“This is a million-dollar sound system. Trust me, it works.” That’s Emmett. He’s not happy. The wiry middle-aged manager of John Barleycorn, a popular bro bar in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, is growing increasingly annoyed with my apparent incompetence. I stand before him, staring down at two turntables and a mixer, trying to exude machismo while facing a firing squad of under-the-breath, mocking laughter. Emmett sees me for what I am: a suckling pig in the fetal position, sucking on the teat of regret. What grand plans I had: the ambitious writer who believed he could deejay after a few weeks of private lessons. Now I’m a scared schmuck, one with the audacity, no less, to question the effectiveness of the audio system in Emmett’s bar—a behemoth of inputs and outputs and AV cords and speakers providing big-testicled bass to the hundreds of patrons who regularly cram into this watering hole to worship at the throne of the almighty DJ.
The DJ booth overlooks an enormous beer-hall-size, dark-wood-furnished room. A small crowd is gathered beneath. They’re expecting something. Anything. When I decided to throw my hat in the DJ ring, my family and friends could only wonder, Can he actually pull it off? Did Dan really dub himself “DJ Lips” for his notoriously large smackers? Tonight is the culmination. Good-bye, sweat-inducing dreams of turntable failure. No more late nights sneaking into my guest bedroom, strapping on headphones and desperately attempting to blend two songs on my laptop. DJ lessons, instructional DVDs, tips from trusted professionals: over. John Barleycorn has tasked me with deejaying for an entire hour. The speakers are primed and ready, Emmett tells me.
“Don’t fuck this one up, Lips.”
Deejaying looks easy. Push some buttons, pump your fists, let the song build, drop a massive beat and the half-naked club honeys eat it up. It’s why everyone calls themselves a DJ these days—from the greased-up, backward-hat-wearing, tank-top-rocking bros itching for opening slots in Vegas clubs to the basement-confined trolls uploading their masterworks to SoundCloud and praying for Facebook “likes.” Blame it on the trickle-down effect: Those big-dog Top 40 DJs, the Guettas, Aviciis, Tiëstos, Afrojacks—guys who look like they should be ruling the Swiss luge game—are the new rock stars. Dudes rake in six figures a show. But they’re just props up there, pushing buttons, right? And plus, every celebrity now claims to be a DJ. Like that one A-list female pop singer who deejayed a gigantic Las Vegas club last year. Anyone can do it, right?
“Um, there was actually another guy onstage deejaying while she fucked around and just showed her face,” an executive at a prominent Las Vegas hot spot reveals to me, crushing my cocksure swagger.
Temporarily dejected, I call up Afrojack, the Dutch DJ who has produced some of the biggest pop stars in the world. He claims he could teach me to deejay in five minutes if he had the time. “Deejaying is basically just playing records for people,” the superstar explains.
Fabian is unexpectedly ordinary. The Venezuelan-born 27-year-old son of a former teenage Latin rock star is wearing a gray turtleneck sweater and tight-fitting black denim. His look is more clothes-folding J. Crew employee than DJ instructor. “What did you think I’d look like?” he asks me. “A douchebag?” I nod. “It’s all right,” he says. “A lot of DJs are douchebags.”
I like Fabian.
We’re in a nondescript building scrunched next to a culinary school on a rather unimpressive block of North Side Chicago. This is Scratch DJ Academy. I’m here to learn how to become a superstar. Eight turntable-and-mixer combos are situated on two rectangular tables in a sterile room oddly decorated with graffiti bunnies. We’ll be using the technologically advanced Pioneer machines called CDJ-2000s. These high-tech devices have virtual vinyl platters; most major nightclubs use them nowadays. The rest are traditional turntables that play vinyl records. CDJs, I learn, make life easier: Rather than lug around crates of records, you can put all your tracks on a single thumb drive, plug it into the digital mixer and be slamming tunes in minutes. The CDJ also analyzes each track’s beats per minute (bpm) and allows you to set up cue points for where you want to start a song. If you insist on vinyl, there’s an app for that (of course): Many DJs use advanced vinyl-mimicking software such as Serato or Traktor. We’re truly living in the plug-in-and-play DJ era.
What’s there to even learn, then? I know how to plug in a USB.
Oh, how quickly my cockiness subsides. I realize I have not the first clue about how to even turn on the CDJ, let alone cue up a song. An hour of pathetic attempts later I am unreservedly humbled.
Deejaying is a test of patience and timing, creativity and endless practice. Even executing the simplest of blends—combining one song with another—proves an arduous task. My main challenge, beatmatching, or seamlessly blending one track with another, is brutal. If two songs’ beats don’t line up, expect an audible train wreck. Becoming a master beatmatcher requires a keen ear for rhythm and tempo, as well as an ability to assess musical taste and style. At first I’m a lost cause.
But slowly, with the benefit of the complementary computer program Rekordbox, I’m able to practice at home. At all hours. My wife tells me it has to stop. She starts to instantly recognize all my blends. She’s sick of them. I don’t care. I’m obsessed.
By my fifth lesson I’m confident enough to finally attempt my own blend on the CDJs. Relying on their beat-recognition technology to assist me in my mission, I choose two songs with similar tempos—Robin Thicke’s “Give It 2 U” and Deadmau5’s “I Said”—but my head is too busy throbbing with self-instruction. Faders. Cue points. Tempo shifters. “Nudging” the track to keep up with the one currently playing on the speakers. Nausea sets in. I grow a pair and begin the process: I crank up the Thicke track, raising the input-one fader. I then look to the CDJ, which tells me the track is 127 bpm; next I adjust the Deadmau5 track’s bpm to match it. Slowly I decrease the CDJ’s tempo shifter so it matches Thicke’s. I must keep Deadmau5 in line with Thicke, so I fast-forward, or “nudge,” it to get it synced. Once Deadmau5 is tempo- and time-adjusted, I press PLAY on the CDJ and slowly fade in Deadmau5 by raising the input-two fader, and the two tracks become one. I gently lower input one. Thicke is out. Emotionally, so am I.
“Not bad,” Fabian tells me after the lesson. “You definitely pick it up a lot faster than most students.” Confidence. Then reality: Beat-matching is a multitasker’s nightmare. It’s like trying to solve a calculus problem while receiving an under-the-table handie from the prom queen: nearly impossible but unbelievably gratifying.
Fabian’s praise, for me and his other students, is dangerous, though: In the year and change since Scratch DJ Academy opened in Chicago, enrollment has increased every term. Sure, Fabian says most of his students aren’t naive enough to think they’ll soon be headlining festivals. But as more people suddenly fashion themselves as DJs, a crop of unprepared, cheaper “talent” emerges. This semester there’s Ruben, early 20s, quietly confident with a bull nose ring and a pair of headphones wrapped around his neck; Jeff, upper 50s, wearing a soccer-dad windbreaker, dragged here by his teenage daughter but now planning to finish the entire yearlong DJ-certification course; and Ali, an early-30s rapper from Turkey, sporting mid-1990s- era Michael Jackson circular turquoise sunglasses, here from Istanbul expressly for DJ classes. The vast majority of DJs, like Fabian, gig locally and rely on cash from performances to pay the bills. Now this new crop of DJs is suddenly undercutting them for bookings.
“It’s affecting everybody in the DJ industry,” Fabian says.
Feel it, Dan!” My brother-in-law Eddie, 34, is yelling at me. I’m standing in my sister and his suburban bedroom, hunched over an old-school DJ setup: two turntables and a mixer. My newborn nephew, Dylan, cries as we blast house music steps from his crib. “Soft fingers! I want your hand cupping the edge of it!” Eddie, who deejayed more than a decade ago when he was in college, is teaching me how to deejay using vinyl—not that digital crap—with the subtlety of a snuff-film director. The touch, the feel, the exhilaration of physically interacting with a record—deejaying without technological assistance—gets him off.
I amuse him, trying to understand his rampant passion for meticulous old-school artistry. Still, I can’t help but wonder: Even if a DJ is a trained technical wizard, a blending machine, if he doesn’t produce his own music, will he ever reach the top of the food chain?
“It really has become a producer’s game,” Bad Boy Bill says. Bill was ranked one of the top DJs in the 1990s but has never produced a far-reaching, crossover single. He still deejays for a living but is now forced to take any gig he can get, such as a recent suburban club show in a nearly vacant strip mall. He doesn’t harbor resentment, however. “The thing that’s sad to me,” he says of millionaire production gurus half his age, “is when I see somebody up there using a preprogrammed set. They’re not creating anything. They’re more of a puppet.”
So it takes mad production game to be legit. Fair enough. The next day, I’m firing up my laptop and installing the top-notch audio-production software Ableton Live. For the next 12 hours I stare helplessly at what looks like a nuclear reactor. Constructing a song? Ha! This shit is so damn complex I’d beg for a synthesizer fart to emerge from my speakers.
I’m beyond frustrated. I consult Afrojack.
“Production is insanely hard,” I tell him.
“I could teach you to produce in five to 10 minutes,” he says. If he had the time.
Perhaps it’s the ever-present alcoholic beverages I’ve been guzzling or the fact that the DJ performing after me gives me an approving fist-pound. But when my one-hour set concludes at John Barleycorn, I feel like a legitimate DJ. Sure, my beatmatching wasn’t perfect and I made one glaring error—Trinidad James popped up by mistake during a Swedish House Mafia groove—instantly followed by my wife mock slitting her throat. I don’t care. The attention. The approving head nods from the crowd. It’s infectious.
“Like”, oh my God! That was so amazing!” my overserved friend Blair tells me as I walk downstairs. I need a real opinion. I hunt down my best friend, Jason. He’d never lie to me. “How shitty was I, dude?” I ask him.
“You weren’t,” he replies. “It sounded like any other DJ when we go out to a bar.”
My brain goes into overdrive. I start thinking crazy thoughts: Maybe I’m, like, you know, a real DJ. Then I stop myself, remembering something Fabian told me.
“There are so many wannabe DJs out there,” he said bluntly. “It’s a real problem.”
I know the truth: I’m a wannabe. You think I care? For the next two hours, three vodka tonics and several dozen congratulatory high-fives, I’m DJ “Fuckin’?’’ Lips.