Baby DJ Learns to DJ

By now most of you know that my love for hip-hop has its origins in acts like Run-DMC and The Fat Boys. What you might not know, and what I’ve really never talked about until now, is the one tape I probably valued like no other: DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. Like many eleven-year-olds, I found the lyrics [and video] for ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ hysterical, and the beat was different, falling somewhere between the disco rhythms of rap’s origins and the bludgeoning 808s of early Def Jam [courtesy of a Peter Frampton loop, of all things]. So my always accommodating, if somewhat confused parents ponied up the 20 bucks so I could run down to Tra-Kel Records in the Fort Malden Mall and pick it up. If I could even find that copy amidst the artifacts tucked away in my parents’ crawlspace, I doubt it would even play properly. I burnt that thing to a crisp with repeated plays. Much as I enjoyed the young Will Smith’s charisma or the songs about video games, what I was most drawn to were the gems buried on the album’s B-side. Most people forget or either don’t know that He’s the DJ… had at least six songs that were either classic MC/DJ party rocking in the most traditional sense [big’ing up your DJ, swagger and cockiness] or outright instrumental jams of Jeff scratching his ass off over classic breaks.

Those were the tracks my obsessive little preteen brain latched onto, and the moment I fell in love with the art of the scratch. I remember sitting at a folding card table in the basement of the childhood home, headphones on, trying to approximate the scratches I heard on songs like ‘Hip-Hop Dancer’s Theme’.

It’s a fascination that never really went away. On the rare occasions when I go to clubs, I never dance, I’m standing there watching the DJ. I’ve seen Questlove spin twice, and both times could have cared less about dancing, I just wanted to nerd out and watch what he did. For the pair of you who listen to RadioPFG when it comes out, you know I’ve started messing around with software to put actual mixes together instead of just fading in/out on complementary songs. Next on my gadget/toy wishlist will be a MIDI controller so I can properly scratch and pre-cue properly.

Thing is, I used to play drums in a band pretty regularly. However, now that I live far from my former bandmates, and frankly don’t have the room or finances to maintain a drumkit, I need to find other ways to express that side of me. I’ve found that DJ’ing and mucking about with consumer level drum programming [DM1 for iPhone, you are life changing, all for a dollar] to fill the creative gap left by no longer playing

Because I have wonderful people in my life who know these things about me, when they see deals for three-hour DJ classes on Wagjag, they buy them for me and don’t tell me. That was back in December. Yesterday, I finally went.

According to the postcards, Off-Centre DJ School has operated since 2004, but I only became aware of them when they moved in above a storefront in my neighbourhood. Since then they’ve relocated to an unassuming house a few blocks east on Coxwell Ave. I admit to feeling a little intimidated and confused when I saw the new location; it reminded me of those hair stylists that operate out of their basements. I guess I was concerned it wouldn’t be as professional as I was hoping for.

My concerns were for naught. Once I finally worked up the nerve to walk in after the one other student for the workshop showed up [I hate being the first arrival anywhere] I stepped into a living area converted into five work stations equipped with turntables and mixers, a wall of records, a whiteboard laying out basic music theory and speakers in all corners. There may have been drool.

Over the next two hours our teacher DJ Steptone [Erik Laar] took us through an intensive intro to DJ’ing, from the very basics of the turntable set-up, the anatomy of the turntables and mixer, to basic scratching, cueing and mixing. We even spent a good ten minutes discussing how to put the needle on the record. That might seem like a joke, but I was repeatedly amazed with how quickly Laar could locate the start of the song he wanted and drop the needle at its start without any audible friction. Meanwhile, I was hovering over the turntable going crosseyed as my shaky hands placed the needle down with a crackle, usually at the end of the song before the one I wanted.

A lot of the teachable items like beat counting or finding the ‘one’ were things I already knew intuitively from years of playing drums, but but that wasn’t the point. The point was to think about these things I already knew in a new way. The point was to be there, setting my hands on the turntables, being aware of not bumping the needle [something I almost did at least twice], how lightly to place your hand on the record when scratching, how to bring the record back. I’m sure this sounds either adorable or pathetic to anyone who’s actually DJ’s, but these were the things I’d been dying to do since I was a kid.

In my favourite moment of the class, Laar played a beat at one station and he, myself and the other student [shouts to Tracy] traded scratches for eight bars, working in a circle. Nothing revolutionary happened, but I could have done it for hours. After the last lesson on mixing two beats together [strictly from a timing perspective, Laar did the beat matching for us this time], Laar gave a whoop and told us we both passed.

“You mean I don’t have to do it again?” I said. “Please?”

If I wasn’t a broke ass, I’d have signed up for the six-week level one course on the spot. To be on the turntables, messing around with a scratch sample I’d heard a million different DJs use all my life was incredible, and only affirmed that it’s something I want to continue to explore and investigate.

I’d recommend Off-Centre to anyone interested learning the art of DJ’ing. The space is intimate but gets great sound, and Laar was a laid back and patient teacher, who clearly hasn’t tired of listening to beginners like me do sloppy scratches on his equipment. They offer beginner and advanced courses on everything from DJ’ing to beatmaking and production with Ableton, Maschine and other systems. You can check out their current offerings and sign up via their website.

Now, I’ma go finally finish the next episode of RadioPFG.

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