Local DJs weigh in on the scene in Eugene.
by Claire Staley
This April marks the first anniversary of the opening of Cowfish, the newest addition to Eugene’s fledgling club scene. The progressively modern space was immediately accepted into downtown’s “Barmuda Triangle” as an alternative to grimy dives (John Henry’s) and dimly-lit hipster hotspots (Jameson’s), instead providing a long white bar illuminated by a large fish tank containing the club’s namesake and, more importantly, a well-stocked DJ booth that rises above a lively dance floor. Since its opening, Cowfish has expanded its weekly parties and now hosts events every day of the week, providing a space for local DJs to explore their particular sounds in a town that’s previously struggled to establish a club identity.
“There’s a pretty diverse scene here,” says Cowfish owner/DJ Shawn Mediaclast. “There’s a lot of spirit behind it; it’s pretty well-tended.” Mediaclast, a Bronx native, DJs a few nights a week at his club, spinning heavy doses of electro and house. Unlike many DJs around town, Mediaclast exclusively jockeys discs—as in, he plays all vinyl records, manually mixing and blending tracks. “There’s a certain simplicity to DJing with vinyl,” he says, though he mentions that if he had the time or the money, he’d be willing to introduce digital interfaces like Serato or Ableton (see sidebar) into the mix as an auxiliary method. He shies away somewhat from relying on digital mediums, preferring the more hands-on method of digging through record crates rather than scrolling through mp3s. “There’s a lot of stuff you can’t download, or vice versa,” he says. Hundreds of albums aren’t available in digital forms, which prevents DJs who confine themselves to programs like Traktor from using them. Conversely, records have a tendency to go out of print, which is a restriction on all-vinyl DJs. “A lot of the music I started to get into was only released digitally, or at least really hard to cop on vinyl in this part of the country,” explains Eric “yoHuckleberry” Lake, a former University of Oregon student who currently lives and DJs in Portland. “I play a lot more songs in my sets. I often make my own edits or blends in Ableton that say, might just have the chorus and one verse, then an extend intro. When I played primarily with vinyl, I often had to play out a track to wait for an outro to mix.”
DJing by definition implies the use of records, and its concurrent growth with the birth of hip-hop relied on the plastic discs, but the development of digital programs and interfaces has changed the name of the game. “I think the technology is changing, and it’s hurting DJing,” says Andy “Sassy Mouff” Connell, part of the DJ crew Tagbak Recs and a weekly resident at Cowfish. “Serato is a crutch, you know? You can mix songs faster, and you can do multiple styles faster, but I just try to use it as a tool.” Connell’s main rig includes a pair of Technics 1200 MK5 turntables and a two-channel Pioneer mixer, along with a MacBook hooked up with the audio interface Serato. “With Ableton and Traktor…anybody with a MacBook Pro can get those programs for free through a torrent or something, and a week a later they’re club DJs,” he says. “They don’t go through the process, they don’t have to go through the house party circuit.”
As a promoter for Tagbak, Connell has attempted to bring more mid-level DJ acts to Eugene, and the results have left him with a more pessimistic view on Eugene’s club scene than Mediaclast’s. Most recent was an appearance of Jason Stewart, aka Them Jeans, an L.A. DJ signed to Dim Mak. Despite a bigger-than-usual name pasted on the flier, and backed with Dim Mak’s association with popular club DJ Steve Aoki, the draw to the District was somewhat characteristically disappointing, and Tagbak ended up losing money in the venture.
Eugenians are accustomed to going out and treating the DJ like a juke box, Connell says, expecting to hear what they want to hear, when they want to hear it. “I don’t think Eugene has a club scene at all,” he says. “The whole point of bringing these mid-level DJs is to kind of introduce people to what good DJs are and what good taste-making DJs are.” Though he realizes that part of a DJ’s job is pandering to audience tastes, he wishes that he had more options when spinning. “In Eugene, I played a ton of frat parties and at college bars. That scene comes with a certain ‘market’ that wants to hear sloppy, often cheesy music to drink, dance, and hook up to,” says Lake.
Tagbak’s next event is Mad Decent’s Paul Devro, and Connell says he now realizes that they’ll have to be more heavy-handed with promotion. “I honestly thought the name would’ve been a big enough draw,” he says. “I was wrong.” Once he recovers from the losses from the Them Jeans disaster, he hopes to continue bringing DJs to town. “Scottie B has expressed interest in coming here, which is really cool,” he says. “We just need the money.”
Both Connell’s and Lake’s complaints stem from a nightlife that’s largely defined by the college crowd, who flock to bars on campus and downtown on the weekends to drink away everything they learned in the University’s lecture halls. Most bars in town offer a juke box for their musically-inclined clientele, and at places likes Rennie’s Landing, the Horsehead Tavern, and the Jackalope Lounge, classic rock and ‘80s hits are the standard fare. When it comes to the handful of establishments that try to offer live music (Davis’ Restaurant, the District and Cowfish), the standard formula is a healthy dose of Top 40 pop and hip-hop hits, some vintage R&B (think R. Kelly in his hey-day), and classic throwbacks, which are popular with crowds, but predictable to those who’ve figured out the formula and aren’t particularly fond of it. There’s little variety in dance or club music in town, and some members of the growing number of local DJs are fed up.
Ryan “Pizza P” Lytle has a similar outlook on Eugene’s circuit. When asked how the scene is evolving, he takes a lengthy pause. “Good question,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know. It’s just centric to, like, the college life. I think it’s too easy to play it safe, just play the staples. It’s a lot of pandering to the town.” Lytle, a member of the DJ consortium Mean Mug Crew and a staple on the Greek circuit, has a similar set-up and style to both Connell and fellow Mean Mugger Lake, and also mirrors frustration with the lack of creativity in sets around town. “If you really care about it…I don’t know, you really have to dig through a lot of music you don’t like in order to come to a medium between what you’re excited about and what people want to hear,” he says. “I feel accountable up there, I want to respect my own tastes. Not that they’re better than other people, but I want to be engaged.”
Also like Connell, Lytle spins on Technics 1200s and uses Serato. “It’s really not about lugging crates around,” he says about his use of the digital interface. “Serato gives me the opportunity to carry around, I don’t know, 40,000 songs. The depth you can have in your library—it’s so easy to have this free association in your head while you’re spinning.”
It’s not all dissatisfaction, though. Lytle enjoys playing at Greek functions, and spins at sorority parties often. It puts some cash in his pocket and gets his name on some fliers, which is the best he’s aiming for right now. Currently a University of Oregon student, he plans on transferring to Portland State next term to study business management, and hopes to one day open his own club.
Even Mediaclast, who’s patently more optimistic about Eugene’s club music scene, has noticed the trends cited by Connell and Lytle. “There is a trend towards Top 40 and Top 40 hip-hop,” he says, and Cowfish’s biggest nights contain a healthy mix of both. But he seems pretty satisfied in the niche he’s carved out on Broadway, and is focused on making his club continue to succeed. “You have to find things that are viable with the business model, with what people want,” he says. “There’s not a lot room to play right now. I’m going with what works.” And, despite the cynicism exuded by some young local DJs, the scene seems to be picking up. It’s hard to distract a town so used to tradition (80’s Night at John Henry’s has long been the weekly staple for people wanting to hit the dance floor), but the continued success of Cowfish and attempts to diversify the scene from people like Connell, Eugene’s nightlife seems to be in flux.
DJ KICKS: A PRIMER IN THE GOOD WORD ON SPINNING THE DOPE BEATS
Mix Master Mike, DJ to the Beastie Boys.
Back in “the day”, the term “DJ” referred exclusively to those who jockeyed discs—whether on the radio or playing for an audience. During the beginning days of hip-hop in the early ‘70s, experimentation with records started to develop, with DJs using two turntables bridged by a mixer in order to manipulate sounds and beats. The DJs used the cross-fader on the mixer to blend or switch between the two platters, speeding or slowing the records in order to match or juggle beats, sometimes moving the record back and forth, scratching the needle. All of these methods produced new sounds from analog records. The term “turntablism” was coined in the ‘90s to differentiate between those who simply played records and those who manipulated records in order to produce new songs.
However, as we’ve progressed towards an increasingly digital age, emerging technologies have disrupted the traditional definition of a disc jockey. Various computer software and digital interfaces now allow people to mix music live without ever having set eyes on a record. This is controversial in some circles; many people consider themselves purists, and are dedicated to the original methods of manipulating vinyl. Controversial or not, the reality of modern jockeying involves more than the previous industry standards (vinyl DJs despair: Technics halted production of their famous SL-1200 line of turntables in 2010). Here’s a crash course in what goes on in DJ booths around the world.
TWO TURNTABLES AND A MI…XER
First, let’s kick it old school and cover the original—the “O.G.” method, if you will. Two turntables are set either facing the DJ, with the arms on the sides, or “battle style,” where the tables are turned until the arms are on the far side (scratch DJs tend to spin battle style to avoid hitting the arm and bumping the record while doing tricks).
Both are plugged into a mixer, set either in between or to the left of the “decks.” The DJ uses head phones to listen to both channels, and manipulates the records to blend and mix the records. Using a cross-fader, the DJ can quickly (or slowly) jump from record to record. The pitch control on the turntable adjusts the speed of the record to allow for beat matching or juggling. Scratching is performed by moving the record back and forth to mix or produce beats.
Here’s the next step down the road to digital DJ’ing (and also where things get a little messed up with jargon: DJs constantly refer to “Serato” but what they really mean is Scratch Live—Serato is the New Zealand-based company that produces the vinyl emulation software Scratch Live). Scratch Live is an audio interface that’s plugged into the mixer, and then into a laptop, where everything is controlled with software.
Serato hooked up with computer and turntables.
The DJ can select mp3s off the hard drive of the computer, and manipulate them via the records, just as a vinyl-exclusive DJ might—basically the DJ has access to every song on their hard drive and can treat them just like they’re records (though the physical response is different; mixing with Scratch Live isn’t as sensitive as spinning only a record). The bells and whistles don’t end there, either. Scratch Live also includes optional features like sound effects, filters, compressors and automatic beat matching. Mixing using Scratch Live can be done exclusively on the computer, or via an mp3 controller, or via…
Now that we have a basic grasp on the physical manipulation on records, the concept of a CDJ shouldn’t be difficult. Some DJs use these alone or in conjunction with Scratch Live. They look like a small turntable, and they’re designed to emulate mixing on vinyl—CDs are manipulated physical just as a record would be. The advantage to CDJs is obviously transportability: a CD wallet is much, much lighter than crates of records.
A model of CDJ by Pioneer.
Here’s where we father along the path towards exclusively digital DJs. Released in 2000, Traktor is a software package, originally made to be used for mixing solely on a computer, though they’ve released a version that’s similar to Scratch Live and can be used in tandem with a turntable or CDJ for manual manipulation. Traktor has more options for beat matching and layering, facilitating mixing by letting the software detect beats per minute, and allows for looping, effects, and layering up to four sound sources that can be individually altered.
Yet another software package, useful not only for DJing, but also for production (and available for a free 30 day trial, if you feel like pursuing your club career for a month). It offers controls for beat matching and cross-fading to imitate the work of vinyl DJs, as well as a built-in drum sequencer and sampler, allowing DJs to import songs, manipulate them with filters, effects or envelopes, and use them quickly and easily later on. Ableton Live isn’t designed to be used with an outside trigger, and is purely a software program. Its user friendliness makes many aspects of turntablism accessible to people without any skills in the area—in a few hours, almost anybody can learn how to mix live or produce tracks on the fly. This easiness encourages newcomers to learn mixing and production, but is disparaged by some, who see it as a crutch to becoming a DJ or producer without as much effort.
And there you have it. Now you have some idea what that person with the headphones is doing up in the booth.