Stephen Titmus meets the Baltimore CDJ master.
Hear Clayton play and it's obvious it was time well spent. He's a true master of the Pioneer CDJ, using the digital decks in all kinds of inventive and unorthodox ways, creating new ways of playing tracks. One moment you might hear him beating out a drum pattern using three different parts of a track; the next he might be blending loops and effects to build a live remix. He's known for his wide-ranging musical taste, and he rarely sticks to one style, finding links and contrasts in his records in a way few DJs can emulate.
Clayton is also someone who cares deeply about DJ culture. He knows the formula for a great party and a great DJ set, and is happy to share that knowledge. In our interview he drew on his wealth of experience, offering insight into the mind of a DJ deeply dedicated to his craft.
When did you first get turntables?
I had a pair of belt-driven Technics SLD-10s. That's what I used to mix on for a long time. I didn't get 1200s till about '95. I started playing when I was 13 years old.
Tell me about your first gigs in Baltimore.
In Baltimore you couldn't just play one type of music. You had to play the classics, or you had to play some breaks, and then some reggae, and then a slow song, and then you repeated the cycle. So it was never like you could specialise in hip-hop, but hip-hop was my mainstay.
I did a gig for a lesbian group when I was 13. That was my first professional gig, that kind of opened my eyes to, you know—it doesn't matter what group, everybody parties. We only put these divisions on ourselves. But music opens all these things, and I really liked the feeling, so I kept wanting to be a DJ, and kept wanting to get better at helping more people get together.
Here in Baltimore, it's a very segregated thing. There's the black community, there's the gay community, and there's the white community, and very rarely do we all party together. I didn't get a chance to realise this until I had my own night in Baltimore. It was a predominantly white crowd, and they would come and party, but once I started inviting my folk down here they started to be a little weird about it. It took me a year to get the white people to trust the black people, and we could all dance together. It's music, man—everybody should dance. So I think that's what made me want to be a better DJ.
Were you into the turntablism side of things in your early days?
Not at all. My thing back then was how to tell a story. It's not about just playing the hottest music, but also about telling a story. If you can tell a story, then you can move onto the tricks. Can I blend? Can I do these other things? And then let me get to cutting and scratching. At that time, I thought knowing these other things was more important than learning how to cut and scratch.
When did you come across CDJs?
When the first one came out it was really big and unstable. I think it was the Pioneer CDJ-100. I was able to use one at The Basement Boys' studio. Outside of just using it to hear stuff and practice, we used it to stretch vocals for some of the projects we were working on. I thought, "Wait a minute, this thing can stretch, why don't we use that?" So that was when I really started to get into what this machine can do. Why aren't people using this thing? There's a loop button on it, which meant I could make things longer in the places I wanted to. So that's when I started thinking, "Hmmm, everybody just plays from tune to tune on these CDJs—why isn't anybody using this? Why isn't anybody using these loop buttons and really challenging what they can do?"
So, while I'm thinking that, the CDJ-1000 comes out. Before that you just had the one loop button on the 600 and 700. I spent two years trying to get the most out of my money. I figured out you can use cue buttons to do different things—not just to cue. I can play with words. If there are some keys, I can actually make notes. So I can actually do a remix in front of your face. So I really went after that. And that started the fascination with the CDJ.
You practice for two hours a day. What do you do during these sessions?
The other day I pulled out Stro Elliot—he does a lot of remix stuff and chops. He did this thing with Soul II Soul, so I was seeing if I could chop it so I could play his version in a house set. Working out how I can break it down and chop the way that he has the vocals, and then be able to slow down a house track and then play his track. It's challenges like that: how can I make things make sense?
Let's talk about the Hot Cue trick you do.
I'm basically just taking a phrase—key, kick, hi-hat or whatever—and making an instrument out of it. It's just having fun and asking what else can I make happen. I'm taking a note, stretching it, and pitching it up and down so it sounds like the key, or it sounds like a remix in a sense. I'm trying to remix from the effects. That's the idea.
Did you spend time looking at the manuals when you bought the CDJ-1000, or did you just dive in and start messing around?
I'm one of those guys that doesn't read the manual until I can't figure something out. So because I'd already been playing with the various CDJs, I kinda knew what it could do. When I got this piece of kit, it was like, "Alright how can I freak this, and really make it a thing?" Because, once again, I was working on how to separate me from other DJs, so at this time, my kick was CDJs and a Pioneer mixer.
I've also used a Korg Kaoss Pad. With that, I can make an element go long at any point. I can have two or three things going on and you don't even know what's going on. All you know is, "Wow, is this a new remix?" or "What version is this?" That would be my thing—how can I freak this in the way so you don't even know what's happening? I think I'm still working on how to make things happen that don't normally happen, and how to do it without making people mad that I'm messing up their groove.
I've watched a lot of turntablism, and whenever I would hear these guys play, after a while I would just want to hear the song. So I thought, "Now I've mastered these tricks, how can I play 'em in a way that I don't make people mad that I'm messing with this song for too long?" "How long can I do this before people get mad and pissed off and want to walk off?" I just want to do something, then get out quickly enough so you can just be like, "Damn, that was that quick."
It's crazy that more people aren't trying to do new things with this technology. Very few people are trying to innovate.
Maybe that's a good thing. But it does take a lot of confidence to go, "Alright, I'm gonna interrupt your moment to do something that I think you'll like." It does take a lot of balls to do some of the stuff we doing, because we're taking chances.
I really like the way I've heard you cut up First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder," making it sound like Butch's "No Worries."
It's things like that, listening to people's records to figure out how exactly how they did something, and then recreating it. The way he did that vocal, it was just a loop, but still. Now that I know how he did it, I can apply that loop any time I want to. And somebody thinks, "Oh it's a remix, which remix is that?" No, I mixed this record with that and—boom. I have the power to pull that out anytime. It's a tool.
You don't really plan you sets, but you might have a planned sequence of records that you know go well together, is that right?
Definitely. You always have five records that are perfect blends, that you know go well together. For me, every sixth months or so, I like to switch it up, because there's YouTube and there's SoundCloud—you don't want people knowing what you're going to do. I like to surprise people.
How do you steer the atmosphere of a party in a certain way?
Get the crowd to trust you, starting by playing three or four records that are in the vein of what they're listening to. This is why you should get to the club an hour or two before you actually play. If you're already there you might find out that they're not really a vocal crowd—but I want to play vocals tonight. How do we do that? So maybe I'm gonna play a couple things they like, no vocals. Now I'm gonna play you something that has a vocal dub, now I'm gonna play you something that doesn't, and then I'll play some more vocals.
Do you play bigger events, like festivals, differently than clubs?
Definitely. That thing we talked about, trusting the DJ—you gotta do that a little bit longer. These people don't know you or what kind of a set you playing. You get some gigs and think, "Errr, why would you put me on after this guy who's playing like 135 BPM? Have you checked my résumé? Have you listened to a mix?" So you can tell people aren't paying attention, which hurts. We should care.
How do you tell a story with music?
Every DJ has a different story to tell. If you doin' a love subject, it could be with songs about love that people don't actually know. "Oh why's this thing happening? Oh why do I feel this way?" It's because subliminally you don't know that he's playing all these love songs. It's basically trying to figure out this puzzle of how music fits together to you. And that's the big part of being a selector.
When I'm DJing, I plan six records ahead. So as I'm playing this one, I'm thinking of the next six and how they are going to fit together. That's also what I mean by story. How can I make this record help me go anywhere I want to go? So, if I'm playing a Theo record with a jazz sample, then that means I can actually play a jazz record. If I'm playing some hip-hop stuff, there are ways that I can get back into house, because some hip-hop samples house, or vice versa.
You've talked elsewhere about DJ etiquette. What does this mean?
To me it works on two levels. There's the opening DJ, and then there's the headliner. A lot of DJs always feel they get pushed into being an opening DJ, which I think is the most important part of the night. They start the vibe of the party. You are on the same team as the headliner. It's not him versus you, it shouldn't be him versus anybody. They set the vibe, and then you—as the headliner—comes in and takes it from where he left it, and hopefully it's in a good place.
Good DJ etiquette is also knowing the other DJ's work. I don't think you should play their music. Don't try to go louder or harder than this person, if you know their style. Because that's bad energy. No DJ wants to walk into a booth and see the DJ in the red already. Why? That's not good DJ etiquette. You’re not even giving yourself a volume to work with.
Do you use the sync function at all when you're playing?
Why wouldn't you? I'm interested because a lot of people have strong opinions about it.
People get into these really stupid arguments over analogue and digital. I don't care what you're doing. You moving the crowd? Keep it moving. That's that. Now, I get why people use sync. But I also like the excitement of it being off, or being just a little wrong. Maybe you get a phase on it that you wouldn't have got just syncing it. Or just by being behind, it just sits right a little bit better.
Sometimes it's like watching a race—you like, "Oooooh, oooooh, is he gonna make it? Oh he made it work. Oh yes, son!" That means you are with me, I got you. You don't get that if it's all linear and perfect. I've seen sets like that, and it's good and it sounds great, but there's no excitement.
Do you think DJs use sync because they're afraid of making mistakes?
Definitely. It's the same thing as when the amp overheats or the system cuts. Who does everybody look at? They don't look at the people who actually made the mistake, they don't look at the guy who kicked off the plug—they look at you. All eyes are on you.
A lot of what you do as a DJ takes precision. Do you drink much during your sets, or do you stay sober?
I stay sober, but I'll have two gin and tonics—usually one at the beginning and then one at the end. I'm concentrating, and I don't want drinking to be the cause of me having a bad set. If I'm having a bad set, it's because I'm having a bad set. I don't want it to be because I had three or four of those and I wasn't thinking clearly. I want full responsibility, and don't wanna be doing a trick, and doing it—like I said—for too long. If you drink, you're not thinking. Or if you're on whatever, you're not thinking sharply. I have to be on point as much as I can.
One of the criticisms people have of digital DJing is this supposed lack of sound quality. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Not really, because I don't get why there's really an argument about it. It's not like we got all these clubs with properly tuned and maintained systems. Every system varies, so yes I think it should start out as a good file. To me, the whole mp3 to wav or higher quality, of course it matters. But on some of these systems, it doesn't matter. And then still, until you negate all of that, let's go back to point one—are people dancing? Yes. So if there's ten people talking about how it sounds more digital—honestly? Fuck you. Because it's not about that, that's not why you here, to figure out the sonics. It's the freakin' dance. Back in the day we wasn't considering sonics. We heard some of the best music on the worst systems, and vice versa, and still made it work. So now we gonna get to the point where it's a thing? No man, it's about the vibe. That's all you need to be concerned about. Yes, your vinyl should sound good, but if the mp3 is all you got and it's the best you can do, it shouldn't matter.
A stack of wav files is not going to make a great party on its own.
Right. Who cares if you can't even put 'em together? Or who cares if the system is whack, it don't even matter. If the system is whack, it's gonna sound whack. So, before you get into all of that, are you making the people dance? Because they certainly not on the floor saying, "Mmmm yeah, this is a mp3, I'm not dancing. Mmmm, my ear tastes mp3, mmm-mmm, I don't like this taste, I'mma go have a smoke, talk to my girlfriend, or go talk to this girl." No, they gonna keep dancing, unless it sounds really bad. Unless we can definitely tell the difference, but really it shouldn't boil down to that. Yes, I think at all times you should have the best quality music you can play out. But it shouldn't be something that people argue about.
Do you see any downsides to DJing with CDJs?
It's all super positive. I mean, the CDJ is why I jumped from turntables. They're more compact, and nine times out of ten they'll sound good. I don't have to worry about static, or hope and pray the turntables are stabilising at a point so the feedback doesn't mess with it too much. These are headaches. Hoping and praying that the turntables are managed well, because that was a thing. You'd get to a place, and somebody had spilt beer or whatever into the pitch.
I was listening to your interview and mix with Gilles Peterson, and was surprised to hear you were considering leaving music a few years ago.
Yeah, it was right.
What was going on?
I don't know one artist who hasn't had a point in their career where they're like, "Hmmm, fuck this. Do I even matter?" To an artist, it matters that they matter, because you could do other things. But if you really love this, it matters that you matter. So you start looking around, and you don't see your old friends around. That support system is gone. Here's the new crew coming in. Do they like you? You gotta deal with that again, you gotta make friends. Are you gonna trust these people? The main question is, "Why am I really doing this? Am I playing myself?" Because I'm not overly successful, but I really love this thing, and the reason I got into it was because I really loved it, and no matter what, this is something I dedicated my life to.
Am I playing myself at 40 years old? You gotta ask yourself this question. And for a time it was like, "Man, yeah you are." But, the reason I came back to it was, one: I gotta do it till I die, it's just in me. Two: once you start taking away the pieces, and we've lost so many through death, the bar gets lower. So if I'm not in the fight, if I'm not part of that bar, then that bar gets lowered. So you can't complain about it, you gotta stay in. I can't complain about if I don't make music anymore, and if I'm not in the fight. So that's why I'm in here till I die. I couldn't stop it if I wanted to.