If my childhood self could pick a mission statement, it would probably be, “What does this button do?” I was hardwired to engage in dumb experiments and deal with the consequences later. My teenage brain was constantly tormented by questions that had no real-life value. A sampling: “If I hold this tree branch and jump off this garage roof, will I land like a video game?” and “Can you pierce a nostril with a piercing gun?” The only sensible answer was always, “We should find out immediately.”
In retrospect, I had a burning sense of curiosity, coupled with a healthy disdain for the status quo. These qualities would ultimately help me forge my own path, and the lightning rod turned out to be an obscure DJ battle in a small Ohio city.
For most artists, I’m not sure that a singular moment of life-changing realization exists. It’s more often a composite of a lot of smaller moments, in the aggregate. They all act like tiny little reminders, repeatedly saying, “I told you this is what you should be doing.”
This is the story of one of those moments.
In the mid-late 90s I was an aspiring DJ (who had just gotten a sampler but didn’t know how to use it fully yet) who still held onto some misplaced hope that there was a future for a scratch-oriented DJ — for someone obsessed with the technical manipulation of vinyl on turntables, but who couldn’t make a beat, let alone a song. I had studied all the DJs who I held in high regard with a microscope up to that point, and put in every waking hour for years trying to be a good battle DJ.
Each year, my hometown of Columbus hosted the “Ohio Hip-Hop Expo,” held at the convention center downtown. It featured battles for B-boys, DJs and MCs; the winners in each category got the only thing worth much in the scene at that time — local notoriety.
I decided to enter the DJ competition in 1997. I had worked up my little routine, timed it out to make sure I didn’t go over three minutes, and rehearsed it for weeks beforehand. I distinctly remember being fully freaked out when my name was called. I had never done anything in front of 300 people in my life, much less a thing that could very likely elicit boos and laughter. I wasn’t getting paid, even if I won — so why the hell was I here again?
It seemed like a good idea that day to wear my ’77 Parliament tour shirt in all its raggedly glory, some hand-me-down bullshit pants and shoes. The crowd looked like they came straight from the mall. I was definitely the outsider. Shortly before being given the green light by the battle host, I vividly recall someone right in front of me saying, “Duuuuude, are you gonna play some Slayer?”
At that time, white dudes at a hip-hop event were rare enough to be a novelty. The heckling had already started, but hey, I had to stick with the recklessness that had always characterized me: “I’m already here, can’t back down now!”
I got into my routine, which I had planned as beat juggling/nerdy-DJ-trickery based off of mostly disco/funk breaks — Rhythm Heritage’s “Theme From SWAT,” a flip of the “Smoke on the Water” riff, and some ending cut up using Gene Wilder’s dialogue from the Willy Wonka movie, specifically the clip where he says, “You lose! You get nothing! Good day sir!”
I was easily the most unconventional contestant of the day, by far — all the other routines were using the newest rap singles such as Run DMC’s “Peter Piper.” But, much to my surprise, the crowd loved it — I had won the room over in three minutes flat. I don’t remember much of the rest of the actual battle for some reason, but I do recall the surprise of being voted 1st place by the judges.
I was shocked. In that tiny little corner of that culture on that day, I had made a name for myself. It felt good, but I still didn’t feel… welcomed. One of my more stark memories of that day was of one of Columbus’ most established DJs talking loudly in the hallway afterwards about wanting to whip my ass.
The significance of that day for me lies not in any congratulatory, pat-on-the-back ego stroking, but more that it was a composite of a bunch of smaller realizations. The most obvious one is that it was the first time I made a causal link between practice and results, as it pertains to music. I worked towards a goal, and this particular time, the work paid off.
My experience of feeling like an outsider was an intrinsic part of that day. I was competing against a bunch of guys who just weren’t into my style of DJing. Was I technically superior to everyone who entered? Not by any considerable margin; there were better scratch DJs that day. I was just less interested in adhering to the status quo, and therefore more willing to take a risk.
This has manifested itself in so many ways throughout my career, but that day was the first time I can remember feeling like I was in such stark contrast with my peer set. I also realized that I got some particular kind of satisfaction from not running with the pack.
I know it has gotten easier for me to follow my own path since that day almost 20 years ago. There are countless decisions I’ve made in my career that had very plausible “you probably shouldn’t do that” arguments against them, and still, through sheer curiosity or recklessness, I forged ahead. Without many of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today; that day was a harbinger for me.
Illustrations by Thoka Maer