With a record-collecting father and a Studio 54-era disco queen mother, DJ Chucky Brown had a musically rich childhood. Originally an NYC native, he frequented fixtures of the early '90s dance scene such as the Paladium and Danceteria, and began his DJ career by leveraging the vast collection of vinyl assembled by him and his father. In 1999, Brown moved out to San Francisco and quickly became a resident DJ at clubs like Suite 181, while also taking gigs in Miami and Las Vegas. Now approaching 17 years as a DJ, Brown launched his Art of DJing classes, complete with lectures and a focus on learning to DJ on turntables instead of a computer. We spoke with Chucky Brown about his record collection, what a typical Art of DJing lesson looks like, and his latest parties. He plays Monroe this Saturday with local DJ Kool Karlo.
Tell us a little about your 'Art of DJing' classes. Why did you decide to start teaching a DJ class?
Unlike acting, football, painting, photography, or playing guitar, they don't teach Djing in high school, yet DJing is considered a "craft." It is rich in history and there are many subtle techniques that need to be learned. Back in 2007, after collecting records for 24 years and making a living off of DJing for 12 years, I wanted to share some of my experiences as a DJ. So I sat down and created a four-hour course. I started teaching it to a bunch of friends. However, like most things, the timing was not right. I was pretty busy playing clubs and couldn't really get it up and running, but it did give me a chance to show a few friends a bunch of cool things. The response was great, and one day I knew I would come back to it. So fast forward to June of this year. I just moved back to S.F., my favorite city in the world, and the place I call home, and found myself at the bottom of the club DJ totem pole. This afforded me the time to revisit the art of DJing. I approached a good friend over at Pinchit and asked him if he would feature the course on his site. He thought it was a great idea. A week later he posted it. I thought maybe we would sell two or three. We limited it to 10 courses, due to time constraints on my part, but bam! In 72 hours we were sold out. Zozi saw the Pinchit ad and approached me to run the classes for their social circle. Twenty-six hours later we had sold out another twelve. Currently I have 40 students. This is all since June. The demand for learning the art of DJing is strong.
What does a typical class look like?
The Art of DJing is broken down into four one-hour lessons. It starts with basic insights and builds upon this foundation. Each lesson consists of 35 minutes of lecture and 25 minutes of hands-on exercises. To create this basic foundation, we start with the equipment. We then work our way through the music, marketing, and the nightclub experience. The course is geared toward teaching somebody how to become a working DJ. I have made it flexible; if you take the one-on-one course and you are not interested in becoming a professional DJ, we focus more on the topics you want to explore. There are a couple of unique things about this course that make it different from taking it at a DJ school or online: the person teaching it has been a working club DJ for 15 years, and once you are done taking the course there is an option to play a gig at a nightclub.
What are students usually surprised to learn about DJing?
I think they are surprised at how easy it is to learn, yet so hard to master. There are a bunch of elements where "perfect" is really only "good." It is a "rule" we discovered while teaching the course. As much as I teach, I am also absorbing many new things. This is part of the art; a DJ must be open-minded. One thing I was surprised at was that a bunch of students have never used turntables. But they are tech-savvy. What they lack in history they make up by being "in the know". DJ used to mean disc jockey, sounds redundant, I know, but now you can play music without discs.
Do you think the class would have been successful if you offered it a decade ago?
This is an interesting question. DJing has only been around for like 40 years. It started in the late '60s, early '70s with Francis Grasso and Kool Herc. Technology has been important in the development of the DJ. It was only in the mid '70s that the Technics turntable was brought to market. This allowed DJs to mix and scratch. Before this piece of equipment, it would have been very hard to do the type of mixing that you hear today. Subsequently, in the '90s, the CDJ and in the 2000's Serato were created. This has revolutionized DJing.
The students' success will be based on how hard they work, how much they practice, and who they know. Forty years ago there were no digital cameras. Just because everyone can own a digital camera does not make them a photographer. The Art of DJing tries to pass along the craft. Technology will make things more accessible. They have the resources to learn faster, but unfortunately that will have little effect on their success.
Do you fear a backlash from veteran DJs who focus on DJing old-style, with vinyl and turntables?
That is the cool thing; the Art of DJing focuses on playing on turntables. They will be beat-mixing, scratching, and dropping, all without the help of computer synching software. Some are even bringing vinyl. These kids can DJ.
Mainstream music has lot DJ collaborations these days, and instead of seeing rock stars on magazine covers, we are seeing Skrillex, Diplo, etc. Do you think the art of DJing can be lost as EDM becomes more popular?
I feel you. There are a lot of DJs and producers collaborating with mainstream artists. This relationship has been around forever. Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. The Neptunes and Jay-Z. Junior Vasquez and Madonna. Calvin Harris and just about everyone... There are only a handful of producers that have that mass appeal, [that] know how to create catchy melodies. It is great that they get to team up with artists outside their genre and help them make hits. As for the art of DJing being lost, I hope not. The great producers are not necessarily the great DJs. One concept we touch on is a DJ is a person that plays other people's music. Yes, they can play their own, too, but who wants a DJ to play all of their songs the whole night? You can play iTunes on random, but that will not rock a party. Only a DJ that knows how to rock a party will be able to.
Next page: Brown on his collection of 25,000 records