Friday, November 6, 2009

Day 309: Author Interview - Stephen Webber (DJ Skills)

As mentioned yesterday, we were lucky enough to pin Stephen Webber author of "DJ Skills" down for long enough to get him to answer some DJ related questions. Here is the interview in full:

What do you think draws people to DJing as a form of performance over, say more classical options like the guitar etc?

I imagine it’s different for everyone. People seem to know it down to the cellular level when they see something that really appeals to them. I remember a few times in my life seeing something and being overwhelmed by a feeling that “I want to do that!”

Whether it’s seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or Grandmixer DXT spinning with Herbie Hancock, or seeing your first DMC World Final video, or seeing Kid Koala at a Radiohead concert, or whatever; things speak to people in different ways.

Stephen, in the book you give an excellent historical account of DJ culture. With that in mind what would you say are the defining qualities/Habits of a pro DJs (in any field).

First off, thanks for the compliment; it was really fun doing research for the history portion of the book and talking to everyone from Flash, Theodore, DXT, Herbie Hancock, Rob Swift, Q-Bert, BT, Paul Oakenfold, Shadow, Kid Koala, and dozens of others to try to weave together a cohesive story.

To answer your question, I’d say the most prevalent defining quality of successful professional DJs is first and foremost, attention to detail. Think of Z-Trip getting those mash-ups just right, Flash figuring out beat extending and quick mixing, Q-Bert getting all those ridiculous scratches so clean that they seem super-human, BT sitting in front of his computer quantizing the snot out of the rain or some other crazy, creative wild idea. These guys are all digging in.

Desire as well; a desire to make excellent music in this way, and a desire to share this with people and to move an audience.

With DJing popularity at an all time high, do you think there is still space for people to realistically make a career out of their passion?

Sure, although it’s certainly competitive. One of my recent alumni who is really moving up fast is Jason Dawson who goes by DJ JD. He’s the music director and resident DJ at the MGM Grand in Connecticut, he’s one of the best-selling re-mixers on, and he’s starting to get high profile gigs around the country. There are many other former Berklee students who are also doing great things and coming up; some are turntablists in bands, some are pushing the envelope in terms of combining live video and audio, it’s really rewarding to see them taking flight.

In the age of the digital DJ, how do you see the lines between DJ and Musician blurring even more (on the fly remixing, making re-edits etc)?

Now, it seems, the laptop is the main tool of both the musician and the DJ, and programs like Abelton Live are doing a lot to cancel out the distinctions between musician and DJ.

At Berklee, all of the students are musicians, and they love the different perspective that thinking as a DJ offers. Working with larger phrases over individual notes, layers of beats rather than drummers and percussionists, employing technology in different ways.

DJing is more accessible than ever, but what key tips would you give to someone just starting out?


The argument over vinyl Vs Digital will likely rumble on in Internet forums for years to come, but what is your personal opinion?

I love both. I use both. I personally see no reason to choose just one or the other.

I do think there’s something to be said for learning turntable techniques on vinyl. I’ve started using a Numark NS7 for digital mixing and I’m digging it.

What are the most common mistakes/problems you think people encounter when they are learning to DJ/be a better DJ.

The classic neophyte mistake is spending too much time in the headphones at the expense of listening to what’s coming out of the PA. The worst manifestation of this is sending something to the PA that you didn’t intend to when you’re cueing up.

There’s nothing more excruciating than watching someone sending what they’re cueing up into the main speakers, totally oblivious to the fact that everyone can hear them back-spinning.

In your opinion, who are some of the most influential DJs right now?

I love what Logic is doing in the jazz world. Q-Bert is always moving things forward, he and Yoga Frog are constantly pushing themselves to come up with new things, with their on-line DJ school and all. Z-Trip is proving there’s still plenty of interest in mash-ups; he’s always coming up with classic stuff.

5 Skills every DJ should have?

Great work ethic


Ability to read an audience

A highly developed sense of what to mix together, and when

The chops to pull it off

You lecture at Berklee College of Music, how is the DJ/Production element received in comparison with some of the more 'established' musical faculties?

It’s still a challenge. We’re still fighting for legitimacy, fighting ignorance. One of my students told me the other day about one of his other professors ranting about the turntable not being a musical instrument, saying, “play me a major scale on that thing and then I’ll call it a musical instrument.”

Of course, we’ve been playing scales and melodies on turntables for years. Check this out:

In the basement, in the modest turntable lab, we just keep making our music, making recordings (the Stylus Symphony record should be out in the spring), doing our gigs. Later this week, I’m taking an ensemble on tour to Finland. The group consists of two turntablists, sax, tuba, keyboards, multiple Emcees and vocalists. We’re having a blast with it, and eventually, DJs and turntablists will be better understood. It’s unstoppable.




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