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Part 1: Trademark Sound vs. Technical Ability / Getting Started as a DJ
Jason Bentley has been a leading club and radio DJ for many years. His club gigs and radio shows on trendsetting Los Angeles radio stations KCRW and KROQ helped break some of electronica's biggest stars. In this exclusive interview, Bentley gives Musician.com tips on how to become a DJ, suggestions for maintaining the dance floor tempo, and a list of classic tracks to have in your record box.
Musician.com: What is more important to a DJ: a trademark sound or technical ability?
Jason Bentley: I think a trademark sound is more important than the technical aspect of DJing. They both carry weight, but I suppose it is 60/40. The technical aspect is beat matching, which means knowing how to operate the turntable comfortably so that you can mix records with a smooth flow, and so that you can keep the atmosphere, the mood, the crowd. There is nothing worse than a bad mix. It's almost like a dog sensing fear or a dog hearing an intolerably high tone. So get the technical part of it down.
And the second part, which I think is even more important, is the musical aspect, which means knowing where the blend should happen. Knowing what record will take it up a notch or take it down a notch, whatever your real sense is. This is more challenging because you've got to figure out which instrument is coming up, because you can cue up a record and the first instrument could be a flute. It might not be as simple as a kick drum, which is ideal, but in a lot of cases you're going to need to mix to the very first instrument you hear, and you have to be able to know when to go in and what records to play.
Really, if you want to be a DJ that can separate himself or herself from the pack, you've got to have your own signature sound, and that's the hardest part; that's the challenge. Don't just read the tip sheets or the cool DJ magazines and buy the 10 hot records that month. You've got to break out of that. Have the highest regard for your record box. Don't put anything in your record box that you're not 100 percent into. If you're only half way into it, just shave it. Make sure your box is just everything that you're about, and spend time figuring out what that is.
Musician.com: What is the best way to get started as a DJ?
Bentley: The perfect springboard for me was college radio because they don 't turn anyone away. If you are motivated you can become involved in college radio just by being a student at the university, and going down and getting involved. I did that, and it was impossible for me to saunter into a nightclub and say, "Hey, I'm a cool DJ. Give me a residency here." It wasn't going to happen. And also, I wasn't a very good DJ. You have to learn. You know, people ask me, "How long have you been DJing?" And I say, "Well, like twelve years." And they go, "Whoa, twelve years!" But I wasn't good twelve years ago; it's a process. And I was not a very good DJ for the first number of years. It is still something that I try to improve on, and get better at. So if you can get a leg up with things like college radio or some association to a collective that is a good start.
The most technically talented DJs in the world are people like the Invisible Scratch Pickles out of Northern California, these DJs who are so hands-on that they really show you how the turntable can become an instrument. They can elevate it to an instrument. They can create different sounds. They can control tone on a record. They can control it to play different notes and play a new song. Those types weren't enrolled at a university and became DJs through the college radio station, they did it by performing at collectives in their community and being obsessive about it. And they hung out with each other because they were just on the same page and they would just be obsessive about playing and mixing and scratching, and out of that we have Mix Master Mike, who travels with the Beastie Boys. We have Q-Bert, who's won numerous turntable mix scratch championships. You should see it in action if you haven't.
The DMC competitions that go on are just amazing. I saw Cut Chemist in Newark one time, who just took it to another level by rigging a rubber band across the tone arm and using the shell cover of the turntable, as kind of a bass amplification, plucking the rubber band. The turntable was all of a sudden kind of a guitar. It was ridiculous. I would say the people you hang out with, the crew that you run with, if you can find like-minded people who are into DJing as much as you are. There's stuff on-line. There's a little community that I've checked out called Vinyl Junkies, and these people are trainspotters to the nth degree. They are just looking for all the new records, and they're obsessive. So I would just get in the company of people like that.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4