"All I heard was farts," noted the eight-year-old boy who accompanied me to my first ever how-to-be-a-DJ class. After coining himself "DJ The Cool," the third-grader connected the delicate sounds of vinyl scratching to a bodily function.
At Off Centre, an electronic music production school cozily tucked away in an east-end Toronto home, the children of Generation Z can revive their Chemical Brothers-era parents' passion for dance music. "Many of our student's parents were DJs, so it's not such an alien kind of thought to put your kid in something you're already used to," explained our instructor Cheldon Paterson, known in the dance music community as SlowPitchSound.
The academy offers a 10 week, 12-hour program that introduces kids ages seven to 11 to vinyl mixing and scratching. DJ The Cool and I recently paid a visit to the studio, discovering that today's prepubescent can grasp the art of DJing just as fast as their adult counterparts. "There's been some really surprising potential from these kids," says Paterson, who performs in the turntable band iNSiDEaMiND. "They can outshine the adults that come in. There's been a couple like 'woah,' where did you get all that stuff from." Paterson spoke slowly but lively, to engage his young audience, which included "DJ Penguin," a seven-year-old girl with a liking for both Skrillex and dubstep, and Pomwave, an equally young boy who already has two original Ableton-produced tracks attached to his SoundCloud.
Memorizing crucial terminology was our first lesson in analog mixing. With some guidance from the impressively patient Paterson, the kids, who cringed when they heard the term "needle," were quick to develop their own language to describe the elements of analog sound production. A "rag thing," a "fluffy thing," and the "thing that could cut someone's head off," respectively described the slip mat, the room's sound muffler, and the vinyl.
"You could use it as a frisbee," DJ Penguin suggested as she picked up a record. Having mastered the vocabulary, it was time to bring our theoretical knowledge to life. After a heated debate broke out between DJ The Cool and DJ Penguin, who both had their eyes on the cutely coated blue-and-orange record, the kids eagerly positioned themselves behind a pair of turntables. Drowning in their oversized headphones, the doe-eyed youngsters were ready to unleash their inner Hudson Mohawke.
"It's kind of cool to see a younger generation involved with an analog instrument because music isn't necessarily a tactile experience for a lot of people," explains Erik Laar, founder of Off Centre and fellow member of iNSiDEaMiND. "We're living in the iPod culture, so to be able to actually touch and physically manipulate music is a cool experience. The kids relate to it a bit differently than they would a screen. There's already so much screen time these days."
After independently exploring the turntables, the DJs-in-training were ready to perform. "This is so loud, I'm so happy," cheered DJ Penguin, who became a miniature Nicole Moudaber as she showcased her first attempt at techno. Regardless of their young age, the kids began to exhibit a genuine understanding of live mixing and scratching — something Steve Aoki has still yet to accomplish.
"They're going to be performing in clubs at the end," Laar joked. While that might be an honest objective for some of their adult students, DJ The Cool had a different goal in mind: "be cool and play some new music to get fans." This shouldn't be a problem for the ambitious future headliner, who is expected to master the intimidating practice of beat-matching by the end of the program.
And while "how to scrape the thingy," may have been the only lesson DJ The Cool claims to have taken away from the 45-minute class, the smile plastered to his face suggests otherwise. As he hummed Young MC's "Bust a Mix" on our subway ride home, his newfound appreciation for a musical genre that has stood the test of time since the mid-70s was blatantly obvious.
Unfortunately, DJ The Cool may have to wait until he finishes third grade to dive deeper into his DJ career. In the meantime, however, Off Centre will be here to help him hone his analog mixing skills, one literal baby step at a time.
Rebecca is on Twitter.