Red lights and red faces rove to the beat of Nicki Minaj’s Only. It’s Friday night and I’m at The Get Down, a Baltimore dance club in Fell’s Point. Bodies gyrate and sway to the building rhythms. Some rap along to the lyrics. Plastic cups full of clear and amber liquids are passed around and tossed back. Adam Reid and Jerald Liu stand behind the DJ booth, faces lit bluish by the glow of their computers, hands clicking and sliding, heads bobbing in synchrony. The beat slows, and then builds. The opening claps of Uptown Funk creep into the sequence and Bruno Mars’s voice blasts through the space. Just as the chorus ends the beat drops and the crowd shakes with energy.
Fast-forward 48 hours. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m sitting across from Reid, a 20-year old chemistry major and Liu, a 22-year-old computer science major. They lounge in Reid’s room between two m-audio bx8 radios that are as tall as them. We talk about their musical backgrounds. Liu is classically based while Reid’s rooted in jazz.
“It was mostly classical since I was four,” explains Liu. “Then I did this rock music program and toured with Brendan Small from Dethklok. I played keyboards in a metal context, which was pretty interesting.” Liu plays the piano and Reid plays the guitar and bass. Liu, who is also in a Johns Hopkins acapella group, cites not having enough time to practice his piano as what sparked his interest in Dj-ing. He picked it up after joining his fraternity, Phi Psi.
“It was very mixed into frat life and parties and all that so I just picked it up”, he says. “Then Adam comes along my junior year and I sort of rubbed off on him.” Reid’s DJ background started in what he terms “stupid heavy dubstep” during his sophomore year of high school. He cites Skrillex and Flux Pavilion as early influences. He started to fiddle around on his computer after seeing them live. “I had ‘Virtual DJ’. It’s the shittiest DJ software you can possibly get and basically I was just clicking on my computer.” Mastering the software and graduating onto more advanced programs, that clicking soon turned to profit as he began to perform at events.
They recounted Friday night at The Get Down to me. Reid played samples on his nearby laptop of whatever song they bring up. Skrillex and Diplo’s new EP, Jack Ü, was heavy on the playlist. Reid puts on Where Are Ü Now, a track featuring Justin Bieber. “I fucking hate him but it’s really not bad,” says Reid. “It’s my favorite Bieber song,” Liu agrees. Whenever a song plays, both automatically start to tap rhythms on their knees and mutter beats that escalade along with the song.
“I’m a twerk nerd. I love music that makes girls want to shake their butt. That’s really what it comes down to when you’re playing at a party,” admits Reid. This is more or less the secret to DJ-ing I am told. “That’s often what gets a party going” Liu adds.
“What’s the worst thing about your job?” I ask them.
Liu answers first: “Getting a flood of requests from people who don’t know about DJ-ing. Mad drunk people.”
“When you’re a DJ you get to observe everything. It’s fun at the Get Down,” Reid adds. Liu nods in agreement. “It’s so rewarding when you drop a song and everybody’s just hooking up on the dance floor. You’re like I did this, I made this happen.” They laugh, facetiously.
There’s more to making beats than meets the eye. It’s a humbling experience for these young DJs, producing something and then listening to a big artist. “The difference is astronomical,” says Liu, in comparing their own work to their idols’. “It’s so hard to make something that you yourself love.” Reid’s produced only one track in his life— they say that, of the duo he’s the better DJ and Liu is the better producer. He plays his track, begrudgingly, saying, “I don’t want to listen to it because it sucks.”
I ask them whom they admire in the EDM world. Liu identifies with Skrillex. For Reid it’s Diplo.
Reid and Liu tell me about DJ Fake. DJ Fake sucks, apparently. He is a blogger who is deeming the art of mixing electronic music and the whole nature of DJing to be reaching its expiration date. According to him, the days of matching beats, mixing songs, and transitioning without stop are over. DJ Fake claims that in the future people will be pressing stop at the end of a song, pausing for applause and discussion, and then starting the next song. Songs will be played from start to finish. Reid and Liu beg to differ. Even without official DJs people already grapple for the auxiliary chord to plug in their own iPods and change songs after a chorus or two. With partygoers’ naturally hyperactive musical tendencies there’s simply no way DJ Fake’s vision of the future pans out—DJs and their style of music are not dying but on the rise.
“People don’t have a great attention span, they can’t really listen to more than a minute and a half of a song” Liu muses. DJ-ing in this way then seems to fit in the direction society’s moving in, with information presented in small sound bytes and short attention spans. It would appear that electronic dance music (EDM) and the variations of it employed by DJs are the music of our generation.
“We like bite sized pieces that we can digest really easily. And we like them in sequence.” Liu thinks DJ-ing is going to evolve within the next five years—not die. Live performances and DJ-ing will become more popular. Think vocal artists singing while DJs play at their booths onstage as opposed to bands as the accompaniment.
Reid puts on Skrillex. To borrow his words, “It sounds like fucking blenders humping each other.” It gives me anxiety. The sound is like garbled machines, loud and screeching and frenetic.
But for Liu it’s more about the sound composition: “I can honestly listen to this while I fall asleep. I start thinking about it and thinking of how they make the sounds. It relaxes me. The actual sounds hitting my eardrums are pretty stressful. But I guess it’s the thinking about the music that soothes me. I feel like I’ve lost a little bit of the joy of listening to music because I’m just analyzing the sound design and I’m like oh this instrument was like panned to the right.”
I request a song change. Heavy dubstep doesn’t appeal to the soft-drummed masses and I am no exception. Reid plays a mellower tune, Mind from the Jack Ü EP. Liu quietly harmonizes along with the lyrics. He has a great voice. I ask him if he’d ever sing on his own track. “I did once,” he replies. “I definitely was just trying to do Disclosure [a British DJ duo]. It sort of worked out.” He plays it for me and it does indeed smack of the funky, synthpop tracks Disclosure is known for.
“What do you think of popular music right now?” I ask them.
“It’s some of the best produced music out there,” Liu answers.
Why then have so many people been saying that the music industry’s been on the decline and that there’s nothing new anymore?
The ever-analytical Hopkins student pipes up in Reid: “A scientific study’s been done that said that when a specific type of music becomes popular it goes through the process of being dumbed down. There’s a specific formula for it and everyone follows that exact formula. Right now the formula is chill part—or beat part, build, big drop, down part, beat part, build part, and then another drop. Every pop song has a build and then a beat drop.”
Liu nods, acknowledging the spreading musical formula. Electronic Dance Music it seems is the new Rock n’ Roll. The DJ’s EDM is thus not dying but in the infancy of global domination. According to these two, “People are just catching on to this idea.”
Kim & Jerald at The Get Down
The Get Down
701 S Bond St, Baltimore, Maryland 21231
February 27, 2015 10:00pm-2:00am
Sophie Mancini is a New York based writer studying in Baltimore. She enjoys riding ATVs, reading minimalist literature, and eating kimchi.