Get into the groove: how I learnt to mix it with the best

Spinning the vinyl isn't as easy as it looks. In fact, it requires a surprising amount of skill. Peter Chapman learns the art of dropping the beat on a special training course for aspiring DJs

When I was a teenager, DJs had a weakness for beards and sparkly tank tops. Apart from John Peel, music was their job rather than their passion. They were deeply irritating, addicted to sunbeds, adept only at talking over records and telling dodgy jokes.

When I was a teenager, DJs had a weakness for beards and sparkly tank tops. Apart from John Peel, music was their job rather than their passion. They were deeply irritating, addicted to sunbeds, adept only at talking over records and telling dodgy jokes.

So, when the call came to attend a DJ-ing course, I was already wondering where the hell I was going to lay my hands on a medallion. Then I realised they meant, like, modern DJ-ing, like in a club in Ibiza packed with a couple of thousand young hedonists.

Having passed 40, you're allowed to indulge your prejudices. It's the law. So - first - how the hell did DJs turn into these God-like figures of desire, jetting around the world, earning large wedges of cash for a couple of hours' work? And - second - why is every record they play almost identical? Slipping into the Subbass DJ Academy in Limehouse, east London, I decided not to share my feelings immediately with the course director and professional DJ Graeme Lloyd. "Originally, I trained as a dancer," said the svelte Graeme. "I performed with the English National Ballet, danced on Top of the Pops and alongside groups like Boyzone and Steps. I've been DJ-ing for the past seven years, and have played sets at places like Turnmills, Pacha and The Cross.

"When I was trying to learn how to do it, there wasn't much help out there, so setting up my own courses seemed like a good idea. The Academy's been up and running for two years. We get a lot of lawyers, and city professionals, loads of Aussies, South Africans, most of them in their late 20s or early 30s, although there's no age limit.

"We take absolute beginners on our weekend courses, or, if they prefer, they can come on two midweek nights after work for three consecutive weeks. We also run courses for the more advanced students.

"The idea is to create a relaxed, social environment. Unlike some set-ups, we take a maximum of four students on any course. And all the tutors, including the likes of Lisa German and Jon Blond, are professional DJs. We start off gently - usually we get people to share their clubbing experiences."

Now, I didn't really have any clubbing experiences to share, unless you include the almost legendary booty dance I performed to the music of Barry White at a variety of discotheques across Sussex during the late 1970s. Still, I was warming to the idea of myself as a more mature DJ love-god. Of course, I'd need to change my name. I could call myself Average Build, or Mister P.

Graeme was quick to set me straight: "Urban DJs, the ones that play garage and hip-hop, are more likely to adopt a new name. We play house, which is funkier, less staccato and, although some house DJs do have a professional name, I don't bother."

It seemed a shame, but anyway we were soon deep into our subject, with Graeme explaining that all house music is set to a 4/4 rhythm, ie four beats to a bar. This shared structure apparently offered considerable possibilities for the DJ when it comes to mixing. Sensing that I was glazing over, Graeme took me around behind the decks, or the Technics 1210s, as we like to refer to them in the business. Soon enough, he had one record thumping away as he set the other one up using his headphones in that classic lopsided pose. While one ear was checking the music emerging out of the speakers, the other was covered by one of the 'phones as he cued up the second record.

What was immediately apparent was Graeme's confidence, his relaxed concentration as he mixed two different sets of music. He quickly entered a world of his own, and the results were, I had to admit, pretty impressive. The second record came in right on the money, forming some sort of excellently rhythmic hybrid. "The first thing I'm going to teach you is how to drop the beat," he said. "As I said, all house music is all set to a 4/4 rhythm, but you have to cue up the second piece of music so it comes in on the first beat of a bar. If you can do that then it'll all be OK as I've already pitch-matched them."

I must have looked particularly gormless, because he went on to explain: "Pitch-matching is the Holy Grail of DJ-ing. Yes, the records are in the same rhythm, but one may contain 128 beats a minute, the other 132, which means that you can drop the beat perfectly but they'll then move away from each other as one is literally a faster piece of music. By using the pitch adjustor you can synchronise the speeds."

Now, it was my turn. So, I found the first beat of the record, dragging it forwards and back with my fingertips and tried to drop it in. OK, Graeme helped a lot, he counted me in, but after two failures, I got it - third time lucky. Sounds silly, but it was a really good feeling. And because they were travelling at the same speed on the same beat, the two records seemed ebb and flow in tandem, creating something brand new. By now Graeme and I were nodding our heads in unison behind the decks.

All too soon my introduction was over, but I have to put my hands up and admit, OK, I'd been wrong. DJ-ing requires talent. It's pretty much akin to playing an instrument - it involves a degree of technical expertise and, more importantly, a feel for music. Graeme didn't come right out and pronounce me a genius, but there was something in his body language that suggested I had promise.

So, as you wander about the world, keep your eyes peeled for fly posters advertising a new kid on the block - DJ Mister P and his hot rocking beats.

Weekend courses cost £300. Midweek courses run Wednesday and Thursday nights for three consecutive weeks and cost £400. If you join the Subbass forum you get a 10 per cent discount. Call 020-7790 8398 or visit www.subbassdj.com.

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