Interview With A DJ: Rok One (Brooklyn)

rokone.jpgLiving in NYC we’ve had the chance to see A LOT of live shows and DJ sets in the past few years.  One of the first things I noticed up here was that a lot of the people who were getting it right as far as performance, promotion and interaction with the crowd were DJ’s (while many bands were struggling to even draw a small crowd).  Rok One was one of the first DJ’s like that to catch my eye.  He brings great crowds, executes flawlessly on the turntables and knows how to work the scene – plenty of both DJ’s and bands can learn from his approach.  Recently I sat down with the lanky assassination of wax and had a great chat about the art of DJ’ing, promotion and how he stays so damn chill.  

1. As a promoter, how do you utilize sites/social networks venues like Myspace and Facebook? 

 We now live in a digital age, a world that is attempting to go green, so printed flyers, posters, and other wasteful means of promotion are on their way out. You can reach people quicker and more effectively by advertising through mass emails, blogs and through forums such as Facebook and Twitter. Myspace was once incredibly useful, but due to excessive bulletin abuse and spamming, is no longer considered a credible means of communication. Even though everything is being done electronically, people still want to feel as though they are being catered to by a human being with similar interests to themselves, not a friendbot which selects people at random. Facebook has a way more personal feel, and this is the reason why people have become so drawn to it. Instead of inviting every single friend to every event, you can appeal to a specific group of friends according to the region they live in, their age, academic networks, musical tastes, the nature of the event, and more. The attendance feature is a good way to gauge the interest level on a particular event – it’s at least as accurate as handing out a physical flyer, which more often than not, winds up on the floor of the club, and / or in the garbage. The only downside is the sheer number of events being promoted, and the fact that since all Facebook activity is “on the record” people tend to be friendlier than they would be in reality. If I like someone, and I know I can’t make it to their event, I might still say that I’m attending, in order to not offend them. Also, instead of “not attending” I might “maybe attend” or remove an event, therefore exempting myself from having to make an attendance decision. If this happens too many times to a certain event, then the expected turnout projection might be completely inaccurate. Old school promotion was never an exact science, so there’s no reason why this should be. That being said, I find online promotion to be a very helpful way to get the word out, so I use it for precisely that reason. 
 2. Playing in big cities like NY can be difficult because there is so much competition – what’s the best way you’ve found to get more people out to your shows? 
When I promote online, I always try to come from a unique angle and insert a bit of humor into my pitch. I feel as though if I can get people to laugh, then they are more likely to remember that I have an upcoming event, and are therefore more likely to attend. At the actual gig, I always try to put my best foot forward as far as my DJ sets are concerned, in order to provide the party-goer with the finest musical atmosphere that I have to offer. A lot of thought goes into track selection, reading the crowd, and the overall balance and momentum of the set. If I can consistently deliver positive and memorable party experiences, then I can guarantee good turnouts in the future. 
3. Being a DJ gives you a totally different perspective on music – what do you think it has taught you about writing songs? 
 I wouldn’t consider myself much of a songwriter, but what any good DJ would take away from the club situation and apply in the studio setting would be the ability to arrange a composition in a way that is dancefloor friendly. During the disco era and early 80′s, a remixer was someone who would extend the best part of a song, usually an empty drum section or break-down, thereby lengthening the track and giving it a new life. Later on, people would add extra percussion, instruments and sound effects, or set the vocal or sample on top of a completely different beat. These are things best learned from the experience of being a DJ and seeing what type of sounds excite the crowd. 
4. The music industry has been in a state of disarray for the past few years – what do you feel is the biggest misconception about the industry? 
 One of the biggest misconceptions about being in the music business is that it’s a lucrative endeavor, and that once you make it, things will be easy. Very few people make it, and even fewer people make it while holding on to their dignity. If you do actually catch your big break, you will be obligated to live up to the public’s expectations of you. If you can’t repeatedly deliver product of a certain standard, you will not make it past a second album or release. Only very talented or very driven people can survive in this unforgiving climate, and success is not only hard to attain, it’s hard to maintain. 
 5. How has the importance of playing live/touring changed in the industry for electronic music artists? 
 Live performance is still one of the most important aspects of making a living as a musician, especially since record sales are not what they once were. An artist will survive mainly from touring these days. Electronic acts now need to find a compelling way to put a live show together, whether it’s a visual spectacle a la Daft Punk, or a matter of assembling a bunch of live musicians and going the traditional route. The main problem for some of these artists will essentially be the fact that very few of them have any stage experience, and also that they lack the ability to play instruments. Most of these producers created their music on the computer – for DJ’s to play, not to be played live. It’s very difficult to make an electronic music performance visually entertaining, because when you’re playing a synth or triggering a midi sequence, you can’t exactly hop around all over the stage. There needs to be that extra element to make the show interesting, otherwise you’re just a guy pressing buttons, and that’s no fun to watch… 
 6. What is the biggest mistake you see other DJ’s and bands do when playing live? 
 I see DJ’s making all types of mistakes – you decide which is the greatest offense!
1) Playing music that is inappropriate to the room that they are in. (i.e. playing ravey tracks, over the top electro, or commercial house in a small bar).
2) Scratching too much, especially when they’re not very good at it. Usually this type of DJ needs to work on their mixing more. Scratching is an attempt to cover up their lack of blending ability.
3) Not reading the crowd, being too self indulgent, or being obscure for obscurity’s sake. Always a bad look.
4) Underestimating the intelligence of the crowd, always taking the easy road, and being “Captain Obvious”. Equally as corny.
5) Trying to emulate another DJ’s style, and thinking nobody will notice.
6) Dating yourself by only playing whatever music is the latest trend or flavor of the month, and having no other musical knowledge to fall back on.
7) Not realizing that curiosity, imagination and a sense of adventure are perhaps even more important to being a good DJ, than any technical skill you might possess. The desire to dig and seek out music you are not familiar with is crucial.
8) Building a reputation for yourself solely based on your associations with other artists. For instance, you throw big parties with household name acts and your own personal participation has nothing to do with the draw. This is a good way to be perpetually sidelined, and a widespread practice in NYC. You need to build a core crowd.
9) Being so arrogant as to think you’re the next big thing, and so you either ignore or discredit the wisdom of the legions of DJ veterans that came before you, and their very valuable career experience. Don’t assume that your “reign” is going to last forever. Embrace every opportunity and avoid burning bridges. You never know how long you’re going to be “hot” for.
10) Looking bored during your set. People are more likely to enjoy themselves if they see you enjoying yourself. 
7. You’ve been hacking it out in NY for a while, what is the best advice you can give new artists and performers as to how to best create a buzz? 
 DJ’s, even good ones, are a dime a dozen these days. Telling someone you’re a DJ in the 2000′s, is kind of like telling someone you were a graphic designer back in the 90′s. “Oh, so you spin? Big deal! Who doesn’t?” Everyone with a laptop and an internet connection thinks they can do this. So in order to stand out, you need to do something unique. Create your own angle, develop your own playing style, and try not to copy what someone else is doing, Otherwise, you might get lost in the shuffle. 
8. DJ’ing seems all about directing the energy of a particular crowd. As a DJ, do you ever follow a set or are you always just feeling the crowd? 
 It wholly depends on the nature of the crowd, and what type of music they are into. I have certain genres that I prefer, certain comfort zones and areas of expertise, that may or may not gel with what the crowd has in mind, but if I feel as though there’s room to experiment or play leftfield music on any given night, I’ll surely jump on the opportunity. I usually combine recent transitions that I’ve been practicing with routines that I already know will work, and leave plenty of room for spontaneity. I find that thoroughly rehearsed sets are only useful when you know exactly what kind of a crowd you’ll be playing for, and I never know that. 
9. Studio B, an awesome dance venue in Northern Brooklyn has just closed. Where do you see as the next horizon for electronic music in NYC? 
 Studio B’s closing has left a void in NYC’s club scene, at least as far as throwing underground dance parties are concerned. This is a definite blow to Brooklyn especially, where most of the innovative and developing electronic music in this city is being celebrated. Studio B was far from perfect, but it was the right atmosphere for non-commercial dance parties. You’d get everyone in there, from indie-rockers, to new electro fans, minimal techno and old school house heads, ex-ravers from the drum & bass world, dubsteppers, hip-hoppers, the occasional tropical crowd, roller-skaters, people from the space-disco scene – the list goes on. There is currently no venue in New York that can accommodate such a wide range of tastes, and I haven’t come across anyone who is trying to create one.
Instead of people seeking out the next series of hot new clubs, which are constantly opening, closing and switching hands, promoters are now considering other venues such as warehouses, outdoor locations (during the summer), bowling alleys, dim-sum houses, even boats… 
10. Most people know you as the tall, smoothed out DJ that keeps Brooklyn sweaty on the dance floors. What’s one private thing most people don’t know about Rok One? 
 Despite attending a multitude of parties on any given week, and constantly inserting myself in social environments, I’m actually a very introverted person. When I’m not working, I spend a lot of my time in hermit mode, researching music, attempting to produce tracks, watching movies, reading, trying to figure out how to cook, and generally trying to enjoy some peace and quiet…