Crowds may not always be large when Omar Yasin is DJ’ing somewhere around Chattanooga, but that’s OK.
“Honestly, even though the crowds are sometimes small, I still feel like a superstar,” he said.
That’s not to say that Yasin, a junior majoring in graphic design at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, doesn’t enjoy big, enthusiastic audiences.
“I like it when the crowds are going off and dancing,” he said, “and you hit that perfect beat and everyone’s like screaming and dancing. It’s a really cool moment.”
Several UTC students are part-time DJs, dropping beats without dropping classes. They play coffeehouses, clubs, house parties and on-campus events or sometimes just do it for themselves.
“It’s one of those things that I just really love,” said Mo Schultz, a sophomore in painting and drawing at UTC who has been DJ’ing since spring 2022. She performs about once a month.
“I try not to spread myself out too much. It’s really hard to navigate school by itself,” she said.
Buying the equipment needed to be a DJ isn’t necessarily a credit crusher. You don’t need a table full of turntables and boxes of vinyl records these days.
The centerpiece now is the controller which—as the name implies—controls music from a computer, making it possible to flow one song into another seamlessly and also add sound effects and other techno accouterments.
Cheap controllers can be found for about $200, but a pro-level system with speakers can cost $2,000 and more.
Even with little front-end money, making a living as a DJ is a long shot. That’s not the point, anyway.
“I think that whenever I can see that the crowd energy is matched well with the music, that’s the most important thing to me,” said Myles Medley, a senior in entrepreneurship at UTC.
Medley said he’s been DJ’ing since junior high school and became “serious” about it around four years ago. Going by the professional name “concretecorsair,” he plays four to five shows over the course of a couple of months.
“It depends on the season, for the most part. I do it a lot more during winter break. People are not outside as much and want stuff to do,” said Medley, a Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts graduate.
Downtime between shows can be an advantage, he said, because it gives time to develop the flow of a show, choosing just the right songs and sound effects to weave together for maximum impact. With those in place, he can practice and tweak until everything sounds the way he wants.
“If I have the time ahead to plan for it and have it booked ahead, it can be one to two months in advance just trying to find the exact songs to fit really well with each other.”
Yasin, a graduate of Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, spends time slowly putting a set together, too, finding the right songs for the right mood. During summer break 2022, he’d practice up to two hours “because it was this thing where I was getting a groove,” he said.
“It’s so satisfying to see the crowd really enjoy something that you have created. It’s more than just playing a song. It’s presenting a story of some sort,” he said.
Schultz, who graduated from Brentwood (Tennessee) High School near Nashville and goes by the DJ name “Techmo,” is more let-it-flow, choosing songs she likes and then finding a way to make them fit. Too much planning means less stress, she said.
“If I get up there and do what I want to do and not worry too much about the process of doing it, I find myself being more successful.”
But it’s not always a smooth fit.
“If I hear a song that I really like, I’m going to find a way to get it in my set,” she said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work.”
Medley said that being a DJ can look easy to some whatever the playlist and performing style. You push a button and the music plays; you twist a knob and the music changes. Not so, he said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there’s more of a musical aspect than you expect,” he said. “It’s not just playing tracks. It’s not just turning knobs.”
Seamlessly segueing one track into another means understanding time signatures, he said. If you switch from a song in 4/4 time to one in 3/4 and don’t synchronize the handoff, you’ll slam into a musical wall that jars listeners.
“If you don’t get the timing right or you mess up mixing it properly, it can sound really bad,” he said.
“I’ll always have my moments when I’ll finish the set and think, ‘Oh, that could have been better if I used this song. It could have been better if I did this rather than that.’”
At his shows, Yasin said he wants to change the mood throughout. Mellow at first, hotter beats in the middle, then slow again for the outro. “Just to get the crowd’s energy going up and down,” he said.
Schultz is less concerned with the flow of a show or the songs she selects.
“If you don’t like it, that’s chill,” she said. “I’m not going to force you to listen to it. It’s what I want. I know that there’s a crowd of people that will like what I do.”