'All DJs need a name," says Jahi Lake. "It says something about who you are and what you stand for."
I think about this for a moment, taking into account my three days of intensive training in the turntable arts at Manhattan's Scratch DJ Academy. Lake, a 25-year-old Montclair, N.J., native, goes by Jahi Sundance, a cool and hip moniker befitting a cool and hip dude. There are others, of course, from the beloved DJ Jazzy Jeff to Kool DJ Red Alert to the legend of all legends, Grandmaster Flash. All great names, all great DJs.
I, on the other hand, am a terrible DJ; lacking in rhythm, flava, groove, smarts, passion and flow. Whereas the pros make records dance, I make them skip. Whereas the pros make records bounce, I make them crumble. Jahi Sundance can turn a board meeting into a party; a party into a supadupa jam. I can't simultaneously tie my shoelaces and hum.
"Here it is," I tell Jahi, turning down the volume on a nearby turntable. "I've got the name!"
"What?" he asks.
"For now on, I am not Jeff Pearlman. I am DJ Crud-ee Skillz."
The tag fits.
Send in da DJ
Three days, of course, is hardly enough time to go from two-stepping geek to rocking the turntables. But at Scratch, one of the nation's few DJ training grounds and the only such establishment in New York City, every effort is made to help one advance. Located in the West Village, Scratch is on the second floor of a nondescript building, one level below the Joffrey Ballet School.
An otherwise ordinary room is filled with 17 work stations (two turntables, a mixer and mini-speakers) and near the front is a bookshelf stuffed with records, from the obscure (MC Sexy Sweat, anyone?) to the dazzling (Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg) to the shockingly out of place (What Elton John's "Tumbleweed Connection" was doing at Scratch, I'll never know).
It is a place that pays homage to the early days of hip-hop, when rappers and DJs shared equal billing atop the marquee; when the rhyme-slinging Eric B. was nothing without Rakim, and one of music's hottest selling acts was known as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince -- not vice versa. Why, back in the 1980s men like Grandmaster Flash and Kool DJ Herc were superdooperstars without ever having to utter a word into a mike. The DJ was the man in the spotlight. Envied. Worshipped. Coveted. Anyone with vocal cords and some guts could rap. But DJing -- DJing was an art.
Founded 21/2 years ago, Scratch was the brainchild of a trio of men -- entrepreneur Rob Principe, Reg E. Gaines, the co-writer of the Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, and Jam Master Jay, the late Run-D.M.C. DJ. "The goal was pretty straightforward," says Dave Perpich, the academy's director. "To lower the barrier to enter an art form. In the past, if you wanted to DJ, it was very difficult. You had to spend $1,500 for equipment and you had no instruction. It was an intimidating field to enter."
I am intimidated. Very intimidated. On Day One of my three one-hour private lessons, I am greeted by Damian Minervini, a wisp of a man with short brown hair and a striking resemblance to the actor Seth Green. Minervini has worked with Missy Elliott and Lenny Kravitz, but spends most of his time spinning records at an array of Manhattan clubs. By day, he is your average 25-year-old city kid. By night, he is "Dangerous," slick music slinger. Standing over a console, with Bubba Sparxx on one turntable and Elton John (hey, I couldn't resist) on the other, Damian offers up some basic-yet-essential thoughts.
"The keys," he says, "are the little things. Not bumping the needle. Hand positioning. Timing the song right so it flows off of another song." I wait for Damian to continue with, "It's easier than it looks," but he doesn't. Instead, I spend most of our hour together counting beats and lining up songs and -- just for kicks -- scratching Bubba's record back and forth and back and forth, desperate to sound cool. "Keep at it," Damian says at the end. "Good DJs aren't born, they're made."
I am not born. I am not made. I am, simply, clueless.
Drop on the one
"FREE KOBE!" screams the T-shirt, and though I hardly think Kobe Bryant needs freeing, I immediately take to Jahi Lake, wearer of the garment and my instructor for the next two days. Lake is not only the touring DJ for singer Me'shell NdegéOcello, but has worked with one of my favorite all-time rappers, Talib Kweli. In his spare time, he teaches here at Scratch. Groovy.
"What we're gonna work on," he says, "is the one skill a lot of DJs in New York are getting paid $600 a night to do. A lot of DJs can't mix, and a lot of DJs can't scratch. But if you can do this, you can DJ."
Jahi pauses, for effect. "We're gonna drop on the one."
With that, he whips out a pair of Tupac LPs. One is "Brenda's Got a Baby." The other is "Life Goes On." They are my two favorite 'Pac singles. Jahi plays one.
Then he plays the other. He instructs me to listen for the first beat of each song. Not the first uttered word -- the first beat. "The key here," he says, "is timing." The idea is to match the beats per minute of the incoming song with the song that's playing (through headphones). When one song is about to end, Jahi starts the incoming song in time with the outgoing song -- while cutting the outgoing song's volume. This sounds difficult and -- for a tone-deaf Vanilla Ice-wanna-be like myself -- it is.
"You'll get it," says Jahi, as over and over again I fail to locate the opening beat. "Aw," he says. "You're right there."
The records keep spinning. Faster and faster. It is a fun challenge, dropping on the one. But my $600 paydays are a long way off. I stink.
The (no) natural
My final session begins with a positive thought. "You're actually a little above average for two lessons," says Jahi. "But as far as being a natural talent, there are kids I teach who take off after 20 minutes." Nothing more needs to be said. I'm no natural.
Today is all about fun. I tell Jahi that, in my dreams, I'm standing before a packed club, scratching the beginning to the N.W.A. classic, " -- -- -- tha Police." For the ensuing 20 minutes, Jahi tries to make the vision a reality. He lines up the beginning of a record, then scr-scr-scratches out the famed N.W.A. intro. "Now you," he says.
I go too fast."Again ... "I mess up the beat."Again ... "Too slow.
Finally, after mass frustration, I get it right. Zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-BOOM! In my head, I can hear Ice Cube's voice jumping off my cue. I am, at last, a success.
DJ Crud-ee Skillz, in da hiz-ouse.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times