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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Light Snow
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The DJ as artist
Local turntable wizards move hearts and minds, not just bodies
Nick Nice: 'We're still kind of stuck in the dark ages here with the public thinking a DJ is just someone who plays records.'
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

A UW-Madison classroom at 9 a.m. is probably the last place most people would expect to see DJ Kres hauling in his record crates and setting up his turntables. To most of us, the academy is as far from the club as possible.

But Kres, one of Madison's oldest and most respected hip-hop DJs, is the day's guest speaker for Curriculum and Instruction 630: Spoken Word and Hip-Hop in the Classroom, a new UW course designed to help teachers at all levels make their academic material more relevant to the current generation of students.

Kres speaks to an audience of high school teachers, middle school teachers, UW professors and others about the cultural impact of hip-hop and the DJ's role in the development of modern music. He also skillfully demonstrates the skills needed to be a DJ - using the mixer, looping records, juggling and scratching.

DJ Newsense, the most dominant scratch DJ in the city, says that scratching is "the process of moving the record to control the pitch of sound while using the crossfader to turn the sound on and off, creating long symmetrical se­quences and patterns of sound."

If that sounds complicated, it is. DJs have always had to prove themselves to other musicians, because some musicians lack a clear understanding of what it is that DJs do.

"DJing is the process of using records to move people's minds, bodies and spirits," Kres says. "You can change a moment, an eve­ning, a life, a community - that's what real hip-hop DJing is about."

While DJs and turntablists like Kres and Newsense are still not wholly accepted as musicians or even artists, the movement for acceptance - or even simply understanding - is growing. With the popularity of hip-hop, various branches of electronic music, and DJ battles, the DJ is being recognized as something more than just the person playing the records.

Part of the problem is that the term DJ can be used to describe a number of different people: the radio DJ who programs songs to play in a particular order, the club DJ who has to monitor the crowd's mood and blend records into one another, the artist who uses the turntables as musical instruments by scratching and juggling, the producer who samples vinyl records in order to create new compositions.

Perhaps this is the source of the controversy over whether DJs are really musicians. Rick Dees and other high-profile radio personalities aren't musicians, but they are considered DJs. When talking about DJs, people don't always think of the DJ Shadows, DJ Q-Berts and DJ Spookys of the world, artists who use turntables to create beautifully complex musical compositions.

"I absolutely consider myself a musician," says local hip-hop and downtempo DJ and producer DJ Pain 1. "I don't consider myself a great DJ, but turntablism and DJing is a definite form of music. I've heard a lot of people disagree, but I don't think they've ever made any real effort to familiarize themselves with the work that DJs and producers put forth. The turntables and the mixer are as much musical instruments as anything else - they utilize tone, sound, rhythm, composition, etc. I'm constantly stunned that the average person, after decades of hip-hop's popularity, still does not realize this."

Madison favorite Nick Nice is also exasperated by the debate. "DJ Shadow, Q-Bert or Cut Chemist are very much musicians in my mind," he says. "And I've never heard this question asked anywhere else but here [in America]. We're still kind of stuck in the dark ages here with the public thinking a DJ is just someone who plays records."

Yet for many local DJs, "playing records" is an important piece of the puzzle, and the popular club DJs - David Muhammad, Triple X, Scrump Boogs, Papi Luv, Vilas Park Sniper, DJ Chuck Money, Jeremy Thomas and too many others to name here - have elevated that seemingly simple act to an art form in and of itself.

"I'm constantly looking to the crowd to see that they're still dancing and being entertained - otherwise I'm doing something wrong," says DJ Seph Tekk (or DJ Yoseph), who focuses primarily on reggae and dancehall but plays other genres as well. "And particularly with reggae, it's often either too slow or the crowd just wants some dancehall. So I switch it up and see if the crowd shifts into a different gear."

Club DJs must not only blend songs into one another, but gauge the audience as well. They have the power to defuse fights, influence emotions and create a mood for the room.

"I select my tracks depending on where the venue is, what crowd I am playing to, the timeslot I have been given and the DJs performing before and after me," says DJ Harsh, a Progressive House DJ. "You generally have an idea of what you will play, but you have to improvise as you perform depending on the crowd reaction. The music generally gets the crowd going and speaks for itself, but having some sort of stage presence and crowd interaction can make the overall experience more worthwhile."

DJs can do interesting things just by playing others' music. They can expose people to new sounds, pay tribute to the artists who have come before and create new messages by combining and juxtaposing specific songs.

"I think of myself as a musical archeologist," DJ Kres says.

"As long as you do it for the love and keep the crowd moving, it's all good," says founder BroDJ. "You have to have a knack for understanding what people want to hear or what they should hear."

DJs must be master multi-taskers as well, able to think on their feet about the music while talking to patrons, watching the audience and finding records.

"You have to always be thinking ahead musically," says Nick Nice. "In a lounge setting like Natt Spil it's more about creating a perfect atmosphere for the social lubrication. But in a dance-floor setting like the Cardinal it's all about creating peaks and valleys in people's dance-floor energy. It's much more complex than just figuring out what to play next."

And for many DJs, there is beauty in that complexity.

"You really can touch people on an emotional level," DJ Harsh says. "There is no greater feeling than being able to take people on a musical journey for those few hours where they can forget all their troubles and just enjoy the moment while it lasts. It's a feeling of bliss."

Seph Tekk likes seeing people get into the music he loves. "As a promoter/DJ, I especially enjoy creating an environment where diverse groups of people get to interact over their shared love of music," he says.

A DJ is more than an extension of his or her equipment, with an important role to play.

"It's amazing what social and political barriers music can break down," says Nick Nice. "In this day and age we need more open-minded DJs and less close-minded politicians."

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