Scratching a living

DJing seems so left-field it's surprising there are so many college courses available in it. Marcus Freed cues up a few of the success stories

"The guys say that it's really sexy to see a woman behind the decks," says Helen James. "I've been watching my friends on the dance scene for the last eight years, but now it's my time. I'm going to become a full-time DJ."

"The guys say that it's really sexy to see a woman behind the decks," says Helen James. "I've been watching my friends on the dance scene for the last eight years, but now it's my time. I'm going to become a full-time DJ."

There is no need for frustrated DJs to be stuck in their bedroom pretending to be spinning their wheels of steel for dancing clubgoers. Dance music production, DJ techniques and nightclub promotion are being taught on accredited courses and students are being propelled straight into the nightclub scene. "It makes so much sense," explains Helen, a 23-year-old graduate of Manchester University. "Going into the lessons and learning through a curriculum helped me to understand the art of DJ`ing. It's exactly what I need."

Helen has recently completed the six-month DJ Academy course at the School of Sound Recording in Manchester, which aims to provide students with all of the skills necessary to create a club night, ranging from essential deck skills to understanding the nuances of marketing an event. "The course atmosphere is laid-back," says the DJ Academy manager Charlie Morrison, "but these people are working hard. You get a certain kind of DJ who'll want to take extra lessons to learn their trade, and our aim is to help them." The school is based close to Manchester's clubland and uses its proximity to expose its students to the local scene. "We have good connections," explains Morrison, "and we get top-end guys who go on to set up their own nights. I consider that a success, especially in Manchester, where there is a lot of competition."

City & Guilds are proud of these courses that extend the skills of the nightclub to a wider audience and provide employable skills for people keen to join a potentially lucrative industry. There are public establishments that offer courses relating to dance music, but, according to City & Guilds, "the private organisations are more focused on the particular industry."

This is certainly true of Deep Recording Studios, a Shepherd's Bush-based company that offers fully funded courses in sound recording, music technology and DJ radio technology. It is able to offer totally free access to the unemployed, and offers these subsidised places through Kensington and Chelsea Further Education College.

"We're not education orientated, we're industry orientated," explains the studio manager, Mark Rose, in a brisk-but- helpful manner reminiscent of a mix between a nightclub doorman and a university tutor. "There are HE and FE partnerships to our course, and colleges have been wise enough to come for a partnership with the experts rather than pretending that they have the expertise to teach the subject in their college."

Deep bases its approach on an old-style apprenticeship whereby novices are paired with industry veterans who give them the rare opportunity to learn under experienced tutelage. "We're like an audio boot-camp," explains Rose. "It's a bit of an eye-opener. A lot of people get a quite a shock at the success rate within the industry, but it's there."

Rose explains that his successes are due to Deep Recording Studios' non-curriculum approach to the subject, refusing to take a blanket approach to teaching DJs. "We're very good with picking up people and turning them around. We can take the most unworkable student and work with them. We don't pigeonhole people and we're getting some of the best results and retention rates within the UK."

One of the biggest recent successes in dance music has come out of Manchester's City College, which offers courses in sound recording and music technology. The breakbeat artist Introspective, aka Mike Hulme, studied for an HND in music technology at the college and later reached No 1 in the Sony PlayStation charts with his tune "Pleasant Experience".

"This has been a really mindblowing time for me," says Hulme. "It's been great fun, but hard work. My tutors have been really supportive, advising me on the ways of the industry, plus there's the technology here to really experiment with music."

This raw enthusiasm is echoed by Steven King, an 18-year-old Mancunian contemporary who graduated recently from the School of Sound Recording, and was described by a fellow student as "by far the best DJ in town". King performs under the nom de guerre of Widow, along with his crew of rappers and producers, The Uncrowned Kings, and has enjoyed regular exposure at underground parties and pirate radio stations. Despite his streetwise image, King credits the DJ lessons with giving him the tools to progress his career. "The course was very helpful. I've got my decks at home so I was practising hard, but they teach you the basic skills and that's what you need."

His talents lie in scratching, and his ambitions are on a global scale. "Within the next three years, I want to have won the world championships in the scratch competition."

The Australian Mike Townsend was attracted to the same course, and is currently studying music production. He is a civil engineer from Adelaide who visited England to see Oasis play at the Old Trafford cricket ground, and never went home. This turntable wizard of Oz initially joined the DJ academy for personal enjoyment but now runs a regular club night called Fraternity.

"I never thought I'd be interested in producing music, but I've now started studying on the music production course. I see the club night as a vehicle to help me eventually end up in the music industry full-time, which would be more interesting than my current job in construction!"

The 28-year-old Townsend, who donates 10 per cent of the door takings on every club night to the RSPCA, did not match my typical expectations of a player in the underground music scene. Perhaps that is because the range of institutions offering dance music-related courses has opened the profession to a much wider range of people who would otherwise be stuck in bedrooms practising with vinyl records.

DJ H, the aforementioned Helen James, finds the prospect extremely exciting. "The one thing this course has done for me is show me that it is all possible. I used to go clubbing and look at the DJs with awe, but on this course they have shown me that it's just a case of working hard, promoting yourself well, and there's no reason why there should be any limitations." The girls are in town - and they are coming up to scratch.

Deep Recording Studios: 020-8964 8256; course information from 020-7573 3600;

School of Sound Recording: 0161-228 3072; City College Manchester: 0800 013 0123;

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