Behind closed doors on weekend nights, rooms and houses across Harvard’s campus become dance floors and impromptu bars. Above the bobbing heads and laser beams at larger events is often the mind behind the music: the disc jockey. Some have years of musical background, while others are just playing with the equipment for the first time to help a friend host a party. The Crimson set out to find out more about those who turn the tables while their friends are dancing on tables.
The term “disc jockey” was first introduced in the 1930s as a name for radio announcers who wove music into their programs. In the next few decades, vinyl records came to the fore and DJs became more associated with people who just mixed music.
With the rise of software technology in audio systems, however, many DJs today learn the art through CDJs, popular devices that DJs can play digital music on, instead of turntables. Though much depends on the individual DJ and some stick to the traditional equipment, a new tech-savvy generation is taking full advantage of the advancements in technology.
Daniel Um ’18, co-president of the Harvard College Electronic Music Collective, said that now DJs usually use softwares specifically programmed for DJs, like Serato or Traktor, instead of carrying around vinyls, and sometimes live performances include midi controllers like launchpads.
What traditionally was a very technical craft with turntables has since evolved with accessible software to be a common hobby. In fact, many of Harvard’s own DJs said that they had no formal music education before they started mixing music.
For Timothy D. Haehl ’18, his interest in DJ’ing grew from his curiosity about finding new music and a locker room hobby on the football team.
“I used to make playlists every Friday night before a game,” Haehl said. “As a sophomore, especially, I would just put together music and share them with the other guys.”
Now, Haehl DJs for organizations on campus, from the FDO’s Silent at the Disco event to a Kappa Kappa Gamma formal. Though Haehl said that he’s been into electronic and dance music since his freshman year of high school, he’s never had formal music training.
“I’ve always wanted to produce music and I’ve played around with it a little bit,” he said. “I hate to say it, but I can’t read music and can’t play any instruments.”
But DJing at events doesn’t depend on sight reading skills or fluency in the language of music theory, unlike some other traditional forms of music. Luke A. Martinez ’19, a music concentrator who’s studied classical piano, guitar, bass, singing, and producing for years, recognizes the accessibility of DJing.
“Everyone can DJ, it’s not hard, per se, because it’s not like learning to play an instrument,” Martinez said. “Anyone can theoretically pick it up, which is cool, because it makes it more accessible.”
Linked loosely by their broad interest in music, DJs hail from a variety of informal trainings. Campus DJ Mati Carlos G. Reed ’19, for example, credits YouTube for getting him started after a summer internship for a San Antonio radio station.
The Harvard Electronic Music Collective provides lectures hosted by its students every other week, teaching interested students how to DJ. Irhad Sehovic ’18, co-president of the HCEMC, said that there is no experience required for students to attend these lectures or join the organization.
“Anyone can come and learn,” Sehovic said. “There’s no prior experience required.”
Even though it’s not difficult to get ahold of some equipment on campus and DJ as a hobby, some students at Harvard have actually turned DJing into a side business as well.
Alan Castro ’18 has been DJing for seven and half years now, yet he said he’s only recently turned DJing into more of a business. For Castro, DJing was an excuse to listen to music woven together at his home in high school—much louder, that is. What started as a simple hobby is now a way for Castro and other DJs to earn money on the side.
“I reach out to people to try to get bookings, I send invoices and receipts, and I’m more professional about it,” Castro said. “I just feel like I need to be, because that’s just what other DJs are doing, getting bookings. I don’t care about the money that much, but I want to stay in it and play for other people.”
Um said that he thinks the number of people who are putting themselves in the market for DJing events have grown since he’s been at Harvard.
“When I first got to Harvard, there weren’t a lot of DJs,” Um said. “Now there are generally enough to meet the demand for them.”
Reed has branded his DJing identity, and he’s known across campus as “DJ Matic.” He often plays for events held by student organizations at Harvard, both recognized and unrecognized. He’s played for the Eliot House formal and also at clubs in Boston.
DJs can also use their prices to send a message. Reed said that he DJs for events held by female organizations at half his normal pricing.
Some DJs say that through their experiences at campus events, they’ve come to recognize problems behind Harvard’s social life.
“I feel like one of the biggest problems with the social scene here on campus is just space,” Reed said. “We can’t really DJ in the houses, and we can’t really do it loudly in the SOCH. I know I personally got kicked out twice for noise complaints. It’s a space problem.”
Martinez agrees that space is an issue at Harvard, though for him, the problem was with the type of music that parties were playing and the spaces that he felt DJs were creating. The monotony of music across parties on campus is part of the problem.
“I hated everything that was being played, and I would just complain about it,” he said. “Can they play something that’s not played at every single party?”
Through his ethnomusicology studies at Harvard, Martinez said that he’s explored the history behind house music, which is what he DJs.
“The beginning of house music was to create a space for Black and Latino gay men,” Martinez said. “I realized that how a DJ could create a space and how much I wanted that much space and how much it was missing from where I’m from.”
Haehl points to Silent at the Disco, sponsored by the FDO and Harvard College, as an unique event that not only prompted collaboration, but also proved that college-sponsored events can be successful in providing party spaces. During the event, Haehl DJ’ed with Manu Gualandri ’20, playing tracks that the audience could switch between on their headphones.
Emily Koch ’20, one of the two organizers of the event, said that she was inspired to put on the event as an alternative to the traditional party at Harvard. She noted that music was a key component of almost all social events on campus.
“Music really sets the social scene,” she said.
After attending silent discos at music festivals, Koch said that she enjoyed how “the central thing was just the sound.” She pointed to how some social interactions can feel forced and conversations are often awkward, and that silent discos can be an escape from that for people to just enjoy the music.
“It changed the forced conversation,” Koch said. “You don’t have to talk to anyone—you can just put in your headphones and dance and do your own thing.”
DJs on campus often wrestle with their individual styles and how to balance those styles with the demands of the audience at their public events. The party scene is a delicate balance between music that the DJs know will please the crowd and testing the crowd with new sounds. Because of the live and improvisational nature of DJing, the audience can help determine a DJ’s decisions in real time.
Um said that live music is not permanent—in fact, it’s “undead.” The audience and the DJ feed off of each other, and unlike in other programmed performances of music, DJs have the flexibility to improvise the act as they read the audience.
Sometimes, giving the audience what they’re comfortable with comes in conflict with the artistic expression of the individual DJ and their personal tastes. Castro said that his personal liking for techno music as well as Latino music isn’t what he would play for a gig. Hailing from southern Texas, Castro said that his home region is 96 to 97 percent Hispanic. Before coming to Harvard, he said that he didn’t embrace the music that he was surrounded by.
“I had to get out of Texas to realize I missed it,” he said. “So when I went back to Texas to DJ, I played a lot of Latino music, Black music, reggae music, all the likes, the music that I missed. But coming back here, what the kids wanted was top 40.”
At the same time, Castro said that the enjoyment of DJing comes from the crowd—when they’re having fun, he’s having more fun.
“I really enjoy playing music, and I think I’m fairly decent at mixing it, and when other people enjoy it as well, it doubles the enjoyment,” Castro said. “I’m having fun, and they’re having fun, and then I’m having fun because of that.”
Reed claims that his “style” is his take on the hottest hits of the day, sprinkled in with his personal top picks that he listens to in his free time.
“I kind of jump around everywhere,” Reed said. “Spanish, hip-hop, Caribbean, EDM, you name it.”
Meanwhile, Martinez’s main goal is in trying to push the crowd away from their familiar music, as his goal is not to please the crowd.
“I hate the idea of DJ as entertainer because I don’t think that’s their job,” he said. “It’s like their secondary position. But the DJ is a curator and a community leader, because people flock to a DJ because they want to hear a certain type of music. DJs are kind of what marry the world of music curation and music criticism to the world of popular entertainment, and they have to know both sides, because they’re the gap.”
Martinez said that he has no interest in becoming a famous DJ, despite the fact that he thinks the work of the DJ is inherently crowd-pleasing. Like Castro, Martinez feels rewarded when he gets positive feedback from the audience.
“I do want to make people happy, I love it when people come up to me and say, ‘You blew my mind,’ or something like that. That feels so good,” he said. “But the thing is I’m not just trying to be a crowd-pleaser. Introducing people to new music that they haven’t heard before, new emotions that they haven’t felt before, that’s what I want to do.”
Though the music that DJs mix at campus parties contributes actively to the social scene, the jockeys themselves are often alone at their performances, leading to a lack of close-knit culture amongst DJs at Harvard.
Castro said that he thinks of DJ as an isolated craft.
“You’re alone up there, you’re the one mixing the tracks together for the people, but you’re not part of the people,” he said.
At the same time, this isolation is part of what draws him into DJing. Castro said that as a self-proclaimed introvert, the role of the DJ is perfect for him in party spaces, allowing him to negotiate between performing within his personal comfort.
“I think DJing has been a way for me to express my craft and my love for this energy while at the same time stepping back a bit, but still creating that environment,” Castro said.
For Haehl, this isolation away from the crowd is exactly why he prefers not to DJ at Harvard. “I actually don’t love DJing at college events, because I know a lot of people and I want to hang out with them,” he said.
Amidst the lonely spot up on the stand, DJs reference the few collaborations that they do have as crucial to their DJ experiences. Reed said that the most he learned during any live DJ experience was when he DJ’ed with Cole Thompson ’18. He said that he practiced often with Thompson, which was a large part of getting into DJing.
To help bring this otherwise individual art form together and form a united culture, HCEMC is trying to create a network of DJs who can find other DJs to collaborate. Um said that HCEMC is working on a more centralized system for DJs, including mailing lists and group messages on social media sites to pass along gigs.
Another night, another round of parties. Rooms are filled, bodies pressed up against one another, and music blasts from the speakers, woven seamlessly together by DJs. One at a time, these DJs are spinning discs and turning the tables of these musical spaces.
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.