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Is it so wrong for a rumpled, 53-year-old white man to pursue a career as an urban hip-hop DJ? In a word: Yes.

December 10, 2006|Andy Meisler | Andy Meisler has written for West, the New York Times and Los Angeles magazine. His Los Angeles Times Magazine story "The Fright Stuff" was included in the 2004 anthology "Best American Sports Writing."

One day last spring, I was standing in a storefront classroom in West Los Angeles under the baleful gaze of a Mary J. Blige poster, being bombarded by background music going thunka thunka thunka thunka. Directly in front of me, perched ghettoliciously on two empty 55-gallon oil drums, was a complex, exotic-looking entertainment delivery system. Amazingly, I was one of very few of the 20-odd students who understood both its original purpose and function. Question: Did that make me: 1. Almost impossibly cool, or 2. Totally, incredibly out of it? (Hint: Try not to get your hopes up as high as mine were.)

"This is a needle," said our instructor. "This is a stylus. This is a cartridge. And this is a headshell. The whole thing goes into the tone arm. And the little stylus is really what does all the work."

Most of my classmates, some almost half my age, blinked in noncomprehension. Our instructor, DJ Hapa--that's his DJ name--went on to explain some intriguing buttons marked 33 and 45 on our twin Stanton T.120 turntables.

"Has anybody ever seen any 78s?" asked Hapa, who chooses not to reveal his real name in devotion to his art form. I was one of two or three who eagerly stuck up their hands.

"Well," said Hapa, "we won't worry about those."

And that was the end of my head start to hipness.

I have lived long enough to have heard CSN&Y--look it up, kid--sing "Marrakesh Express" in four-part harmony. Live. But, improbably, I was attending the first session of a six-week, nine-hour, $300 course at the Scratch DJ Academy, a 1 1/2-year-old school that teaches the craft and art of scratching and mixing. DJ 101, the class I was taking, was nothing less than an accelerated introduction to turntablism.

Say what, Dog?

Before I take a stab at explaining all this, I'll stand on firmer ground and tell you why: Because I'm old. At 53, and a quarter-century removed from anything resembling the cutting edge of modern popular music, I realized I was in big trouble. For the last couple of years I'd been running on cruise control while nodding to the smooth sounds of KKGO-AM (1260), the now-defunct Southern California home of the Great American Songbook.

Although Peggy and Frank and Nat and Ella were indeed great artists to whom I can listen practically night and day, the fact is that they're all extremely dead. I had the hopeful feeling that the longer I soaked up their virtuosic output, the closer I, too, could get to immortality. But when Wagnerian opera and Sandy Wood, the hypnotic hostess of the daily astronomical bulletin "StarDate," started sounding good, I realized that the Lennon Sisters and maybe even Paul Harvey were lurking dangerously over my horizon. Drastic action was needed to head off premature geezerism, so I kept forcing myself to hit the "seek" button.

Hence, I discovered what all those "dope" and "bad" young people are listening to--hip-hop.

Scratch DJing is an essential component of this form of mass entertainment. Most noticeably, the scratch DJ manipulates archaic vinyl records on his turntables to provide a rhythmic complement to the recorded music's beat. He does this wherever he performs, sometimes behind live rappers--also known as MCs--but usually without.

Even more important, the DJ has the solemn responsibility of assessing new music and deftly concocting impromptu and/or seriously pre-calculated mixes, be it in the dance hall, radio station or on underground mix tapes. These are new works of musical art consisting of seamlessly connected songs from different artists, records and even genres. When done correctly and artfully, it's almost impossible to tell where one song ends and the next one begins. The DJ's scratching becomes an integral part of the musical mix.

"The turntable is the ultimate instrument," said DJ Hapa, a rail-thin, much-tattooed 26-year-old of part-Hawaiian ancestry. "And the DJ is the musician."

This was after he delivered a fascinating half-hour history of hip-hop music and scratch DJing far too lengthy to go into here. But the ultrashort impress-your-friends-at-a-cocktail-party version is this: "1983 Grammys telecast. Grand Mixer DXT backing up Herbie Hancock on 'Rockit.'" Trust me. Try it and report back.

After that we got to choose our DJ names. The young lawyer next to me was DJ French. The younger woman on my other side was DJ 9-1-1. The middle-school math teacher from Huntington Park became DJ Surge. The blond starlet on the other side of the room, who happened to be the youngest granddaughter of William Lear, the inventor of the Lear Jet and the eight-track cassette player, was DJ Miss L. The wholesome-looking young woman on my left with braces on her teeth said, "I'm from the Midwest. My name is Pauline. So I guess I'm DJ Pauline."

In case you're wondering--and if you are, you're as clueless about hip-hop's hegemony as I used to be--the racial and ethnic mixture of my fellow students roughly mirrored that of young Los Angeles, which is to say all over the map.

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