Heralded far and wide as the world’s most fader-friendly school, New York’s Scratch Academy offers the closet thing to a bona fide DJ degree you’re ever going to get. Founded with the help of Jam Master Jay and predicated on the idea that anyone can learn to be a DJ, the school has rallied a teaching roster that includes the likes of Cosmo Baker, Rob Smith, and Grandmaster Caz.
In line with its core mission of education, co-founder Rob Principe recently released The Scratch DJ Academy Guide with the help of writers Luke Crissell and Phil White. Featuring contributions from more than 40 notable DJs – including Q-Bert, DJ Z-Trip, Grand Master Flash, Richie Hawtin, BT, and Pete Tong – the book outlines the DJ lifestyle and gives an overview of the school’s basic curriculum.
In the wake of my own lesson at the academy, Principe chatted with Flavorwire about his worst DJ mishap, what it’s like to teach Doctors and porn stars at the same time, and how it’s not impossible to skip a skipless record.
Flavorwire: Do you guys have ever students come in, you teach them, and then they star taking away your gigs?
Rob Principe: [laughing] That’s kind of a joke, that we’ve got to watch what we do here – guys will take over our DJs jobs… It’s surprising, so many people either think it easy – “oh djs just put records on the radio” – or “I can’t DJ.” The answer is really far from each of those poles. If you can tap your head to a beat, you can DJ. But at the same time, you have to practice. That sort of what the academy is about.
FW: Do you encounter people who don’t have any clue what it’s going to be like? Like at Christmas, “Hey mom, sign me up for DJ school,” without really thinking it through.
RP: It serves different things for different people. Some people really want to feel what it’s like to be the DJ. They want to tell their friends that they’re learning to DJ, but their intent is not really to become a DJ. Others, their intent really is. We get a little bit of everything.
FW: So results may vary?
RP: I would say it’s not unlike your friend getting a guitar at Christmas. But people do hang on to this more because DJing is also a cultural phenomenon. DJs are very aspirational figures. People hang on, because part of them identifies with that.
FW: Obviously this is not the traditional, old-school way to become a DJ. Do you see a distinction between that and someone who’s an upstart? You could argue the purity of one versus the purity of the other.
RP: We’re teaching an art form that deserves to be taught. When jazz came out, nobody understood it. They thought it was a very un-constructed art for heroin addicts. And now it’s taught at every university around the world, and the world’s a better place for it…
FW: One danger when that starts to happen though – once there are rules that you can teach – is something can become stale.
RP: We look at the turntables as an instrument and the DJs as a musician. We call ourselves genre agnostics. We teach people how to paint, not what to paint. Everyone brings their own creativity to this. We’re helping them tap into their interest and their love of music and express it in a way that fits into how this art form works. There will be a point where we can’t teach you anything else… it’s really about the individual creativity.
FW: Is there a conscious reason for teaching on turntables given that the technology is evolving so quickly?
RP: Everyone associates DJing with two turntables. We feel that that is the basics. That’s sort of the original and the heart of it. Everything else tries to mimic that experience. So, we always say once you learn it like this you can apply it. But you really need to learn the fundamentals properly.
FW: How often do people skip the skipless records? During my lesson, I did.
RP: I think it takes a special skill to skip a skipless record…
FW: I can’t be the worst though. Jesse told me that sometimes you have people come in and you have to go, “This is a record.”
RP: I think that’s a teaching issue in any discipline. You go in assuming some people have some knowledge. You slow up little bit to catch the people up that don’t…you kind of laugh with them. I don’t think we’ve had too many cases of that, but listen: sometimes you’re happy someone else asked the dumb question. We’ve had fathers and sons, we’ve had doctors and lawyers, and we’ve had porn stars.
FW: OK, so I’ve skipped a record, what’s the worse mishap you’ve had?
RP: We were at the X Games maybe three or four years ago, and one of our DJs was on the main stage. I was standing next to him. Halfway through the set, he’s killing it, and the whole crowd is going crazy. He leans over to me and he says “Rob, I’ve got to go the bathroom. Can you cover for me?” I’m not a professional DJ; I’m like you. I had to put the headphones on, look the part of being the DJ, and I just had to do the most basic volume out and volume in…
FW: It’s nice to know that you’re still learning too.
RP: Always. On and on.