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To some, alighting on a career as a DJ might seem like an outlandish proposition. But to others it’s a dream, and some have even made it a reality, crisscrossing the planet to select the music for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of party people at clubs and festivals. The chasm between the dream and the reality is a wide one, but a new mobile seminar called DJ Dispensary—held at luxury resorts around the globe—aims to change all that.
We pick up on DJ Dispensary at the W Retreat & Spa in Vieques, where a conference room is lit with indigo and lavender LED spotlights, the same color scheme as a Vegas dayclub. In a prepared speech in front of the room, Matty Wainwright and his associate Paul T are assuring a room of six students that each and every one of them can be a DJ. Wainwright’s tumbled hair sticks up from all angles like a mad doctor. He is the owner of DJ Dispensary, whose a three-day DJ Retreats courses are held at at luxury resorts around the world, where they teach wannabe DJs to get behind the decks and spin plates like a pro.
It reminds me of a sales conference called “Pathway to Success” or something, but it’s necessary—for many, the thought of getting behind DJ equipment is dismaying. On a folding table, two Pioneer CDJ-2000 turntables stare up with their big circular CD ports. In between, a mixer that, to a novice, might look like an airplane’s control panel, a mass of intimidating sliders and buttons and knobs that you most certainly should never touch. To Wainwright, though, learning the ropes on this rig of equipment is what separates the real DJs from the Paris Hiltons.
“If you use a [computer] program that creates mixes for you, that’s just mashing buttons,” he tells the students. “A monkey can do that. But the computer creates a wall between the DJ and the audience—the DJ becomes transfixed on the computer and forgets about the audience, and the audience just sees the DJ looking at a computer. We want to introduce people who have never been behind the booth to the CDJ, the mixer, and teach them how to mix, and understand how to read an audience. But not only that, we want to familiarize people to the history of house music, and how it’s evolved into DJing today.”
Wainwright’s history lessons are nearly as important as the practical beat-matching training sessions. In the 1970s, he explains, the most élite clubs in New York were The Loft and The Paradise Garage. They were only accessible with a membership card, and you had to be hot stuff to get one. Inside, hundreds of sweaty bodies writhed to the beat of the first superstar nightclub DJs Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and Nicky Siano. These discotheque guilds were places of libertine sensuality, inspiring whole generations to feast on the beat-driven sounds that would become house music, which would in turn splinter into the million particulate subgenres we know today.
By the mid-1990s, DJ culture had gone supernova and had become a truly global phenomenon. Kids twirled glowsticks at raves commonplace in the U.K. and the US. DJs like Pete Tong and Fatboy Slim spun their way into bona fide international superstardom. Fast-forward and you’ll find that Scottish DJ Calvin Harris, who DJs to stadiums packed with teenagers, cleared $66 million in 2014. To put that in perspective, that’s more than twice as much as the annual salary of the highest paid baseball player, Clayton Kershaw.
But Wainwright, who lives in Bali, bristles at big name DJs like Calvin Harris and Skrillex. “I’m not even really certain what kind of music he plays,” he says dismissively with a hard-edged Northern English accent. “EDM, or electronic dance music or whatever you want to call it, it will come and go like all the other trends, but when you strip it all away, house music remains. That’s not to say I don’t live comfortably as a working DJ—I mean, I live in Bali, which isn’t so bad—but I respect the history of it.”
Like a stickler history teacher warning against the mistakes that lead to war, Wainwright emphasizes the importance of aspiring DJs to learn house music’s roots in New York, Chicago, and the U.K. Part of the DJ Retreat is to watch Maestro, a film about those hedonistic early days at the Paradise Garage, a reminder that dance music came out of an underground subculture, a safe space for gay people to commingle without judgment, but a history pockmarked by the spread of AIDS and drug addiction. The history of DJ culture is serious, Wainwright seems to be pushing, so don’t muck it up.
Wainwright picked up DJing on his own as a lad in Birkenhead, outside of Liverpool, just by playing around with old turntables, but there are a number of ways to learn to mix records. DJ schools like the Red Bull Music Academy, Scratch Academy, Dubspot, and the Mix Lab have existed for years. “Those places are great,” he says, “but you sit in a gray room every Tuesday for six weeks. Here, you get the beach, you go snorkeling, and then you come back and we teach you how to DJ. It’s ideal.”
Wainwright points out that idyllic beach life makes up an important segment of DJing, ticking off popular party spots like Ibiza, Spain; Goa, India; and his hometown Bali. Vieques is a secluded island off of Puerto Rico’s eastern tip. The locals let horses roam free there, though they are always owned. Sometimes you’ll see young boys from the barrio chasing down their family’s horse with a favorite treat, mangoes. At night, visitors paddle out on the bioluminescent lagoon called Puerto Mosquito Bay, and if you catch it on a new moon, and shimmy your hand in the water, an eerie neon glow like the trim of Tron’s suit lights up the agitated water. Your guide, who calls himself Paul the Jamaican, might even make up a dancehall reggae song about you.
Accessible from mainland Puerto Rico only via a prop plane or a ferry, W Vieques will offer the services of Wainwright or his six other DJ tutors, all well-known DJs who have worked in the industry for at least 15 years. It doesn’t come cheap—it costs $20,000 all-in to book the DJ Dispensary for 10 people at the resort—but where else can you learn to be a DJ and then go visit the most potent bioluminescent bay in the world?
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” says Mariana Prince, the marketing manager for the W Vieques. “Bachelor parties, group vacations, wedding activities. We want people to have a really cool time with the Dispensary, and then go explore the whole island.”
Back in the conference room, Paul T stands just behind a student, a Puerto Rican woman who has never even imagined trying to DJ before, who he instructs to slowly turn up the sound. The beat is perfectly matched to the previous record. A grin spreads on her face. “That’s wicked, mate,” Paul T says. “Brilliant.”
Mixing one record does not a DJ make, however, so over three days, the tutors instruct, prod, encourage, and assist in making as much of a DJ out of each student as possible. Beat-matching is not easy. When two songs are playing at once, trying to keep track of the bass on each track is befuddling. At times, there’s even a creeping sense of frustration, but part of Wainwright’s job is to coax you out of it. By the end, you feel confident, a bit cocky even.
Which turns out to be necessary, because on the last night of the DJ Retreat, all the students are expected to play 30 minutes in The Living Room, W Vieques’s lounge. Learning to be a DJ is one thing, but mixing in front of people is altogether nerve-wracking. This on-the-job training—baby’s first DJ booking—becomes invaluable for a hopeful DJ. “We’ve had a few students get nervous,” said Wainwright. “Once [at a DJ Retreat] in India, we had a guy come up to one of the students and tell him the music he was playing was bad. The poor kid almost went into a shell. I nudged him and told him that we have to deal with this kind of thing all the time, that it’s part of DJing. To his credit, the kid stood up and said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ The rude guy was an accountant. The kid said, ‘I don’t come to your work and tell you how to multiply, do I?’ After that, I knew he’d be fine.”
Wainwright told me that student in India has actually gone onto play DJ gigs in clubs since the Retreat. “They don’t really have that kind of music there,” he said. “So there’s a market for it. But anyone can become a DJ, really.”