My Story (Part 1 – The Early Years)

I remember learning about music for the first time in the second grade. Our music teacher was named Mr. Coble. I distinctly remember being lined up with my classmates and being taught how to tap our foot to the beat of a drum in a recorded piece of music. This was not a problem for me; I could hear the tempo as plain as day. But I noticed almost none of my classmates got it. Everyone was moving their feet out of sync. I remember feeling both bemused and powerful. Why is this so hard for them? Why so easy for me?

My next distinct musical memory was discovering The Art of Noise on MTV in 1985, sitting on the plush brown carpet of our living room floor one Saturday afternoon. I was 10, so maybe this was just a few years later. I was transfixed by that weird little girl busting up a piano in some abandoned train station. I was instantly hooked to the sound of a syncopated electronic drum, fused with this odd imagery. It was like no other sound I knew, and brought out feelings inside that I liked. I made frequent trips to my local record store as a young teen looking for new albums by them.

By the time I was 16 in 1991, techno had hit the airwaves on US shores. I distinctly remember this, too. I was tuned into my favorite station at the time, NYC based Hot 97, and suddenly they began reporting on this new form of music that was taking the world by storm. This thing was called Techno, and they introduced it by playing a rave song by Quadrophonia. It was the first techno song I’d ever heard. I’m sure most DJs remember their first time too. I went nuts. It was like a switch had been flipped in my head, and I instantly knew my calling. I didn’t know how, or why, but I knew that this was it. This sound is what I was put on this planet for.

Within that year, I would begin to discover what it meant to mix music. Now, let me go back a bit by saying that I was heavily into pop music those days. I knew all the top songs between that blissful ten year stretch between the mid 80s and into the mid 90s. Anything in the pop world that came out before 1984 or after 1996 I largely find useless. But I found the music between that gap of time to be timelessly moving. I’m sure my age played a big part in it too. It was a great time to be a teenager (musically speaking, anyway).

Well, it was around 1992 when I discovered the art of the mix. Due to my interest in pop music at the time, I was heavily into radio, and had an idea that I wanted to be in radio when I grew up. On weekend nights my favorite stations had DJs on and they played dance remixes of the pop songs that I knew in this peculiar way. They would mesh into each other with no beginning and no end. Hearing that for the first time was equally as intense as hearing techno for the first time. This was my calling! Mixing music was magic. I wanted to be part of this magic. I wanted to know everything about it.

So I did. I got a job at my local record store on Long Island while still in high school. At the time major labels were sending promo vinyl to the store and the managers didn’t know what to do with them, so they gave them to me. I still have those records, and I cherish them deeply, because I used them to learn how to mix. I grabbed my mom’s belt driven turntable from the den downstairs and brought it into my room. It had some rudimentary pitch control. I was already messing with music mixing tools on my Commodore Amiga computer, and had it hooked up to a cheap DJ mixer a Jamaican guy named Ray from Richmond Hills, Queens helped me buy when I was 14.

I met Ray on the Internet before there was an Internet. I spent my teen years surfing around on what we used to call bulletin board systems (or BBS), accessed from dial-up modem. I was crazy into technology those years. But it was those BBS systems that helped me get into the more underground, inaccessible forms of electronic music, especially because a lot of people from well known hacking groups in Europe were posting animated musical demos flaunting the Amiga’s graphics capabilities. It was a magical time.

I spent the rest of my teen years locked away in my bedroom discovering all this stuff. I couldn’t get enough of it. My mom used to come busting in my room complaining about the smell, opening every window whenever she could. I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested in the outside world. I wasn’t interested in making friends or learning about anything that didn’t have to do with electronic music or communicating with people via all this new technology.

Well, I did have one very close friend growing up. Her name is Kristina. We were inseparable from the ages of about 5 to 15. I remember hanging out with her one weekend night. We were in her brother’s car, driving around somewhere on Long Island. I had them put on Kiss FM because I liked their DJ that night. I showed her how they blend songs from one into the next. She looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s cool.” I said, “This is what I’m going to dedicate my life to!” She kind of looked at me funny.

Nobody around me seemed to get it. And increasingly, nobody seemed to get me. Discovering my sexuality during those years only put a finer point on how isolated I felt from the world. There was a lot of fighting in my house growing up. It wasn’t terrible, per se, but there was some dysfunction. I was picked on a lot in school. I was the little kid, frequently called fag. My room over those years was my refuge. My dad, the audiophile he is, handed down to me one of his old amps. I used it to blast the music away until I couldn’t hear the fighting downstairs, or the doubts in my head about where I stood in the world. Everyone had their escape. Mine was music and technology.

My two main takeaways from those early years were discovering my coping mechanisms, and then a promise I made to myself. When I was 16 I finally accepted the fact that I am gay. I remember the moment like it was yesterday: I was in the back seat of my family’s minivan as we pulled up to some vacation house we had rented in New England. A ton of thought and soul searching went into every personal decision I made about myself, even by then. And I remember thinking, well, you can try and fight this all you want. Nobody around me seems to understand it or accept it, but this is who I am. Because of this strong link I felt towards electronic music, I learned to embrace the things that came naturally to me. So I made the decision right then and there to always be true to myself, no matter what.

One thing my father taught me growing up was to understand, listen, and respect what was going on inside me, and to express those things when appropriate. Although my parents split by the time I was five, I feel so lucky he stayed close to teach us some valuable lessons. He gave me the tools and the building blocks to learn how to handle all kinds of shit on my own. Based on my upbringing and my personal circumstances, I learned how to be self reliant. And this is what helped define the independent soul that I am today.

Coming soon: College & Early Career

 

 

 

 

 

Frankie Knuckles

I realized I wanted to be a DJ when I was 18 in 1993. During that year, the artist who inspired above and beyond any other to take this direction in life was Frankie Knuckles. Even at that early age I was struck by the class of his productions and his smooth as silk touch behind those rubber band mounted decks. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he single handedly shaped and influenced my taste in house music moving forward. I’m a little too young to have truly appreciated disco in his heyday, but I’m just old enough to have personally experienced as a young adult what I like to call the renaissance period of house music in the early 90s.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to Frankie back at the original Sound Factory Bar in New York that summer after my freshman year of college, invited by a friend I made from Eightball Records who’d send me promos when I had my little radio show at Ohio University. When I stepped into that club I was instantly transported to one of the happiest places I can remember being. Full of joy, hope, inspiration, acceptance, and positive energy. My friend walked me up to the DJ booth, and Mr. Knuckles shook my hand. Like a star struck puppy, I clammed up and blurted out “I love you!” to him, and flashed him a big silly grin. He said “I love you too!” and he gave me a hug.

Peter Rauhofer

I want to say something about Peter Rauhofer. Most people probably don’t know that Peter was a major influence in my artistic development, especially when I discovered him about ten years ago.

When I started to DJ in the early 90s, all I liked was deep house and hard techno, and nothing in between. By the late 90s, the gay circuit house sound offended my ears. Then around 2001 I discovered Peter and his Saturday night parties at The Roxy in New York. I finally had a new home, a place where I felt ok being gay and where the music pleased me as much as it did others around me.

Peter was a genius at combining the elements of pop, techno and tribal elements, fusing them into a sound that brought everyone together. It was a very special time in my life. It was one of the final eras in our culture where the gay scene had it going on musically.

Peter was one of my heroes. He is the clear influence behind the tribal mixes I was putting out those years: Rygar, Gayclub, and Tagged. He gave me a new sound, and experiences I will never forget. Peter’s life was a success, not because he was a famous DJ, but because he was able to positively affect the lives of so many people in this world.

Press Start

Tomorrow I will be playing in Guadalajara, Spain at their annual Tube Tech Festival.  I’ll be performing alongside some old friends, like NL techno giant Bas Mooy, and Cesar Almena from Code in Madrid.  It’s an outdoor festival about 45 minutes from Madrid.  It’s the kind of situation I’m used to, but for me it will be an entirely new experience.  It will be my first gig where I’ll be DJing from a computer.  Wait, what year is it?

Ok, maybe a little history is in order.  When I started DJing in 1993, it was all about vinyl of course.  And the vinyl rocked strong for 13 years.  By 2003 I started to integrate CDs into my sets, and from 2003-2006 my sets became heaver on the CD side than the vinyl side.  In 2006 I bought my last piece of vinyl. And from 2006 until this day, I have been playing pretty much exclusively CDs.  I did buy Serato in 2005 and used it quite a bit for studio sessions, and did use it for the occasional small gig in NYC where I wanted my entire classic house library at my fingertips.  And, alright, there was that one party in Malaga in 2006 when they wanted tribal house and I was too lazy to burn up a bunch of CDs I knew I’d never use again, so that’s the one time I used Serato overseas.

But the idea of having to deal with all those cables, a box, and using a CD or vinyl as an interface never really turned me on.  I loved it for studio use, or if I had a local residency someplace where burning lots of CDs on a regular basis would become impractical.  But since most of my bigger gigs would usually only come once every month or so, dealing with a computer and the setups and all the variables and potential problems just weren’t worth it for me.

In my last entry about this, I mentioned how friends would tell me how much more would be possible when performing with a computer, but I fought it for a long time.  I guess I’m very old school when it comes to being a DJ.  But now it’s getting ridiculous, and like I said, when I saw someone at WMC this year rocking the S4, I was instantly sold.  So I finally bought one and learned it.  Although I’ve had experience with both Serato and Ableton, Traktor is its own beast. And what a beautiful beast it is.  At first I was wholly intimidated, what with all its options, knobs, and modifiable mappings.  But I just took it one thing at a time and now I’m (almost) comfortable, thanks mostly to Ean Golden from DJTechTools and his fantastic training videos. The timing is funny, though. 12 years on Vinyl, 6 years on CD.  What will happen in 3 years?

I’m still bringing CDs as backup and shoved all my songs on a stick just in case, but I think it’s really happening this time.  Me and Traktor on a stage.

Kind of nervous.  :)

Donna Summer

I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t quite old enough to enjoy disco as an adult, but when I hear tracks like this I realize what an influence songs like these have had on my taste. Three words, Donna: dripping with emotion. We will miss you!

A Syncing Feeling

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about this whole sync debate, but more so about the evolution of the DJ, technology, and how it relates to myself as an artist.  Maybe I should start by describing my own evolution as a DJ.

It started in 1993, when I bought my first turntables and began to buy vinyl.  Those days all DJs played on vinyl.  In 1997 after having DJed on college radio for four years and playing in raves across the country, I decided to share some of my DJ sets online by encoding them to low bitrate MP3 files, hoping the rest of the world would hear.  The digital revolution began some years later and many DJs left vinyl for CDs.  My friends and I would complain all the time about the harshness of the digital sound.  Today’s sync debate was yesterday’s analog vs digital war.  But over time digital won, due to its lower cost, wider availability, and convenient nature.  From 2003-2006 my sets were comprised of a mix of vinyl and CDs.  It was cool to be able to play tracks out that someone had sent me just hours before.  But my bread and butter music was still the vinyl I’d buy in the stores in NYC.  Throughout the 2000s I’d use my faithful Cycloops sampler to fire off loops live.  This cute little hardware box was certainly a sign of things to come.

I bought my last piece of vinyl in 2006.  From then until today, my live sets were performed exclusively with CDs.  But to be honest I never got that fulfillment playing with CDs as I did when I was playing vinyl.  With vinyl I was literally feeling the music and it certainly came out in my sets.  The work involved with preparing my CD sets was miserable.  I’d make playlists in iTunes to decide on how I’d author the CDs.  I’d painstakingly print the track lists onto the CDs along with art from each release which I diligently culled from discogs.com, because I couldn’t fathom playing sets of tracks scribbled on a disc.  Growing up with vinyl and artwork, my brain recognizes titles and brands from a visual point of view.  Anyone who saw my CD books thought I was insane.  More like passionate, with a dash of OCD.

Once my CDs burned, books populated and organized, I was armed with more music than I could have ever imagined bringing in a record bag, having been limited to less than 100 tracks per gig.  The convenience of digital acquisition was balanced by the hard work required to prepare and organize CDs for a proper set.  Add to that the fact that I play multiple genres only made things that much more complicated.  And so you can see how the idea of effortlessly accessing my entire library on stage was an attractive idea just on the horizon.

So in 2005 I took the plunge and decided to buy Serato Scratch Live.  My thought process was that I wanted to get to know the digital DJ setup, but for studio use only, and maybe for the occasional local residencies when I was very much aware of the technical setup.  I still did not trust a computer to deliver my music when the stakes were high, nor did I appreciate the complexity of setting up and breaking down a “scratch style” box during gigs, interrupting the DJs before and after me.  Too much stress and too many variables.  I’ll take my tangible media, thank you, and do the best I can with it.  For a good chunk of years Serato served me very well for my studio mixes, but I rarely brought it out of the house.  In 2009 I retired Serato in favor of Ableton Live for the studio mixes, and I became spoiled rotten with what Ableton could do in the mix.  I loved it, but it was for studio use only.  I would still refuse to use Ableton on stage, stubbornly sticking to CDs for live use.  And now we have a discord.

Indeed, by 2006 many DJs in Europe were already performing their live sets using Ableton.  Some close friends were egging me on to follow suit, trying to convince me that I could create so much more live on the computer than I could ever do with a few decks and a mixer.  I’m funny that way; I might like to be on the bleeding edge embracing new technology, but when it comes to art and performance, I tend to be a purist.  So then you might ask, why didn’t you just stick to vinyl, even through today?  New tracks are still pressed on vinyl.  And my answer to that would be, because that would simply be pathetic.  Sure, the aural quality of analog can never be beaten, but something must be said for staying current with technology, trends, and not getting left behind.

So for years I have felt “stuck” in this world of DJing with CDs, knowing full well that there was a ton of new technologies being developed all the time.  I dragged my feet for a long time with this, steadfast in my belief that a “DJ” is someone who spins records or CDs and beat matches manually.  But let’s be honest; one of the biggest reasons why I’ve been so reluctant to go with a technology that does not require beat matching is because of how proud I am of my beat matching skills.  I was 16 when I first heard a DJ mixing two records together.  It was magical.  I remember the moment with such clarity, and I knew with equal clarity that I wanted to dedicate my life to this very thing; matching beats.  It sounds silly on paper, but in the mind of a 16 year old it’s very serious. Add to that the music during those years was so heavily and obviously influential on my formative mind that I had a very difficult time decades later letting go of the beat match.  After all, this is what I was put on this earth to do, right?  Maybe.

Over the years one of the most common questions I’d get asked by curious outsiders was, “So what is it that you actually do on stage?  Are you just playing one record after another?”  And I’d do my best to explain what it was that I did.  But now I’m the one asking this very question.  What is it that a DJ does?  What do people expect of the DJ?  A guy on stage who plays tracks, even well, just isn’t enough anymore.

After moving to Miami and attending the Winter Music Conference for the first time in ten years, I saw what DJs on this side of the pond were doing.  Nobody was playing vinyl, some were still playing CDs, but most were using Traktor and either an X1, S4, or a Scratch box.  Suddenly I felt like grandpa with my book of CDs.  The moment of clarity hit me again, only it’s 20 years later.  I’m in the lobby of the Whitelaw Hotel in South Beach, and this kid pulls out an S4 and is doing things that blew me away.  He’s picking loops on the fly and throwing in samples.  He’s choosing custom effects and is working four decks at the same time, all the while not breaking a sweat.  Just as the day I first heard a DJ matching beats in 1991, I thought to myself, yeah, I can do that.  I will do that.  A week later I did my research and settled on a Traktor Kontrol S4.  Phase 3 of my DJ career is in the works, and I’m excited to finally be shedding this grandpa CD skin that has been so overdue to go.

And finally we come to the actual subject of my post, and that is about Sync.  Why is everyone so up in arms about it?  I know why, because I’m one of those guys who’s so proud of the skills that he has, and is equally threatened because this one skill that he’s had and championed for two decades is now obsolete. “Real DJs match beats.”  It pains me to say it, but this statement is now bullshit.  This purist is now excited to be able to free my mind from babysitting a mix and taking advantage of some very mature technology, and do things on the fly that would take me hours to perfect in the studio using Ableton, and impossible to do on stage because I’d be busy keeping the mix smooth.

I’m watching one training video after another on YouTube, and see that some DJs turn sync off because they want to show the world that they can match beats. Get over yourselves, and let this new technology into your soul.  While you’ve got sync turned off proving you can match beats, the rest of the world has sync turned on and they’re doing some very creative things you’re too stubborn to let yourself get into.  Want to be lazy and keep sync on but not do anything creative?  Fine, you’ll get left behind too.  Yes it’s true, “anyone” can put together a DJ set and the computer will match the beats for you.  But the computer doesn’t have taste, the computer can’t read a crowd, the computer doesn’t know when to inject some wicked Salsoul acapella over that breakdown.  It might analyze your tracks and tell you where the first beat goes, but it doesn’t care if that Jerome Sydenham track meshes well with the latest sickness from Rawthentic.  It just does what you tell it, just as you used to tell what your vinyl to do.

I’m excited for the future. Let’s get with the program.

Ouisie (1999-2012)

Today, my 13 year old cat Ouisie has passed away. She was my first and only pet. Sure, I had cats growing up, but Ouisie and I had that special mutually exclusive bond that you cannot replace. I got her in 1999, a year after moving out of my mom’s house after college, rescuing her as a kitten from North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, NY. I knew she was mine the moment I put my hand on her, and she’d completely acquiesce to my touch, crouch down and look up at me, as if to say, “yes, daddy?” We were in love from day one. She would greet me at the door every time I got home, whether it was from a trip to the record store, or from a week away overseas. She’s seen three decades, and has moved with me five times.  Her unconditional love, support and physical companionship was cherished every day. Wherever I was in the house, from the bedroom, living room, studio, or even bathroom, there she was. She always had to be by my side. So it’s a shock today that she is gone. I was lucky to have her as long as I did, and even though I’m in great pain today, I don’t regret anything. You touched many lives, Ouisie, most of all mine.

Technopedia Magazine posts WMC 2012 Set

Technopedia.es features Dylan's WMC set on their latest podcast, with tracks from Sergio Fernandez, Rawthentic Music, Nicole Moudaber, Selectry Recs and more..

From Technopedia.es:

"Nuestro nuevo podcast viene de manos de uno de los artistas más exitosos de la última década, el neoyorquino Dylan Drazen. Exponente y defensor de la variedad musical, es capaz de hacer convivir con clase desde el hardtechno hasta el deep house. Muy querido en España, en esta ocasión nos ofrece en exclusiva un set con el mismo tracklist que utilizó en su actuación durante la pasada Winter Music Conference de Miami. Una oportunidad única de disfrutar sólo para ti de la sesión de uno de los artistas más importantes de la escena electrónica mundial."