Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Laid Off Corporate Types Discover That They Too Can Help Kill Hip Hop a Little Bit More or Instead of Falling Into a Rut, Busting Out a New Groove

As detailed by the New York Times story, "Instead of Falling Into a Rut, Busting Out a New Groove," it seems some laid off New Yorkers are paying money to "learn" how to become "Dee Jays."

"You don't get into the game to make money, you do it because you love music." This is the advice I received from a well known dj (who later became my mentor) when I talked to him about buying my first set of 1200's (I also had a really hard time at first and he told me that you have to get past being scared about doing badly because once you get over that fear you will grow, and eventually if you are lucky, you'll be good).

The other great bit of wisdom he shared was that you have to get over the fear of being embarrassed by doing badly at a show. Not all folks are going to dance, or even acknowledge your work. It can have nothing at all to do with you. Again, once you get this behind you, or as I did with a radio show I was not at all experienced enough to perform live on--I hope those tapes are lost to the ages--you won't have anything else to fear. Well, this is only a half-truth, as I once had a fader go wrong on me at a show that was being recorded for broadcast and I had to improvise by using the line inputs about embarrassing and nerve wracking.

Things have really changed it seems. The counter-culture will always become popular culture, and then eventually kitsch, as it descends into self-self-parody. The fact that these poor souls are paying money to get into the game is even more so troubling. Now, I don' t bemoan the fact that new arrivals want to pick up a "hobby" that is sacred to me. But, please don't cheapen it by comparing the ability to work as a mobile dj (i.e. a walking jukebox or human Ipod) with someone who has a real set of skills and can deploy them to tell a story musically, who "has paid their dues" in more ways than one, and has taken mastery of the craft that is musical storyteller seriously enough to understand that you are taking your audience on an emotional journey.

On the point of paying dues, how many of you literally remember paying dues by carrying dozens of heavy records (doubles when you could afford them) in your backpack or a cardboard box as you went from Downstairs Records to Rock and Soul to Beat Street to VP Records--help me out, what the hell was the name of the spot in the Bronx that had all of the exclusive gear from Nervous Records? And does anyone else remember Distributor's Records in Hamden, Connecticut? RIP "Rodge," the coolest 70ish year old, white, hip hop head I ever met. On that point, I can't hate on Cutlers as the staff there in the late 1980s and 1990s really knew their music, especially their classic house.

Please do not be mistaken, I am not a Luddite. Yes, I do understand the irony of traditionalists like myself complaining about the innovation of PC based DJ equipment, but the photo of two, fiftyish year old, former corporate types standing behind a MAC while they learn how to "scratch" and beatmatch (FYI you aren't blending if the computer is doing it for you) is a wonderful testimony to how technology can ruin the art and science of musical and expressive creativity.

One final thought: this story made me think of a great week I experienced in the summer of 2008 during which I had the chance to see Grandmaster Flash on a Monday, and DJ Kool Herc on a Friday. Being in the presence of these godfathers of hip hop was both exciting and depressing. To the former, the chance to just breath the same air and watch them at work was meaningful in a way common to any student who is reverential towards a master. To the latter, it was saddening to see Flash's opening act using PC based DJ equipment--seeing this was laden with symbolism as analog has given way to what is on average a far less rich, not as talented, nor as gifted cadre of digitally devoted, new upstarts.

In reflecting on Herc, while he used the standard tools of the trade, it hurt--yes hurt is the appropriate word--as he worked through the classics and tried to educate his audience about what hip hop was before hip hop was a genre called "hip hop":

Why? Herc's audience stood mute and totally disinterested in the lesson that they were receiving. Yet, when Herc bowed to the inevitable and played some Southern influenced, minstrelesque, crap hop the audience (comprised of mostly 20 year olds and teenagers) behaved as though it was the second coming. That night, hip hop died just a little bit more, a slow death of a thousand cuts, this once vibrant thing that the keepers of its flame cannot even keep alight.

The New York Times piece follows:

Instead of Falling Into a Rut, Busting Out a New Groove

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

At dubspot, from left, Marcia Levine, April White and Channing Sanchez are among those considering new careers as D.J.’s.

Channing Sanchez, who lost his job in January, has found a way to mix business with pleasure.

The director of operations at dubspot said that many new students were looking for something fun to do after being laid off.

Mr. Sanchez, 51, was a jewelry salesman at Tiffany & Co., on Fifth Avenue, for 23 years. After hearing what has become a familiar phrase — “You’re being laid off” — he put himself on a different sort of track to future employment: he is training to become a D.J.

“I used to spin records 30 years ago,” Mr. Sanchez, headset in hand, said the other day just before he began another session at a turntable. “Now that the stress of losing my job is gone, this a fun and creative way to make some extra money.”

Within minutes, Mr. Sanchez and several other aspiring D.J.’s were sliding into their stations to scratch records and mix songs at dubspot, an electronic music production and D.J. school in Manhattan, where enrollment — now 300 — has doubled since it opened last year, largely because of the economic downturn.

“I’m getting a lot of calls from people who are saying, ‘I just got my severance package, and this is something I have wanted to do my whole life,’ ” said Kelly Webb, dubspot’s director of operations. “In the midst of this economic crisis, some people have simply decided to go out and do what really makes them happy.”

That description certainly fits Tom Macari, 26, who was until last month an information technology manager at Frederic Fekkai in Manhattan.

“I used to D.J. at parties when I was 16, and I’m still young enough to get back in the business,” he said. “I used to mix records and CDs, but now most D.J.’s are downloading songs from computers, which is why I needed to take this course.”

Rob Principe, the founder and chief executive of Scratch DJ Academy in Manhattan, said that his company had also seen an increase in enrollment.

“This year as opposed to last, we are up 18 percent,” Mr. Principe said. “When the going gets tough, people tend to go back to things that they are really interested in doing, whether that is to pursue something like this as a hobby or as an alternate means of income.”

Dan Giove, the president and founder of dubspot, where a five-month course costs $1,695.00, said that a D.J., depending on experience and venue, can make anywhere from $50 to $1,000 an event.

“You can absolutely make a living as a D.J.,” he said. “In fact, we are seeing some of our students going out there and finding themselves decent-paying gigs.”

Mr. Giove pointed to April White, a 30-year-old account supervisor at a public relations firm in Manhattan who is so worried about losing her job that she has already put Plan B in motion.

“I’ve been gigging like mad,” said Ms. White, who has been working at bars and other event spaces around the city, including at a bar called Mr. West, where she was spinning her vinyl one evening.


RiPPa said...

Great piece there. It took me back down memory lane. I'm a product of original hip hop culture, and I can fully understand what you're saying there. It takes years of not only just paying dues, but also of much practice to even consider making such a move. I have to agree that the guy just laid off from say Wall Street is going to take a class and kill the music I love.

Its funny you wrote this because I was just complaining to myself (my wife and kids are tired of my rants) that I miss the element of DJ'ing in hip hop today. True turntablism is an art, and not something to be played with.

Al From Bay Shore said...

Wow, I too have decided to check out DJ'ing but as a hobby and as a way to research the musical family tree that begins with "The Loft", and "The Gallery", continues through "Paradise Garage", into "The Warehouse" and "Muzik Box", and culminating with "Club Zanzibar" establishing the soulful sound that characterizes good House Music.

I've always wondered what DJs thought about the advent of the technologies that allowed beatmatching via computer and using IPods as surrogate turntables.

The most daunting thing about this hobby is the amount of time it will take for me to learn. I have no illusions, in fact, I have no desire to do this in front groups of people that exceed zero. Actually, I lied. I envision myself, one day, moving a group of people with that deep, soulful kinda house music that has some wailing diva singing some song typically themed about "Better Days" or "Rising Above".

Anonymous said...

I had the honor recently to sit on a panel in the Bronx with Kool Herc, Pat Chin (VP Records' founder), Red Alert & Ralph McDaniels, to talk about the Caribbean roots of hip hop, and I'll just say that the audience, which ranged from 20-60 yr olds, was so much more insightful, enthusiastic, and respectful of the art forms of djing, mcing (and graffiti & breaking) & their deep roots, than the panel you describe of 20 yr olds craving southern "minstrel music." There are still some venues where the work of pioneers are not only respected, but really venerated.

But actually that audience is indeed getting smaller, as hip hop itself has morphed from counterculture to mainstream culture to background noise in the last 15-20 of hip hop's 35 years in existence, and as the elements that went into the making of the genre have been increasingly taken for granted by the "hip hop community," whatever that is at present. Advancing technology is one reason for that, but also musical quality is another major reason. As the music itself gets unfortunately simpler in form, so too do the assumptions of simplicity in the production process run rampant. And so we have the Times running a piece on unemployed corporates swearing that they are djs as their obligatory nod to 'light hearted tales of the recession' amidst all the sad news of the world literally falling to pieces. And the disregard for the artform continues. But again, the community of true heads still exists, small as we are. And we know what djing is and what it isnt.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@Rippa--our generation is getting old aren't we? who would have thought we would be telling our kids about "back in the day hip hop was XYZ, not like it is today!" Some of us have grown up but alot of the music isn't as you have 30 some year old men making music for a market dominated by teens. What would a "mature" hip hop sound and look like?

@Al--I say go for it! You have love for the music so the music needs you. There are great compilations of classic house available that just focus on the Loft and on West End Records. The book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life has a great selection of playlists in its appendix that are venue specific--talk about a trip down memory lane.

@Natasha--What panel? It is a small world so maybe we are fellow travelers. I am going to present a paper at a Hip Hop Conference at Berkeley next weekend. How do you feel about the role of academics in hip hop? Good or bad? I am mixed on it because as much as I am part of the problem per se, I have real worries that once you bring something that was vibrant and alive into the academy, that you can't help but to kill it!

I also appreciate your point about how musical trends influence dee jaying as an art. The way that hip hop is produced lends itself, in my opinion, to being uninteresting. I just can't see myself wanting to juggle, cut, or work around some of the dominant instrumentalal patterns of the last few years--what story would you tell with this music?

Second thought: I am sure you remember how diverse the music played by dj's, the leading folks in the City was even into the mid to late 1990s. You could hear hip hop, classic hip hop, house, RnB, reggae, soul, funk, and even sometimes classic rock, all from a "hip hop" dj. At some point that just stopped being heard on the radio (for sure) and is harder to find at most clubs (unless you get lucky and find a cool lounge).

Chauncey Devega

Anonymous said...

Im kinda late on this response, because I've been all kinds of busy with end of semester deadlines... Im not actually a 'hip hop scholar' although Im a product of the Bronx in the 1980s, I work on Bronx history and also other subjects within the history of African diaspora more broadly that allows me to dabble in scholarly conversations on hip hop on occasion. And while I agree with you that academic interest in anything is often the death knell for its innovation; I do think that many of the academics who are coming to the study of hip hop are doing so as fans who came of age when the music came of age, so its not from a sort of disinterested kind of scholarly pursuit that characterizes other fields within the academy... That also leads to a lot of academics who consistently feel the need to prove their right to analyze hip hop by putting forth stories of their personal engagement with the music, which I think gets done not only as a sort of claim to legitimacy, but maybe too because of the longer-term suspicion with which black folks have viewed academic interest in any of what they do (& rightfully so that often signaled that a cooptation of sorts was waiting around the corner...) Im still mixed on what this academic interest in hip hop means as it could be good or bad depending upon the perspective, as many of the folks who do it see themselves as part of the hip hop community which means intimacy is rampant, and anyone with a claim to any hood seems to have a valid opinion...

As for the story being told by current hip hop, Im as clueless as you are. I listen to the radio on a random Saturday night and know that in general the caliber of djing actually wanes a bit when playing new garbage that's out, and but the dj kills it when he or she is playing some late 80s-early 90s "golden age" shit. & I know its not just that my ears want to hear the golden age songs either. Cutting seems more like an artform and actually makes more sense with more complex/musically interesting tunes.

I'll stop myself here, cause I could dabble in hip hop scholarship all night... But enjoy that conference!

Jonathan said...

Technology will not make a good DJ worse, but it won't make a bad DJ better.

Thanks for the link - I identify with many of the complaints, if not the overall disdain for technologies such as Serato (which I, admittedly, use).

Still, ANYone learning to DJ needs to start with records. Period.