Devin, a tall 12-year-old, stands at a DJ “desk” that includes a classic set-up of two turntables and a mixer. It’s an open house at the Beat Junkie Institute of Sound, a new DJ school opened by the storied Los Angeles crew. Devin is practicing a “baby scratch,” rubbing a vinyl record back and forth beneath the turntable stylus, creating a familiar “zigga zigga” sound that’s graced everything from early hip-hop songs to today’s fast food ads. There’s a dozen other stations surrounding Devin’s, organized in neat rows, and volunteer instructor DJ Subcuzz rotates around, eventually stopping by to help Devin. Subcuzz shows the aspiring DJ how to use the baby scratch to create stuttering patterns, transforming sound into rhythm. If the 12-year-old, who says he’s here because “DJing seems cool to me,” ends up pursuing the craft down the road, these kinds of foundational skills will form the basis for how a future style may develop.
DJ schools are nothing new; the earliest date at least as far back as the early 1990s, around the time that a collection of DJs from different crews in such cities as Oxnard, Cerritos and Carson came together and called themselves the Beat Junkies. Over the next 25 years, the Junkies would dominate Southern California’s DJ scene: as battle DJs, radio mix masters, nightclub talents, etc. However, back then, they never attended class to master those skills. Instead, DJs of their generation picked up techniques through trial-and-error, hours of practice, and occasionally cribbing notes off peers. In other words, they learned how to DJ by DJing.
Not surprisingly, when the idea of a DJ academy first floated amongst them a few years ago, the reception wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. Core member DJ Babu remembers telling his compatriots, “I'm in the trenches! Why am I going to teach people I'm competing against?!” At the time, Babu was one of the crew’s most accomplished DJs, with a string of battle titles plus a long career as part of the hip-hop trio, Dilated People. When a position is achieved through effort and talent, people tend to be circumspect as to who they share secrets with. Sweat equity is earned, not acquired.
“I'm in the trenches! Why am I going to teach people I'm competing against?!”
However, as the Junkies have a quarter-century under their belt, many members began to feel the need to think about what the future might look like. “As a group, we’ve been together for 25 years. We were thinking, ‘What’s the next step as a brand and as a business?’”, explains DJ Rhettmatic. Babu, who originally had been skeptical of the idea, was swayed by his fellow Junkie, DJ D-Styles who told the crew during a meeting: “What do boxers do when they can't box no more? They open gyms. They train the next generation." The moment he heard that, Babu says “something clicked in my head that night and I was committed.”
The Junkies began scouting for potential locations and eventually found a generously sized space on Glendale’s San Fernando Road, just a block up from the venerable Moonlight Rollerway. They spent a year remaking the interior. As Babu put it, “When people walk into our school, they've got to want to be here. It's got to be like that feeling you get when you walk into the Apple Store.” Instead of Apple’s brushed aluminum and glowing white tones though, the Junkies went with warm shades of blond wood for everything from their floors, to the DJ stations, to the main counter left of the entrance. Over to the right are low sofas and a custom coffee table designed to look like a gigantic tape cassette. Even though the Institute includes classes on digital DJing and production, the whole vibe is clearly analog-inspired. Babu says he spent hours scrolling through internet inspiration boards to brainstorm the interior design: “I hate to admit it, but man, I go hard on Pinterest.”
The other main table is on the opposite side of the room. Dubbed “The Longtagon,” it’s equipped with enough turntable set-ups to allow for up to eight people to practice together in group scratch sessions. The name is an homage to “The Octagon,” a four-station DJ table originally created by the Bay Area’s DJ Q-Bert. Both it and the Longtagon are visible reminders that DJs have always learned from one another.
Making that leap to forming an organized school however required the Junkies to confront the current landscape of similar academies. Ever since DJs attained rock star status, especially on the lucrative EDM circuit, fly-by-night schools have popped up, promising to train students to look the part of a “celebrity DJ” while relying on software and hardware to do the actual work of DJing itself. Junkies member Mr. Choc had already spent a decade working as a DJ instructor and he observes that, “there’s a lot of push-button DJs, playing a lot of these clubs and radio stations and playing the same records. I feel like some of the creativity has been sucked out. [The Institute] is a chance to rebuild better DJs.”
A concern lurking behind the endeavor is this: unlike earlier generations, an aspiring DJ today has a wealth of knowledge readily available via instructional online videos and specialist websites. Meanwhile, audio technology has empowered the rise of Mr. Choc’s aforementioned “push button DJs.” Given that reality, opening a new DJ academy in 2017 feels far from intuitive but the Beat Junkies are literally banking on their collective knowledge and reputation.
“‘What if could get lessons on how to play basketball from Kobe Bryant or learn Jeet Kune Do from Bruce Lee?,’” asks Rhettmatic, rhetorically. Babu adds, “I really want [students] to soak up these twenty-five years of experience. Pick at Rhettmatic's brain! D-Styles is going to show you a scratch, talk to him about it.”
“I really want [students] to soak up these twenty-five years of experience. Pick at Rhettmatic's brain! D-Styles is going to show you a scratch, talk to him about it.”
Babu, in particular, throws around the concept of “community” in explaining how he sees the Institute as distinguishing itself. Back in the late ‘90s, he helped open the Los Angeles branch of Fat Beats, a hip-hop record store that originated in Manhattan. In their original location in Los Feliz, Fat Beats became more than just a retail store, it was where DJs and rappers would regularly congregate to swap stories and find camaraderie. “We just inadvertently were doing what people call now, ‘community building,’ he says. Babu wants the Institute to fill a similar role, with students coming to join a collective of likeminded peers. “I want my students and members to be on some Cobra Kai type shit!,” said Babu, referencing the ruthless martial arts team from “Karate Kid.” He quickly adds, “Well, without being mean.” Presumably, the Institute won’t be teaching its students the DJ equivalent of “sweep the leg.”
In all seriousness, the Institute is meant to serve as a training facility rather than a finishing school. They plan on offering an array of classes for beginners like Devin, a way to master building-block skill-sets, but the hope is that more experienced DJs will find their way there as well. “I would love for a seasoned pro to want to come in here and just stay sharp,” Babu says. He reflects on the value of peer-to-peer mentorship in his own career as a producer: “I could [email] beats to rappers all day and they could send back the vocals but it’ll never be like going to [New York’s] D&D Studios and having DJ Premier working in one room, Alchemist working the other, and Beatminerz in the other. I soaked up so much invaluable game from just being around people. There’s not enough zeros and ones to duplicate that.”
The Institute’s first classes have just begun and over the course of this next year, the school’s potential – and viability – will come into better relief. For the Junkies, this will be a hands-on investment from all their key members as they’ll be serving as the initial corps of instructors. As the most veteran teacher, Mr. Choc feels that the school can succeed for the same reasons that the Junkies themselves have. “We all are a group but we all sound different from one another and that’s what we want the DJs that come into our school to be like too: to sound different from DJs that are out there.”
Top image: The Beat Junkie Institute of Sound | Oliver Wang