SPOTLIGHT: Sam M. Zornow '08

DJ Shiftee (Sam M. Zornow ’08), best known for lightening up Harvard dances, is prepping for the world DJ battle set title. Zornow, a mathematics concentrator from Mather House, swept the head-to-head competition at the Disco Mix Club (DMC) USA DJ Supremacy Championship earlier this month, and will represent the United States in the upcoming world championship. He sat down with The Crimson one evening to discuss how he came across disc-jockeying.

"I’m pretty much self-taught. I guess I’ve learned techniques from watching videos and things like that."

A budding interest in hip-hop led Zornow to experiment with mixing music when he was 13.

"I heard scratching and stuff like that on various songs, so I wanted to know where those sounds came from, and I eventually got a set of turntables with my Bar Mitzvah money."

Zornow says he honed his mixing skills through collaboration with other artists.

"After two years of practicing, I started entering competitions. The Low Lives, which is based in New York, took me under their wing. They became sort of like mentors. But now I’m a member of them. I also perform with [Boston hip-hop group] Awkward Landing."

Zornow, now a well-established DJ at Harvard’s top parties and events, got his start on campus during his first days here.

"During Freshman Week they had a talent show. I did a battle set. From there, people started hiring me. Then, eventually more and more people started setting me up for parties and things like that."

Throughout high school, Zornow was heavily involved in the New York DJ battle scene. Three years ago, however, he went into semi-retirement.

"When I was really serious into battling, it was of the utmost importance. That was what my life was centered on, life or death. Then, when I sort of retired, I was disappointed with the success I had achieved to that point. I thought that I had the material maybe to make it past nationals, but I never did."

One day, Zornow decided to take up competitive DJing once again and entered the DMC DJ Supremacy Championship. He walked away with the title.

"After all these years, to come back on a whim and win the nationals like that, it’s a sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief, finally achieving a longtime goal that’s been hanging over my head for a while."

Right now, Zornow is gearing up for the world showdown.

"Yeah, I’m nervous because it’s just starting to sink in a little bit. I’m representing the United States on the world stage, so that’s a big responsibility. But at the same time, I’m not trying to stress out about it too much. I’m going in trying to have fun, and enjoying the experience. And all I can do is focus on my routines of what I’m doing up on stage, and I can’t really make anything else bother me."

Competitive disc-jockeying doesn’t involve much improvisation, and Zornow prepares extensively for every competition he enters.

"You come with a set of materials and a game plan. You have routines that you have created yourself and practiced in the meantime. And then when you come into the competition, you have some idea of which routines you’re going to do against which people. There’s really no improvisation, it’s all planned, every move is planned."

Part of Zornow’s recent preparation involves researching the DJ styles of different countries.

"Historically, Germany, Japan, and France would be my toughest competition. It’s more unfamiliar than the U.S. setting, because, one, I’ve never been on the world stage before and there in each country there’s a different style. Each person will be the best DJ in their country, so they could be bringing crazy stuff you’ve never seen before, so you’ve got to be ready for everything. In the U.S., you can plan more strategically. If I face this guy that’s kind of weaker, I can do my weaker stuff. But you can’t fight like that on the world stage."

Zornow hopes that his preparation will pay off at the world championship.

"My plan is to win. The grand prize is $10,000. That would be nice to win that. I mean, also, to put up a good showing, represent well for the United States. I don’t want to get knocked out early by some small country."

DJ Battle for World Supremacy will be held Oct. 6 in London.