From Kool Herc to Kid Koala, the art of the analog DJ has been around for decades, even if it might not seem apparent when you hear a heavily produced rap song on the radio today.
A group of up-and-coming DJs at East High School in Denver are doing their part to change that.
The East Colfax Scratch Academy is the brainchild of KGNU music director John Schaefer, who was looking for ways to engage young people in music.
“‘Turntablism’ kind of gets put in a box,” said Schaefer. “But I felt kids should be exposed to the improvisational possibilities of the DJ genre.”
KGNU station manager Sam Fuqua agreed that the idea could be a good fit for students, and that idea became a reality when funding was made available from Colorado Creative Industries and the National Endowment for the Arts. With sponsorhip from KGNU, East High School offered an eight-week workshop headed by DJ Notch, a well-known Denver DJ and 2010 regional champion of the prestigious DMC Turntable Competition.
“It’s something extremely new to them,” said Notch. “But when they actually saw the technique, they were blown away.”The “technique” is comprised in Notch’s syllabus, which includes all of the tools necessary for the art of turntablism: an overview of the DJ, introduction to the crossfade, cueing and pitch-shifting and building vocabularies, from baby scratches to chirps, flares, crabs, scribbles — and putting all of these elements together into cohesive flows.
Notch was amazed by how quickly the students took to what he taught.
“Once you see someone perform on turntables (and mixers) and see all the different things they have to be aware of — matching beats, manipulating the record and having it fit rhythmically –you understand it,” said Fuqua. “And once you see a master do it, you realize it’s not a special effect, it’s an instrument — not just rhythmically, but also melodically.”
If they can locate more funding, Fuqua said, KGNU would like to offer the program to other high schools in the Denver metro area.
The eight week workshop culminates tomorrow, Dec. 1, with the East Colfax Scratch Academy Graduation Performance at Twist & Shout Records. Ten students from the program, along with DJ Notch, will perform the art of turntablism from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his second novel.