The Day I Learned To Stop Hating Laptop DJs
How a veteran turntable technician embraced DJ technology
By DJ Rob Swift
The first time I saw someone using a laptop to DJ was around 2001 at a DJ school. The X-Ecutioners had been invited as guests and already the idea of going to a DJ school and people paying to be taught how to DJ tripped me out, because I learned this art form organically on vinyl and turntables.
I learned to DJ by watching my brother and his friends use our dad’s equipment in my living room. There were times when my brother would take me to hooky parties, friends’ birthdays or park jams and I’d watch other people DJ. I was exposed to this very, very organically.
So, there I am at the DJ school where I see a student on a laptop, scratching on a piece of software — the Serato-predecessor called Final Scratch. To me, it was an abomination! It looked all wrong. I felt offended that this student, someone learning how to DJ, was learning on a laptop and not records. I was so offended that I didn’t touch it. I remember thinking that I didn’t even want it near me. I went into another room feeling annoyed.
I don’t recall experimenting with software until Serato came out a few years later. The X-Ecutioners did a tour in 2004 with Z-Trip, Jazzy Jay and Mix Master Mike called Scratch: All the Way Live to promote the documentary Scratch. The X-Ecutioners were performing off straight vinyl at the time. Myself, Roc Raida and Total Eclipse would orchestrate a show, then we would stack our vinyl in the order that we would play certain songs or scratch certain sounds. Before we hit the stage, we would verify that they were all in the correct order.
On that tour, Jazzy Jay had Serato Scratch Live. Now, this was the second time that I’d been exposed to another DJ using a laptop, but this wasn’t a newcomer at a school. This was Jazzy Jay, one of the legendary pioneers who learned under the likes of Afrika Bambaataa! This was the same guy who was on the cassette tapes that my brother would play for me when I was 10 or 11 years old.
When I saw Jazzy Jay using a laptop and turntables, I don’t want to say that I embraced it, but I was more open-minded. If Jazzy Jay was gravitating toward this technology, I thought maybe there was a way to implement it into what I do and still keep the integrity of the craft intact. After all, Jazzy Jay was using Serato, but was playing the same kind of breaks and tunes that I remember him playing on cassette tapes as a kid.
That’s when it hit me that this is just a tool. If I have the right perspective on it, the laptop is a tool for me to play the music that I like; it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to change the style of music that I play. Now I am not taking a piece of vinyl out of the sleeve, I’m accessing the song from a laptop. But at its core, I’m still on turntables and I’m still having to move a control record and lift the needle. At first it was hard for me to accept the idea of using a laptop, but when I saw this guy I respected using it, one of my DJ heroes, I opened myself to it more.
The following year I toured Europe for 10 days with an ex-girlfriend. Although I had opened my mind to the idea that maybe it was okay to use a laptop, I still was standing my ground and championing bringing and using your vinyl on the road. We were traveling together and we would get to the airport and she would check her bags, but I was too scared to check my records, because if they didn’t make it to the show, I was fucked.
I’d lug my records with me on and off the plane, transferring, running to catch flights, running late, planes delayed. That was the most annoying tour, because it’s not like I had roadies carrying my records, it was just me doing it. On that tour I was like, “That’s it. I’m not touring with records anymore. I can’t do it.” It was just too physically taxing. When I got home, I reached out to Rane and asked them to send me Serato Scratch Live.
Now that I have used it for 10 years, I have seen that physically, it’s convenient to not have to lug records around. Financially, I’ve saved money, because when you DJ and tour with records, the records wear. An MP3 doesn’t wear, it’s going to sound the same 10 years from now. No matter how much you scratch on that control record, it will always be crystal clear.
If you go to my record collection in my studio, there are certain records that I have 10, 15 copies of because they wear out from scratching so much or maybe I’m touring somewhere and I may have dropped the record and scratched or cracked it and I literally have to go on an excursion and find that record. With Serato, I download an MP3 once and that’s it. I’ve also saved money on excess baggage fees at the airport because I don’t have to worry about checking flight cases full of records anymore.
From a performance standpoint, it’s great to know that the majority of my record library lives on my laptop. There are times when I have no idea what the crowd or the venue is gonna be like or what kind of music people want to hear, but because I embrace all genres of music I make sure that my work laptop has different genres of music to choose from so I can cater to any crowd. I have Plan A, B, C, D and E all on my laptop. Back in the days when I was traveling with my vinyl, I was limited to however many records that I brought with me to that show. So if they weren’t feeling it then I’d have to suck it up, and it sucks to have to do that to my audience.
There’s a variety of ways that using software and a laptop has made it more fun to DJ, easier to DJ, more economical and more interesting from a creative standpoint. There are things that I can try on a laptop that I can't do on turntables, and obviously vice versa.
With Serato Scratch Live, the software that many DJs use, there are three modes that the user can choose: “Absolute mode” is like you’re using regular records, so you’ll hear skips — if you’re heavy handed and you make the needle jump, the record will skip. With “internal mode” you can play a song internally from the computer, so you can literally take the needle off the record and the song will still play. The mode that I use when I’m performing is “relative mode,” which makes it so that if you’re heavy handed or if you’re at a club or bar DJing and someone is dancing and stomping on the ground near the turntable, your needle may skip and jump, but your audience won’t hear it skip because it jumps on beat.
From a technical standpoint that’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about how convenient it is to use this software. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve DJed parties as a kid before the laptop era and there’d be people breakdancing near the turntables and they’d make the records jump and I’d have to get on the mic and be like, “Yo stop breakdancing near the turntables!”
I’ve heard cassette tapes of legends like Kool Herc telling people, “Don’t dance too close to the turntables!” With Serato, once you set it to relative mode that’s something you don’t have to worry about. Here in New York, I DJ at a club called Pianos where the DJ booth is two or three feet from the dancefloor. I can’t imagine how hard of a time I would have there if I were still using vinyl; it would be a nightmare!
But improved technology has also allowed people to take more shortcuts. As a result, aspiring DJs are missing out on important techniques and skill sets that you’re not going to learn by taking those shortcuts.
A quick example: Serato is currently pushing a new revamp of Serato Scratch Live called Serato DJ, which includes a “sync button” feature. What that means is that you can engage the feature on your laptop and it’ll sync up the beats per minute (BPM) of two records. Let’s say you have one record that’s 90 BPM and another that’s 95, by hitting the sync button the speeds of the two songs are matched — the computer does that for you.
So, theoretically, you think, “Oh wow, this is one less thing that I have to worry about doing as a DJ. I don’t have to worry about teaching my ear and learning how to decipher whether a song is playing too slow or too fast in my headphones because the computer is going to do it for me.”
However, although the software can sync up any two songs for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you now have a knack picking the right two songs to mix. Just because two songs mix together doesn’t necessarily mean that they go together. Things like that kind of give you the illusion that you’re prepared to go play out, when in fact, you still don’t know anything about timing or joining two different songs in a tasteful way.
A computer doesn’t have discretion. A computer doesn’t have any semblance of personality or taste; it just does what it’s programmed to do. But when you’re DJing in front of an audience you’re going off moods and feelings and vibes and energy — and that’s something that a computer cannot do. If you don’t learn how to channel the energy in a room, if you don’t learn how to manage people, how to control a room full of people who wanna hear different things, a sync button is not going to save you. You have to understand how to do that yourself.
There were wack DJs on vinyl before computers, but the culture of DJing has changed. DJing for popularity seems to be more prevalent now than it was when I was coming up among DJs who were using records. If you wanted to be popular before the laptop age as a DJ, there were things that you would have to be willing to do and sacrifice. You’d have to be willing to buy records, and you’d have to be willing to buy equipment. You’d have to be willing to learn how to operate the equipment. Those are things that people who only wanted to DJ for popularity weren’t willing to do.
Take, for example, Paris Hilton: She’s the kind of person who likes to be talked about, likes to be in the public eye. Someone like her in the 90s wouldn’t think to DJ because she’s not going to buy equipment and speakers and amplifiers and RCA jacks and records. She’s not going to invest the kind of energy it takes to be a DJ. But now you can literally DJ from your phone. It doesn’t take the same kind of effort it took before the laptop era, so there are people who think, “Oh, I can DJ this party and get people talking about me.” It may sound weird, but that’s what I think a lot of it is — people using DJing as a crutch, like, “I’ve got nothing going on right now, so I’ll just DJ.”
I think that now because it’s easier to DJ, it’s created this abundance of corniness — I call it a vortex of wackness. Because of this, purists are mad and offended. They want to vent and call it out, but in doing so they’re shining a light on what’s bad instead of promoting what’s good.
People who love the real art say things on social media like, “Why are you liking that? That’s not real DJing.” Or, “You think that’s dope? All she’s doing is this.” Or, “That’s not cool because he’s fooling you! He already pre-recorded his set.”
They say these things instead of saying, “Yo, Mix Master Mike is dope; check him out.” Or, “There’s this guy named Qbert, look at this video.” Or, “Yo, Rob Swift is one of the dopest DJs, you should check out this mix.”
They think they’re helping the culture by talking about what’s wrong to someone who they feel may be ignorant, but what they’re doing is magnifying what’s wack without talking about what they like. Indirectly, they’re minimizing the dope shit.
And that’s just what’s going on now. People are so angry with Paris Hilton and all those celebrity DJs who aren’t talented, don’t know anything about DJing and are getting thousands upon thousands of dollars to play. Take David Guetta: There are videos on YouTube of him playing out but never turning on the CDJs, and people are magnifying that and saying, “Look, look! Here we have the smoking gun. He’s not good, he didn’t even turn his equipment on!”
All that stuff goes viral and everyone talks about it, while the DJ who is being creative and is locking himself or herself in their bedroom hours upon hours a day to create some dope shit isn’t even being acknowledged. I wish that it would change, but it seems that’s the culture we live in.
Here’s what I think we can do to combat the vortex of wackness: Share names, talk and promote what you feel is good about the art and craft of DJing! If I come across a post on my Facebook page of a DJ whose wires aren't connected, in that timeline I’ll post a video of a DJ killing it on the turntables to kind of offset that image.
When I was coming up we’d only focus on what was dope, and I feel like that’s why I became as good as I was — I channeled my energy into the heroes and pioneers of this craft. I knew of the guys who weren’t good, but you just don’t focus on that, you don’t pay attention to that and you soak up what is good.
My students at the New School University are currently working on their finals, where they have to do a 10-minute set of music they like. I have this one student who came up to me today, his name is Jonas and he can’t be older than 20 — he’s from the laptop generation. He said, “Hey Rob, I was on YouTube watching some of your videos and could you teach me how to do those breakdowns?” Yo, I felt like hugging him. It was so dope because I expect my students to learn three basic skills throughout the semester, which is mixing, scratching and backspinning — just repeating a word over and over again.
I show them beat juggling to demonstrate how if you combine those skills the right way it’ll eventually bring you to this other level of DJing. I show them videos throughout the semester, but I don’t push it on them because it’s an intro course and there’s only so much they’re going to soak up in a semester.
But he came up to me and said, “Can you teach me how to do juggles? I wanna do it in my final.” So dope! And I sat there with him while everyone was working on their finals. We went over the juggles and he stayed there for the entire class time and not once did he do anything but master that juggle that I taught him. By the end of the class he learned how to do it. Sometimes we give the younger generation a bad rap for using laptops and taking the easy way out, but if you expose them to the blueprint of this art, they’ll gravitate to it and embrace it. But you’ve gotta expose them to it.
I could be like, “This guy is wack, that guy is wack,” but if I don’t tell them what’s dope they won’t know what to gravitate to instead. If I had spent the whole semester just bitching about what’s wrong in DJing, I don’t know if he would have been moved to look at my YouTube page and see what else I do beyond what I’ve been teaching.
So there’s a lot of hope. Technology isn’t the problem, it’s how we use the technology. It’s the perspective that we have on the technology. When I started incorporate laptops into my DJing, it didn’t make me worse, it made me a better DJ because I have a certain perspective on technology which is I’m going to dictate how I use it. If you have that perspective and approach to anything, then the potential that you can tap into as an artist is unlimited. It’s about the mind behind the technology, not the technology itself.
I’m really thankful that I came up in the era that I did because I’ve developed the necessary instincts to understand how to play music using my ear and my spirit and my soul. I can still incorporate a laptop, but I don’t use it as a crutch. For me, software like Serato is just a means to not having to lug crates of records. My crate of 50 records is now a virtual crate on a thin laptop, but once I hit shift-left and it’s playing on the left turntable and once I hit shift-right and it’s playing on the right turntable, my focus is back on the turntables. The laptop dictate doesn’t dictate anything to me. It’s me and my turntables.
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Questlove and other obsessive record collectors are chronicled in Eilon Paz’s Dust & Grooves, a photography and…medium.com
Special Thanks to Tamara Palmer