Ever wondered what goes on behind the decks while you’re grooving to your favourite tracks in the club? For me, I’ve always thought that DJs take out their Spotify playlists and infuse tracks with heavy bass drops and the occasional, but very unnecessary, DJ Khaled-esque screams.
“DJ Khaled… Another one!” Just no.
I’m sure some have similarly pondered if it even takes skill to become a DJ. With many free-to-use DJ softwares available online, it seems like almost anyone can become a DJ overnight.
The wise words of a friend reminded me, “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” So rather than criticise prematurely, I headed down to E-TracX DJ Skool & Studios, one of Singapore’s oldest DJ schools, to find out more from the performers themselves.
The first thing I noticed upon entering E-TracX was the litter of kittens. While cat-phobic me froze in panic, a man came over and quickly pulled away the creatures. As I exhaled in relief, he greeted me with a warm smile and introduced himself as DJ Jason Itchi (Mixcloud).
Turns out my saviour was winning DJ competitions and wow-ing critics before I even left kindergarten. Starting out in 1999, DJ Itchi has been behind the decks at numerous parties of Singapore’s finest. He no longer performs as much, but for now, continues his passion with his music production.
DJ Itchi escorted me into a studio, where I caught another DJ jamming out a sick track. I was entranced, till I realised he was DJ Koflow (Soundcloud), one of Singapore’s biggest DJs!
Haven’t heard of him? Chances are you’ve already heard him play at a club. We were also joined by DJ Shinzio (Soundcloud), a resident DJ at AVRY Club and F45, as well as DJ Edwin, co-owner of E-TracX and the main instructor there.
If I ever came home and told my parents I wanted to be a DJ, I’m pretty sure they would skin me alive. I was curious about how they started DJ-ing, and whether or not it was by some miraculous ‘on-the-mountain-top’ revelation. What surprised me was how simple the answers were.
DJ Koflow told me, “I used to watch skate videos when I was younger. Skate videos mostly play hip hop, but in one video, I heard a scratch sound effect that I thought was quite dope. Later in a jamming session, I realised the sound was made by a DJ. That’s when I started exploring DJ-ing.”
We see DJ Itchi, who after almost two decades, still works hard on his music. But it’s not always about passion; they acknowledge that some DJs learn just enough to carry out the work. Yes, DJ-ing is just like any other job, it pays the bills.
“You can’t just wait around. If you want to get opportunities, you have to reach out and network,” DJ Itchi told me quite practically. I asked about any problems at work, to which resident DJ, DJ Shinzio laughed, “Other than finding good supper places?”
One continued, “On some occasions, payment may come in slow, which can put us in a tight spot,”, to which the others agreed.
I also enquired if you needed a musical background to be a good DJ.
DJ Shinzio said, “I was in my school’s band and played the trombone. It did help me in mastering the harmonics and rhythm.” DJ Koflow then chimed in, “But not necessarily. If you want to become big, you still have to take the initiative to practice outside of lessons and put in the work.”
It then dawned on me that mastering DJ-ing is a lot like learning the piano or any musical instrument for the matter. It requires painstaking time, and lots of practice to become better. If only Asian parents would drill their kids in DJ-ing the same way they regiment piano sessions!
Ever seen those epic Instagram shots taken from behind the decks, opening up into an endless crowd? It’s magical, but performing in front of thousands of people, that’s got to take some serious nerves.
DJ Koflow replied, “Playing at the club isn’t too difficult. It’s the live performance shows that take lots of practice, sometimes even up to a year.”
DJ Koflow proceeded to show me some of his turn-tabling performance videos and kid you not, it was intense. You could hear the silence of the audience watching as his fingers danced masterfully across the turntables.
One false swipe on the vinyls would sound clear as day, and with thousands of unforgiving eyes zoned in on you, I would most certainly have cracked under the pressure if I was in his shoes.
“The most important thing is to take cues from the audience. I can come in with a set of just four or five songs, but I’ll play around with it according to the crowd’s energy level. A good set is one where you engage the audience,” DJ Koflow told me.
He carried on, “It’s not about the numbers in the audience. You see those pictures of large crowds in the club, but they’re all facing away from the DJ. So are the people really there for you?”
As big as he already is, DJ Koflow is still improving himself. He hopes that he will become the kind of DJ that people come for the reason of hearing him play, as opposed to the DJs who just happen to be playing the night that people hit the club.
DJ Shinzio replied, “Do DJs get CPF contribution?” (laughs)
Yes, they do.
I was feeling a little FOMO in the presence of so many DJs, so I asked, “Could you teach me a few DJ tricks?” In my heart, I held on proudly to my Piano Grade 8 qualifications. Picking up DJ-ing should be a breeze for me.
Which is why I was shocked when DJ Edwin started plotting very academic x/y axes graphs on the board as if we were in a Maths lesson. Turns out DJ-ing is actually quite technical, with skills of barring, beat-counting and beat-matching at the very basic level.
For our first lesson, DJ Edwin wanted to keep things easy and placed two vinyls on the moving platters. My task — transition smoothly from Usher’s 2004 hit “Yeah” to another track by matching their beats only by ear. Sounds simple right?
It’s not. You know whenever DJs put on their headphones during their set, they’re listening to at least two different tracks playing, at the same time!
Beat-matching “Yeah” to the other track was a nightmare. While I thought syncing the two bass lines by beat-matching would be a simple ‘cat-and-mouse’ catch-up, hearing two tracks play concurrently was confusing.
The more I heard the two tracks, the more similar they started sounding. And with each subsequent “yeah…yeah…yeah”, it seemed even Usher was mocking me!
After a while, DJ Itchi helped me focus in on just the kick. I could hear the two distinct kick lines that sounded like a horse gallop slowly settle into one solitary beat.
I tried it again with two different tracks, and while it did take some time to sync them together, I ultimately managed to do it solo. Success!
Sadly, DJs don’t have the same luxury of time when performing live. I definitely take my hat off to DJs, who have to stay focussed amidst the cacophony of a chaotic club space. And beat-matching barely even scratches the surface of what a DJ does!
More than entertaining the usual song requests of “Despacito” and “Shape of You”, DJs are producers, musicians, even psychologists when they have to read the crowd, all in one.
Meeting the DJs was really eye-opening and I can see why even after many years of training, DJs are still constantly refining their skills. It really isn’t easy when you’re the one behind the decks playing under the pressure of a big crowd. Trust me, now I know.
So the next time you go club, don’t just dismiss one bad song choice as a “sucky” DJ. They’re still people like you and me, trying to make an honest living.
I definitely need way more practice, and I think I’ll stay in the audience for the time-being. But if you’ve got what it takes, then maybe it’s time you enrolled in DJ schools like E-TracX and discover your inner artist.
E-TracX has been training young DJ hopefuls since 2002, and a six-session Elementary DJ Course starts from S$480.
*Note: Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Price: S$480 (six-session Elementary DJ Course)