DJ Shortee Interview

(full photo credit to Jason Fenmore – Ohdagyo Photography)

Everyone has an opinion on what it takes to make it as a professional DJ. To some, the genre you play will dictate whether you have a future or not. To others, you are defined simply by the tools that you use. You may even stumble across the occasional lunatic who’s convinced it’s just hard work and giving people a good time that matters. I caught up with DJ Shortee to help answer some of these questions and get her perspective on everything from laptops to running record labels.

Let me introduce you to Shortee; DJ, Producer and Teacher. As one half of LA based Faust and Shortee, Shortee is also the co-founder of 5 Star Records, Heavy Artillery Recordings and production duo, Urban Assault. On the road the “Queen of the Scratch World” has toured alongside KRS One, Supernatural, Method Man, Craze, Q-bert, Z-Trip and The Roots and is the only female ever to produce a solo turntablist album and the first to produce a battle record. Shortee also appears with partner, Faust in Doug Pray’s documentary ‘Scratch'”. Having spent four years as a head professor at The Scratch DJ Academy co-founded by RUN DMC’s Jam Master Jay, Shortee now teaches DJ/Remix courses for the Grammy Foundation. From the crowd’s perspective, Shortee’s Dubstep, Drumstep, D & B and Electro House sets are renowned for destroying dance floors like a super-sized bag of belligerent anvils crashing through the ceiling at a sub-bass convention.

The following interview was conducted over a couple weeks as Shortee bounced around with gigs on both coasts, a video shoot for Whiskey Pete’s ‘Cut Throat’ and multiple label releases. The first lady of scratch appears to make all of this happen on approximately 27 minutes of sleep a night.

Back in the day the DJ setup was pretty static, a pair of Technics and a mixer. Today setups are becoming more diverse, so what’s your core setup today?

My core setup has stayed true to my roots of two turntables and a mixer, although the actual gear has evolved over time and I have added a laptop and some effects into the mix. I currently use two Technics 1200s or 1210s and a 2 channel Rane TTM-57SL which has a built in DSP and the Serato hardware inside the mixer. My laptop is a custom-built, tricked-out and extremely reliable PC built by PC Audio Labs and runs Serato Scratch Live software. Yes, you heard right… I said it’s a PC!

Shortee’s Weapons of Choice

  • Technics 1200s/1210s
  • Shure M44-7 needles and ‘Faust & Shortee’ Custom Slipmats by Glowtronics
  • Rane TTM 57SL for Serato Scratch Live
  • Mixing Platform: Serato Scratch Live
  • Native Instruments X1
  • Pioneer EFX-1000 Professional DJ Effector
  • PC Audiolabs Intel Core 2 Duo | T9300 @ 2.50 GHz| 4.00 GB RAM | 750 GB Hard drive (now three years old)
  • Sennheiser HD-25 headphones

PCs have been given an awfully bad rap in this industry so what has made you stick with Windows?

My first computer was custom built PC as I was majoring in graphics and computer animation and the program I was using (3d Studio Max) only ran on Windows. Since then I’ve owned both Macs and PC computers but it has been the Macs that have given me the problems. I also need to be able to “get under the hood”  and customize my machines which is something I never felt like I could do properly with a Mac due to all the name-brand limitations.

PCs work well for me because they support the applications I use where as some aren’t even available for the Mac.  I know people who split their hard drives using Boot Camp, however that setup doesn’t appeal to me as the software can be difficult to use efficiently when it’s split across two platforms. I like PCs but if you like Macs, use them. Whatever works best for you is what you should use. Just don’t tell someone else what they should be using or imply that what you use is “the best” because it may not be “the best” option for someone else and you will just come off like a snob.

How do you handle issues that crop up with your gear when you’re on the road?

Picture by Patrick PhatPix Perry (c) 2011

I’ve had problems with fires starting due to faulty power strips shorting out or the turntables not working correctly due to faulty wires. There have also been times when I have had to deal with beer drenched DJ mixers courtesy of the previous DJ. However, I have never had any issues with my laptop (knock on wood!). My machine’s built like a tank and that construction has saved my ass in multiple sketchy performance situations. I recently played a warehouse show where the crowd was bouncing huge inflatable balls in the air.  One of the balls slammed into my laptop, ripped the power and USB cables out and shot it across stage. The music stopped, my heart stopped but I just picked it up and to my amazement, nothing was damaged on the outer shell. There wasn’t even so much as a scratch on it! I just plugged it back in, rebooted and got the show running again. Less than a minute later and it was like it never happened and the crowd was going insane. The Macs I have owned in the past would have never survived that fall because their outer shell wasn’t nearly as durable.

You said, “Don’t tell someone else what they should be using as you will just come off like a snob” A lot of new DJs are trying to break into the scene and some have run into exactly that kind snobbery because they are using controllers or platforms like Ableton. What  do you think constitutes a “real” DJ?

Now that’s a controversial subject for sure. Whether it’s Turntable vs. CDJ vs. Controller, Ableton vs. Logic vs. FL Studio , Mac vs. PC – there really isn’t one way that’s “right.” It’s all about what’s right for you and what will enable you to  be the creative and successful in your productions and most comfortable in your live performances.

With respect to DJing specifically as a form of performance, if you want to get technical, D.J. stands for Disc Jockey who is traditionally someone who rocks vinyl records. Many vinyl purists feel that those are the true tools of the craft. But vinyl and turntables wouldn’t even exist if not for what came before them, so really they are just an integral part in the timeline of the craft’s evolution.

In my personal opinion, I feel a DJ is a performer that mixes and blends music live, by hand, adapting to the crowd’s needs while taking them on a musical journey from point A to point B.

If your entire set is pre-mixed or pre-recorded in any way (i.e recorded before the event and simply played as one long pre-made composition) whether it be a premixed on a CD or Ableton live or Serato etc, I don’t feel that’s really DJing. It may rock the party but it’s not live so I feel it’s not DJing. I’ve seen a ton of big name “DJs” pop one CD in a CDJ and jump up and down for an hour pretending like they are DJing. I’ve also seen people who have premixed sets playing in Ableton and pretend like the are turning knobs and clicking buttons but not actually affecting the mix live in any way. It’s like someone lip syncing to a pre-recorded track. It’s not real, its fake. Therefore it’s not “real” DJing.

Has the level of available automation in DJing taken something away from the crowd’s experience?

Picture by James Coletta & Josh Diaz (c) 2011

Watching someone rock turntables or CDJs (whether they use vinyl, CDs alone or with Serato/Traktor etc) is way more artistic & visually entertaining to watch rather than someone simply pressing buttons on a midi controller because there is more of a visual art to it. Especially when the DJ incorporates cutting and scratching to create rhythms and soundscapes on the fly using these ‘audio players’ as true instruments. Having said that, DJs rocking Ableton and controllers to perform original music, or remixes goes way beyond DJing and delves into the realm of live remixing and original performance.  These artists are recreating songs live and this is definitely an art I respect.

There are bedroom DJs based all over the planet today and many are in remote locations armed with great skills but little more than basic equipment and a net connection.  How do they differentiate themselves enough to rise above everyone else and get a real crack at the Pro scene?

As far as getting heard, it doesn’t matter where you live, the reach of the internet today gives you worldwide exposure. Make a TON of mixes, offer them for free online and promote them like crazy! Ultimately it doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do, you aren’t going to get anywhere if nobody knows about it. Use Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, your blog and wherever else people go looking for music. If your mixes are that good people will eventually take notice.

Finally, we all need to accept that DJing only goes so far today and the days of making it on the pro scene solely as a DJ are long gone. The only way to cross the line is to also produce your own original music and release it worldwide, even if it’s just in the digital market. Believe me; I know first-hand how frustrating it can be for skilled DJs to see popular producers without any real mixing skills draw massive audiences and get paid huge amounts based solely on their production reputation. Many of them aren’t very good DJs and put very little effort into learning the craft.That means the only way to compete is to learn to both DJ and produce music and do both well. This will give you the best chance to achieve respect & longevity in your career.

You must get a lot of up and coming DJs giving you mixtapes and demos. What are some of the more original ways DJ have used to get your attention?
There have been a few up and coming DJs who have picked me up at the airport after landing in their city for a gig with their mix already playing in the car. The best is when they don’t say it’s them and I’m like, “This mix is really dope, who it this?!?” I do get a ton of DJ mix download links in my inbox or on facebook or whatever and I rarely have time to listen to them. We also get hundreds of original track demo submissions each week for the label so those take precedence cause we have to listen to all of them which takes up most of our listening time. I will occasionally take the time to download someone’s mix if they actually include our music in it because I’m very interested in seeing how creatively people can incorporate these tunes into their own DJ sets and how our tunes sound with the rest of the music in their set. It’s super cool cause I get to hear our music in a totally different way, through their ears.  Not to mention, it’s the ultimate compliment to hear your track being played by another DJ.

Do you ever have to deal with overly eager DJs overstepping their bounds?

The single most annoying thing is when someone posts a mix download link on our Soundcloud disguised as a “comment” on a track.  This is absolutely not the way to get noticed. It is very disrespectful to the work originally posted and really frustrates record labels, producers and even other DJs.

Drum & Bass or Dubstep?

Additional artwork by Brandon Andrews

Both! They are like children to me and I love them equally for vastly different reasons. Today I have a lot of hardcore Drum and Bass fans who have gotten pissed at me for playing or producing other genres.  That’s hurtful to me as an artist and I feel that it’s really closed minded, selfish and ignorant. They assume I started off as a Drum and Bass DJ.  It was actually seven years into my career that I started playing Drum and Bass. The reality is that throughout my career I have played everything; House (Latin, funky, swing, tech, electro, hard etc.), Techno, Drum and Bass, Dubstep, Drumstep, Funk, Soul, Jazz, Breaks, Hip Hop (current, old school, dirty south, hyphie, instrumental etc.), Top40, Pop, Rock,  70s, 80s, 90s etc. As I said, I love Drum and Bass and will continue to play and produce it as long as I’m inspired by it,  but I feel the same about all the genres I play. I would be bored out of my skull if I just had to choose one style.

In my opinion artists need to explore, experiment and be inspired.  It’s the only way for them to grow on their artistic journey. We aren’t robots put on this planet solely to produce and play music to order, and it makes us feel like shit when people expect us to blindly comply with their specific taste. Instead of tearing down artistic choices, people should use that energy to do something creative and productive of their own. If we all spent time doing that it would make the music better and everyone’s collective world a better place.

So yeah, Drum and Bass or Dubstep? Why choose when you can have them both, and anything else that inspires you?!?! Okay, sorry for the rant, thanks for letting me get that out there. I’m stepping off my soapbox now. [note: We have no photographic proof that she actually stepped off the soapbox – for all we know she’s on it right now]

Being a successful DJ is hard enough. Being a successful DJ, Producer and Label Boss must add countless layers of complexity. How do you keep all three roles in check without sacrificing any one of them?

Picture by James Coletta Photography

It’s definitely a huge challenge to keep everything in check and I usually sacrifice sleep to create more time in my day [most of Shortee’s e-mails seem to come in when it’s 4am where she is – SmiTTTen]. Regardless, it’s inevitable that one role eventually has to take the back seat from time to time. It’s just a matter of rotating that back seat fairly so that they all get equal attention within the larger picture without experiencing a total burnout in the energy department.

Our own careers have definitely been taking the back seat for the past few months as we focus on the label. When we first started the label, we released our own music for two years and got it to a point where the brand was recognizable, however we knew that in order to reach the next level we’d have to open up the forum. By signing on additional artists it creates a sense of community so the label grows much faster, reaching a wider audience. This is because everyone is working together to promote the label to grow into its own successful entity. As a result, when the time comes to release our own albums again, we will have a considerably bigger platform to work with.

As far as label management goes, the most challenging part of it all is learning how to delegate responsibility and give up a certain amount of control in various areas to get more accomplished overall. DJ Faust and I are both control freaks and we have been DYI warriors for so long that trusting others to do the same quality of work doesn’t come easy to us. However this is exactly what we’ve had to start doing because there just isn’t enough time in the day for the two of us to do it all and still give attention to our own artistic careers. We have learned firsthand that intelligent, hardworking, trustworthy, dependable, dedicated people that are truly passionate about our business are extremely difficult to find. We have been fortunate enough to finally find a couple of these rarities in the last few months and bringing them on board has definitely helped the label grow in other areas we couldn’t do on our own. More importantly, it has given us the priceless opportunity to delegate our time a bit better in order to nurture all the roles a bit more equally.

Any last words before we let you go?

Too much to say and too little time! I do want people to know that they can keep in touch with me on Facebook & Twitter as well as my websites:

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