Amid fog-machine smoke and the glow of LEDs, there’s an undeniable mystique that emanates from a DJ booth. In recent years, the rising clout of DJs and producers has sparked mainstream curiosity and parody (such as The Lonely Island’s comic music video “When Will the Bass Drop?”), along with national attention to their popularity in our own city (see the New Yorker’s 2013 examination of XS, “Night Club Royale”). For most outsiders, however, what really goes on around the turntables remains a mystery.
A local DJ school wants to change that.
Opened in May, Blend DJ Institute is the city’s only brick-and-mortar business solely dedicated to hands-on DJ and production instruction. Courses are offered one-on-one in tiers according to skill level, with topics ranging from beat-matching basics to advanced turntablism, as well as production software such as Ableton and FL Studio. At the helm of it all is Presto One, a veteran local DJ and current resident at the Palms and Chateau’s 33 Group.
Now a nightclub fixture, he began his career 20 years ago by piecing together an education from multiple people, initially spinning only as a hobby. Presto, who prefers his stage name, maintains, “You should surprise people when they find out you DJ.”
And surprise is usually the reaction I receive whenever someone finds out that I, a reserved writer by day and most nights, moonlight as a DJ. Five years ago, I learned fundamental mixing and scratching through a peer-taught college course. Shortly after, I purchased equipment secondhand and have since spun at a handful of house parties and family functions. Although you won’t be seeing DJ Cami Can (that’s me) anywhere close to a Strip-side marquee, I figured it couldn’t hurt to further my education, so I recently stopped by Blend for a lesson.
Located in a strip mall near Tropicana Avenue and Fort Apache Road, the Blend space is comprised of a small retail boutique, production studio and DJ/turntablism classroom, equipped with vinyl turntables and controllers of various makes and models, “so that students can familiarize themselves with different gear,” Presto One says, recalling how an early gig went wrong when he arrived to a unfamiliar setup.
“When I learned [to DJ], everything was so secretive,” he says. He’d thought about opening a school for years, and says it’s been about one year since Blend’s inception. To make it happen, he researched established schools—such as the New York-based Scratch DJ Academy—and assembled a team of five fellow professionals to broaden the course offerings beyond his own expertise.
During my DJ 101 lesson, Presto One began by assessing my skills, as he does with all students. At first, I struggled on the Serato control records, but after he led me through a few beat-counting exercises, my nerves shifted to excitement. I scribbled notes as he demonstrated proper technique and shared his wisdom: “When you’re mixing,” he said, “you want someone not to know where you start one song and end the other.” For my homework, he suggested I count bars the next time I listen to music, so that I can better understand song structure, which will improve my ability to mix smoothly.
“He won’t tell you to do something without telling you why you’re doing it,” says PJ “Produkt” Cervantes, Blend’s FL Studio instructor, also a former student and longtime friend of Presto. “That’s not even him being ‘an instructor’; that’s him being himself. Every time we talk, I learn something.”Both Cervantes and Presto emphasize that, although it’s not hard to find online instruction nowadays, in-person interaction is irreplaceable. “YouTube’s not going to tell you if you’re doing something improperly,” Presto says. Additionally, by bringing interested students together in a physical space, he hopes to cultivate “a barbershop feel,” where members of the community can feel comfortable connecting and collaborating with one another.
“We want more producers and more DJs with a solid foundation,” Presto says. Payment plans are available for all courses, which run $499 for six one-hour sessions. In the retail boutique, you can peruse hard-to-find accessories and rare vinyl. (From a shelf of vintage records Presto calls the “Come-Up Corner,” I scored Shaquille O’Neal’s “What’s Up Doc?” for just $3.99.)
Following my first lesson, I’m anxious to return, and I’m not alone. Sixteen-year-old Alejandra Matheu-Rios is enrolled in DJ 101 and Ableton courses, and after three sessions, she says the classes have “helped build [her] confidence.” One day, she says, “I would like to play a Vegas club.” In the nearer future, her mentor is helping her prepare a mixtape for her mom.
Says Presto One: “I just want to be the big brother DJ I wish I had.”