In the modern musical era, there’s never been a lower barrier to professional entry than there is to being a DJ. Get a cracked copy of Ableton or Traktor, illegally download MP3s, buy fake Twitter followers, practice in the basement for a week and you, too, can be booked. At least, that’s the aspirational ideal for many.
It’s a warped version of punk rock’s anyone-can-do-it ethos, except devoid of ideology or original songwriting. The space bar can be the new guitar solo.
A decade ago, DJing remained a massive financial and technical commitment. It meant plunking down thousands on Technics turntables and mixers, plus a record collection that could cost as much as a condo. You had to know what you were doing or the party would turn down forever.
Those days are dead. Plenty of outstanding DJs still exist and spin nightly in Los Angeles, but the field has been opened up to mediocrities with no business attempting to move a crowd.
It has long been my dream to be among the best of those mediocrities. There’s tangible value to a DJ with average skills but good taste. Most partygoers don’t care about a seamless mix; they just want to dance to songs they like while drunk. And as much as I believe in the value of deep cuts and immaculate transitions, give me three drinks and I will inevitably start petitioning to hear Migos’ “Fight Night” or Young Thug’s “Lifestyle.”
In an effort to learn how to be the best at being a basic, I took a trip to Dubspot’s brand-new West Coast headquarters in Hollywood. Billed as the “world’s electronic music school,” the institution offers courses in everything from sound design to cutting-edge production software to elementary DJing 101.
There’s something inherently absurd to the notion of DJ schools. I once mentioned them in an interview with Madlib and he just kept laughing and asking if DJ schools were actually a real thing. But they are and no more necessarily wrong-headed than creative writing schools, which Kurt Vonnegut once compared to golf: It can’t really be taught, but “a pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.”
Dubspot cuts no corners. Its studios are tricked out with state-of-the-art consoles and software, and the instructors are consummate professionals, including beat-scene staples Thavius Beck and Mike Parvizi of Team Supreme.
My instructor was English drum and bass star DJ Rap, whom Rolling Stone once described as “making the records that Madonna wanted to make.”
It was daunting for several reasons, many relating to my combination of limited musical gifts and intractable pride. But Rap eloquently and patiently explained how to mix and beat match on Pioneer CDJ hardware.
The limitations of this column space prohibit a lengthy explanation, and maybe that’s dull anyway. If the experiment was to see how hard it was to be pleasantly mediocre, the answer was “not very.” DJs no longer have to painstakingly count out BPMs and label their records with the results. You can sync records to match up. You can do all your digging digitally. Technology relieves the heaviest burden.
But there are things you can’t teach — taste, showmanship and the ability to read a crowd will always separate the real from the cons. No amount of practice or shortcuts can turn you into J. Rocc, D-Styles or Dam-Funk.
But if art isn’t your goal, there’s something refreshingly easy about turning it into a hobby. You can’t become a mediocre DJ in an hour but you can figure out the rudiments.
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