Vote or die.
I experienced the art of deejaying last night in Miami. Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots was the teacher and we were all his students during the relatively quiet start of the annual Winter Music Conference. Unlike South Beach, where the electronic dance music is aimed to numb your senses into a rhythmic stupor—whether or not you’ve already been sedated by drugs and alcohol—the scene at Bardot in the design district was more laid back. After two hours studying ?uestlove’s playlist, his scratches, and sonic reinterpretation of rap, soul, and pop records we’ve come to expect as the standard of nightlife soundtracks, I took away more than just three drinks and a brief ringing in my ear. No matter how long I’ve been deejaying, I can always learn something by observing another master at work.
Anticipation has been building for ?uestlove’s annual appearance at WMC since ?uestlove and The Roots accompanied Jimmy Fallon to their new 11:30PM time slot on NBC’s The Tonight Show last month. This WMC gig marks another turning point for ?uesto similar to his event in 2009 when The Roots were about to make their television debut as the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. A party at New York City’s (Le) Poisson Rouge in February 2009 celebrated The Roots’ latest accomplishment. Amongst The Roots’ accolades as one of the greatest bands of all time, ?uestlove as a DJ fits in somewhere amongst the top tier of musicians known to get busy on turntables: i.e. Q-Tip, Mark Ronson, and Jermaine Dupri.
Of the many parties I’ve attended with ?uest as the DJ, none have been the same. The playlist always changes, and nothing is predictable. His sequence of songs like “Are You Gonna Go My Way” by Lenny Kravitz, followed by Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and then Salt-N-Pepa “Push It” has been done before but not with a ?uestlove twist. Using the sound effects on his mixer like echo, flanger, and killing the hi, low, and mid track levels all change the flavor of the songs similar to how a chef could experiment with tuna salad or a bowl of spaghetti. I was stuck on ?uestlove’s every move like I was the pick in his afro. Before his DJ set began, I saw him and his security guard walk to the sound engineer’s booth across from the DJ booth for a chat. I imagine they discussed equalizing the sound system, which was top notch in my opinion. Bardot was like Miami’s version of New York’s now shuttered APT nightclub, decorated with Cielo’s acoustics. Every record was so clear no matter how new or old. It didn’t sound like ?uestlove or the engineer needed to adjust the levels as he played Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” followed by the theme song from Sesame Street. Not only does ?uestlove carry the versatility of The Roots, who can back Jay Z, Erykah Badu, or Elvis Costello, but he shows the audience how clever the DJ can get as a one-man band. Cuing the Harlem Globetrotter’s whistle-driven theme song, the title track to Happy Days, and Pharrell Williams “Happy” one after the other is just smart. And naturally, he doesn’t play every song in full. That would be sacrilegious to do so if you’ve ever worshiped the quick-play technique of Kid Capri.
I have already seen ?uestlove deejay his own album release party for Game Theory (2006), a Halloween party a couple of years later at Hiro Ballroom, and even a random event at the Thompson Hotel way back when Motorola 2-way pagers were on their way out of style… mine was on its way to the floor of a NYC Taxi Cab within weeks of said event. Before last night, I heard him spin at his weekly party at Brooklyn Bowl, and at an art party hosted by Sacha Jenkins “SHR”, featuring DJ Soul, and Adam Yauch of Beastie Boys. That said, I didn’t really need to come all the way to Winter Music Conference to see ?uestlove spin because I have all of these old memories. After 15 years of deejaying, I’m still a student of the game. So much of deejaying is based on shadowing other DJs to be able to imitate their moves, and hopefully develop your own style. Next time you pay someone hundreds of dollars to teach you how to DJ, consider going to see a real DJ up close and personal for cheap.