The All-Spin Zone

Samuel M. Zornow ’08 is no slouch. Here’s how his alter ego DJ Shiftee got to the top—and what the view’s like from up there

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Natasha L. Coleman

SIDEBAR: DJ Lingo for the Layman

He is a disc jockey, a turntablist, a master of wax. He is an opinionated old-school hip-hop head, and a part-time math geek. He is definitely a musician.

He is also the DJ battle champion of the world.

But in order to understand who Samuel M. Zornow ’08 really is, you have to understand what Samuel M. Zornow ’08 really does.

“When I’m talking to some people, they’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “They have an idea in their minds of what you do, and it’s wrong.”


WAX POETICS

“It’s the act of manipulating vinyl records and a mixing device to create these new sounds and make these new pieces of music out of old pieces of music,” says Zornow. “But that’s not really going to translate until they see it.”

This is what DJs do: they take two record players (but, please, call them turntables) and use them in ways your parents never would have imagined. An obsolete music listening technology is transformed into a cutting-edge music making technology.

This is what DJs do: they scratch and they beat-juggle.

You probably know what scratching is—moving the record back and forth while the needle’s down—but it’s far more complex than you’d think. DJs with staggering rhythmic precision and hand control can master techniques with names like “chirps” and “flares” and “orbits” and “crabs.”

Beat-juggling is taking small sections of two records and creating a new beat by “juggling” them using a fader. All this is done live and on-the-fly.

DJ Shiftee may be one of the best beat-jugglers on the planet, and he has parlayed these skills into a successful battle DJ career, rising to the top of his niche of the broader DJ culture.

“The main point of battle DJing for me is showing off,” says Zornow. “You’re showing your skills and you’re showing your creativity...in an action-packed manner.”

After carefully assembling and rehearsing their 60- to 90-second routines, battle DJs compete head-to-head to determine who’s got the most talent and innovation. It’s like a chess tournament, if chess tournaments featured the members of the Wu-Tang Clan.

“You have to have a stage persona,” according to Zornow, who says he becomes DJ Shiftee whenever there are turntables nearby.

“If I go onstage, I switch. I’d like to hope that Sam Zornow is a nice guy, who’s like polite and sort of shy and not jerky...and then on stage, I try to be a son of a bitch,” he says. “When I’m battling someone, I’m out for blood. I’m in your face. I’m there to mess you up.”

Zornow uses the reflective windows of his Mather Tower suite to practice dissing his opponents.

“I’m not necessarily gangster in real life,” he says, “but there is that aspect of my personality. I’m a competitive person.”


STRAIGHT OUTTA SCARSDALE

Zornow’s journey to the top of the underground DJ battling community begins, ironically, with that most mainstream of musical experiences: watching MTV. Back when the network actually played music videos, young Sam fell in love with rap hits, circa 1995.

“I think probably the first hip-hop song that I liked a lot—and this doesn’t bode well for my being an old-time underground head—was ‘Big Poppa’ by the Notorious B.I.G.”

Zornow’s hip-hop horizons steadily broadened, as he devoured all the underground stuff he could get his hands on. It didn’t hurt that he lived just outside of New York City, the birthplace of hip-hop and still the rap capital of the world.

“By eighth grade and ninth grade I started going into Manhattan to go to record stores,” he says. “The DJing came as a result of being very interested in hip-hop culture and wanting to somehow find a way to be in it.”

Zornow journeyed into the big city with childhood friend and current MIT senior Mike S. Fleder. “Both of us were always looking for music that people from our neighborhood didn’t normally listen to,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a counterculture thing.”

But this was hardly a full-blown adolescent rebellion: Zornow’s parents were on board from the get-go.

“I think a lot of people had their eyebrows raised a bit when he was first getting into this,” says David M. Zornow ’76, Sam’s father.

The family went to Sam Ash—Guitar Center for the headphones set—where Sam got his first pair of turntables. He bought them with Bar Mitzvah money.

Zornow says that after a few weeks of lessons from a shifty Sam Ash salesman who charged 50 bucks an hour and, in retrospect, “didn’t know how to scratch,” he turned to instructional videos to hone his skills.

“I learned that there’s this whole vocabulary behind the skills the DJs are doing,” he says. “They’re actually doing set techniques. Once I learned about those, it was pretty much about practicing, alone, in my room, for hours.”

Zornow practiced, and then he practiced some more. “To get good at this, it’s very, very anti-social and repetitive,” he says. “I don’t know what types of people are attracted to that.”

Fleder bought turntables, too, but Zornow’s skills truly took off. “He had a little more determination; he really took to it more than I did,” says Fleder. “He would go and practice for like 10 hours a day...he’d sit in class, trying to figure out what new scratches and patterns he could come up with.”

It wasn’t long before Zornow tasted his first morsel of success. “Right when I got the turntables pretty much, they asked me to DJ a pool party for our middle school graduation.” Who needs Ibiza, or, for that matter, Mather Lather?

Next came the hip-hop fashions and the all-important DJ moniker. “Not a tremendous amount of thought went into it,” Zornow says. “I liked the idea of Shiftee as being slightly criminal—you don’t know what’s going on behind those shifty eyes onstage. I guess it also works as a pun for what you do with records.”

Armed with the skills, the style, and the sobriquet, Zornow entered his first competition in 2002. It was at a car show. In Queens.

Surrounded by skimpy bikini models and tricked-out rides, the Zornows watched proudly as their son made good on hundreds of hours of practice.

“I think we were supportive,” says Martha M. Zornow ’76, Sam’s mother. “The only thing that’s tough on the parents is that a lot of it is pretty foulmouthed, but you get used to it.”

Martha remembers one of her son’s early disses, the delightful “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, suck my dick and swallow slow.” “I’m like, ‘Honey, that’s a verb. You need to modify it with an adverb. Slowly.’”

After the show, Zornow met DJ Cutfucious, a fellow DJ battler with whom he had been chatting online for several months.

“He would always send me messages and send me files of his routines and ask me to critique them,” says Cutfucious, a.k.a. Bernard Au.

Au invited Shiftee to chill with his DJ crew, the Lo-Livez: DJ Cutfucious, DJ Precision, DJ Boogie Blind, and DJ Tragik.

DJs form crews to critique each other and experiment with new sounds. It’s a dying tradition, a remnant of the early days of hip-hop.

But Zornow, an old-schooler already, was eager to join a crew that oozed talent: “I came in as a 15-year old Jewish boy from the suburbs, and I immediately hooked up with the best crew from Queens and Harlem.”

He would travel to Queens on the weekends to practice, 90 minutes each way by public transportation.

“When we first met him, he was really hungry. All he wanted to do was get better,” Cutfucious says.

Zornow continued to battle throughout high school, traveling with his dad to competitions around the United States.

“The other DJs got to know me pretty well,” David Zornow says. “I was the only father who used to go to these things.”

Out of nowhere, Shiftee captured the New York DMCs—a tournament on the major battle circuit—in 2003, and the Delaware DMCs in 2004. After a particularly devastating loss to cross-town rival DJ ie.Merge in the 2004 New York DMCs, Shiftee was officially inducted into the Lo-Livez.

“We all thought he had deserved to win, so we brought him into the crew,” Au says. “Even though he lost the battle, I think joining the crew was more important to him.”

The invitation, following two years of apprenticeship, came on the eve of Zornow’s departure for Cambridge.


DINING-HALL PARTIES: THE BIG TIME

Arriving at Harvard in the fall of 2004, Shiftee thought that he was done battling forever.

“It was always something that I loved a lot when I was doing it in high school,” he says. “After three years of your life being almost all about that, it becomes very stressful and there are a lot of disappointments...I went away from the battle scene not on the best terms with how I had done.”

He decided to focus full-time on his schoolwork and on the music-making side of his DJing. Word quickly got around campus, though, that this kid was the genuine article.

Xavier A. Taboada ’08, a blockmate, remembers congregating in Matthews, with practically the whole entryway huddled around Sam’s turntables, to marvel as his fingers flew across the vinyl.

“He performed for the freshman talent show,” says Taboada. “When I saw that, I thought ‘man this kid’s really good.’ Back in his room, he performed a set in front of us again, and I’m like ‘whoa, that’s pretty legit.’ He had mad agility. His hands were going crazy on the equipment.”

Soon thereafter, Zornow began fielding requests to DJ parties around campus. He has made a decent business out of it, even if it means spending Saturday night as a dance commander rather than a foot-soldier of funk.

Rocking the d-halls has never been a top priority, however. “If people want me to do things, I’ll talk to them,” Zornow says. “But I never sought out parties on campus.

“DJing the parties, I just play the music the people want. I don’t invest that much into it.”

Zornow keeps things interesting for himself by scratching over records and blending them together to create a seamless mix. “I’d like to think that I put some flair into it,” he says.

Audience reaction ranges from ecstatic post-party accolades—and the occasional flirtatious co-ed—to shrugs of the shoulders.

“Some people, I’m sure, would have the same time if they were listening to an iPod,” he says.

But party organizers have been very satisfied with the results, both aesthetically and in terms of Shiftee’s marketing potential. He has DJ’d several House formals and the last two iterations of Mather Lather, where he was sequestered in a lather-proof box.

“There’s a certain currency associated with a big-name DJ,” says Matthew R. Greenfield ’08, secretary of the Mather House Committee. “I think when people are planning a weekend, they’re drawn to that. It gives a certain legitimacy. There’s something nice as an event organizer knowing that you can trust the music selection, the scratching, the transitions, the performance-related aspects of it.”

Zornow has formed a particularly close relationship with the South Asian Men’s Collective (SAMC), DJing all seven of their benefit dances over the past four years.

“It’s been a brand-name for our parties, ‘Featuring DJ Shiftee,’” says SAMC Chair Tanuj D. Parikh ’09. “It will be a loss, definitely, when he graduates this year. We’ll have to find a new go-to guy.”

Being Harvard’s favorite DJ is not really a full-time job, however. Zornow’s math work, although not as important to him as it once was, takes up a large chunk of his time. And he still practices juggling and scratching. A lot.


BACK IN THE RING

In September, after more than three years away from the battle scene, Sam impulsively entered the 2007 DMC Battle for USA Supremacy.

“The vast majority of the routines were material that I had already,” he says. “I just entered on a whim, thinking hey, it’d be cool to get a free trip to [the world championships in] London.”

The DMC is the granddaddy of them all, a family-run organization that hosts DJ competitions in countries across North America, Europe, and Asia.

“It’s because we’ve been here the longest, about 24 years,” says Charles “Krayzie Charlez” Tuason, General Manager of DMC USA. “We stuck it out and became the most prestigious event.”

Quips Zornow: “This is Wimbledon, and there are no other majors.”

According to Tuason, about 300 DJs from around the United States compete in DMC competitions, and events typically attract audiences of roughly 400.

Zornow steamrolled through the American event on Sept. 15 in New York City, earning a spot in the DMC World DJ Championship in London.

There, on Oct. 6, Shiftee—overcoming animosity from European judges and an audience that seemed to prefer Euro-trash techno over his experimental hip-hop sounds—captured first place in the Battle for World Supremacy.

To best France’s DJ Or D’Oeuvre in the final, he wowed the judges using the same routines with which he wowed his freshman entryway, incorporating songs like Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and OutKast’s “Ghettomusick.”

Sam Zornow is, for the moment, recognized as the best battle DJ on the planet.

And amidst all the House parties, math problems, and world-class DJ battling, Sam’s been making a lot of music.


TWO MCs AND ONE DJ

Zornow did not come to Boston looking to DJ for a hip-hop group. But hanging out at Massive Records, the city’s since-shuttered haven for hip-hop heads, sometimes these opportunities find you.

“It was a really good place at that time, about two years ago,” says Jeremiah Elrick, a.k.a. Normal, one-half of local MC tag-team Awkward Landing. “[Sam] was kind of part of that scene too, and so through mutual friends that was how the connection started.”

The duo, players in Boston’s underground hip-hop scene for eight years, was looking for a new DJ. They picked up Shiftee, but didn’t know just what they’d gotten until one of their first shows together at The Muddy River Smokehouse in Portsmouth, N.H. Zornow’s performance set other DJs’ tongues wagging.

“Some DJs known around [Boston], their jaws dropped, and they went gossiping like little girls,” Elrick says. “I thought, ‘Holy fuck! This dude must be good if he gets them talking like that.’”

Shiftee meshed well with Awkward Landing, as his experimental tastes added new layers to the group’s classic hip-hop sound.

“Sam fits perfectly with our goal as musicians. He is an artist before he is a DJ,” Elrick says. With Shiftee in tow, Awkward Landing mixes the boom-bap sound of hip-hop’s golden era with “some shit from Jupiter.”

The group is palpably joyful in its creative exploration. Congregating in Zornow’s Mather Tower suite, Shiftee, Normal, and J.Ring knock back long-necks of High Life and joke around as they experiment with new beats for their live sets.

Shiftee spins a record, bobbing his head as his fingers instinctively work the vinyl and fader. Normal and J.Ring bounce fiendishly around the cramped space, mouthing lyrics, beat-boxing, and occasionally bursting out into impromptu verse.

The two MCs motor-mouth practically the entire time; their DJ is quiet, almost reserved, by comparison.

“We gotta pry out of him what he’s doing a lot of the time, just out of our own curiosity,” says J.Ring, a.k.a. Jason Ring.

“He’s a relatively quiet man, but he has a quiet confidence and he knows damn well that he belongs up there,” Elrick says.

On stage and in rehearsals, Shiftee simply does his thing, letting his skills (not to mention J.Ring and Normal) do all the talking.


UP FROM THE UNDERGROUND?

Zornow’s pending graduation in June, however, will complicate practices and performances with Awkward Landing. But even if he does leave the group—which he says is unlikely—music will undoubtedly continue to be the major focus of his life.

He hopes to enroll in a graduate program in music technology at NYU and continue to hone his theoretical skills. He is currently looking for representation—a manager, an agent, anyone who can parlay his battling and hip-hop success into more live showcases.

He has also rededicated himself to battling, devising new routines and practicing a daily regimen of new scratching techniques.

“Now that I won this competition, next year I immediately go to one of the later rounds in the world finals,” Zornow says. “The light at the end of the tunnel is much closer.”

Long-term, he says he would like to produce and perform music that is broadly accessible to the average music listener.

“The battle stuff is definitely niche-based. It’s like a subculture of a subculture. Outside of it, not many people know about it. On a larger scale, I’d like to make music that isn’t necessarily niche-based.”

But does he? The dialectic of underground versus mainstream is a source of underlying tension in the DJ and hip-hop worlds. Everyone talks about wanting to make it big, but the community takes great pride in its distinctiveness and authenticity.

“I think there’s a lot of heart, and a lot of grit...and a lot of pain and exhilaration and joy that comes out of being on the underground,” says Ring. “But the main goal is to make music that a lot of people want to hear.”

Tuason, of the DMC, concurs: “I would love to see us on pay-per-view events. WWF intros, with all the crazy fireworks and things.”

A few former DMC champions have found mainstream success, most notably A-Trak (a.k.a Alain Macklovitch), who won the 1997 World DJ Championship at age 15 and is currently DJing for Kanye West.

Zornow understands that being part of a niche subculture has allowed him to rise to the top very quickly.

“The two things that I do the most right now are theoretical math and this obscure form of turntablism,” he says. “If I played soccer, and that was my main thing, I wouldn’t be the best in the world right now.”

Zornow also possesses a sometimes-alienating, almost self-righteous old-school sensibility. He’s deeply nostalgic for the golden era of DJing in the late 1990s, and laments the rise of “custom records,” which DJs commission specially for their battle routines.

“This is probably the central debate in battle DJing,” he says. “I was probably one of very few people actually using real records in the competition...That used to be the norm. I’d like to see a return to that.”

He can turn downright nasty when discussing certain DJs who have found mainstream success by peddling what he considers a watered-down version of the craft. Sam is particularly venomous towards Girl Talk, pop-and-rap mash-up artist Gregg Gillis, who is currently tearing up a hipster joint near you.

“Girl Talk is like the epitome of the death of the DJ at the hands of technology...he creates these soulless, terrible-sounding mixes. When he performs, he pretty much just hits play on his laptop and then dances around, and people give him props for being a DJ.

He understands that Girl Talk is succesfully “working his hustle,” but says that “musically, it offends my being.”

Zornow’s peers in the DJing and hip-hop communities give him props for his traditionalism. Says Ring, “The art of the vinyl he’s really still deeply into...the fact that he loves to keep that as his foundation, that’s what we really like about him.”

The future could not be brighter for DJ Shiftee: he is at the top of the battling game, he DJs for a dynamic hip-hop group, and he continues to progress as a musician and producer.

Sam Zornow may never enjoy mainstream pop success. But when you can excel at something that you love, who needs MTV anyways?

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