The Evolution of a DJ Champion - DJ Vajra

DJ Vajra flew down to New Zealand to hang out with us at the office. Recently, he took out the World DMC Championship in October, 2011. What you might not know is that Vajra is no stranger to the DMCs, and has a long history with scratch battles.

We sat down for a chat with him while he was down here on his evolution as a battle DJ, a scratch artist and a producer.

How did you get into DJing?

When I was a little kid, about nine years old, I saw Yo MTV raps for the first time and that was the first time that I’d seen or heard scratching, and I thought it was really cool. When my parents would leave the house, I would put on my Muppet Show records, and John Denver records and try to figure out how to make the same sounds. Of course, I didn’t have a crossfader, so I never understood that part of the equation; all I knew was back and forth.

A few years later, Def Comedy Jam came on TV and I had a good friend named Paul Michaeloff and he said, “I want to get turntables like Kid Capri!” So he went out and bought Technics 1200 and we both started spending all of our time going to the record store, buying vinyl, tapes, cds - pretending we had our own radio show. He was really interested in mixing, but I just really always wanted to try and scratch. He would always say “You’re going to break the needle!” and wasn’t too into the idea of me scratching on his equipment.

The thought of actually being a DJ never even crossed my mind, so I gave all my records (about a crate and a half) to Paul when I moved from Indiana to Colorado.

At school in Colorado, I was introduced to this kid named Mike Moen. We started talking about music, we like the same things and he says “I’m a DJ, I have Technics 1200s at my house,” and I said immediately “I’m coming to your house! This weekend! I’m coming over!”

I went over to his house and he showed me the first DMC video I ever saw, which was a bootleg video of the 95 East Coast, West Coast, US and World finals, all on one tape. We watched the whole thing, all six hours of it, straight through and I was completely blown away. I just knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do.

What was your first DJ setup?

My sister worked with a Junglist named DJ Pepper and she told him I wanted to get into DJing. He had an extra turntable and offered to sell it to me for $20. My friend Mike sold me an MTX Battleboard 2 Mixer and that was my first setup.

I was walking down the street, two months later and I saw a turntable in a garbage pile. I picked it up, took it home, plugged it in and I could hear something moving. I didn’t know how it worked or anything like that, so I figured out how to take it apart. I saw the belt, and tried to connect it but it kept slipping off. So I made a belt out of electrical tape, and it worked! It would hold pitch and that was my setup that I had for a little over a year.

How did you get involved in the DMCs?

Colorado’s not really a hip hop mecca, so the first time the DMCs came was in 99. At the time, all my friends were telling me to enter, but all I had ever seen was the best (the finals video) so I was like “Hell no, I’m not gonna compete, I might look stupid in front of these guys.”

I went to that battle, and I left feeling that I wouldn’t have been the worst person in that battle. I made a decision at that point that I was going to enter every battle that happened.

I entered a couple of battles that year - won a few, lost a few. Did my first DMC in Lawrence, Kansas in 2000 and made top six, which was my goal. Then I went and did the one in Boulder and made it top six in that one too, so I’m thinking “Alright, cool, I’m gonna come back next year and try and get in the top three.” That was my goal I wanted to step it up every year.

2001 came around and I decided to do Boulder and a month after, Chicago - you could enter two regionals at this point. I’m thinking I got to go to a big regional this time (Chicago), I gotta see how I compare to the big dogs. I bought my ticket to Chicago, and had plans to go out and stay with DJ Spryte, who I met in Kanas the year before and I was really excited to go battle out here. I did the Boulder regional and I won!

I was really surprised, and was a little bit bummed out that I didn’t get to compete in Chicago because I didn’t have to anymore. I knew at the time that I wasn’t ready to be in the US Finals. I was really freaking out, and I just had to come to grips with the facts that, alright, I have no chance of winning this year, so I’m just going to start working for next year.

I went up and did the set that I had prepared and said, “next year, I want to make it back and do even better.”

Next year, I went to Austin, Texas, competed in the regional down there and ended up winning. That was thefirst battle that I ever won outside of Colorado.

Went back to the US Finals that year and beforehand, decided that I wanted to do even better and place in the top three. It was a harder road the next time around, flew to Seattle 2003, brought all my gear with me by myself.

The battle had crazy technical issues, and I lost to DJ Ace by one point. I’m thinking at that point that I can’t afford to do another regional, so I figured I wasn’t going back to the US finals. Another regional ended up coming up in Austin, Texas again so I had one more chance.

I scraped the money together, and flew down to Austin. This time everyone remembered me from the year before and they were not happy that I was there to win their regional again. I ended up winning but I got booed when they announced it. But the point was making it back to the US Finals.

So I went back to the US Finals in 2003, this time in D.C., and I got second place to DJ Enferno.

I came back the next year, and took a bad approach to my set. I didn’t put anything for the crowd in it and was hoping I could win with a pure technical set and I ended up getting 3rd place. That was the first time that I’d taken a step backwards - from 2nd place to 3rd place. I’ve always had the goal of trying to improve and this year I took a step back. So I stopped battling for six years.

What made you come back to compete again?

When I came back this year, I just wanted to have that forum for what my form of creative expression is: turntablism. There really aren’t a lot of forums for that anymore, I can’t go to the club and do that. I was still scratching, juggling and drumming all the time, but it was always with my friends, behind closed doors and hanging out.

I felt like I had a lot of things that I wanted to share with people who were fans of turntablism, ideas that no one had thought of yet and that was really the only forum for it. DMC is the only forum for it really, unless you’re one of the select few people who actually get booked to do turntable shows.

This year, the moment I heard they were going to allow digital in the DMC, I knew instantly that I wanted to compete again because I had ideas that I wanted to be able to do that just weren’t possible with vinyl. If it wasn’t for that, if they hadn’t changed that rule, there's absolutely zero chance I would’ve come back and competed ever again.

How did you put your routine together for the DMCs this year?

The process this year, putting the routine together itself, a lot of it just happened by accident. For instance, the routine that I ended my set with where it goes faster and faster and faster - that was not even meant to be a routine when I came up with it. That was something I was working on for a mixtape. The beat itself already got faster on its own, I didn’t do that, it’s just something I came across by this group called “The Secret Lemon Project.”

I edited it down for the mixtape and I started scratching over it, to see how it flows. When I tested the routine out at home, I thought it would really work in a show. So I went out and I did it at a show and people went crazy. At that moment, I knew I could do this in a battle, so I put it away and didn’t do it again at all for six months, until the next battle/DMC rolled around.

As far as the rest of the routine goes, that stuff doesn’t exist on vinyl. You can’t do it with vinyl, because it doesn’t exist on vinyl. All this stuff, I made it myself. To be able to have one computer that I recorded everything onto, then I arranged everything with, then I go out and DJ with that same computer - that is what really allows me to be fully creative when I’m putting the set together. Every idea I have, I don’t have to just say “Oh, I hope I can find this sound on record” or “I hope I can find something exactly like how I picture it in my brain” - I can just make it.

There’s a drum routine in my world final set where I went to the studio and recorded with the guitarist from The Flobots. I knew what I wanted in my head, I’d already put together the drum part. I just played on the piano what I wanted him to do at what times and he laid it down. Then I went back and added some percussion elements to it and basically created my own track, and then did a routine on top of it.

What do you think of the whole routines with digital vinyl systems vs. routines on real vinyl?

I guess some people would argue that I could do the exact same routine and press it on vinyl, and it would be more of a purist thing. But fuck that. There’s no point. I don’t see the point to it. I’m not going to sacrifice the sound quality and the depth of the sound that I can get with digital. I’m not going to risk needle skipping just because people think that’s keeping it real. When the record skips, that’s not keeping it real.

I think the audience deserves better than that. They deserve to see peoples’ routines as they were meant to be. That’s much easier to accomplish with digital than it is with vinyl.

What about the producer side of what you do - any plans for more production in 2012?

I got really heavy into producing for about five years. I took it very seriously, I learned a lot. I got into a Red Bull Music Labs (not be confused with RBMA), and I learned how to make beats from Bassnectar. So I took that very seriously for about five years.

I entered in the Red Bull Big Tune beat battles two years in a row. The first time, I did my whole thing in one day because the organisers rang me the day before to invite me to compete. I was a tie-breaker away from going to the US finals from one day of preparation. I thought it was worth trying again next year and made it to the semi-finals again.

I left that competition feeling like I was a good producer, but I wasn't a great producer. I didn’t want to be jack of all trades, master of none. I decided at that point I would put my energy back into doing something I felt I had the most potential to be great at which was scratching/DJing. And I completely recommitted myself to that, and I haven’t made a beat since then.

But for 2012, I would like to make beats again. I feel like I don’t really have anything else to prove as a DJ. Once you win the DMC World title, no one can really question your ability as a DJ anymore - it’s already set in stone. Now I can go back to production.

I’d like to put out an instrumental album in 2012. I have these grand dreams of putting together a multimedia show that I could do at festivals, and try and bring some ideas to that sort of a stage that haven’t been done before.

So yeah, for 2012, I just want to produce, do more shows and have fun.

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