“Great DJing is like great sex. Think about it. The goal is for you and [the audience] to become so attuned; when you’re rockin’ out a party the energy is so contagious for everyone and it’s one of the best feelings in the world. If you get it right, you and the crowd share this wild symbiotic connection that is just euphoric.” So wrote Harvard heavyweight of the disc jockey (DJ) world George Zisiadis ’11, a.k.a. DJ Straus, via email from Grenada. Standing alone, this comment may seem overblown.
And though Zisiadis is known for his eager self-promotion, his message still rings true. Student DJs across campus emphasize the intense, empathic relationship that develops between themselves and an elated (or simply drunk) audience. Ultimately, DJs find this relationship the driving motivation behind their practice: the opportunity to make a crowd happy. Indeed, student DJs, given the amount they spend on gear, the time they spend searching for new music, and the time they spend preparing for gigs, make a mere pittiance by comparison. Moreover, they rarely find opportunities to play music beyond a repetitive and narrow set of Top 40 hits. What’s left qualifies the art of the college-aged turntablist as an ecstatic and sweaty form of community service.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
The art of the student DJ can range from the highly technical and complex to the facile, even the mundane. I visited Mark A. VanMiddlesworth ’10, a Crimson Arts Editor, in his dimly-lit off-campus lair on Trowbridge Street. Ballet flats, cans of beer and a bottle of Jim Bean Kentucky bourbon were strewn across the floors and tables; four guitars hung from the walls; and VanMiddlesworth and his girlfriend were disputing the location of the DJ’s rabbit Puck, which was last seen under his significant other’s desk. VanMiddlesworth was showing me his impressive collection of DJ gear, some of which he built himself.
In addition to two computers, a Kaoss Pad MIDI controller, two sets of headphones, and an assortment of other electronic odds and ends, VanMiddlesworth has built himself a portable controller. He says that the small, black box, which features nothing more than four joysticks, two pads and a touchscreen, will allow him to employ a whole range of DJing effects wirelessly. Theoretically, then, he will be able to DJ from the midst of a party’s crowd.
When asked about his beginnings as a DJ, Van Middlesworth said, “...it started out as a technical thing; I tolerated the music as a result.” In terms of the DJing techniques he uses, VanMiddlesworth said, “I like beatmatching, creating my own beats by taking loops from one song and vocals from another, layering them over each other... You can use the looping and extracting chunks of a file to make smoother transitions between songs.”
Beatmatching, one of the fundamental pillars of DJing, is the process of matching the beats per minute of a given track to that of the song that is currently playing to eliminate dissonance in the transition from one track to another. VanMiddlesworth and nearly all other DJs also ensure that their transitions include cross-fading, which is the practice of preventing gaps between tracks by gradually fazing out of one song and simultaneously introducing another.
Above and beyond these basics, VanMiddlesworth employs more difficult forms of DJing: looping, for example, is the practice of taking a short sample from a song and continuously repeating it. This craft enables DJs to build up slowly to a long-awaited chorus or, in VanMiddlesworth’s case, create an entirely new beat or transition altogether. A dedicated DJ will also work hard in advance of a gig to place a series of good cue points for all of his songs—that is, find and mark a set of perfect moments to launch into a track. Finally, VanMiddlesworth also has an extensive collection of exclusively instrumental and vocal tracks.
He has learned to lay these tracks, one over the other, seamlessly during his performances. Demonstrating, he began with the instrumental of Le Tigre’s funky “Dyke March 2001,” put on the vocals to rap quartet Spank Rock’s tellingly-titled “Coke & Wet,” moved to the vocals from Trina and Lil’ Wayne single, “Don’t Trip,” and finally changed from the Le Tigre instrumentals to a Neptunes beat. Through all of this, an unsuspecting audience would have failed to notice the numerous musical shifts.
Harvard DJs, however, can easily get away with doing the bare minimum. “The trick is that people already like the music,” said Kane Hsieh ’12. “Don’t touch the music. As long as you transition well, keep the beat smooth and play the right songs, people will love it.” In the same vein, Hsieh insists that being a DJ in a college setting does not require the complicated set of skills that artists like VanMiddlesworth treasure. “Anyone that puts in the amount of effort required by a few p-sets could learn to keep the music going. They wouldn’t be able to do the stuff that VanMiddlesworth or Straus can, but just to keep people happy at a party all you need is a few hours of software.” Though Hsieh hesitates to call himself a DJ, he also says that he has no desire to learn the art form’s more complicated techniques and plans to continue DJing parties whenever the opportunity arises.
Beyond his lack of interest in technical flourishes, Hsieh also differs from many DJs in his lack of interest in broad musical knowledge. “I feel like the Top 40 is the Top 40 because it’s fun to listen to. I don’t consider myself a musical connoisseur,” he said. For most DJs, however, negotiating the divide between the Top 40 songs that most partiers want to hear and the music that they themselves most enjoy presents a challenging and ultimately defining conundrum.
Talented DJs like VanMiddlesworth and Zisiadis consider the obligation to pander a good reason to avoid Harvard’s conventional party scene. “I DJed at a bunch of places around campus at the end of sophomore year and just realized that to do that you have to stay on top of what music people are listening to. I wasn’t very good at that and didn’t want to spend so much time listening to T-Pain,” said VanMiddlesworth. Now, though, “I basically have retreated to the [Harvard] Advocate and my bedroom and the Internet,” he said.
Though Zisiadis still continues to do a lot of gigs when he is on campus, he too has moved away from house socials and towards Harvard’s periphery. “I think in general parties are forced to cater to the lowest common denominator—meaning that DJs are playing typical music that’s on anyone’s iPod. People get used to this, and expect this, and it creates a vicious cycle pretty fast,” he wrote. “I’ve definitely refused many gigs ’cause it simply wasn’t a good fit... neither I nor them would’ve been happy.” Zisiadis, who says that he loves playing new and obscure remixes when he DJs, also says that his favorite venue is the Queen’s Head Pub, at which he has performed for Senior Bars.
Effectively, DJs like VanMiddlesworth and Zisiadis are specialty acts; the more an artist knows about DJing techniques and music, the less inclined they are to do the basic stuff that the vast majority of a crowd wants to hear. “You have to be at a place where people are expecting a DJ to do DJ things,” said VanMiddlesworth.