I was 17 years old when Dilated Peoples released their debut LP, The Platform.
While emcees Evidence and Rakaa Iriscience were nice on the mic, what grabbed my attention the most was the scratching and turntable trickery on display from DJ Babu.
The way that Babu manipulated snares, contorted phrases, and transformed sounds blew my mind. Before I even thought of getting turntables, I was at my CD/Cassette player combo trying to make my own version of his scratch interludes with the play and pause buttons. While I was aware of other turntablists like DJ Shadow, DJ Premier, Q-Bert, Numark, and Mixmaster Mike, there was something about Babu’s style and sensibility that really made me say, I want to do that!
I didn’t know it at the time, but becoming a DJ in the early 2000’s meant a heavy investment in equipment, and an even heavier investment in vinyl - both for your pockets and your lower back. In order to really do that, DJ’s needed turntables, mixers, needles, slipmats, and definitely doubles of every record. Definitely. It wasn’t uncommon for DJ’s to bring their own equipment to gigs, loading and unloading an entire bedroom setup to spin for a couple hours.
For the large part, doing that also meant figuring things out for yourself. DJ’s were forced to pick up tricks here and there by going to parties and studying other DJs, making friends with record store employees, and trying to join record pools to receive promo copies before they hit stores. With a little luck, an older DJ would take an up and comer under their wing and speed up the process toward paid gigs and respect.
When I finally got turntables a couple years later, DJ Babu and the Beat Junkies Crew - consisting of DJ’s Rhettmatic, Melo-D, J. Rocc, D-Styles, and Mr. Choc - became my teacher from afar. I would spend hours listening to his cuts and try to replicate them using Super Duck Breaks - perhaps the most famous battle record ever made. When Youtube popped up just as I was getting good enough to leave my bedroom, my friends and I would scour for and then share Beat Junkies clips and try to mimic their routines. We never could, but it was fun to try. We studied the Junkies and other similar DJs on how to move, what to play, and how to create our own styles.
To say that a lot has changed since then is an understatement. Technology has changed almost every aspect of DJing, making it much more accessible and affordable. The barriers to equipment, music, and knowledge have greatly diminished. New entrants can DJ without ever purchasing music or turntables. Those interested also have a wealth of tutorials and video footage at their fingertips. And better yet, while my generation made the Beat Junkies our unofficial tutors, you can now learn directly from the masters.
In 2017, the Beat Junkies opened the Beat Junkies Institute of Sound, a brick and mortar DJ school where the Beat Junkies lend their expertise and experiences to students young and old. The Junkies also offer online tutorials via their BeatJunkies.TV and their new online classes that are taught live and mirror what students receive in person. For the Junkies, this pivot into official education represents their evolution as a crew and as individuals. That’s not to say there wasn’t some resistance and reservations amongst the Junkies, especially given that they come from what DJ Clark Kent would call, “the contact sport of DJing.”
“If you would've told me 15 or 20 years ago that I'd be teaching, I'd definitely say, get the fuck out of here,” DJ Babu says with a laugh.
DJ Rhettmatic agrees, “I'm from that generation as well where you don't share your techniques with anyone else,” he says. “You don't show your skills to anyone but your crew members.”
According to Babu and Rhettmatic, D-Styles floated the idea of teaching as early as 2013 or 2014, but the response was lukewarm. Many of the Junkies were touring heavily either as solo acts or part of Hip Hop groups, and focused more on their own careers than becoming teachers. But around 2015 the temperature changed and thanks to nudging and coaching from D-Styles and Mr. Choc, they began to see a future in DJ education.
“For me personally, it came along at the right time,” says DJ Babu. “I'd spent the majority of my life since the mid to late 90's on the road, living day to day, week to week, month to month out of my suitcase. I was looking for more consistency and I wanted to be here in the Los Angeles area more. It just came at a perfect time for me.”
For DJ Rhettmatic it was D-Styles’ analogy to the martial arts and boxing that flipped his perspective on the DJ school. Following retirement from the ring and active competition, many boxers and martial artists open gyms and dojos to train the next generation and pass on fundamentals in hopes that the sport continues to grow. Rhettmatic went from protecting his tricks and trade secrets to sharing them. “As I got older I started to realize, I could be one of two things,” Rhett tells me via phone. “I can be like the people that complain [about where things are going] or I can try to contribute, to make a change. If we want our culture to survive, we have to share.”
DJ Mr. Choc did not need any convincing. A radio icon in Los Angeles, and a world-class turntablist and selector, Mr. Choc embraced teaching as early as 2005 when he joined the Scratch Academy. He later became a program director and built a wealth of knowledge and resources for teaching others. Before the Beat Junkies Institute of Sound opened to the public, Choc first taught his crew members how to become teachers themselves.
“It was really about sitting down with the guys, and the growing pains that I went through becoming an instructor, I had to show them too,” he says. “There''s a patience you gotta have with students that don't know anything about DJing. You gotta know how to present things to people who are green and don't know anything about the culture or the craft or the history. It was a process over the last 6 years to get everyone to where they need to be. I feel like everyone found their own way. I just showed them the basics and this is how we do it.”
I'm watching DJ's that are screen-watching, and not even paying attention to the vinyl at all. I'm like, 'no, that's not the way it is at all.
- Mr. Choc
Mr. Choc wrote the curriculum for the Beat Junkies Institute of Sound by “reverse engineering” the way in which he came up and how his crew navigated the world of DJing since they were teenagers. “We went off our history of how we all learned,” he explains. “We learned by listening to other DJ's, watching other DJ's, listening to the radio, watching DJ's perform… When you're self-taught there’s a certain way you approach things, we went back and re-engineered everything,” he tells me proudly.
The curriculum is designed to teach students the proper fundamentals and the history of this rich and beautiful culture. While technology has made DJing look easy and effortless, the Junkies take pride in stripping everything down to the basics before accelerating into the future.
“The curriculum we built is something steeped in traditional DJ culture, but at the same time, we are very much looking forward,” Babu says. "We start them on vinyl, first of all. It's very technical, but we strip everything down. We really get down to the guts... We don't let them touch anything until they understand what's in front of them. Our first class literally is an overview of your equipment, and how this shit actually works.”
The beginner's class is taught exclusively on vinyl, and students must pass their vinyl final before moving onto the next level and getting introduced to Serato and digital equipment. Mr. Choc explains that this is meant to teach students how to DJ with their ears instead of their eyes, a common practice in today’s digital DJing landscape.
“I'm watching DJ's that are screen-watching, and not even paying attention to the vinyl at all,” says Mr. Choc. “I'm like, 'no, that's not the way it is at all.' I wanted to make sure that [our] DJ's learn to mix and scratch with their ears before their eyes. I always say, ‘trust your ears not your eyes.' When you start .wav watching you're just thinking, 'oh if I just match these .wavs then everything is gonna be good.' That's not it. That's not it at all.”
Nick Saligoe, AKA DJ Metrognome, is a DJ and founder of Deckademics DJ Academy in Indianapolis, Indiana. The school lives by the motto, “you can’t download practice,” and Saligoe has used the Beat Junkies as a northstar in creating and delivering DJ instruction. He views the Beat Junkies Institute of Sound as an important part of the DJ ecosystem, and extremely necessary as more people are gravitating towards DJing than ever before without much knowledge or experience with the craft.
The curriculum we built is something steeped in traditional DJ culture, but at the same time, we are very much looking forward.
- DJ Babu
“It's not about gatekeeping at all. It's about trying to instill good habits into ways of understanding the culture,” he tells me. “There's other schools that clearly are just trying to make a buck. They literally show people almost nothing and give them all the cheat codes. It wasn't easy when we did it, and if you want to be good, it's not going to be easy now. It might be easier in particular capacities but it shouldn't be easy. This is a very challenging artform.”
For Babu, Rhettmatic, and Mr. Choc, celebrating the artform of DJing and passing that onto others is at the heart of their work. The Beat Junkies Institute of Sound draws a diverse student body that ranges from kids looking for an afterschool activity all the way to adults looking to pick-up a new hobby or stress relieving activity. Others are at the school to start a DJ career or sharpen their existing skills. According to Rhettmatic, the student body is close to 70% women, and recently two BJIOS graduates competed in the Los Angeles DMC competition. They both placed in the contest’s top 6, further demonstrating the value of Beat Junkies Institute of Sound. Other alumni DJ regularly throughout the city, and some just maintain a bedroom setup and spin BBQ’s.
“We're trying to teach students to fall in love with the craft of DJing. That's what happened to all of us,” says Mr. Choc. He says that his experiences teaching have made him a better DJ and also brought a type of fulfillment and humbleness that he is extremely grateful for.
“We tell this to our students,” Rhettmatic says, perfectly summing up the school’s purpose. “We're not going to promise you a career. But we're going to promise you a lifetime of passion and music, and something that you might fall in love with that's going to stay with you until the end of time.”