches with relentless drum lines but has the highs of gospel.
In the heat of my mix – that is, once the record button flashed on and off – something interesting happened. In my practice sessions I’d stop and start if I made a mistake, or else I would try to rewind the track and start over. The thing is, you can’t do that on a dance floor. If you mess up you don’t get to shrug it off and press “do over.” You have to keep going.
Each time I’ve recorded a mix — and there are two mixes now — I’ve essentially improvised but with a template in mind. One thing I’ve learned, then, is that the DJ is really a careful improviser. She or he has a crate or crates of tracks they usually play, tracks that make up that particular DJs “sound.” My tutor told me that a DJ might have a certain number of things in their library and those tracks become their “sound.” They might have 3 gigs in a month and they might play some of the same songs in a different order at any given gig that month. Those tracks index a particular DJs taste level and interest in certain kinds of sounds.
The style of music I play is techno and I don’t mind being a relatively “niche” DJ. There are a couple types of DJs: wedding DJs, DJs who play requests, DJs who have a specific style or who dabble in a few different genres. I got into DJing to play my favorite music and to share my specific musical taste with an audience to make a connection with them over a night. To me, that’s where the artistry of DJing lies.
As the postmodern theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has observed, the DJ is essentially a copy and paste artist, the crux of postmodernism, a selector who copies preexisting musical content and pastes it together in a brand new context over the course of the night. Part of the excitement of DJing is how you surprise yourself by pasting songs that fit together in ways you didn’t anticipate.
VI. The Night Of…
I had my first DJ performance in the basement at Roadtrip, a popular bar in Shoreditch. Part of the reason I chose the DJ school I did is because it’s relatively inexpensive, compared to other DJ schools anyway, but mostly because they have tight relationships with many of the major music venues in London and do well with getting their students gigs. I hadn’t even finished my 3rd lesson before my tutor told me that he would like to book me for a gig at Roadtrip!
Out of the bedroom and into the bar.
My set was scheduled from 4am to 5pm on Friday, a time that is really perfect for playing the dark style of music I love. To prepare I thought carefully about the first couple of songs I wanted to play because it was my first night performing and I wanted to announce myself with a specific sound. When you’re a DJ you are your sound, and hopefully people book you not because they want some random DJ but because they want you to play your style.
I spent hours in the studio trying to figure out which tracks went together and how I would play them, and the first track I went for was “Breathe” by Answer Code Request. It’s big and boomy and doesn’t have a four on the floor bass line right away. But that was part of the point for me. I wanted to play this abstract, slightly track before I punched the room with with another track that was big and beefy.
I was so nervous about the first three tracks. Not nervous about playing but nervous about the fact that my tutor told me at the last second that the mixer and the turntables were different than the ones I’d been used to practicing on in the studio. In general a mixer is a mixer and a turntable is a turntable, but for a new person performing I was already anxious about messing up and now I had to think about how different the mixer and turntables were.
All told, once I hit the DJ booth I don’t really remember much. I didn’t see anyone. I stopped feeling nervous/nauseous and, thankfully, nothing went wrong. I had a playlist of tracks on my phone I knew worked together and that I knew I wanted to play, but somehow by the time I reached the 6th track I was so into the music that I completely forgot to look at the my playlist and improvised as I went along. As one track was going out I sampled different tracks in my headphones and listened to what worked or what I wanted to play next.
As I played, supporters who knew it was my first time stood by me and cheered and others watched me in the DJ booth to see what I was doing. At the end, a few people came up to me to say how good I was and they were really encouraging me, telling me how much they liked my set.
But there were also naysayers, as there are with any performance. My friend who was in the room told me that someone said they didn’t like the music and wondered when “the real music” would be coming on. Apparently the person was expecting a bit more commercialism from the music that night, and it is true that at a certain point the room cleared — the DJs worst nightmare. My goal for the night though was to have fun and to play the music I love. I didn’t get into DJing to be a crowd pleaser. I got into it to share my love of music.
VII. What’s Next
My tutor told me that I don’t really need any more DJ lessons. He told me that now I should be focusing on production because today DJs are also producers of their own music. They mix their own tracks with those that already exist. Being a DJ producer puts you in charge and further amplifies your brand.
Now I’m on the lookout to start my own dance party at a basement venue in London. Most of the influential DJs got their start by igniting their own musical movement or party and building buzz around it slowly but steadily. So that’s what I want to do next: find a small, dark basement in London, fill it with smoke and find two other DJs to play dark, booming music.
I imagine a small art collective of five people: three regular DJs, a lighting designer and a graphic designer and we would be the brains and the machinery behind this party. The DJs would show off their specific sound and style, the lighting designer would use light sculpture to create a unique visual experience, and the graphic designer would be in charge of all image aspects of the party itself. It’s a party that aims to attract a small art audience, an art crowd, or a crowd interested in a deep sensory experience.
To me, this party is the antidote to commercial nightlife. 15 pounds to get in, 10 pound cab to get there, 8 pounds for one drink in a small cup. Before you know it you’re in the red. People often go out because it’s Friday or Saturday night, not because they want to have a unique experience or do something new or hear cool music. With my party I want to try to change that. I want to create a nightclub that’s as much a movement as it is about clubbing itself.
My DJ tutor told me that I was a bit “chin strokey,” meaning the kind of person who is interested in things that make you think. He was probably kidding when he said it but actually I think he’s right. I want to use music, sound and space to get people to think through their bodies. That’s why I want to DJ and it’s the connection I want to make to clubbers.