Djing with a Disability: 2 Inspiring Stories

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The 1996 film Vibrations is maybe one of the worst movies you’ll ever see about the world of dance music. Its plot revolves around a guitarist who loses his hands in a car crash, only to find himself, after numerous twists, transformed into a leading figure on the US rave circuit when his friends create robotic hands for him to produce/perform electronic music. With James Marshall and Christina Applegate in the lead roles, the film is the epitome of ’90s cyberpunk cheese but for its acting and writing, not necessarily its message. At its core, it aims to illustrate that when it comes to expressing yourself (particularly as a DJ), where there’s a will, there’s a way. In that spirit, today we look at a few DJs who have adapted their DJ environs to suit their disabilities, proving that indeed anyone can DJ if you surmount a few obstacles and put your mind to it.

WILDE AT HEART

robbie

New York-based DJ Robbie Wilde makes no bones about his disability—in fact, he uses the handle “That Deaf DJ” for all of his social media. He lost most of his hearing as a child (he has 0% hearing in his right ear, and 20% in his left), but, when he was 18, he was inspired by to take up DJing. “So I hit up DJ Shiftee at Dubspot and asked him, ‘You seem to love challenges—here is one. Teach a deaf kid to scratch,'” he says. “The next day the journey began.” That journey, which is still ongoing, first consisted of two four-hour classes per week, for about two years. “Since then, I’m still learning and growing,” he adds, “trying to get more creative in any way possible. I am now back at Dubspot to further my music production skills and to get certified!”

Since he still has 20% of the hearing in his right ear, Wilde is able to use a special in-ear monitor to amplify sound, but naturally, there were still a lot of hurdles for him to tackle. “The biggest struggle at first was beatmatching,” he says. “I started off using strictly CDs, so beatmatching was all in the feeling. Unlike today, with programs to make it easier visually, and sync buttons, I still keep to the roots of doing things the right way. Now with all the options that are available, I use them, not to ‘cheat’ but to get more creative, quicker, and keep the art of turntablism alive.” The onscreen waveforms and their color differentiation allow him to more easily mark cue points for vocals, bridges, etc.

But when it came to learning scratching, there were a host of other skills he had to develop in tandem. “Shiftee taught me about muscle memory,” he says in a video produced on him by Dubspot. “So when it comes to scratching patterns, that’s just from practicing and consistency of doing the same thing for two hours in class.”

“The key to success for the first level of turntablism is training your body to do things. It’s all muscle memory,” echoes Shiftee in the film. “The difference with Robbie and someone else is just how you get those muscles to practice the right thing, so we took this kind of visual waveform approach. But as long as the muscles are doing what they need to be doing, you’re going to build up the correct habits and get good.”

Wilde’s technical setup is pretty simple and traditional, with two Technics turntables, a Rane mixer, an X1 controller, a customized Starkey Hearing Ear Monitor, and, to help amplify his music intake, “the biggest speaker I can find,” he says with a laugh.

The key to success… is training your body to do things. It’s all muscle memory. — DJ Shiftee

“With me being hearing impaired and deaf, I’m very physical with my hands, and [it’s with] actually touching and working on the equipment that I learn the full detail of it,” says Wilde. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that that’s a very huge part of it—aside from hearing what you’re doing, little details are very important.”

robbiesubpac
Robbie Wilde’s signature SubPac

To help hear and feel those tiny expressions, Wilde has been working with the creators of the tactile audio device SubPac, providing the developers with feedback and using the SubPac in the studio. “I’m looking forward to the progress of their next-level technology and how it will continue to shape the way not only DJs and producers interact with sound, but shape the lives of individuals in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” he says. “Headphones for the deaf, in a sense.”

Read more about the SubPac.

Any advice for other DJs in a similar position? “Look into the technologies I use, and don’t give a shit about the public criticisms, because I’ve been in this game for a long time, and have ‘heard’ it all”

HOOKED UP

hookielead

Australia’s DJ Hookie has pretty similar motivational advice: “Disregard your disability and get on with it.” When he was 18, Hookie (real name Tom Nash) suffered a severe attack of meningococcal septicemia, a bacterial infection that caused him to have two heart attacks, a threefold weight gain, restricted circulation to his extremeties, and left him in a coma for 18 days. It also resulted in the need to amputate parts of both of his arms and legs. Once Nash recovered, though, and was outfitted with prosthetics (including the tools that provided him his DJ moniker), he was committed to living life as normally as he could, and part of that meant starting the DJ crew and club night Starfuckers in Sydney.

Disregard your disability and get on with it. — DJ Hookie

Nash says his start to DJing was awkward—but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. “We only really had access to the decks when we were at the club. I didn’t own a pair at home for quite a while, really, so my only time to practice was in front of people,” he says. “It definitely made me learn faster, but on the flipside I guess I took less risks. Taking risks is a really good way to improve your skills and confidence. It’s also a fantastic vessel for humiliation when things don’t work out—which in itself is humbling.”

When it comes to the tools that make DJing possible for him, Nash claims he’s “always felt it was more beneficial to adapt to what’s around rather than looking to how the tools could be improved.” That means avoiding using anything other than his bare prosthetics whenever possible. “The better I get at using my hooks to perform tasks, the less I need to rely on other forms of technology (which, in addition, evolve faster than you’d have time to adapt to them anyway),” he opines. “I like the knowledge that I can be faced with a setup that any able-bodied DJ is given and perform better than them.”

And to keep that DJ setup simple, he relies on just two CDJ-2000s and a DJM-900 mixer, with his tracks load onto a USB key and processed through Rekordbox prior to showtime. “Most clubs have this setup, so I’d rather stick to the simplicity of it, and just try to work on a good set with the least amount of junk or superfluous gear cluttering my life/DJ booth.”

There’s little different in his studio as well. He has some special “input peripherals” for his computer, but not much more than that. “It’s pretty hard for me to use a traditional mouse on a computer so I use a trackball, and map buttons to click and hold,” he says. “I’ve found the keyboard that best responds to my hooks, rubber faders, and knobs, etc., but nothing too ‘MacGyver’ is going down in our studio.” But because of his unique experience as a DJ, surely he’s developed some type of special club-land skills, right? Just “the ability to pretend I’m listening intently to mundane conversations in nightclubs,” he jokes.

Of course, Nash and Wilde are not alone in their pursuit of DJing and producing while smashing preconceived notions of what’s possible. Check out what folks like Philadelphia’s DJ TouchTone and France’s Pascal Kleiman are doing to circumvent their disabilities while still rocking the decks.

Have you overcome disability to DJ? Tell us about it below. 

  • Hana Sheala

    I wanted to write here in long time, but was annonyed by being calling an inspiration by the DDJT team. I dont get it, we have civil rights laws like ADA, and there is still overcoming a disability? In my eyes, what we struggle is more human rights fight, not overcoming some weird tragic thing. The problem is usually not me, if I dont count shortness of breath or pain. When I have charm someone into respecting me as a DJ, its not me overcoming disability, its him or her overcoming lack of training.

    So, my fellow disabled guys and gals, if you will be interested in talking djing with disability without prejudices, with a DJ who does it and hates being called inspirational, what about creating FB group? To talk club accesibility, twitter and social network tricks, and have a space to breathe. (Not trying to create ghetto for the disabled, but just a safe space on the internet). If my comment gets any people interested, I deffo create the group. I live with disability, I am a psychology student, I know how to facilitate FB groups to have them free from flamewars. And my drug is trance, but I would love to meet any DJs within any genres.

  • Guest

    I wanted to write here in long time, but was annonyed by being calling an inspiration by the DDJT team. guys, if you will be interested in talking djing with disability without prejudices, with a DJ who does it and hates being called inspirational, what about creating FB group? To talk club accesibility, twitter and social network tricks, and have a space to breathe. (Not trying to create ghetto for the disabled, but just a safe space on the internet). If my comment gets any people interested, I deffo create the group. I live with disability, I am a psychology student, I know how to facilitate FB groups to have them free from flamewars. And my drug is trance, but I would love to meet any DJs within any genres.

  • Hana Sheala

    I appreciate the honesty and opennes my fellow DJs with a disability shared their stories here. So here is my story: I live with limb girdle muscular dystrophy, DJ from 2003. Most problems does not stem from my medical condition, but as we are not ADA compliant country, even clubs does not have to be accesible. And DJ booth are sometimes even less accesible.

    I have learned what is social model of disability, have trained friends and strangers to be ad hoc personal assistants. Sometimes have had hard time to be taken seriously sometimes it was just lazy promoter not wanting to deal with club inacessibility… but in 2013 I made a break: My teen idol, Ibiza booked DJ Tomas Haverlik had gig with me. And he was really cool with lifting me from his car and stuff. And then another gigs came. Its not all rose garden though, my next will I need use a wheelchair. The club where I play is pretty inaccesible, so I wll pay a Personal Assistant – not a profesionall PA but some strong guy or gal. I am a bit scared – I hope I wont get tossed out of the wheelchair, it will be 1st time when I would be carried on stairs. The club has horrible stairs: tall and no chandelliers. And I will be relying on other person to get me thru.

    I play trance, my inspiration are John Askew (besides his music he writes great texts), Alex Indecent Noise (I love the concept of Mental Asylum) and Giusseppe Otaviani. Lot more but I think you all are tired from reading. If you want to connect with me check my DJ page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sheala/184515034968902?fref=ts

    My friend also showcased Pascal Kleinman on his webpage, and we had him playing at one major event (I think it was Apocalypsa). I admire this guy, as he is reaaly underground and stuff (plays on psytrance events too)

    And please… dont call me inspiring for being disabled and spinning 🙂 Half of my real life friends are DJs so its not so big deal really, This is what my generation does.

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  • i my self have a learning disability in the past i would also black out and forget parts of my pass

  • dj jay will

    Have had epilepsy since 88. But then the seizures I had were petite mahl seizures. I really took up dj’ing after I was taught by a best friend in the 5th grade. My father did it as well, but it was my friend who taught me the essentials; scratching, beatmatching, reading the crowd, etc. Started doing sets at the age of 13 despite the fact I would slip into a daydream state at times. This hurted me regarding schoolwork as well. At age 21 my petite mahl seizures developed into grad mahl seizures. During these seizures I would slip into a state of almost being in a coma, my eyes would roll into the back of my head, also I would shake vigorously while becoming very violent. If you notice womeone having a seizure turn them on their side until the episode is over. Of course this happening while dj’ing could scare the hell out of someone who is totally unaware of what a seizure is or your disability. I have become better with controlling these attacks through medication, learning how to recognize the signs of attack, proper sleep, eating proper, handling stress better, reading my Bible, and most of all developing a relationship with God who is my healer. I still choose to dj regardless of my disability because I love music, and being able to deliver it to others the way I hear it ; which in turn lets them forget about whats stressing them out or their problems. Yes I have a disability, but it’s not what makes me as a person. I move foward and continue to do what I enjoy as a person_dj

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  • And then we have many (too many) DJs mixing brainless…Hilton, Guetta, etc, etc.

  • Noisedisturbance

    A mate of mine who goes by the name DJ Defwil or just Defwil has been mostly deaf for most of his life and has had to rely on special hearing aids to hear anything anymore, I met him at the university I am studying (Though he is doing an entertainment business course while I am doing audio engineering) He has been a big bit of inspiration and I believe he is a good example. Despite his disability he has managed to come second in a huge competition in Australia called “Yourshot”, and has played at multiple clubs in Brisbane. This man has been through tough times and has always come to me saying things that are not worth mentioning about his life and how he isn’t happy with it, but I pushed him as well as many other friends and he has just being rising up further and further. I believe he is an amazing person and deserves all the support he gets as he shows that no matter what you can pursue your dreams. (Link to his “Yourshot” Mix: http://www.mixcloud.com/willdefwilkroger/yourshot-alize-wildcard-2014/ )

  • NoFuture

    Before I started Producing and Drum Fingering,
    I get struck by a dozen of a-hole because they wanted a cigarette, and because I was the kind of young a-hole who refuse to get racket …
    I end up at the hospital with around 50% of my body between dark purple and black, I had a 3 years black hole, I wasn’t even recognizing most of my friends. The ligament and the tendons of my right hand were cut by a bottle of glass during the “fight”.
    I get operated in surgery. I had luck because it seems that I recover very well for that kind of damage but even after 6 month re adaptation ( everyday ) and then 1 year with at least 3 session per week I had still much trouble to use two of my fingers ( middle finger and ring finger ) which is annoying when you try to play live pack “à la” Mad Zach, but to be honest I have less problem with those two fingers than I have with rhythm…

    But well, there are people that have problem way way harder to live with than I and they continue to live with it, so do I.

    My 00000010 bits.

  • Marcin Cedler

    I got a great friend with awesome personality who is… Just listen to his sets
    http://www.livestream.com/zeu5/

    Zeu5 hope You’re not gonna be mad on me.

  • Rynita Short-e Shepherd

    I have been a DJ for over 15 years nowam in a wheelchair and my arms and legs are affected i DJ with my mouth and I have been one of the top booked dj’s in the midwest for most of that time. It’s not about your physical ability it’s about how well you play and I bang dem beats so hard and flawless.

  • I overcome most my disability by the years. I’m handicapped on the right side for the most part of a car accident. Being a DJ from ’88 till now and at the moment of a breakthrough ’92 I got a severe car accident it was difficult for me it took 4/5 years later getting back where I wanted to be. It was the music I loved so much that was my motivation. Day in and out with classic set up keep practising with my hand. My fingers having trouble to fine tune.
    I did a DJ contest at 2012 and came in the finals. but it took longer to accept I was not the DJ I was before and had to accept I had to change my set up, for most of the time it was difficult to Beatmatching the feeling on the platter. When I changed to digital DJ’ing (Traktor) I had more time, less frustration, time to do what was in my musical brain and anticipate more what I see and hear. Now I feel more comfortable and finally free to do because of just one thing I don’t have to adjust all the time the beatmatching because that was mainly the issue. Still I beatmatch Digital but now I see ‘out of synch’ and have time to hear other things on another 3 tracks.
    The music was my inspiration to keep going my handicap became a mindset to do things different ( I was also different that’s how I saw myself) I never hide it was no way to hide it anyway and I didn’t care if other DJ’s accepted me or not let the music speaks for itself.

    It took awhile to accept myself that its not the handicap that limited myself but the idea, I was not the same DJ after the car accident.
    Some DJ’s talking openly about me how determined I was to get back, they like the way I mix and not being afraid to do something out of the box in my mixes. Looking back , yes I would like to have my Breakthrough but would I be that DJ thinking out of the box? Who’s to say after more than 25 years playing Techno, Progressive, Tech-House, Minimal and all in between .

  • Brad Sartor

    Black Coffee has been a massive source of inspiration to the people of South Africa. We are incredibly proud to see him tearing up house dance floors all over the world, never letting his disability get in the way of achieving his dreams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zdUjHsf1zI

  • Josh “Phantom Limb” Davis

    Hi I’m Josh ‘DJ Phantom Limb” Davis. I was born with half of my right arm about 2 inches below the elbow missing. I am a professional breakdancer, I have been producing music for over 10 years for indie labels, making all genres of music, I founded the drum and bass group Trigger Happy, have worked with several established artists and I have been DJing everywhere In CA, FL, LA and soon MA for the last three years. The support and love that I ge

  • Izn Shahab

    Great article! As DJing is now such a popular hobby, I think it’s important that more accessible technology is made to allow all members of the community to enjoy it. For those looking for further inspiration, check out DJ Black Coffee. He’s a very successful and well respected DJ who lost the use of his left arm.

  • MEOW

    Stoked about people DJing with disabilities. I’m sure it makes you happy like it makes me happy. But I’m really excited to watch “Vibrations”! Sounds like the funniest movie ever “a guitarist who loses his hands in a car crash, only to find himself, after numerous twists, transformed into a leading figure on the US rave circuit when his friends create robotic hands for him to produce/perform electronic music.

  • The Great DJ Swindle

    …and the Oscar goes to…he’s a nice guy above all, when he passed me an original copy of “El Jaguar” with his foot I didn’t know what to think, he said: “I’m going to sell you one of the best records that have come out of Detroit” and he’s still right to these days http://youtu.be/gydJtcTCDcc

  • w00t

    Woow! And I felt disadvantaged because I lost all hearing on my left ear! Now I know true passion overcomes any obstacles, real or imaginary..
    Thank you djtt, really inspiring indeed!

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  • Tina Sloan

    There was a comedy film about a deaf DJ called “it’s all gone Pete Tong” about 10 years ago that is worth mentioning

    • wut

      COMEDY??? If you call it comedy, I have bad news for you.

      • Tina Sloan

        I never said I saw it, but then again, I’m a Brit and some of our comedy is pretty dark. We made a comedy about suicide bombers once. Long story short, they all died at the end.

  • lanceblaise

    Been legally blind since 2008. Onset started in 2000. By 2008 I lost 95% of my vision. I have undergone many surgeries that has gotten my left eye to about 85% loss, while my right eye is still about a loss of 95%. I basically see what it would look like is someone threw mud onto a windshield. Advanced Background Retinopathy, and Diabetic Macular Edema? are the 2 diagnoses. It sucks. It takes about 10 times as long for me to produce music and I had to completely retrain myself on how to dj using controllers. I have adapted quite well I think. I always look at it like “things could be way worse for me”… I do feel I get looked over and not taken 100% seriously at times, I didn’t talk about my condition for a while, but now I have accepted it and I tell people. Its not something I should hide as there may be others out lthere trying to learn how to DJ and produce. I would love to get into more detail on how I produce and how I DJ if people want to know….

    • dioziee

      I’d like to hear this. I’m much more interested in production software than DJ software but both is relevant. I think this info should be out there for anyone who finds it.

      • lanceblaise

        I will do some writing next week so people can learn about my process in both production and djing.

    • djcl.ear

      Ianceblaise, to me, your unique situation and the creative way you have found is among what most of this articles intend for; to share interesting ways, whether coming from new tech, novel usage, or as result of different conditions.
      We do learn and enjoy a whole range here, indeed.
      I’d like to see&hear it in whole article.

      • lanceblaise

        I am more than happy to go into detail. I’m not the best writer, but I will try and set some time aside next week to go into detail on how I produce. I will also break down my dj setup and how I use everything.

        • Dan White

          Lance, please feel free to reach out to the DJTT editorial team and maybe we can help you out 🙂 editor@djtechtools.com

          • lanceblaise

            For sure. 🙂 Thanks.

          • lanceblaise

            No response from the guys at DJTT… don’t know if they ever got my mail.

        • Viciouss Hoffmann

          Let us know your story and you way to overcome your limits! it’s going to be inspiring 🙂

          • lanceblaise

            I will thank you. 🙂 Just need a little time to figure out how to get it all written.

    • Awesomer

      WOW, I am a fan of your DJ mixes from the DJTT forums, and had no idea you were facing this challenge. Thank you for being open and sharing about your condition, as you say it may have knock-on benefits for people in similar circumstances. 😀

      • lanceblaise

        Thanks for the support mate! 🙂

  • Cosmobot

    I overcome my disability of being in a wheelchair and still continue to DJ in spite of some venues not being able to book me because of their stage setup. I love electronic music and this is what I feel I was meant to do. My producer name is Cosmobot in case you want to look me up 🙂 Facebook.com/cosmobotmusic soundcloud.com/Cosmobot

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  • Lost Wax

    this is me Lost Wax’s Jkutta of a Free Agent

  • Lost Wax

    this is me Lost Wax J-Kutta of a Free Agent

  • Ztronical

    Any time I read or see someone who makes it on their own, regardless if it is a disability or just circumstances, I realize that I should try harder.
    I never think I can be better than them, I just see that life is only as hard as we make it in our minds. That goals are set to improve ourselves. Yes people may be impressed, but the artistic challenge is a personal one.

  • MRKY

    Brilliant article really inspirational. Another great DJ with a disability is DJ Semtex from the UK who cuts it up with one hand on the platter and his nose on the fader.

  • Teo Tormo

    Pascal Kleiman should be here https://www.youtube.com/user/pascalkleiman
    Enjoy.

  • killmedj

    Great article. I’ve seen Hookie around the Sydney scene for years, and used to wonder “who’s this crazy cat is with the robot arms!?”
    And that’s the thing I didn’t think “who’s that poor guy with the disability?”.
    I just thought he was a rad DJ dud,e who just happened to be bionic!! =).

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