In the summer of 1973, at a recreational center in a Bronx housing complex, an 18-year old named Clive Campbell, a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, sparked a musical movement. Switching between two copies of the same songs to elongate the “breaks,” or most danceable parts, Herc added his own vocals in the “toasting” style of his Jamaican birthplace. The global journey of hip-hop had begun.
Almost forty years later, young New Orleanians can join this tradition through NOLA Mix, an innovative education program that partners with neighborhood arts centers to teach DJing, music production and life skills.
Launched in 2011 by Ben Epstein, a.k.a. DJ Yamin, and partner Jerald White of Charitable Film Network and Press Street, NOLA MIX began hosting workshops at Antenna Gallery in the Bywater in early 2012. This fall, children from across the city can enroll in classes at community centers in Central City, Uptown, and the Upper Ninth.
At the outset of a class, Epstein discusses the history of the art form, including that legendary party at the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue apartments. “Without boring them, I go into the history of DJ culture and how it started. Then we expose them to vinyl, 12”, 45s, then explain a little bit about the Technics 1200s, show them a couple of basic scratches—this is the forward scratch, the baby scratch, the chirp scratch.”
“Kids in New Orleans are really isolated,” says White. “They need to be exposed to other things. What’s cool about DJing is there are so many things you can do. If you don’t want to mix, you can produce music, you can set up for shows, you can be creative.”
Parents and students who participated in past programs point to the medium’s non-musical benefits. “Not all kids want to play an instrument or kick a ball around,” says Lisa Martin, herself a WTUL DJ whose son, Evan, took classes at Antenna. “Evan tried football and drums when he was younger, but needed something different. He was able to find something to do that is creative and technical at the same time. DJing is also something one can do alone. It does not require a team or group of kids for motivation.”
A successful DJ performance requires the ability to read an audience while maintaining originality. Persistence and curiosity are also essential. “When I started digging, learning about jazz, reggae, soul, blues, it opened me up to people, and it doesn’t stop,” says Epstein. “The history of music is so infectious. You want to learn—where it was produced, who produced it, what else did they produce—a whole world.”
Like the piano or the trumpet, DJ equipment serves as an instrument for self-expression. Epstein recalls his first evening at the helm. “It’s an empowering thing. I remember DJing at a community center in Boston for my fellow high school freshmen,” he says. “You’re behind the tables—or CD players at the time—feeling so euphoric. You made people dance.”
Recent graduates rave about their experience. “I think when we got to scratch, that was my favorite stuff,” says Shiloh Thanos, aka DJ S., age 9. “To anyone who wants to take the class, prepare for fun. And pick out your own music.”
This year’s classes take place at the Ashe Cultural Center, the Freret Neighborhood Center, and the Antenna Gallery, with plans in the works for other locations. In Freret, Epstein and White will combine the program with the center’s Entrepreneur Art Club, with students selling mix CDs at the neighborhood market. “We currently focus on visual arts, but the kids are very interested in music, so we’re excited to partner with NOLA Mix,” says Freret Neighborhood Center Director Eva Sohl. The young DJs “will develop a new avenue for expressing themselves and learn marketable skills that they can contribute to the community.”
The program encourages children to experiment with their own music styles, explore the visual art, films, and dance aspects of hip-hop culture, and create a DJ name. Keep an eye out for DJ Glitz, DJ Glam, DJ Rah Rah, and other NOLA Mix alumni.
For White, the program provides kids with a gateway to the city and the world beyond.
“I want them to leave our classes feeling like New Orleans is an opportunity-rich community for them, and that they’re plugged into something special,” says White, noting that the arts and cultural spaces used for classes and the interactions keyed by NOLA Mix play an important part in their education. “The kids should feel like they’re acquiring creative skills that can legitimately open doors for them. That there are adults in the community that are concerned about them, and spaces where they can learn about their history and culture.”