The DJ blues

Just mixin' some beats. (Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH)

It was Friday night, and a familiar scene was unfolding in the Davenport courtyard. There were circles of friends dancing awkwardly, drunken encounters between new and old acquaintances, a constant stream of traffic on and off the dance floor—and, of course, a DJ sitting behind his laptop blasting the same Top 40 songs you heard last weekend.

I found myself wondering how much I knew about my DJ that night, or how much anyone knew about him. He was a fellow student, after all, not some stranger hired for just that party. Beyond requesting the entire discography of Nicki Minaj, did people really interact with this guy?

For a little perspective, I spoke to Ishan Sinha, BR ‘14, the DJ of another party that night. That Friday, Sinha DJ’d for his largest audience yet, at a party hosted by the International Students Organization at Thali Too. “You’re sort of controlling the crowd,” he said with a laugh. “It’s really cool to be able to manipulate hundreds of people that way.” Both Sinha and the anonymous Davenport DJ occupy a position at a party that gives them a chance to interact with people in ways that they couldn’t on a daily basis.

The presence of student DJs at Yale, however, does not seem to indicate any kind of DJ community. In fact, every DJ or producer I spoke to agreed that neither DJing nor music production, which often go hand in hand, has a “scene” here at Yale. To Max Gordon, SY ‘15, a DJ back home in Westchester and producer for the student band Nero, My Panda, what motivates parties like the ones in Davenport and Thali Too is not an electronic music culture, but a “hook-up culture.” Sinha agreed: “People don’t usually go to these parties for the music. Music is never the
focal point.”

This attitude towards music can, surprisingly, be very rewarding for DJs. “When I was performing a lot with my band last year, it was hard to get people to come out to shows,” Sinha told me. “Everyone just wants to get drunk and party. It’s very cool to have that crowd [at Thali]. I’ve never performed anything with a crowd that large.”

For others, like Gordon, it can be discouraging: “I like playing music that people can’t grind to. I like old house, disco stuff.” Thomas Rokholt, SM ‘14, DJ and electronic genre music director at WYBC, also laments the state of taste here at Yale. “My biggest complaint at Yale is that as I’m DJing there is no patience in the crowd for pace in the set,” Rockholt said. “Maybe you can point some of the blame at electro-house [because] it’s just like ear candy: it’s easy to digest, its tasty for a while, but you get too much of it and you’re sick.” A DJ’s greatest hope is that he can make a crowd love the music he plays as much as he does; just look at Sinha, who takes such pride in his place of influence at an event.  As student DJ Demetra Hufnagel, BR ‘14, put it, “The day when I can open with Flying Lotus’ remix of ‘I Feel Like Dying’ at a party that isn’t solely for my friends will be a good one.”

But does catering to Yale’s exclusive tastes then guarantee success? Not necessarily, says Alex Bae, BR ‘14, a member of the board of 17O1 Records, a member of campus band The Keep Calm, and former producer for Yale student rapper, Yaakov. “I’ve been in [this music culture] for two years and I still don’t really understand it,” Bae said. Bae cites Plume Giant, an indie folk group of recent Yale graduates that recently played a debut show in New York City’s Mercury Lounge, as an example of the popularity musicians can gain at Yale through more unconventional sounds.

Producer Sunik Kim, ES ‘16, feels confident that he does not need to cater to pop sensibilities at Yale and in the broader American culture to be successful. Kim’s goals for his new project, Beat Culture, lie beyond New Haven. “I don’t need to have a mass appeal, because it’s not like I’m only building my music on campus,” he said. “The campus stuff is a kind of bonus. I didn’t expect anyone would have any idea what I was doing here…but now that it’s here it’s cool.”

Regardless of the indifference he expressed, Kim, whose influences include artists like James Blake and Flying Lotus (who are far from reaching any Top Hits list), has already been contacted to perform at multiple venues around campus, including WYBC’s performance space in the basement of 216 Dwight St. This enthusiasm and support for an atypical act like Kim’s seems at odds with the Yale that has parties packed with students who are satisfied to have a DJ play PSY’s “Gangnam Style” twice in one night.

Despite the apparent demand for electronic music in a variety of forms, one wonders why Yale does not have a more cohesive “scene.” Gordon attempted an explanation: “I think a lot of that has to do with the nature of making your own music and the nature of people at Yale. The people at Yale are very structure-oriented. That’s how you get here. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I think it’s antithetical to making your own music, which is all about independence. There is no structure really.”

Rokholt attributed it more to the nature of academia and scholarship at Yale. “I think people write off dance music as the most senseless of all the musical genres because it’s designed to be physical,” he said, “and because it’s designed to be physical it’s separate from the mental and what we want to do at Yale…It’s disappointing to me that people look at music and think, ‘That’s what you put on at a party.’”

Rokholt and Gordon agree that Yale’s student body simply has other concerns, with the overwhelming number of organizations and academic demands. Just within the group I interviewed, interests ranged from LGBTQ rights to improv comedy. Yet most Yalies will, inevitably, encounter a student-spun DJ set sometime during their four years at Yale, regardless of his or her interests. It’s also clear from the people I’ve spoken too that the DJs will be just as varied, from those like Sinha, who play popular, ready-for-the-floor dance songs, to those like Kim, who create electronic music for its own sake—and that each can affect party-going Yalies in a different and perhaps powerful way. But whether serious or casual, whether because of the music or the hormones (or both), the ends of student DJing tend to justify the means: as Rokholt told me towards the end of our conversation, “I’m just happy people are dancing; as a DJ that’s all I want to see.”

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