How to Be a DJ When You're Deaf

Robbie Wilde has sensationally been labeled the "Deaf DJ," but he's out to show that his talent goes way beyond what his ears can and cannot do.

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Aug 22 2015, 5:45am

Photos courtesy of Robbie Wilde

I was a little nervous to interview Robbie Wilde. I had seen his name around and knew peripherally of his work as "the deaf DJ," but what I could find of him on the internet was only the usual hearing-powered drivel: an "inspirational" character who triumphed over his "handicap" to harness the power and beauty of music. Not that this is Wilde's fault—perhaps borne of genuine curiosity, perhaps brain-damaged by Mr. Holland's Opus, people who can hear just cannot resist a deaf person showing even the vaguest interest in music, so you can imagine the clichéd frenzy around Wilde's making a whole career out of it.

Still, I saw repeated mention of Wilde's "normal-sounding" speech, and couldn't find any evidence that he knew sign language. What if, where I saw deafness as a part of my cultural identity, something that enriched my worldview, Wilde really did see it as a defect to be conquered on the road to music-making? And how were he and I—two deaf people—supposed to communicate if we couldn't hear one another and he didn't know sign language?

In the end, we spoke to one another in English the way I wish I got to speak English every day: with a laid-back patience in repeating things for one another, sans tests of—"can you understand me if I do this? How about this?" and above all, without that most dreaded backhanded compliment: "Oh, but you speak so well!" At our table in the corner of a Korean bar in the Flatiron, at least for a few moments, Wilde and I reconfigured speech and sound and deafness for a new normal. And as it turns out, that's what Wilde's been doing with his music all along.

VICE: I've read that you moved around a lot as a kid in your early years—what was your family situation like?
Robbie Wilde: I was born in the UK and my parents are Portuguese, so early on we moved to Portugal, and then we went to Venezuela. We had family in both those places, and we were trying to figure out what the best country was for us in terms of opportunities. Then we came to the States in 1989.

I've read that you lost your hearing at around age seven from a series of ear infections. Were you aware that it was happening? Did you go to the doctor?
Well, we went to the doctor and got the medicine, and I took medicine on and off for a year, because [the infections] were reoccurring. As immigrants, we didn't have the right resources, and I believe the medicine ran out because we didn't have health insurance. [My hearing] was damaged after that. I've got no hearing in my right ear, and 20% in my left. But we didn't really find out until I was eleven—my teachers automatically pushed me aside and tried to diagnose me with ADHD. Though I probably have a little ADD, too.

As a seven- or eight-year-old, did you know what was going on?
I definitely noticed something was different—I went to hearing mainstream school, and we had those hearing tests with the headphones. I remember other kids watching me and I was only raising my left hand. Because people were looking at me and all the other kids were raising both hands I started raising the other hand too and kind of went with it, but I had no idea where the sound was actually coming from.

I used to fake those hearing tests, too!
I remember hearing something in my left ear, but it always being only on that side and thinking, Is this it? Then eventually my mom took me to the doctor and I had the proper testing inside the booth, and I felt more comfortable in there, with a doctor and a more individualized screening.

So once you and your family worked it out, what happened at school? Did you get hearing aids? Speech therapy?
I stayed in mainstream school and didn't tell anyone except the teachers. We would try to arrange it so I could sit in the front and on the right side of the classroom, though I was a little kid so I always wanted to sit in the back. I had certain friends that knew—they worked it out that if they walked on the right side of me and were talking to me I didn't notice. Because maybe my speech sounds like what they consider normal, they didn't really look at me differently. People still talked at me normally, without trying to get my attention or anything—they didn't accommodate me. We never really made a big deal of it, and I didn't have hearing aids. This is my first one, which I got when I was 23.

How did you get into to DJing? Why do you think you were drawn to it?
I've always been surrounded by music, whether it was through my friends or just where I hung out. I guess there were little signs here and there—I saw it at a party; my friend had some equipment—and the thing that got my attention was that it's a mechanism for creative control. My family had a restaurant when I was a teenager, and my dad let me do the music there one night. And it went so well that he was like, "Do it every week if you want." Then I went to Destino's Lounge in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and started DJing there every night, just to learn—not getting paid, open to close, whatever they needed. I was influenced by a lot of DJs there, local guys who were very old-school in that they had the knowledge of the natural moves and motives of what was behind the creation of DJing.

The fact that people would say "You're not gonna surpass a certain point because of your hearing [loss]" just made me want to push even more. I went to school at Dubspot and got my certification. The more I see, and the more I can get involved with, and the more people I meet, the more creative and impactful I can become.

I want to prove that frequencies can be a form of communication, for all kinds of communities.

What do you do to manage the beats, keys, and frequencies that you're mixing together as a DJ?
There's a process that I go through—there are certain options on the computer where the waveforms displayed are color-coordinated. So now I know that certain colors mean certain frequencies—like red and dark orange are low frequencies; dark blues are snares and mids, and greens are usually voices. Plus the DJ record pool has a lot of edits in it already that have intros and outros set up for mixing purposes. So in that case I know if there's an eight- or sixteen-bar intro, and then know This is where the words come in; this is where the hook is; this is where Drake threw a good one, or whatever. And then, in order for me to know what's being said, I use Musixmatch, which syncs up the lyrics.

I love Musixmatch!
I'm trying to work out a way to collaborate with them, because this thing is like a miracle to me; it's like closed captions for songs. While I do enjoy the music for what it is for me, its frequencies, it's also helpful to know what's being said. And that's how I do it: basically muscle memory, consistency, and practice. On a good day, I practice six hours a day. I wake up at 9 in the morning, take my daughter to school, then practice until 5, pick her up and chill with her, and then after she goes to bed I keep practicing or do research. I work hard at understanding the artist's perspective of a given song so I know to the fullest what I'm doing at the club. It's a lot of work that people don't realize, because hearing DJs can use headphones and download a given song right then and there, but I have to have it ready in advance, because I can't listen to the headphones, beyond maybe being reassured of the beat. My crates, my music folders, are really organized with all sorts of tags—by year, genre, by the emotions or vibe a song gives. I'm sure I probably mess up sometimes, but I do put my time in, and I really do try to understand the music and the mood that it makes.

You said that you have your songs organized by emotions that they give out—do you think you experience those emotions in the same way a hearing audience does? What does music feel like to you?
I think it's the same. I feel the emotion or mood of the song the same as everyone else, because that's what frequencies are. I can't hear the lyrics, but in a way the vocals of the person turn into another instrument, and you can feel the emotions behind that frequency. Hearing is just a way of signaling the brain to be aware of something going on around you. But you can still understand frequencies without hearing them; when it's loud enough you can feel them. Bypass the hearing, and go directly to the mind, in a way.

Do you ever get frustrated by the way the mainstream media portrays you, as an "inspiration"?
It's a big role to fill; it's cool when we can do it. But at the same time, I want my work to go beyond inspiration, to be more of a bridge, so that what I'm doing becomes normal—so that it can just be about talent and skill. The same goes for deaf actors, musicians, writers. I guess that's our job right now. To show that our ears don't make us different; we have the same feelings, the same drive. Or, maybe because we don't hear we're more open to different kinds of ideas, because we're not so distracted by noise from the outside world. I'd like it if people could give us a little more respect and not be so awkward about talking to us, or feel bad for us. It shouldn't be different.

So what's next for you?
Well, on September 5 I'm going to Detroit to open with [Forbes] for the Gin Blossoms. But beyond that, I can't really say what's next. It's not my decision; it's more on the people. I wish it were more about the actual work and creativity being judged, rather than being divided along deaf and hearing lines. I feel like the status of my hearing sometimes blocks people from concentrating on my creativity. I keep hustling, and that's part of it. But it's more whether the world actually listens. I'll just keep making noise.

I want to prove that frequencies can be a form of communication, for all kinds of communities. I want to help build an integrated picture, with freedom of access for everybody. I don't want to build this bridge and then for there to be a tax at the end of it. And I mean that for any kind of discrimination; it goes beyond just deaf or hearing—its other disabilities, class, or race. It's total freedom.

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