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DJ Vajra is surprisingly stoic when I inform him that he has no talent.
"I'm not really insulted by that," the DJ responds. "I try not to get insulted by much of anything that people say."
Vajra, aka Chris Karns, is even less ruffled when I point out that he's not a musician. Playing other people's songs doesn't take any skills, right? At least, that's the common gripe amongst some rank-and-file scenesters who took issue with the increased emphasis on DJs at this year's Westword Music Showcase.
"There's certain kinds of deejaying that really doesn't take a whole lot of skill or talent," he allows. "I'll agree with that. But the thing is, there's different kinds of DJs."
No one can argue with that. But while even those DJs who just spin records aren't musicians in the purest sense, what they do requires a certain sensibility. Discounting their ability altogether is just as wrong as lumping all DJs into a single category.
"It takes so much skill to just rock a party," says Basementalism's Sean Choi of the non-traditional and club jocks -- who, let's be honest, are the true targets of the recent ire. "More than anything, they know people, and that's where the skill really comes in: knowing what people want to hear, how to make them react and knowing how to keep things moving. A really good DJ can take a crowd of ten people and make them have the time of their lives. And they're also introducing new music that people might not have heard. The DJ is like the tastemaker. There's so much music there that people don't know about. A lot of people rely on DJs to tell them what's hip and what's new."
Then there are turntablists like Vajra and fellow Showcase nominees DJs Cysko Rokwel, Idiom, Shake and Thought, who are in a league of their own. I've seen most of these DJs perform, and trust me: It's about more than spinning records.
"It takes a lot more technique," Choi says of turntablism. "What they're trying to do is not just blend records. They're trying to find innovative ways to use the turntable as an instrument. They're creating new pieces of audio work through scratching and beat juggling, taking two turntables, a mixer and some records and creating original pieces.
"I think a lot of people sleep on it because they don't understand it," he continues. "Like sampling, for example; a lot of people hate on that; they say, 'Oh, you're just ripping off other people's music.' But that's the foundation of hip-hop, creating something out of nothing. That's hip-hop at its core, creating something brand-new out of what you have existing in front of you. They're basically creating audio collages, and that in itself is an art."
When it comes to turntablism, Choi is more passionate than most. He knows exactly how much work it takes to pull off the complex maneuvers that set these DJs apart. And that's why he and his cohorts at Basementalism -- a consortium of Denver and Boulder-based hip-hop heads revolving around Radio 1190's weekly show of the same name -- stepped in to sponsor an annual DJ battle when it looked like it wouldn't happen this year. The competition, which is sponsored by Technics and otherwise known as the DMC, is the DJ equivalent of the Super Bowl. "It's an important thing to have these national battles here for kids in Colorado," Choi says.
For many DJs, the competition is their one chance to shine. Some jocks train all year just to perfect a six-minute routine, the maximum time allotted to wow the judges. Vajra, for example, spent hours perfecting his technique before the 2004 regional competition."I would come up with different individual routines, like juggle with a certain record here and then a scratch routine there," he recalls. "And a few weeks before the battle, I would try to figure out which ones I wanted to use for the six minutes and then put them in the right order. If a pattern didn't work, I'd change it. There was one pattern I did in a juggle last year -- just one pattern that was probably about twenty seconds of my total six minutes -- that I worked on for about two hours a day."
His work paid off: Vajra won the 2004 regionals. But he won't be working so hard this time out. Since Vajra says he "really doesn't have any new routines," he's opted out of the 2005 DMC battle, set for Friday, July 22, at the Boulder Theater. Instead, he's signed on to critique this year's performances, which he'll do alongside DJs Excess, Spryte 1, Fast Forward and Chonz. With Vajra's experience and stature -- DJ Z-Trip stopped by and caught him spin at Round Midnight after his own set at the Fox in May -- there's no better person to weigh in on the state of deejaying today.
As for those naysayers, Vajra suggests that if they "actually sit down and see exactly what some of the DJs are doing," they'll gain a greater appreciation for DJs. Assuming, that is, that they can get past their own provincial mindset.