If you’re interested in music and have aspirations to be a musician, people might suggest you study guitar, piano or maybe a brass instrument. But studying “turntable” is unlikely to enter the conversation. Today we attend a class where students learn that being a DJ – or disc jockey - involves a lot more than just playing songs.
Disc jockeys. They’re those usually upbeat, occasionally loud guys and gals who spin records – or now actually use computers, to get the songs we like to hear on the air waves.
But there’s another type of disc jockey – or DJ – that sounds nothing like that.
Micah Prairie Chicken has been playing records for people since he was 14 and his presentation has nothing to do with waking folks up to go to work or getting them through the morning drive. It’s also nothing like your basic wedding DJ who comes in, plays a set of songs for the crowd to dance or listen to and then leaves. DJ Micah generally sets his beat at clubs, bars and private parties.
“A DJ, essentially, is someone who plays music,” explains DJ Micah. “It gets a little bit more complicated when you start thinking of a DJ as kind of an artist. The type of DJ’ing I do, I don’t just play music, stop a song and then play more music. I blend songs together. I do live mash-ups of older songs and newer songs.”
If this seems complicated, that’s because it is. And that’s why Micah - and other DJs who do what he does - consider their craft an art.
“The art form is called turntablism,’ says DJ MIcah. “And it’s pretty much creating new music…live, in-person, and doing it with two turntables. You know, mixing the vocals from one song into the beat of another song. So, that’s where the creative part comes in. And being able to do this all live and on the fly. So, it takes a lot of practice.”
At least two hours’ practice each day in Micha’s case – for the past 12 years.
“I’m 26 years’ old and I’ve been doing this since I was 14,” says DJ MIcah. “So it’s almost half my life I’ve been doing this. And the little bit of music theory that I know and stuff I just kind of picked up along the way…it’s kind of necessary to know to do what I do now.”
“You said practice,” I comment. “Do you go to a venue with plans to play this, this, this and that or do you just bring a lot of stuff and you have to just be able pull whatever comes into your head or that someone requests?”
“You know, it’s a mix of stuff,” say DJ MIcah. “Like I’ll have a lot of mixes that I’ve been practicing on. I’ll have a bunch of those and I’ll pull those out. Sometimes if I just get an idea on the fly from a request or something, I’ll have to do something with that. And, so, you really have to know your music well.”
But since this is all about playing music, let’s do that…as Micah takes us through the history of turntablism
“I consider myself a hip-hop DJ than anything,” explains DJ Micah. “I play all kinds of music nowadays…but I play everything in the style of hip-hop, I guess. Hip hop, and hip-hop DJ’ing got started in New York City by a guy called Cool DJ Herc. He would do something called extending the break. A break is the part of a song where there’s no vocals, it’s just people playing instruments People then would dance to these parts.”
Which become known as break dancing.”
“Scratching…essentially it’s just moving the record back and forth,” says DJ Micah. “So, scratching, when it first started, was just this.”
DJ Micah produces a scratching noise form one of his records.
And there’s all kinds of scratching. The baby scratch, the military scratch…which sounds like soldiers marching. The Transformer scratch – after the Transformers cartoon. The chirp scratch – which sounds like a bird. The list goes on. Then there’s the mixing.
As I said, it’s pretty complicated. DJ Micah’s hands and body are in constant motion as he moves the record on one turntable, then the other, adjusts the sound mixer, then back to the turntable – actually playing his multi-piece equipment like a musical instrument.
It’s pretty daunting. But 14-year old Dylan is anxious to try.
So is Jace. He’s 19.
It’s quite a party night here at The Dahl as students learn just how much work it takes - and just how much fun it is - to be a DJ like Micah Prairie Chicken. But as DJ Micah points out, you don’t have to be young to take part in the beat.