When heiress and reality star Paris Hilton made her DJing debut at a music festival in São Paulo, many observers wondered – just how difficult is it to DJ, really? Not at all, according to outspoken dance music producer Deadmau5, real name Joel Zimmerman: “It takes two days to learn, as long as you can count to four,” Zimmerman told Rolling Stone. I took on the challenge to see if I could learn to DJ – in one hour.
Scratch DJ Academy hopes to teach anyone how to spin. The brain child of former businessman-turned-music-enthusiast Rob Principe, the academy began when Principe successfully pitched his idea for a DJ school to legendary Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay in the green room at the Late Show with David Letterman.
“Despite DJs being ubiquitous in our culture, there was no on-ramp to the art form,” explained Principe, co-founder and CEO of Scratch DJ Academy. “The equipment was expensive and confusing and the demand to learn outweighed any supply of teachers.”
Jam Master Jay soon jumped onboard as a co-founder and instructor at the New York academy. A decade later, close to 15,000 students a year nationwide fork out an average of $350 per six-week program, the most popular of which is a DJ 101 course that covers basic scratching, mixing and the use of prominent industry technologies like Serato software. A certification course, which can take over a year to complete and aims to produce club-ready DJs, costs just under $2000.
DJ Noms, a teacher with 17 years DJing experience, introduced me to a $3,000 deck consisting of two turntables, a mixer and a laptop. “Place your hand at the 9 o’clock position and all you’re going to do is start to push forward and back,” instructed DJ Noms. Performing this motion every quarter beat created a scratching sound known as the “baby scratch.”
“That simple movement is the foundation for everything related to DJing,” said Noms. DJs use baby scratches to move tracks so they release on time with another, and build upon this basic scratch to create more complicated turntable sounds.
In the first five minutes of the class – an hour-long session that retails for between $80-$150 – I nailed the baby scratch. From there, I counted to four a little faster and mastered a “scribble scratch” – a double-time version of the baby scratch – and a drag, which is a half time count. DJ Noms then showed me a slider on the mixer known as a cross fader, which can be used to flip back and forth four times a beat between turntables to create a percussive sound known as a “transformer scratch.”After 30 seconds of trying, I had the transformer scratch down.
Zimmerman, number six on our list of highest earning DJs, recently criticized several of his peers for “button-pushing” during live shows. With the increase in ease afforded by technologies like Ableton and Virtual DJ, which can be used to queue and sync tracks, Zimmerman claimed several DJ/producers rely on pre-recorded tracks rather than recreating their music during so-called live sets.
DJ Noms estimated that about half the working DJs in New York city use just mixers and their laptops, while the rest rely on a combination of turntables and Serato technology, a mock-vinyl software that lets DJs manipulate mp3 files on their laptop while using turntables as a control interface. There are even iPhone apps such as djay which let users mix tracks directly from the iTunes library. A popular Android version called DJ Studio 3 had over 232,000 downloads in June alone.
Serato makes mixing simpler by queuing up two songs of the DJ’s choice. When an icon on the display goes green the DJ has to release a track on time with the other song. Then the DJ just has to turn down the bass and fade out the initial track.
“If you get this, I quit, I’m running out of the building,” Noms joked. Sure enough, less than half an hour into the lesson I completed my first professional mix.
Still, there can be more to DJing then mixing. DJ Noms exhibited an advanced method of using the turntable as an instrument. Known as Turntablism, this skill combines feverish scratching and beat-juggling to get unique sounds out of the discs. A-Trak, superstar DJ and winner of five DJ world championships, said Turntablism took him years of practice and “monastic discipline” to learn.
Scratch DJ Academy sees no shortage of customers wanting to learn a range of techniques. “Our enrollment numbers actually increased during the recession, because people were losing jobs left and right,” explained Noms. “They were looking for a secondary source of income so they were coming to us.”
Customers have included accountants, lawyers and even a brain surgeon. With outlets in New York, L.A., Miami as well as on 7 cruise ships and four Caribbean resorts, overall enrollment at Scratch DJ Academy has increased around 25% since last July. Scratch Music Group also maintains a database of over 900 DJs across the country, booking those DJs out to over 7,000 events last year. Scratch Events takes a cut of the earnings and pays DJs a negotiated rate per gig, although they declined to disclose any figures.
To be sure, Scratch DJ Academy are not the only ones in this space. In New York alone, Dubspot DJ school offers similar lessons and online courses, as does DJ4Life Academy.
While the basics of DJing can be learnt in an hour, the skill required to scratch takes several more. Even if it might seem that technology makes a DJ’s job easier, the musical know-how required to play what an audience wants to hear before they know they want to hear it is a talent difficult to teach. Being able to count to four does help.
Written by Natalie Robehmed