A Practical Interview With a Prominent DJ (2nd in a Series): DJAO
by Dave Segal
on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 11:44 AM
A few months ago, we were thinking about running a feature called DJ Survival Guide. I interviewed several Seattle disc jockeys for the piece and accumulated thousands of words of wisdom re: the selecting, mixing, and playing of music for other people’s pleasure, but the thing never achieved publication. So I’m going to post those interviews on Line Out, because there’s enough solid advice to help a lot of aspiring jocks… and because the replies are interesting in and of themselves. This week’s installment is with DJAO (aka Alex Osuch), one of the city’s dopest producers of left-field/right-brain hiphop—and the sole practitioner of a subgenre known as Chiltonwave.
The Stranger: How many hours a week do you practice/prepare? DJAO: Depends on what/when the show is. I'm terrible usually, leaving things to the last minute, sometimes throwing the set together minutes before I go on. If I really give a show the time it deserves, I put in about four hours of prep, selecting tracks and spinning rehearsal sets to discover connections/performance possibilities within the tracks. I don't practice in any general sense, I just prepare for specific events with goals in mind.
What’s your DJing format of choice and why? My DJ project is really idiosyncratic: R&B/future beats/bass/soul/hiphop/new wave/indie rock, chopped-and-screwed, effects-laden, mixing using loops, mixes turning into drones, looping tracks and playing drums over the loop, live improv beat-making, playing a minute or two of a track at most (usually), using the turntables/laptop as psychedelic instruments. I do it because I no longer feel the need to do anything else. I definitely have my audience in mind; don't want it to seem like I'm just up there forcing my weirdo ego on everybody (though I do sometimes worry that I do that), but I don't bother comparing or competing with other DJs. I'm not a "party" DJ, unless you're throwing a really interesting party.
What are your recommendations for headphones, needles, turntables, CDJs, DJ-oriented software programs? Headphones: Sony MDR 7506 Needles: Shure M44-7s Turntables: Technics 1200s CDJ: dunno (used to rock CDJ-100, really liked them) Software: Serato Mixer: Rane TTM56
Where are the best places to obtain music, both in brick-and-mortar shops and online? At this point I only buy cassettes, usually at Golden Oldies, Al's, and Neptune Music in U-District, Spin Cycle on the Hill, Goodwill wherever, and direct from artists/homies. Get online music from Boomkat.com, mainly. Haven't bought vinyl in years.
What are the most effective methods for procuring gigs? In a hyper-competitive field, how do you set yourself apart from other DJs? I have no idea how I get gigs, really; I'm just really lucky. I guess I don't try to go places I don't belong—anything that does fall into place tends to be very organic. Lately people have been reaching out to me in ways they never have before, so I'm getting used to that, and I'm grateful. Otherwise, if I'm attracted to someone else's project and want to contribute, I ask. There have been times in the past, sorority formals I did in college, for example, which were purely for money, but these days I don't think about money that much and mainly just focus on exploring things I'm interested in. Even when I did DJ high school and college dances, frat parties, I always had a blast doing it, always threw something weird or new in at just the right moment, usually it ended up making sense, took notes when it didn't. As I said above, I don't think too much about how to compete with other DJs or ways to stand out, thankfully.
What have you found to be the most efficient ways to fill the dance floor (with dancers, to be specific ;)? The most important thing to do (in order to get people to dance) is to minimize any and all abrupt shifts in tone. Consistency allows people to stop thinking; a consistent beat or vibe allows people to focus on their bodies. On a more simplistic level, if we're talking brute efficiency, the best idea is to play songs that people already know really well. DJing for dance crowds involves giving people a continuous (mind)space where they are able to relax, loosen up, and only feel like leaving if they have to go to the bathroom or they're going to meet their friends. Dance idioms are actually a cornerstone of my DJing, but I don't spin dance sets that often anymore. To put it another way, my sets are typically for a different kind of dancer altogether. When I do spin dance sets, I have a lot of fun.
Is beat-matching absolutely essential for a DJ? Short answer is no, but trainwrecking is pretty unacceptable, especially if you're trying to get people to dance. Either do it or don't do it, or make it quick. It also really depends on the genre of music: for house/techno, it's most important, for dubstep/future bass, less so, for hiphop, it depends. If you're playing pysch rock or ska or punk, it's not important. I beat-match abut half the time, if it makes sense, a lot of the time I don't need to because I'm looping parts with no drums. I can't claim to nail it 100 percent of the time.
How do you deal with requests? Usually I don't have it, so that's what I say. For the kind of shows I'm performing at, when someone asks for something and I do have it, I'll play it, or I'm already planning on playing it.
How effective do you think flyering is? It's all about moderation and being properly targeted. I think flyers and flyer art are a really important and interesting aspect of show promotion, and I would hate to see them go away for any reason. I don't know quantitatively, though, what the best strategy would be; promoting has never been my strong suit.
What have you found to be the most beneficial ways to promote your gigs? Social media, flyering, and posters, pretty much the only ways I find out about gigs, ads in the paper, etc. I document everything I do online, flyer and poster when I can/it's requested. By far the best promotion is delivering a memorable performance and providing an online resource for people who want to follow up.
If you have an overarching philosophy about DJing, please discuss it. Basically, I think DJs transmit other people's music, filter it through the prism of their personalities and their audiences, and whether it's any good depends as much on context as skill. I try to retell the way I hear music, the possibilities inherent in other people's music, the life-affirming and visceral tones, I try to present that stuff in a public setting, transform a space temporarily. It's a complete experiment, to be sure. I can't claim to deliver any shiny packages for quick digestion. I'm aware that people may feel alienated, and while I don't usually regret that fact, I also don't exactly delight in it. If you come to my show (on purpose or by accident), I'm grateful you're there, and I hope what you hear touches you in a positive and memorable way, and if you listen for a while and decide it's not for you, that you don't wait around or pretend to like it.