Scratch and Riff: Top DJs Will Spin to Win
By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 15, 2003
Most weekends find at least one big-name DJ performing at a Washington area nightclub. Saturday evening, though, 11 of the country's top DJs will be at Nation to compete at the DMC/Technics U.S. DJ Championships. Over the last few months, dozens of would-be superstar DJs have competed in regional qualifiers from Miami to Honolulu for the right to challenge defending champion Perseus and represent the United States at the World Championships, to be held next month in London. Now it's winner-take-all.
DJ Jazzy Jeff will host the event, which will also feature a performance by rapper Pharoahe Monch of Organized Konfusion fame. On a more somber note, the late Jam Master Jay of Run DMC will also be honored. He'll be inducted into the DJ Hall of Fame for his contributions to the turntables, alongside icons such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa.
Established in 1986, the DMC championships remain the gold standard for DJ competitions in the U.S. and around the world. The format is simple: Each contestant gets six minutes to work with two turntables, a mixer and a few slabs of vinyl they've preselected. They're judged on technical skills such as beat juggling (moving back and forth between records on different turntables without losing the rhythm) and scratching (moving the needle back and forth percussively on one record), as well as intangibles such as stage presence and originality.
A lot of the competition is highly nuanced, admits DJ Enferno (aka Eric Jao), a Springfield native who'll be in his second consecutive American championship. "It's like anything -- technicality versus showmanship," he says. "The crowd isn't necessarily going to notice if you're doing 5,000 things at once. Another DJ might be like, 'Wow, that's incredible,' but the crowd isn't necessarily going to be into it. In my routines, there's a balance between musicality, technicality and crowd-pleasing."
Jao started DJing in high school in the early '90s and kept spinning house and hip-hop at parties while a student at the University of Virginia, eventually focusing on hip-hop and laying down beats in Washington area clubs. Then a friend showed him a video of the 1997 DMC finals. Jao was floored. "I'd been a DJ for seven years, I could do [scratching tricks such as] transforms and chirps and I thought I was really good," he says. "I saw this video, and I was like, 'Man, I suck. I'm nothing compared to these guys.' Those videos changed my whole view on my DJing and what you could do with turntables."
In the hands of a lesser DJ, these routines are the equivalent of an arena-rock guitar solo: flashy pyrotechnics that lead nowhere, complexity for the sake of being complex. But Jao eventually began to develop his own style -- one shaped by eight years of piano training, and not just flamboyant scratching and fader tricks, although they play a part. "I've always had an ear for music, and I think that's what helped me," he says. "Musically, I have a decent handle on how to make a juggle progress or scratch routine progress. There has to be composition and a body, so between scratching routines, there are transitions and blends so the whole thing flows as one piece. Everything hopefully sounds like one long song."
Three years after he first began competing, Jao finished second in the 2001 DMC regional battle, which was held at the 9:30 club. In June of 2002, he won the Washington qualifier, and made the trip to the national finals in New York, although he didn't place.
When Jao returns to the championship this weekend, he'll be competing as the representative from Chicago. Jao didn't move west -- he took advantage of a rule that allows DJs to compete in two regional qualifiers per year. Last summer, for example, DJ Skwint (aka Brandon Au) finished third in his "home" regional in Chicago. A few weeks later, the University of Iowa student entered the Denver regional, where he also finished third. "Last year, I didn't feel like I was ready to win, but performing inspired me and gave me more motivation," Au says.
For 2003, he continued practicing -- sometimes up to four or five hours a day -- and formulated a plan. "I wanted to do two regionals this year," Au explains. "I wanted to do one before Chicago to practice. I was going to do Atlanta, but it was canceled, so I decided to come to D.C. I know people here."
What was supposed to be a warm-up gig became Au's ticket to the U.S. finals, as he turned in a clean set of hip-hop mixing. Defending Washington champion Jao finished second after disaster struck: With 30 seconds left in his routine, he accidentally flipped a switch and cut off all sound for about three seconds.
"I was kicking myself for messing up like that," he says. "A lot of things can happen when you're up there -- nerves kick in."
Undeterred, Jao entered the Chicago competition -- ironically, the one Au was gunning for -- and turned in a mistake-free routine to qualify for the finals. On the back of that performance, he was invited to perform at the prestigious Braggin' Rites DJ battle in New York earlier this month. "I felt honored to compete against all these DJs from New York," Jao says. "I didn't expect to win or anything like that, especially because one of the guys in the competition, DJ Precision, was the runner-up last year at the DMC Nationals."
Jao won anyway. "To be able to go against Precision and actually win meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to win in a city outside of D.C. To win in New York was a big deal."
Although Jao has competed in numerous events outside of the Washington area, including the Kool Mixx competition and the Guitar Center Spin Off in Los Angeles, he had never won any. His increasing poise, as well as the home-field advantage, bodes well for this weekend.
"I'm pretty confident in my routine," Jao says. "Yeah, it'd be nice to win the U.S. finals, but my goal is just to do my best, and whatever happens, happens. As long as I come off clean, everything will be okay."
For his part, Washington representative Au says he's "just in it to have fun. There's a lot of good talent [at DMC]. My main goal this year was to make it to the U.S. Finals and I did that, so now I'm just going to have fun."
Whether he wins or loses this weekend, Jao will keep working at his IT job and probably parlay his titles into more work at local nightclubs. "After I won DMC last year, it was a little bit easier to get gigs," he laughs. "They'd say, 'Oh, you won DMC, you must be okay.' "
Then he'll figure out what happens next. "My dream was to be the guy on one of those DMC videos," he says. "It took four years for me to do it, but I did. Last year, after getting to the U.S. finals, I was like, 'I'm done. I'm happy. I quit.' I didn't have to battle anymore. I felt really content. But then I started messing around with new records and coming up with routines, and I was like, 'This sounds better than last year!' And I entered. To get to the nationals once is nice, but twice . . . "
His voice trails off.
"After this year, I keep telling myself I'm not going to battle, but chances are I'll end up competing again. I love it."