THE MISSION: LEARNING TO BE A SCRATCH DJ

Will Smith Mission.JPG

Club DJ-ing can’t be that hard, can it? Will Smith takes a class with DJ Daredevil...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009

“You’ll be rubbish.” That’s what my oldest friend said when he heard that I was having a go at scratch DJ-ing. Fair enough. Ask most people I know what I’d be better at than DJ-ing, and they would probably say cage-fighting. But I have as my teacher DJ Daredevil (real name Ben), a world scratching championship finalist. After a couple of lessons, the plan is to guest DJ at his club night in a London bar. Can I pull this off? Or is it like thinking you can do a space walk after spending one afternoon on a trampoline?

I grasp how the decks work pretty quickly. There are two turntables and a crossfader that lets you play two records at once: you push the fader to the left or right so that one deck plays while you change the record on the other. But the artistic side is more tricky, as I’m not that familiar with hip-hop or dance music. I quite like disco, but now is perhaps not the time to confess my sincere belief that Boney M’s “Nightflight to Venus” is a terrific album.

After quitting accountancy, Daredevil now DJs full-time. He’d have made a dreadful accountant. You can’t go through your VAT return with someone tapping out beats on their calculator. He’s a great teacher, which is lucky because my knowledge of scratching is much like my dad’s. We start with DJ Q Bert’s “Super Seal Breaks”, an album of samples and beats that, apparently, everyone should have—it’s the “Queen’s Greatest Hits” of scratching. Ben gets me doing “baby scratches”—basic back-and-forth movements. I feel great, but this is only the equivalent of chord-free strumming on a guitar.

Next he gets me to play a sampled voice saying “fresh”, then drag the record back, mute the sound with the crossfader, and let the “fresh” sample play again. My rhythm is like a shed door slamming in the wind, but I soon tighten up. Ben tells me what I’ve picked up in an hour took him months to learn. Visions descend of my 2010 world championship victory. My name is DJ Sauron, and the centres of my records are adorned with a flaming eye.

But there’s a reason why Ben took so long to learn: there were no teachers. He endlessly paused and rewound import videos to study the DJs’ hands. He probably spent as much time watching them as I did watching “Where Eag­les Dare”, but with cooler results. My dreams are further dashed when I try rapidly tapping the crossfader on and off to produce “transform scratch”, named after the sound of a Transformer transforming. My first attempt sounds like a loser on “Robot Wars”.

In due course I head to the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane. I’m nervous. It’s one thing getting scratches right in Ben’s flat, another doing it in front of a paying crowd. I have visions of being told I suck by aggressive young men. I’ve tried to dress to blend in—jeans and hooded top. I wanted a baseball cap but the only one to hand was emblazoned with “Genesis—Turn It On Again Tour”. That’s not a hat, it’s a target.

The bar is a converted brewery with graffiti on its bare walls. Panic is setting in: my scratching skills are like my German. Will baby scratches (asking for a room in a Gasthof) and transform scratches (enquiring about trains to Dusseldorf) get me through an hour rocking the house (reading Thomas Mann in the original)? But when I look around, the clientele is all young professionals, the type to ask the manager for a refund, not throw a glass at him. And they’re all at the bar, chatting. Where are the pumping hands, the glowsticks? Ben explains that later everyone will be dancing, but right now they’re “just chilling”. I’m filling what stand-up comics call “the girl slot”.

Time to go on—not, for some reason, up on a podi­um surrounded by adoring figures in tiny bikinis, but in a dark cubbyhole behind the dancefloor. I peer out at the crowd and add baby scratches to Redman’s “Funkorama”. This seems to go well, in that no one physically pulls me from the decks. So I add some transforms. I’m getting into it. DJ Sauron is storming Gondor.

Ten minutes in, and Ben, Alfred Brendel to my Les Dawson, says he’ll take over. Any disappointment is swamped by relief. Not one chilled spectator so much as turned round from their drink. I sounded like someone who knew what they were doing. Maybe I do have hidden talents after all. But don’t book that cage-fight just yet.

Will Smith is a writer and actor who appeared in "In the Loop". Previous missions include tank-driving, falconry, ice-sculpting and learning to be a statue.

Picture credit: David Yeo