Spin doctorates?

October 25, 1996

Universities are fast becoming training grounds for DJs. There may not be any university courses that teach students how to DJ, but there is a well-trodden path from standing in a student bar putting records on a turntable to becoming a nightclub superstar. Current chart-topping band The Chemical Brothers consists of two DJs who cut their teeth as students at Manchester University, a fact they repeat relentlessly to journalists.

Universities often give young people their first opportunity to play on professional sound systems in venues that resemble real clubs. Add to this a generally easily pleased audience (students tend to be more concerned about cost than the quality of their entertainment) and you can see why the university environment is a seductive training ground for aspiring DJs.

Matt Williams, head of entertainments at the National Union of Students, says there's a growth in DJs coming through the higher education system that should be encouraged: "If someone wants to be a DJ student unions should help them. Universities should be about more than just obtaining a degree. In the future a lot of new DJs are going to come through the college system and universities will have been where they got their first opportunity to play to an audience."

Being a DJ takes skill, hard work and up-to-the-minute knowledge of constantly expanding musical genres. Appreciating the difference between drum and bass, hard step and amyl is vital. Mixing, where a DJ matches the beats of two records and plays them simultaneously, requires technical and musical proficiency and nowadays most DJs also record their own music.

Despite the boom in Brit pop and Teen-scene bands DJing is still attractive, particularly to students. While bands need a high cash outlay, DJs need only records - a cost usually covered by the playing fee. "It's a cheaper and easier option for people to show their artistic ability," says Williams. "You can get records free and it's a lot easier to have a suitcase full of records than having to carry a band line-up of three guitars and a drum kit around. And part of the reason for doing it is to earn a bit of extra dosh, just like working behind the bar but a bit more glamorous."

The amount DJs are paid varies. Student union events normally pay between Pounds 30 and Pounds 50 a night and occasionally Pounds 100 for a big event. Clubs are unlikely to pay much to unknown DJs, but big-name DJs can demand thousands of pounds for a two-hour or three-hour set.

Visit any university and you are certain to find up-and-coming DJs. Ben Wyatt and Ricky Cooper, two long-haired surfing buddies from the Isle of White, run a nightclub at Middlesex University Student Union. Wyatt is taking history of art and media studies at Middlesex University and Cooper has just completed a furniture design course at the College of North East London.

When they started running their student club two years ago it was a hobby. "We started small and progressed from there," says Wyatt. "We did a year doing our own thing and then at the start of the second year we got Mr C [nightclub owner and frontman of pop band the Shaman] involved." Mr C was impressed and since then has encouraged and supported them.

They may not be making big money yet, but they are busy running one of the first Internet radio stations in the UK, playing in Central London Clubs, and have just returned from a tour of France, Spain and Portugal.

Homegrown, the DJ collective that Wyatt and Cooper started, now includes MC Scally Wag from the rave outfit Spiral Tribe, who is also a student.

Wyatt and Cooper devoted years to learning about music, collecting records and gaining the technical skills necessary to appear before a crowd and not get laughed off stage. You cannot help wondering whether this interfered with studying. "Of course it does," admits Wyatt. "But we're serious about it. The biggest problem was that at first our parents didn't understand, but now they can tell we're serious and that it's what we want to do."

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