Much has changed in the decades-long history of the DJ, most significantly the tools of the trade and their prominence in popular culture. One thing that has stayed largely the same over the years is the chief job requirement; while technical skill is admirable, particularly to other members of the guild, the success or failure of a DJ has always come down to one question: Can you make a room full of people dance?
On Friday, a competition aims to measure local DJs’ abilities to do just that. Now in its third year in Boston, the DJ competition Red Bull Thre3style will pit five of our standout party-starters head to head for a chance to win $5,000 and move onto the East Coast and then national finals.
It’s different than what you might think of as a typical DJ battle, says Nu Goteh, field marketing manager for Red Bull in New England. “Most are focused on technical DJing, but this is more focused on the funner side of DJing, which is party rocking, engaging the crowd, having a dialogue with the crowd.”
To that end, they’ve enlisted five of Boston’s most popular and most respected DJs: Braun Dapper, BREK.ONE, LayzeeBoy, Frank White, and Supreme One. Each is well regarded in the more technical aspects — juggling, beat-matching, scratching, and so on — but, as explained in the guidelines of the competition, which grew into an international event in 2010: “It doesn’t matter if they know all the DJing tricks and techniques in the book, if they can’t get the feet on the dance floor and hands in the air, they don’t stand a chance of winning.”
Aside from that, the only rules are that the DJs must play a set of 15 minutes, incorporating three different styles of music. Judges — including DJ Kon, Good Life club owner Peter Fiumara, and DJ GETLIVE of New York, a former winner of the East Coast competition — will take into consideration track selection, creativity, stage presence, audience response, and, yes, technical skill.
“They can play as many songs as they want and do all the fanciest tricks that they know,” says Goteh. “A technical DJ is doing a lot of scratching and beat juggling, but people can’t really dance to scratching or beat juggling. The thing is, it’s more of a party than a competition. They’re playing songs that people want to hear and party to.”
“It’s just being able to mash up a whole bunch of different styles of music and rock a crowd,” says White, who holds a residency at Middlesex Lounge and Alibi, and won the Boston Music Award for DJ of the year in 2012. White says he plans to mix classic rock into old-school hip-hop, and top-40 electro remixes with reggae and trap.
Even when prompted, White, like the rest of the crew, had nothing but good things to say about his competition.
“We’re all friends, I’ve known these guys for years, so it’s kind of cool. It’s a friendly thing. It’s a good look for the city to have a bunch of talented DJs and put them up against each other.”
“I’m not gonna talk any trash on these guys,” BREK.ONE, a resident at Royale says. “They’re all phenomenal DJs, and, to be honest, they’re all older than me. When I was coming into the nightclub scene in Boston, these are a lot of the guys I looked up to, especially Braun, he’s basically one of the reasons why I DJ the way I do, and he’s still one of my favorite DJs in the city.”
“On the other side,” he says, “I’m young, I’m energetic, and this is my passion. I don’t want to jinx myself and say I’m gonna win, but I have good taste in music and I do my job very well, so they better watch out. You can quote me on that, have me on my Kanye.”
Ideally, a top DJ can cultivate a party’s vibe while still pulling off some impressive technical work, Dapper, also a Royale resident, says. The competition “evolved from just playing records to trying to get creative: how much you can manipulate a cappellas, different genres, stuff like that. I’m doing everything from doing a rock beat with newer sounds over them, mismatching genres, quick mixing, doing wordplay — records that blend in with each other through certain words connecting them. It’s become a very complicated thing. It’s a mixture between technical, complicated creative stuff, but also the crowd there being able to have a reaction.”
Like what he does at Royale on a regular basis. “Since it’s just 15 minutes, it’s a very concentrated version of what you do throughout the entire night in a three-hour set.” In other words, the pressure to get people to move in a short span of time is on.
It’s taste and what you do with it, BREK.ONE says, that makes for a good contemporary DJ. “We all run Serato, the same program that allows us to cut, scratch, speed up, and slow down songs, so the opportunities are endless. Your set is solely based on your creativity.” That’s the essence of “party rocking,” he says. “Incorporate your blending seamlessly, and dropping things that catch the crowd’s attention so they react to what you’re doing. It’s not just paying background music.”
On Jan. 29, Boston producer Heiss will perform at Music Ecology at Wonder Bar in Allston. The veteran producer, and classically trained musician’s most recent release, “Awake(n),” is a curious amalgam of atypically blended styles with a spiritual undercurrent. “It’s entrenched with Buddhist philosophy and practical examples in original verses from Heiss,” explains Kyle Langan of the Brain Trust collective. “An electronic music career that started in drum & bass and ended somewhere near Kansas with the development of [country/hip-hop crossover] hick-step.” You can hear more at www.heissmusik.com.
After launching a talent and promotions agency, as well as a DJ school, Mmmmaven cofounder David Day will open a record store called Bhoomi Music and Art at the beginning of February in Central Square at 289 Columbia St. “It will carry all varieties of music, especially local labels, but will cater its ordering and newer stock towards the DJ community,” Day explains. “For far too long, area DJs have not had a place to pick up the vinyl they want to spin in nightclubs. Instead of ordering from the UK and spending 20 pounds on shipping, they can finally shop in a custom-made environment, complete with listening stations to check out the newest arrivals.” Follow updates on Twitter at @bhoomima.
Non-Event, the experimental concert series now in its 12th year, is in the midst of a Kickstarter fund-raising campaign that will run through Feb. 10. The money raised will go toward producing another year’s worth of outre concerts. “Some of the shows we’re working on will feature Matt Krefting, Felix Kubin, Leif Elggren + C.M. von Hausswolff, Chong Hulki (of Seoul’s Balloon + Needle), Judy Dunaway, Katze (Morgan Evans Weiler + Noell Dorsey), Bryan Eubanks, and many other strange and wonderful musicians from all over, as well as local experimental musicians who are shaping the current Boston scene,” they explain. For more information, visit www.nonevent.org.
Correction: Because of a photographer’s error, a photo caption that accompanied this story listed names in the wrong order. From left to right, the subjects of the photograph were Supreme One, Braun Dapper, LayzeeBoy, BREK.ONE, and Frank White.