Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Ryan Goldade and Jenkin Au
Photography by Jenkin Au
Location: Toronto[Show Text Only Version][Hide Text Only Version]
Tell us about yourself
Name is Dustin, I go by the name of DJ Mensa. I’ve been a participant in the Toronto hip-hop scene for the past 10-12 years or so. I’ve been a fan of hip-hop since I was eight. I’ve been in it for a while. I’m happy to say that I’m in a profession that’s actually paying my rent.
What introduced you to DJ and what kept you into it?
When I was in high school, there were a lot of people participating in different forms on hip-hop. There were a lot of b-boys in my high school. A lot of crews at the time. I knew I wasn’t a dancer at all. Everyone had their phases. People that were artistic became graffiti writers. People that were good with words and insult games became rappers. With me, I was a pretty introverted kid back in the day. I used to listen to college radio religiously. We had a lot of really good influential radio shows back in the day. I wanted to take that up more than anyone else. If your a core fan of hip-hop, at the very least you like the music. I saw that as the last chance of my being a participant in the scene. For my 17th birthday, I got a set of turntables. I used to watch a lot of battle videos. I watched a lot of DJ’s in the scene and I wanted to emulate them. It’s the kind of thing where you start off small. I didn’t tell anyone for a year that I was DJ’ing.
Your alias, DJ Mensa. How did you get your name?
I used to be a big nerd in high school. Like I said I was an introvert. I did [Mensa] tests. I’m not actually a member of Mensa. The name stuck so I just kept it.
What are your views on competitions in the scene?
There are some people that are just born to battle or born to compete. I do have the competitive spirit in me. I always try to one up the next guy but I use competition as a yard stick.
Where do you see yourself in your respective field?
The cool thing about hip-hop is that it’s born out of competition. It’s born out of who is the best. That’s far from saying I’m the best at what I do it’s just the outcome of the competition came to be that way. There shouldn’t be any external competition, just how are you going to better yourself next time you come out.
I had an ex that didn’t like the competitions. I said “this is hip-hop and this is how it is.” She used to read these books about how competitiveness is a detriment to the human spirit. It’s more detrimental to be competitive because jealousy and envy arises and you don’t have a tangible end goal, you just want to beat the next guy. It’s not a real goal, a real goal is to better yourself for the next day. So that’s where I need to be now.
In terms of competition, the cream really does rise to the top. People that practice will be rewarded for the work they put in. Regardless of the outcome they’ll be a better person.
Where do you see it going? Back in the day it was more turntablism but it’s become commercialized and more about party rocking and so-on.
There’s a great divide. With technology that’s available these days, everyone’s been jumping on it and giving themselves DJ names. That’s not how it works. I’m an early eighties baby. When I came up, I had to save up for every piece of vinyl that I bought. I had to build my playlist. I hate to sound like that guys that say “back in my day” but you garner a better appreciation for things when you don’t have them. That’s were everyone was who’s my age or older. The majority of the ones that are in the clubs and are killin’ the party are there because they practiced and didn’t see any sunlight.
Speaking of rocking the crowd. The crowds here can be pretty unforgiving. Have you ever been humbled by the people of your own town?
Yeah, you can off days. You’re always going to have off days. It’s the kind the thing that takes a lot of observation. Know your environment. There will be cities that I will travel too that have a different upbringing than those in Toronto, so I’ll be clueless in that regard. I spun at a friend’s birthday in Vancouver, and they’re like “play a lot of 90s.. etc.” A lot of people there were barely 20. I can up in the 90s, they were five in the nineties… It means different things to us. When I was playing the 90s stuff, it was completely lost on them.. That’s just the way it’s gonna be. You go to different places, you just need to learn how to adapt. In terms of being unforgiving, it’s taken time to process what the city likes. But it’s easy cause I live in the city. I just went on tour and I was nervous cause I had been in the cities for my first time. I went to Halifax and I don’t know what the hell they like. I just through everything at them and whatever they liked, I stuck with it. Saskatoon was a big surprise, I didn’t know what they’d like and it turned out they liked reggae. You just never know. Even in your home town. You play percentages but you might end up with a crowd you don’t know.
In terms of what’s cool about this city is that we do have a lot of music loving and musically inclined people. It’s unforgiving in the sense that there’s not much that you can get by them. We get a lot of world class DJs here. We have high standards.
On the topic of world class, you’ve opened for people like Premier, A-Trak, Armstrong and so-on. What have they taught you? What do you think it takes for a DJ to achieve that calibre of popularity?
When you first start out with a particular art form, you start by emulating your influences. You’re just gonna bite when you’re first starting off. B-boys in my high school, they started off by seeing who can do windmills, 1990s, air flares.. you know, the crazy tricks. That never meant you had your own flavour, it just meant you were athletic enough to pull that trick off. It gets to the point where you say “okay, this is cool, but I’m gonna explore something else for a little bit.” It’s the same thing with DJ’ing. When you watch someone you admire, it’s not about the big tricks they pull off, it’s the little nuances that they do to get to the big tricks. If I’m watching a DJ I admire, it’s about how they get TO the big tunes. We all know what the big tunes are. How do you get there? How do you fill in the gaps? Those are the lesson that you should be taking from their influences more than what they achieved.
I’ve seen Q-bert, Premier.. Q-tip I’ve opened for.. ?uestlove.. It’s all about “what are their little tricks?” The thing is, you don’t bite their tricks, you just figure out what kind of trick can I pull off when I’m in the spotlight.
How’ve you risen above the average DJ to create a truly recognizable style to the average outsider?
It comes from a lot of observation. Everything comes from being a fan before a participant. I think that’s the difference between a lot of the good DJs and lot of the bad ones. A lot of the bad ones think they’ll just play the hits and then get out. If I was on a line up with three or four other DJs, I would still be there at 10pm and after my set watching them play. There’s never any fault from learning. It’s all about learning the next guys mistakes. It’s all about putting the next guy’s set against your standards. There are always those that go above and beyond your standards and those are the guys you admire; those become your influences. Others, you listen to and think “I could do that differently.” It’s not a matter of being better, it’s a matter of improving yourself.
Where do you plan on moving you DJ career from here?
More of the same. There are definitely achievements outside of competition. There are so many different mountains to climb and different markets and genres to conquer. Look at Clinton Sparks, doing multimedia stuff. At the core, my most important goal to achieve is making rent every month. I’m doing that with the DJ stuff, so the next logical aspect is to create a nest egg.
What are some of the hardest genres for you to tackle right now?
Dance, electro.. whatever you want to call that. The term “house” is very loose. There are so many different genres of it. This current influx of dance music is a pain to keep up with cause there’s a ton that comes out every month. It’s hard to keep up. Using your own your standards to judge this stuff upon… it bears down on your soul cause by sheer volume, it’s too much. It’s the same thing with pop music. Everything on the radio these days has a fast dance beat to it. Like Far East Movement.. Can I spin it? Yeah I’ll spin it.. do I like it? Fuck no. But its a matter of my upbringing. I grew up in the hip-hop era. There such a shortage of that in the clubs now. There’s no variety.
What is HYPE?
A wise man once told me there’s a different between HYPE and buzz. It’s definitely better to have a buzz than to have HYPE. No offense!