Picture John: thirteen, clumsy, and shy. Gray hoodie wide, pants wider, eyes widest of all. Tastefully spiky-haired. Caucasian. Mute, mostly. Soaking it all in, here at open house for DJ camp.
Project yourself into John’s mind.
I want to meet girls. I want to meet so many girls that I require some sort of heavy-duty vehicle — a limo, a Hummer, a dump truck — to transport these women back to my house, whereupon I will reenact the lurid details of a great many choruses currently bangin’ on KMEL. As I am only thirteen, half the time I don’t quite grasp what said choruses are referring to, precisely. But I will learn.
I will accomplish this by becoming a DJ.
Picture John’s mother. John’s mother has brought John here, to the office/studio/classroom hub of the Northern California DJ Music Production Academy. Lodged in a swank SF office building, in a small space doubling as a production studio, the Norcal mother ship is offering folks like John DJ lessons. Learn to mix. Learn to scratch. Learn to rock a party. Learn to drive the dump truck that will transport the girlies back home. Your home. Or at least, your mother’s.
“I’ve listened to this music since the fifth grade,” John mumbles. “And I finally wanted to start DJing, so I got some turntables, and it’s my birthday, so my mom signed me up for this.”
“This” is a Norcal open house, consisting of two hour-long seminars, a climactic “Scratch Session,” and myriad opportunities for John’s mother to fork over anywhere from $350 to $1,150 for honest-to-God night school courses in such black arts as Turntable Basics for the Art of DJing, Scratching Fundamentals, or Electronic Music Production Utilizing the Akai MPC-2000XL.
The what? If indeed they’d arrived with the All-American image of the DJ as the new Guitar God, the DJ as Hugh Hefner, the DJ as the Ecstasy-and-Hoochie-Mamas-Inundated Life of the Party, John and his mother are in for a shock, because they are surrounded by frickin’ nerds.
Frickin’ nerds who, incidentally, are offering unquestionably the coolest summer camp you’ve ever heard of. For justifiable reasons, John and his mother won’t be taking the bait tonight. But I will.
Thoryn Stephens — molecular biologist, “glitch-hop” enthusiast, and Norcal’s 25-year-old founder and CEO — repeatedly uses the phrase “acoustically architected” to describe his company’s digs: a swank series of offices, space-age studios and, most tantalizingly, the Scratch Room. He is playing carnival barker to his small crowd of open-house partyers, including renowned Bay Area luminary DJ Quest.
Someone asks Quest to name an amateur turntablist’s biggest mistake.
“No rhythm,” he replies.
Thoryn then presides over Seminar #1, in which he describes the endless wonders of a computer program called Ableton Live. Fifteen people sit in cushy office chairs and gawk as he demonstrates how to mix together a synth loop, a few drumbeats, and a field recording of a pro skateboarder into a seamless club-banger. The discussion is moderately cool but severely wonky: He uses the words “wav,” “compression,” “algorithm,” and “quantized.” He comes off like a computer scientist plowing through a PowerPoint presentation. He notes that he prefers Logic as a sequencer. A few house partiers nod knowingly.
John nearly nods off.
“Well, we’re confused,” John’s mother admits afterward. “He wanted just to learn scratching. I think it’s a little over his head.”
Mother and son elect to grab dinner, think it over, and return afresh. Meanwhile, Seminar #2 begins, masterminded by Mei Lwun, an SF DJ here to discuss mash-ups, the au courant art of cramming together two completely unrelated songs to create a bizarre and amusing hybrid tune. Lwun pinpoints DJ Danger Mouse’s notorious Grey Album — a full-length affair wherein Jay-Z’s Black Album collides with the Beatles’ White Album — as the mash-up du jour.
Lwun is down-to-earth, casual, pleasantly sardonic. He’s a fun guy to be around, at least for an hour. “Ninety percent of my income comes from playing records,” he announces. He demos one of his own mash-ups: Usher’s “Yeah” with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Rad.
But he also lets us crowd around his laptop to catch a glimpse of how he made it: Two color-coordinated computerized sound waves rearranged and fused together onscreen in a manner that seems to require far more math and science than art and craft. He casually mentions the “Pro Tools compression algorithm.” The what?
“We all know what a 909 kick with delay sounds like,” he observes, to stupefied silence.
This is a real-life DJ, with CDs, club gigs, Internet notoriety. Shouldn’t he be snorting cocaine off someone’s ass? Someone more attractive than anyone here? Instead, we’re nine dudes in a dimly lit room discussing compression algorithms. We could just as easily be obsessing over Dungeons & Dragons guides, EverQuest strategies, or Pokémon cards. Is this just Geek America remodeled with music software and an Urb subscription?
Sitting in the lobby afterward, Mei Lung boils down his chosen art to one word: “Mixturbation.”
He admits that his DJ sets are designed to appeal to the “drunkards and cokeheads” that comprise his dancefloor constituency — he crafts mash-ups primarily to keep himself sane while still honoring his thirtieth Usher or Britney Spears request of the evening. But he isn’t pandering in the interest of sexual fulfillment, at least not on a luridly massive scale. “Most DJs are terribly antisocial,” he says. “This is a fact, and the truth. I’m borderline agoraphobic. I don’t like being in a large group of people where I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, and the reason why I got into DJing was so I could go to a party and have something to do, you know?”
What a heartbreaking image: The DJ capable of rocking the party who can’t ever experience what a rocked party actually feels like. Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t party, DJ.
Young John is blissfully ignorant of this fact. He’s back now, and feasting on the open house’s red-meat attraction: the Scratch Session. The Scratch Room is a narrow, walk-in-closet-style space with eight pairs of Technics turntables crammed into it. Eight guys — a few teachers, a few skilled visiting DJs, a few complete amateurs — man the decks, taking turns scratching over a generic 4/4 drumbeat. Each gets four bars to strut his stuff, or lack thereof.
John looks terrified. He gapes at the record spinning on his turntable as though it’s the untranslated Koran. When it’s his turn, he lurches the record violently back and forth as though attempting to remove an awful stain on it. At least two other guys in the room, both more than twice John’s age, sound noticeably worse.
In six days, this will be me. The Norcal DJ Music Production Academy has begun a series of summer camps: Five days of DJ 101 from nine to noon, and DJ 201 from one to four. The class targets twelve- to sixteen-year-olds. Luckily, I maintain that mentality. I desire mastery in the field of beatmatching, crab-scratching, mixturbating.
Guys who spin records at weddings are not DJs, but “human jukeboxes.” Forget ’em. Honest-to-God DJs can be divided into two basic camps. First, the borderline agoraphobic party-rockers, who pound out hip-hop, house, trance, goth, ’80s cheese rock, reggae, or bluegrass for hypothetically euphoric weekend-warrior crowds. They’re the Mei Lwun types, paid to play records real fast and purty-like. DJ 101.
Then, the full-blown agoraphobic scratchers: wikka-wikka wonk, wikka-wikka wonk. More or less accidentally discovered during the great late-’70s/early-’80s NYC Birth of Hip-Hop era, scratching essentially involves violently lurching a record back and forth like our buddy John did, just in a controlled, athletic, deliberate, bitchin’ manner. In the late ’90s, every doofy-ass MTV rock band was contractually obligated to hire such a DJ to provide hip-hop street cred, but that trend is largely dead as disco, praise be to Allah. And the high-profile 2001 documentary Scratch, a big hit with the indie Sundance crowd, lent turntablism a public legitimacy, honoring the art’s founders and leading lights while presenting the two-turntables-and-a-mixer setup as musically comparable to the guitar, which, the flick gleefully claims, the turntable is now outselling. It’s a fascinating movie about riotously bookish people — twenty-straight-hours-of-practice obsessives who, despite winning national competitions and earning international notoriety, still live with their mothers. Or, in the case of Davis’ beloved DJ Shadow, they develop an intensely romantic relationship with a record store basement crammed ceiling-to-floor with thousands of old records — physical euphoria for DJs “crate-digging” for long-forgotten beats and melodies. Scratch posits scratching as artistically glorious and socially stultifying.
Thoryn explains that Norcal’s primary demographic consists of 21- to 33-year-old professionals with day jobs and disposable income: Such souls have largely populated the school’s night classes since they kicked off in November. This five-day summer camp business is a brand-new venture, and perhaps for 2004 a hasty one: Thoryn admits that most dutiful parents might’ve already mapped out their kids’ summers by the time his fifteen-person operation started advertising. (August slots are still available, kids!)
That explains why, strolling into the Scratch Room at 9 a.m. Monday morning, only three fellow students are there.
That does not explain why one of those students is a twelve-year-old girl.
Ally is not the only jarring sight to greet us. Our DJ 101 instructor, Jon Guzman, hands out a class syllabus that prominently features the words quizzes, final grade and, most catastrophically, final presentation. The class considers this.
“Is there a bathroom here?” fellow classmate Daniel asks.
Daniel and his brother, Jeff, soft-spoken and hyper-friendly Korean guys, round out our class. The former is entering his freshman year of high school; the latter, his frosh year at UCLA. Both are up from New Orleans for the summer at the behest of their older brother, Yun, a Norcal instructor. Jeff — dressed in khaki shorts, various T-shirts, and flip-flops — looks as if he’s already groggily shuffling around campus at 8 a.m. Daniel, his perpetual white hat perpetually askew, looks more the DJ part, with two strategic strands of black hair making it wholly unclear if he actually has eyes.
Jon is a teacher by trade, a Berkeley resident with tours of duty among Fremont fifth graders and kindergartners. A master’s degree beckons, starting in the fall. Welcome to DJ 101. My name is Mr. Guzman, he writes on the Scratch Room’s dry-erase board, adding a smiley face. Like Daniel, he’s fond of the slightly askew baseball cap, although he wears a different one every day except Wednesday, when he is inexplicably bare-headed. He’s full of little teacher tricks that work effectively whether you’re twelve or 26.
Jon patiently leads us through our what-the-hell-are-all-these-knobs equipment rundown: There are two turntables and a mixer between them, which allows you to instantly shift from one deck to the other, or play both simultaneously. Our terminology down, we then grab two copies of the same record and practice the “simultaneous” part — while the first record is playing, we try and start the second record exactly on-beat. This requires the “Awareness Scratch”: Most hip-hop or techno tunes are in 4/4 time, so you locate the song’s starting point — the “one” beat of a four-measure pattern — and shift the record back and forth in time (making a cool, soothing wucka-wucka sound) before releasing your hand on the other record’s own “one.”
Hypothetically, the two beats line up perfectly, which is known as “beatmatching.”
Let it be known that Jon praises my Awareness Scratch.
And yet he still attends to his other students. Ally, for example — super-skinny, long hair, tomboyish, sunglasses perched on her head, headphones that already look alarmingly natural wrapped around her neck — has chosen, as her identical practice records, a Trick Daddy single. She just can’t decide which song to use.
“You don’t want ‘Can’t F with Me,'” Jon points out helpfully. “You want ‘I’m a Thug.'”
Ally’s presence here is clearly the result of Cool Uncle Syndrome. Joel is the Cool Uncle, though the title is honorary: His wife is Ally’s mother’s best friend. But that’s a strong enough bond to haul Ally down here from her home base of Sacramento to bunk with Joel in “UnPleasanton” while she enjoys the DJ-camp extravaganza he has orchestrated for her. Joel is an affable designer type responsible for much of Norcal’s logo, brochure, and business-card arsenal, which explains where he got the idea. Though his wife is pregnant and due to generate a baby girl in September, for the time being he is unflinchingly focused on making Ally the coolest frickin’ twelve-year-old on the planet.
Her favorite kind of music: “skate punk.”
“I try to broaden her mind so she’s not listening to what her friends from school get from the mall,” Joel explains as Ally merrily nods. “I got her into Curve. Ska. Really underground stuff, but she digs it. She’s got an appreciation for it. I try and monitor the language. Sometimes it’s hard, ’cause you don’t pay attention to that all the time.”
Ally’s last CD purchase was the Lost Prophets, a politically charged underground hip-hop act. “I’m going to film school,” she notes. “My grandma got me in.”
It’s another week-long summer camp, where she imagines she’ll learn “how to use a camera, whatever.” That starts in seven days. “I come home on Saturday and leave on Sunday again.”
“She’ll come back with sound and video skills,” Joel beams. “Audio-video editing.”
As for the summer camp at hand, Ally admits, “It feels strange to me, ’cause I’m the only girl in this class.”
Joel adds: “Not only in that class, but in terms of DJ culture, period — there’s lots more guys than girls. She’s not a girly-girl, though.”
“Uh-uh,” Ally concurs. “I’m not the kind of person that you’ll find wearing neon-pink nails. Yeah. I’m not that kind of girl. Okay, I’m a mall rat sometimes, but that’s only the cool stores.” (Hot Topic.)
“I wanna go on to be a real DJ,” she declares. “I actually wanna battle. ‘Cause I mean, there’s lots of guys who are really good at battling, and I haven’t seen, really, girls that battle. So, to like change the look of what you think about that …”
Ally also is the only nongeek, and seems to fancy her role as feminist trailblazer. She’s already hard at work challenging gender roles in the realm of sport. “I play street hockey at school, and so people call me the Grim Reaper, because I high-stick a lot,” she explains. “It’s accidental. I mean, that’s the best part, it’s like [swings arms] WHHHOOO. There’s this stupid kid who said, like, ‘You’re a frickin’ monster.’ I was like, ‘Good.'”
There’s a significant amount of vicarious coolness going on here. “I never got a chance to do what she gets to do at her age,” Joel says. “I guess, to put it this way: When I was her age, I wish there was someone like me, you know? I just took her downhill biking for the first time on Saturday out at Kirkwood, and she had a blast. Why not? You don’t have to do what your friends do. … Can you imagine if you were twelve years old and you had an uncle come up to you and go, ‘Hey, you wanna go to DJ school?’ How you gonna refuse that?”
Jon, 23, has made an offer you can’t refuse twice now. In the late ’90s, he helped shepherd along a DJ course at Cal, through a program that allowed students to develop classes for fellow students, which predictably led to lots of intellectual forays into The Simpsons and beer. Like most of Norcal’s other instructors — including noteworthy Bay Area DJs such as Amber and Jay Slim — Jon has a day job and his own DJ career to contend with. And as with Joel, in a way this DJ camp business allows him to live vicariously.
“To tell you the truth, I’m jealous,” Jon says. “I’m jealous of these kids, because I never had a chance to come to a school like this, or the chance to have somebody go, ‘Okay, this is what you gotta do.’ Every time we teach the class we come up with a better way to do this. I’m jealous. When we had that intensive course — two days. People who had some experience, but they’re coming out actually being able to beatmatch, which is pretty scary, after two days. Because this takes a lot of practice, and as much as I practice and practice, there’s people coming out of 101 knowing how to beatmatch.”
DJ Pone, a Berkeley scratching institution who presides over our afternoon DJ 201 class, frames it in even more personal terms: Throughout the week, he repeatedly notes that the scratching techniques we’re learning in a few hours took him years to wrap his head around.
Not that it affected him in the end: Pone, aka 28-year-old Filipino Travis Rimando, is one of Norcal’s biggest real-world success stories, with an impressive résumé perhaps topped by his appearance at the 1999 DMC (Disco Mix Club) championships, the World Series of turntablism. Playing the part of Yoda as opposed to Luke Skywalker is a new experience for him, but though he lacks Jon’s real-life-teacher fluidity (Pone is an endless fount of nervous laughter), he breezily conveys some weird, complicated shit. Armed with Superseal skipless scratching records — featuring multiple tracks of repeated sound effects designed for maximum scratchability, and, on the back cover, a seal puppet smoking a joint and demanding Buy dis and stick it upa you assa — we rapidly learn the fundamentals of scratching, which essentially involves either moving the record back and forth or flicking the cross-fader (the switch that controls which turntable is audible) off and on. Or both. Frequently, both.
Pone brags by Friday afternoon that we’ve absorbed the first fifteen years of scratch theory: From baby scratches (simply drag the record back and forth, wucka wucka wucka) to chirp or forward scratches (wherein you add cross-fader movement for clipped, birdlike tweets) to transformers (slowly drag your fingers across the record while repeatedly thwacking the fader for an evil robotic effect) to the deified crab scratch (theatrically drum your fingers rapidly on the fader so you sound twenty times faster than you actually are). Huge swaths of DJ 201 are given over to Scratch Sessions, with a monotonous 4/4 beat and four bars each to strut your stuff in an endless circular loop.
Though not entirely incompetent (for the record, I excel tremendously at the forward passive scratch), I’m almost immediately choking on Jeff and Daniel’s exhaust as they effortlessly fire off transformers in bouts of sibling rivalry, particularly when we play “Follow the Leader,” in which the person next to you in a Scratch Session has to copy your last bar’s activity in his or her first bar. The way Jeff smirks at his kid brother as he fires off sixteenth-note chirp scratches is priceless.
Turntablism isn’t the simplest thing to wrap your head around. It takes a great while to convince yourself you are not actively destroying your equipment. The act is tremendously physical, jerking spinning records back and forth across needles and thwacking faders and knobs violently as though they owe you money. For those brought up to respect expensive stereo gear (a comparable turntables-and-mixer rig would run you well over $1,000), it’s not exactly comfortable.
But scratching is a relatively new art, one based entirely on accident, experimentation, and rampant trial and error. You are manipulating a machine in ways that its manufacturers never intended, at least initially. That alone demands respect, and also raises issues when it comes time to teach 2004 young’uns things that 1984 young’uns learned the hard way — by making it up, essentially. What was once counterintuitive is now intuitive; the romance of an undiscovered art form has mostly given way to worksheets, diagrams, specifically designed exercises … even sheet music.
Nostalgia, then, runs rampant. “It’s kind of like your first car,” Pone says. “You know, you get the crappy old family car. I had the crappy old DJ setup, with the belt-driven turntable and not-perfect mixer, and no way except for just listening to recordings of DJ Jazzy Jeff and trying to imitate those. That was my education. No peers to go to, really. It is kind of romanticized, and I don’t not appreciate it. I think there is a certain value in the way I came up versus someone teaching you. Learning things on your own, it kinda makes you a little more unique. Not to say after teaching everyone in the class, they won’t be unique, but they all come from what I taught them. I hope everyone will go out and explore a little more, and develop their own style. Me teaching myself, it was just me developing a fully unique style as I was going along. I did have that advantage, and that experience is something that can’t be replicated in a classroom.”
Thoryn has anticipated this critique. “For me, it was inefficient,” he says of his own DJ education. (He has since gravitated toward production.) “I didn’t know any DJs when I started DJing, so I would spend hours in my basement tryin’ to figure things out. And then, now, scratching with someone like Pone, what would take me hours to figure out they can show me in, like, two clicks. It’s so ridiculous.”
But purists care not for efficiency. “A lot of the hardcore turntablists feel that what they know is coveted,” Thoryn admits. “That was a major concern that we wrestled with at the onset of this. But I think the reason why we’re so passionate about what we’re doing is we know, if we don’t do it, there’s gonna be some corporate schmuck that basically tries to pull it off for pretty much the sole motivation of making money, and they’re not gonna do it as well. We have no doubt that every one of our classes is beyond, and our students walk away with information that they will never even fathom that they could find somewhere else.”
To an extent, that’s PR-speak; Thoryn mentions a New York City school called Scratch, and DJ lessons exist on a smaller scale elsewhere in the Bay Area, such as the Skills DJ Workshop in Berkeley. But Norcal is the newest, the flashiest, and the loudest player in this virgin arena, and it’s earned Thoryn plenty of media attention. “This idea is so novel, people are still like, ‘What?'” he says. “What we’re doing is really, really innovative. I feel like we’re setting the model for the rest of the country, in terms of how we’re conducting business.”
Still, a scratching community fiercely protective of its purity and pride is closely scrutinizing Norcal. Happily, early results are encouraging. Billy Jam — the revered Oakland-based Irishman whose insatiable quest to dominate Bay Area hip-hop media has turned him into a journalist, a radio show host, a promoter, an Internet impresario (HipHopSlam.com), a fledgling author (he’s writing an autobiography of deified Daly City turntablist DJ QBert), and an artist himself (he’s part of the DJs of Mass Destruction crew that also includes DJ Pone, churning out politically charged Bush-bashing mixes) — ducks his head into a Scratch Session one day and nods his approval, even as he voices the old school’s leeriness toward the New Actual School.
“One thing that I do think that’s bad is when people are trying to make it into a science, ’cause I look at it as an art,” Jam says. “There’s always this debate — is it a science, or a sport, or is it an art? It should be an art first and foremost, whereby there are no rules. What’s happened with the battles is they’ve become very regimented. And then we’re like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘Well, that’s the way it’s done.’ It’s like, well, how did we get to this point? Go back and look at 1988 DMC battles: You’ve got these kids from Italy, they’re spinning around, on the turntables, and they’re doing all these amazing body tricks, and they’re more like entertaining. Everything about it, down to the music they’re playing, is very, very important to them. It was about having more fun.”
Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Norcal’s approach is scratch notation: an attempt to write out a chirp or transformer routine visually, as though it’s piano sheet music or guitar tablature. It’s only a few years old conceptually, and Pone busts out rudimentary lessons in it for a few minutes each day, but almost apologetically, cloaked in even more nervous laughter. It’s an understandable plea for musical legitimacy in the face of classical snobs who still dismiss turntablism as atonal screeching noise, but Jam’s having none of it. “The other thing that I dislike about trying to make it a science is that a lot of people have come along and said, ‘Okay, what it is is, we’re gonna turn it into music.’ It’s not even necessary. … You’re creating this whole computer program for someone who doesn’t need a program, ’cause they’re already doing it. They mean well, but a lot of DJs I know, they just don’t even appreciate that at all.”
Fortunately, the bulk of DJ 201 is pure Scratch Session experimentation — screwing around, wildly grasping, horrifically failing, laughing it off, trying it all again the next time your four measures come around. And best of all, there are no quizzes or final exams.
Every morning as they enter the studio, Honorary Cool Uncle grills Ally in preparation for her impending DJ 101 quiz. The difference between breakbeat and jungle. What BPM stands for. How to fuse together two records of differing tempos by speeding one up or slowing one down accordingly. Essentially, Jon is teaching us how to absolutely lay waste to our next barbecue, and this trial by fire climaxes Friday when we’re forced to whip up a ten-minute continuous mix for our beatmatching peers.
My early experiments in this regard do not go well. I spend most of Wednesday trying to isolate my favorite line from 50 Cent’s “21 Questions” — I love you like the fat kid loves cake — and drop it abruptly into other songs in a hypothetically humorous manner. I believe this to be within my DJing capacity. I am mistaken. Forced to scrap it all and start from scratch Thursday, I hastily assemble a four-song mix — a Wyclef Jean reworking of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” (my attempt at an ironic statement, which flits pointlessly over my younger colleagues’ heads), Missy Elliott’s “Back in the Day,” Chingy’s “Right Thurr,” and, in a climactic cokehead-and-drunkard-pandering sellout move, 50 Cent’s “In da Club.”
Friday morning, christening myself DJ Aloof, I volunteer to go first and promptly botch every between-song transition, 50 Cent especially. However, I employ a series of brilliant diversionary techniques and pass it off as good-natured, well, aloofness. “Yoga/tai chi moves served to entertain,” Jon writes on my evaluation, which is uniformly positive save a five-point deduction for wearing a Cleveland Browns T-shirt.
Jeff (DJ Duke) and Daniel (DJ Mellow-D) predictably make me look ridiculous, but in a polite, gentlemanly way (especially impressive given Jeff’s affinity for Lil Jon). And though Ally suffers from massive stage fright, initially refuses to perform at all, and eventually demands that Honorary Cool Uncle stand right by her the whole time, she eventually plows through her makeshift trance set. DJ Grim Reaper is her tentative stage name, though her current inability to spell “R-E-A-P-P-E-R” might well throw a wrench in the proceedings.
And just like that, we’re all DJs. Scratchers, beatmatchers, mixturbators. Given the financial hurdles involved, none of our party has immediate plans to snatch up a coupla turntables, but it’s invigorating to know we’d know what to do if we had them. Ally’s off to film school, Daniel’s off to high school, and Jeff, well, Jeff casually mentions he’s interested in production. Luckily, Norcal has a few classes for that, too. And as everyone knows, there’s dump trucks of women in it. Picture him rollin’.