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The Urbanist

How to Up Your Music-Spinning Game with a DJing Class

One man’s desire to graduate from programming playlists leads him to take a crash course at Scratch DJ Academy.

Illustration by Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

When it comes to spinning music, let’s just say I know how to clear a room. Take my sister’s wedding last year. It was nearly 11 p.m., and the DJ was on fire. For three hours, he had shifted effortlessly from Michael Jackson to Elvis, from Outkast to Justin Bieber. Teenagers, grandparents—everyone was dancing like crazy.

Then I noticed a familiar record in the DJ’s crate. It was from De La Soul, my favorite ’90s hip-hop group. So I requested—no, insisted—he play an obscure song that no one but me (and maybe the DJ) had ever heard of. All at once, the entire dance floor hit the bar. The party never recovered. And I was left doing the cabbage patch alone.

“A DJ is like a conductor—it’s a unique power,” says Stephan Steciw, a.k.a. DJ Scend, as we hover over twin turntables in a small studio in North Center. “You are totally controlling the mood.”

He’s absolutely right. Unless you hand over control to the drunk guy who loves De La Soul, that is.

Now, energizing a wedding reception is something I should be able to do. I craft playlists for virtually every moment of my life. Italian for dinner? I’ll whip up an impromptu set of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett classics on Spotify. The whole month of March is dedicated to the Pogues and my time-tested collection of Irish drinking songs. I even curated delivery room mixes. I’ll never forget the surreal moment when little Josephine entered to the ba-ba-ba chorus of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

Hoping to up my music-spinning game—and maybe learn some nifty record-scratching tricks to bust out at my St. Patrick’s Day party—I sign up for a crash course from Scratch DJ Academy. The first thing I notice in the minimalist studio space is the intimidating assortment of knobs and dials on the mixing board, which is set between two record players. Are we jamming some tunes or landing a plane?

“We call this the dojo,” says Steciw. “You’re free to make mistakes here.” Well, that’s reassuring.

The 34-year-old Steciw, who’s been a DJ for more than 15 years, spins at venues such as Easy Bar in Wicker Park and Harbee’s in Pilsen and hosts The Hip Hop Project, a weekly radio show on Loyola University’s WLUW. When I tell him I’m more interested in setting a vibe than becoming a full-fledged scratch master, he says not to worry.

“DJ’ing is all about knowing how to come in and out of music,” he says. “You don’t necessarily need to scratch into it. But you need to know music structure and [how to blend] the personality of each song.”

He pulls a pristine record from its sleeve and carefully places it on the left turntable. On the right is another—this one a slice of mock vinyl that allows him to manipulate MP3 files from his laptop. I soon learn that the fundamentals of DJ’ing include two things I can totally handle: counting to four and telling time.

Steciw takes an orange marker and draws a straight vertical line from the center of the record’s label. “This is your 12 o’clock mark,” he says. Then he shows me a simple move known as the baby scratch. I put my fingertips on the outer edge of the record on the left turntable and move them back and forth from 9 to 11 as Steciw counts out the funky drumbeat coming through the speakers: “One and two and three and four.”

Suddenly I’m making that signature scratching sound—like someone in corduroy pants walking down the street. I feel pretty dope. Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

Then it’s time to blend two songs.

To do so, Steciw explains, you must find the “one”—the downbeat that signals a slight break in the music—and slowly transition into a new tune. You know that moment at a club or a wedding when one melody blends into another? Well, neither did I. But that’s because, if the DJ is good, you never notice.

Steciw wants me to try it. He puts a Nas record on the right turntable and flips a switch to make it spin. He speeds it up and tells me to match it up with the instrumental drumbeat thing happening on the left side. I’m horribly off tempo from the get-go, and my baby scratching sounds more like a baby shrieking. There is too much happening at once.

Steciw politely asks me to step aside. He does some DJ wizardry to realign the rhythms and nails the transition. When you blend correctly, he says, you’re setting the audience up for the switch: “You want the song to hit a certain way.”

I get the gist of what he means. The technical stuff? Not so much. I’m more interested in the tunes themselves anyway. What’s the secret to song selection? And how can I avoid ruining my next daddy daughter dance by assuming kindergartners want to listen to yacht rock?

When Steciw wants everyone’s butt moving, he spins what he refers to as dog whistle songs. Think Bruno Mars sing-alongs or hip-hop classics. “People want to have their music video moment on the dance floor—you have to give it to them,” he says. And pacing is key: Depending on the crowd, he looks for pockets to slip in slow songs or new genres to give everyone a rest.

“You can’t peak for four hours straight. You have to bring it in waves,” he says. “Keep it interesting, but there should be a balance between songs that people know and songs that people don’t know. If you keep it the same, it gets repetitive and boring.”

A few days later, I try out Steciw’s advice with the toughest crowd of all: my wife and two daughters. During an impromptu Saturday night family dance party, I hook them with some of their favorites: “Despacito” and a couple of Taylor Swift bangers. Then I wait until I think they’re ready and—boom—I make the switch to my own music library.

Usually, this would send 9-year-old Josephine and 5-year-old Gemma lunging for the iPad. But not tonight. With newfound confidence, I drop “Billie Jean,” and they go nuts. Then I transition to ’80s crowd pleasers from Devo, Rick Springfield, Bon Jovi, and more.

Best dance party ever.

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