What Young DJs/Producers Can Learn From Old Folks (and Vice-Versa)

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Kevin Kennedy, also known as FBK and one half of The Fallen.  Thanks for your contribution once again, Kevin!  -David

A good friend (and fellow DJ/Promoter) named Jessica Fortune just made a great comment on Facebook.  She spoke about how the older generation needs to work with and give a hand to the new generation coming up.   I agree wholeheartedly, yet I have found very few ways to pass on and express some of the knowledge that I have gained over my 25 years of being a performer (not just a DJ, but also being in bands and stage acting).

Let’s start with a little background.

Knowledge Gap

During the late 90s-early 00s, many of the DJs and producers I grew up with disappeared from the scene.  Some got married, some graduated from college and got “real jobs”, and some just couldn’t handle the direction that the scene they were involved in was taking.  With those disappearances, there was now room for a whole new crop of talented, younger players to enter the game… all with different ideas and the ability to create something “new”.  (Even if it was done already, those who created it were not around to tell the tale any longer).

What this did was create a gap in knowledge.  Many of the “tried and true” techniques of long ago in production, DJing and event promotion were gone to those who desired the information (and those who had stuck around seemed to be ‘hoarding’ the knowledge for themselves), which of course brought resentment from those young upstarts who really wanted to know answers.

This has always troubled me.  For many years, I sought to find great people who could use some of the vast knowledge that I had amassed, so they could receive as much enjoyment and success as I have found (and so that I could impart the challenges and pitfalls that lie on that path).

With that said, I found that many younger DJs had learned to disdain us “old guys”, because of their dealings with others who had placed themselves as “legendary”, “authority figures”, or as… ugh… gatekeepers.  There have been so many times I’ve heard or read about a DJ who has been involved for 15-20 years say to some kid who’s looking for advice after a show: “go buy some records and turntables, kid…what YOU’RE doing ain’t DJing!”  This thought makes me cringe and saddens me deeply.

Over my years, I’ve embraced technology.  I was completely excited when Final Scratch (the first Digital Vinyl System) came to the marketplace.  I learned how to use it (because I wanted to play the music I’d been producing in my sets) and fell in love… even though it was unwieldy and challenging to use (and it crashed sometimes).  Flash forward 15 years and not too many world-traveling DJs could imagine having to take 100 or so records on a plane (not to mention paying for it to fly and then lugging it everywhere)!

Without someone who was there to tell the story, the story gets totally lost.  We, as veterans, need to pass it on.

What Can Young DJ/Producers Learn From Someone Like Me?

First thing:  NOBODY IS BORN WITH IT.

I don’t often tell this, but since you are reading… I used to stink as a dance music DJ.  I could scratch and do DMC-style tricks, but I couldn’t mix Kool-Aid,…let alone two records.  It took me months of practice (at home, and also at friends’ houses-with NO CROWD) to get to a point where I could match two beats together.

I started with two copies of the same record.  This is MUCH easier now for those of us in the digital age to do… and if you are having issues mixing with your CDs or trying to learn how to mix by ear, it’s a great path to start with.

THERE IS NO MAGIC BULLET.

The best and brightest make it seem so easy: pulling off seamless blends, artfully creating an experience for the dance floor, and making everyone enjoy the groove.  It almost seems like some DJs make it look effortless.  Like a golf, learning the basics is easy; learning to play at a higher level takes time, practice, and usually a few lessons.

I haven’t met too many DJs who have been playing music for 1 year or so who can really teach what they know.  I have never watched a tutorial that showed me everything that a DJ should know.  Finding a veteran who’ll spend an hour with you could help you, but here’s the deal: if that person spends their time giving you some key things to work on… WORK ON THEM.

Just like changing something in a golf swing or learning to dance the foxtrot properly… it doesn’t come all at one time.  And without practice, you’ll not get the lesson.

Talk to a guy who’s been there, and they may tell you… SOMEONE HELPED THEM.

I have yet to meet any DJ, producer, guitarist, athlete, actor or even a fast food manager who has not had someone help them when they were starting out as a neophyte.   If not for legendary producers and DJs like Dan Bell (DBX), Claude Young Jr. and Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir, I’d probably still be trying to figure it all out.

Had I not met several producers like Jay Denham, Shawn Rudiman, Paul Johnson, and been able to ask them a question (or 400) I may have found the answer… but I took what each one of them offered me as advice, help, and assistance– and learned from it.  I can never pay them back, but I can pay that debt of gratitude forward.  Nobody starts off as a virtuoso pianist or composer.  It all starts with a curiosity that is fed with knowledge and practice… and time!

“I took what each one of them offered me as advice, help, and assistance– and learned from it.  I can never pay them back, but I can pay that debt of gratitude forward.”

Now, HOW do you as a young and aspiring artist get to sit at the table and learn from those who’ve been there?  Glad you asked:

1.  Ask!

Simply asking could get you what you desire.  I wouldn’t expect that if you send an email to Skrillex that he’s going to come to your house next week and teach you.  However, if there is someone who has been involved in your scene for a while, and you like what they do, start by having a conversation first.  See if you can become friendly with them… then maybe ask.

If your first words are “hey, I’d like to learn from you” and you’ve not even introduced yourself…  you may not get what you wish for.  The key here is:  those who have the knowledge you need will not part with it just because you stand near them!  Which brings me to…

2. Be prepared to show ’em what you got!

One of my hard-and-fast rules has been that I will not ever teach someone from the ground up.  If you are already involved with the craft, and can show that you have the passion for the craft, there’s a much better chance that someone who is older/more experienced would be willing to show you a little something.

But, there has to be an exchange.  If I have someone ask me for some pointers on mixing, I like to hear them mix.  A recorded mix that can be easily shared (mixcloud.com, soundcloud.com are great for this purpose) will, at the minimum, allow someone to hear what you’re doing.  People are more apt to help you when you’re helping yourself!

3. Don’t fear rejection!

The worst someone can say to you is “no”.  Have you heard that before?  I heard it many times before I got the opportunity to have someone help me.  And, finally-

4. Just because they don’t play the same music as you, don’t count them out.

Many of us old guys may not play dubstep, witch house, elektro, or whatever you may be into.  However, some of the most basic tenets of DJing and music translate just the same.

Also, with promoting events, it doesn’t matter if you are talking to a house music promoter or a guy who promotes rock and roll.  They are both trying to get a group of people into a club to dance and enjoy themselves.

Hindsight…

We all had to learn somewhere.  And for all of the veterans reading this, we can learn a thing or two from the younger generation:  why we got into this in the first place.

It’s hard, after music being part of your life for as long as you can remember, to look backwards and find that initial spark.  The younger generation has it.  Our job is not only to show what we can still do… but encourage the younger generation to keep the flame burning.

If all we do is slam these “young bucks” for not understanding “what it takes to do” what we’ve been doing… we, as veterans, let the younger generation write us out of history.

PASS ON YOUR PASSION.