Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Ryan Goldade and Amie Nguyen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Location: Toronto[Show Text Only Version][Hide Text Only Version]
The justalilhype! Crew met up with the DJ legend Starting From Scratch. He’s been a staple in the Toronto DJ scene for close to two decades, locally known for his mix show on Flow 93.5 FM. More recently he can be internationally recognized through his tours with Usher and childhood friend Russel Peters. He speaks with us about those accomplishments and what keeps him inspired in an evolving music scene.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am DJ Starting from Scratch.
What got you into DJ’ing?
What got me into DJ’ing was just hearing it while living in Montreal. This was in the ’80s. They used to have mixshows on the radio. I never knew what it was. I had never seen a DJ but I used to listen every Friday and Saturday night. The music would go seamlessly for hours and it blew my mind. Even before I officially knew that was DJ’ing, I was hooked on it. The first time I saw it in person was when I moved to Toronto and I’ve been hooked.
How did you end up with your stage name “Starting from Scratch”?
It pretty much came from TV Guide. It was a kid’s special. I was racking my brain, looking through records, etc, to find something that inspired a name. I was getting frustrated and I didn’t want to have something cheesy. For the first little while, I was just a DJ with no name. I saw the TV Guide on the side of the bed and it had the name in bold letters. It was an “Ah!” moment.
Describe your relationship with Skratch Bastid and Scratch [from the Roots].
I’ve known Paul (Skratch Bastid) for a few years. We’ve met through DJ circles (as all DJ’s do). We’ve done a bunch of parties together. We’ve done various events together and I think he’s a great DJ. He’s various versatile. He came to me with this idea. I had never met Scratch. They had done some rehearsals together and I guess they figured why not bring me into it, not only for name sake, but we all do three different things. We had that synergy right off the bat. The first time I met Scratch was at a rehearsal and we just clicked and jammed for three or four hours. That was pretty much it. When we get together, it’s that kind of click where we can read each other right off the bat. All egos aside in there and everyone goes out and has fun.
It’s impressive that you guys can have such a long performance. With no rehearsals? With no set?
To be honest, 90% of the show is just freestyle. We’re trying to change that ’cause we’ve ran into various road blocks. You know when you’re performing, you can’t always just do a freestyle ’cause people will eventually want to see a show. It won’t look like a show until we’re all sync’d together. We’re still trying a lot of stuff out to be honest. We’ve only done six shows.
As for being a DJ, one of the more neglected areas is breaking new music. New music is hit or miss in a lot of ways. What are some of the strategies you use to break new music?
I’m fortunate because I’m on the radio so I can set myself up for when I play out. Especially in my city because I can break records on the radio constantly to get it introduced to people. The same way I do it on the radio is the same way I do it in the club. If I know people are not familiar with it, I just bring it in with something they’re familiar with. I’ll mix it in with other stuff that makes them familiar. There’s nothing worse than going into a party and listening to music you don’t know. I’m a music lover so I could tolerate it for a bit but after a while, it would be too much. For the most part, your job in the club is to make people party, it’s not to break records. You can do it, but if you do it all the time, you’ll end up with fewer and fewer gigs. Your job is basically to make people dance.
While working with Flow 93.5, how were you able to help shape the station and help it progress?
Flow has been absolutely amazing with me. They just kind of threw me in the ring and let me go. I’ve talked to DJ’s all over the world and I don’t think any of them have the freedom that I have on a commercial radio station. You guys know from Jay Swing and Flipout about the guidelines they were under. It’s been crazy. They’ve put such trust in me that I’m my own music director in a way. I have to take responsibility wisely. I can’t just be playing records that I want to hear. I’ve got a responsibility to play the records that people want to hear. If Britney is the hottest song out, I’ll still play Britney but I’ll just do it in my own way. The mix show itself is a mix show that could only really be done in Toronto to be honest. It would take a lot of people a lot of time to get used to. The freedom they’ve given me has just been crazy so I’ve been able to mold it from day one. It’s been ten years now that we’ve been doing it here. I’ve been able to basically create my own mix show.
Being a DJ for over ten years and being a music lover, do you ever find that music gets repetitive given the cyclical nature of it?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that if I wasn’t on the radio and I wasn’t doing my own parties that I probably wouldn’t be DJ’ing right now. I can’t do that one music thing. I just don’t have it in me. I have parties where it’s straight house, straight reggae, straight old school. I do all kinds of parties all the time and I purposely do that. I don’t do the jiggy clubs too often anymore. When I’m with Russell, it’s me and Spinbad on four turntables and we basically do everything. There’s a lot of music in my head and my hard drive and I try to play as much of it as I can. I try to do it in the most creative and funky way I can.
How did you end up becoming Russell Peter’s and Usher’s official tour DJ?
Russell and I kind of grew up together. We’ve known each other since high school. He started DJ’ing and used to come to my house. We had met each other through mutual friends through DJ’ing. He used to come to my house all the time and fool around with DJ’ing. Then he just went off in the comedy direction and I went off in the DJ direction. We’ve always been friends but as far as business, he’s had me on his shows for three or four years now. He just called me up and said, “I think it’s time now.” He established himself and he’s good. He’s doing arenas now and he made himself big enough that he can finally bring me out and he reached out. I did it for two years by myself and then the last two years it’s been myself and Spinbad. It’s been crazy.
The Usher thing was a fluke. I had done a friend’s wedding and he was there and I don’t do weddings. The whole scenario was made to happen. [The groom] kept asking me to do it so I said fine. There were about 75 people there and Usher was one of them. It was in a restaurant and he was there. I DJ’d and he stayed and danced the whole night. At the end of the night, I turned around and he was standing right beside me and he said, “What are you doing in November?” I was like, “I don’t know, you tell me.” He said, “Okay, I want to take you on tour.” Three weeks later, I was on tour.
Through all these international tours at large venues and arenas, what have you learned from opening up for these acts?
It’s different. With Usher, it was really different because he hired me initially to open for him but I actually was part of the band. I was actually in the whole show and I had my own solo and we had a solo together. So the Usher experience was totally different for me. I had done it previously with Keshia Chante and I had gone on tour with Jelleestone and a couple other guys but the Usher thing was grand scale so it was very nerve-wracking and pressure filled. It was something I’ve never experienced before, but I pulled it off and I’m glad I did. It made me a stronger person and a stronger DJ. The Russell thing is just “go up there and have fun.” This crowd is not a musical crowd. 95% of them have probably never seen a DJ in their life or know what the hell we’re doing. That’s good in a way because Russell’s taking the DJ culture and what we do and throwing it in their face. His crowd is very militant with Russell; anything he tells them is sold. For what he’s done for us, not only us two but the whole culture, is incredible and he just continues to do it. He loves DJ’ing, that’s his passion.
As someone who has travelled a lot in your career, what effect has travelling had on you?
I’m not the type of person who is a sight seer.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been all over the world but the only time I ever went out and saw a place was when I was in Greece just because I figured I’d probably never be back there again. When I travel, it’s just work to be honest with you. Most of the travelling is very short term. It’s very rare that you get to travel and stay and see the place. It’s hard to say. I get where you’re going with the question but it’s just work. On the Usher tour, it was like: perform, get off, get on the tour bus, sleep on it over night, get up, sound check. It’s a very monotonous life. It’s very grueling. Same with the Russell stuff.
When we do a three week tour in Australia, we’re still travelling in Australia all the time. We’ll get a day off and the next day, we’re travelling and when you get the day off, you just want to relax and chill. We would just go and hang out. Every time I’m out with different people, it’s different. The Usher thing was straight work. I didn’t really have friends on the tour and I didn’t really know anybody. After a month, sure, but usually I would be sitting on my computer. Everyone was just there to work. With Russell, we’re all friends so it’s like travelling with family. It’s amazing. Usually when I go out by myself, I just go out and come back cause I have to be back for the radio.
As someone who has DJ’d a wide assortment of events throughout this city, tell us about your involvement in the hip hop community within Toronto.
I don’t know if I’m the one to be asked that. I always get the tag-line of a hip-hop DJ because I play urban music so it’s natural for people to consider me a hip-hop DJ. I don’t consider myself a hip-hop DJ by any means. I don’t consider myself a house DJ, I just consider myself a DJ. I play all kinds of music and do all kinds of parties. Hip-hop centered wise, I’ve pretty much done everything. I’ve done concerts with artists, I’ve done b-boy jams for years, as much as I can do. I very rarely turn down musical gigs where I get to really play music. To me, it doesn’t matter what I’m getting paid. Those are the gigs I still do ’cause I really love to do it and I’ll always continue to do it because that’s what keeps me vibrant and wanting to DJ. The jiggy gigs is where you’ll make your money but I never wanted the life of a DJ AM. Every night, it’s a different club but it’s the same thing all the time; I could never do that. I don’t know if there’s a straight answer for what I’ve done for hip-hop or what hip-hop’s done for me in this city. All I can say is that I love doing it and will continue to be doing it. Just the other day I was talking with Special Ed about doing parties and stuff. There’s always stuff, especially with the old school guys. A lot of those guys are my personal friends because we’ve done stuff for years together. With the new guys, it’s really tough because new hip-hop is like pop. Those guys make so much money so fast that it’s really hard to deal with those guys. I tend to stick with the lower key guys and the old school guys. They’re way more easier to work with. If the opportunity comes to work with Drake and stuff, cool, but would I bust my ass? No. He made ten million dollars last year and I didn’t. I still have to work my ass off so I try to get into as many different fields as possible.
You’ve already done so much throughout your DJ career, what future goals do you have in mind?
Production, really. I’ve been doing tons of production now and it’s different stuff. I’m not doing the Rick Ross music or anything like that. I’m doing a lot of house music, a lot of soul, a lot of R&B. Right now, it’s just music that I like, music that I would appreciate listening to. It’s niche music. It’s not mainstream by any means but I enjoy doing it. As long as I’m fortunate enough to do what I want to do and still make a living then why wouldn’t I?
What advice do you have to those starting out who want to make DJ’ing a career?
My generation, I’ll call it the grass roots generation, is a totally different learning process. It’s a totally different musical process especially in your mind. You can pretty much go on the internet and get anything you want now. Grass roots training was just technical training and learning by going into a club and playing four or five hours by yourself. Learning how to build nights by yourself and learning how to take a crowd up and down and hold them there. There are so many DJ’s that are thinking short term. A lot of guys get into it cause they see guys like us and it makes money. Yeah, you can make a great living out of it. Short term DJ’s are these Khaleds and these guys who aren’t technically DJ’s that are making crazy money being artists so people think it’s easy. If you do what they do, sure it’s easy. If you’re a young DJ that’s interested in how to become a better DJ and a real DJ, then cool, I’ll sit and talk to you. If you’re one of those kids that has the technology and became a DJ because it’s a novelty, then may the force be with you. There’s a billion other guys like you. There aren’t a lot of grass roots DJ’s left that still do what they do and the guys tend to get over looked. Like Tribe Called Quest for instance, they make great music but they will never make the money that Fabolous would make. Who’s a better artist? That’s up to you. If you’re a young kid, you’ll probably like Fabolous. If you’re a music head, you’ll like Tribe. It’s weird. Guys that are in it for the short term and not gonna learn, at least take it serious and don’t be that Pauly D guy from Jersey Shore. Take it serious; sit back and watch some DVDs. Not just learning DVDs but history ones like Scratch. It’s the same for anything; if you’re serious about it, you’ll love it, learn about it and do it properly. If you’re doing it for the short term and you’re ignorant then you’ll just try it out and if it works, it works.
What is HYPE?
HYPE to me is playing that one song and watching the crowd go bananas.