When Sierra Roundtree was about 6 years old, she attended a party with her parents in her home town of Las Vegas, Nevada. The party was full of artists, musicians, poets and dancers. Sierra wandered over to where a man was playing records on two turntables. He wasn’t just playing the songs all the way through. Rather, by putting his hands on the records, he was slowing down or speeding up the rhythm of a song, making a part of the song repeat or blending one song into another. He was DJing. And Sierra was enthralled.
“A DJ is a person who expresses themselves through music,” the quiet and mellow Sierra said from her family’s living room in Southeast, where her equipment is set up. “They don’t just play music through [speakers]. They can do tricks with the music.”
Sierra moved to Washington three years ago and she’s now a seventh-grader at Hardy Middle School in Northwest. At 12, she is one of the youngest professional DJs in the country.
Sierra mixes hip-hop, pop and electronic music together, never missing a beat, to create something that sounds new and very rhythmic. Known as DJ Beauty and the Beatz, Sierra performs a couple of times a week, playing birthday parties, events and even some of the big venues in Washington such as the Howard Theatre and 9:30 Club. She also performs outside the Washington area and has traveled as far as Las Vegas for a gig, or performance. In March, she will play at a family fun day in New York City hosted by the music television station VH1.
“I would put her in the best 10 to 20 DJs in the country in her age group,” said Jeremy Beaver, or DJ Boom, who owns Listen Vision Studios in Northwest, where Sierra spins, or performs, for Internet radio every Monday at 5 p.m.
Sierra is rare not only because of her age but also because there are not many DJs who are girls. (When she performs for adult audiences, some of her music may not be suitable for kids.)
Becoming a good DJ required practice. Sierra’s parents borrowed a friend’s DJ equipment. The equipment was two turntables that played vinyl records, or big round discs, and a mixer, which allowed Sierra to adjust the volume of the records.
“She’d run home and get on the turntables. She was just turning, turning,” said Sierra’s mom, Takicha Roundtree.
(Today Sierra uses two digital turntables, which don’t actually play records. She can still slow down and speed up a song in the same way, even though the song is played through a laptop computer. Sierra has more than 9,000 songs on her computer.)
“I thought I could do it,” Sierra said. “It sounded so simple.”
But it took her many hours after school in the garage playing with the turntables and different sounds and beats, and watching YouTube clips of other DJs such as Jam Master Jay, Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie. She attended a hip-hop camp in Miami and then took DJ classes at the Beat Refinery in Bethesda. (DJing grew out of hip-hop music.) By the time Sierra was 8 years old, she had her first professional gig.
Sierra is “extremely rare,” Sierra’s mom said. “She’s a child and a female and a cute kid. When people hear her perform, they are like, ‘Oh wait, she can actually do that.’ It’s different.”
This kind of DJing started in the 1970s in a part of New York City called the Bronx. At parties guys called disc jockeys, or DJs, would set up two turntables and play one song after another.
DJs such as the famous DJ Kool Herc realized that the crowd really liked the part of songs when the voices and most of the instruments faded away and only the drums remained. It was called the breakdown. In order to prolong that part of the music for the dancers (later known as breakdancers), the DJs decided to play that part twice, once on one turntable and again on the other, by dropping the record needle on just the right spot in the song.
From there the DJs started messing with the songs even more.
“She makes it look easy, but at the same time it looks hard,” said Sierra’s classmate Makaio McCaskill, 12. “You have to pick the right song, and you have to know what beats go together. She has to look at her computer and also at her scratch pads,” or turntables.
One of Sierra’s favorite gigs was in Miami, Florida, a couple of years ago, when she played in the window of a fast-food restaurant. People walking past were surprised to see a girl making such music. “People . . . were jamming to the music and then . . . they stopped and stared,” Sierra said.
Sierra plans to keep DJing. It’s what she wants to do when she grows up. She doesn’t get nervous when she performs, she said. She just focuses on what she’s about to do.
“I like DJing,” she said. “You have a whole different kind of music. . . . After I’m done, I always feel refreshed.”
When: Mondays, 5 to 6 p.m.
Where: Have a parent go to www.listenvisionlive.com.
Where: Beat Refinery, 4819 St. Elmo Avenue, Bethesda, or 13009 Worldgate Drive, Herndon.
When: Classes every day. You can start at any time.
Who: Classes are best for age 9 and older.
How much: $150-$195 for four hours.
For more information: Have a parent go to www.beatrefinery.com or call
Turntable or record player
A device that plays a record, or a big, round disc. Many records are a little bigger than the size of a dinner plate. A needle, which looks like a pin, sits on top of the record as it spins to make the music play. Long before there were iPods containing hundreds of songs, a standard record contained about 44 minutes of music.
A black box that controls the volume of the songs and “mixes” them together.
When a DJ puts her fingers on a record and moves it back and forth so that the song goes back and forth in one spot, creating a distorted sound.
Mixing and matching the rhythms of two songs that are being played.
When a DJ picks a specific part of a song and starts playing that, often mixing it with another song already playing.