The Artist Formerly Known As: Dan Shirai

Dan Shirai is a DJ who has performed extensively on the Williams College campus over the last two years, spinning records in Goodrich Hall, Currier Ballroom and Wood House. He has appeared at Mezze, the Contemporary Artists’ Center in North Adams and venues in and around Northampton. Shirai has also perfomed at Sugar High, Bless and other clubs in Tokyo, Japan. He will be performing this Friday, April 14, at Currier Club in Currier Ballroom.

How did you get into DJing in the first place?

Up until I graduated from high school, I really hated all forms of dance music and electronic music, and not because I really hated it, but because I didn’t have good exposure to it growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was much more into band music, and guitars, and all that stuff. When I got here, two or three friends were very key in introducing this kind of music to me. I would hear it, and it would be so moving, such a new, powerful, loud, clear sound, and it was so foreign, it completely caught me right away. I got really interested in listening to it – I would spend hours just listening.

My first DJing experience was my sophomore year when I taught this “Techno Music and Dance” class for Free University, which was really just an excuse to have a party every week, with a little bit of money. We didn’t get any money, but we borrowed turntables, and John Cole [’00] came in, and somehow we got people to come to this. For some reason, we got a crowd of 15 or 20 people there every time – I was showing them how to do Kusika moves and incorporate them into techno dance floor stuff. After ten minutes, everyone would be like, “uh, this is dumb,” so I’d just go behind the table and play. It would be an hour and a half party, people would dance, and they’d leave.

So that was the beginning. And then I got the turntable. The key moment was Spring Break, when I got to live with [DJ] Sprockett for a week at his house in Amherst. He was a DJ, and he was living with another DJ, and while he was working the other DJ would just stay at home and make music all day. So I really got used to being around all these computers, and all these turntables and keyboards for a whole week. Basically I’d just wake up and start playing records. I’d use all his records, and that’s where I really learned the basics…my junior year, by that time I’d been doing it for eight or nine months.

So I take almost all my records to Japan, and I find this group of friends. We had many similar experiences – it was a very brotherly relationship that we had. With them is when I really learned what serious DJing was. People who are really into it, people who listen with a very discriminate ear, who have a very careful, defined sense of taste and of what kind of music they really like, what kind of music they’re good at playing, opinions about other DJs, how to be able to judge things, how to play, how to mix. Basically, everything.

That just got me more into it, and I got a lot better, especially after I came back. Now I’m not surrounded by a bunch of good DJs – that’s this year. I try to do as many parties as I can, not worrying about the money as much, but receiving when I can. I’m just trying to do as much as possible because it’s a special opportunity to be at a campus where you can actually do this easily. There are a lot of good people to work with here, so I’m trying to do as much as possible.

Could you describe the difficulty of spinning? What are the challenges that are inherent in the act of being a DJ? What does it take to have a successful set?

Once you’re playing for a group of people, you’re heavily into the service industry. You’re playing for a crowd, and there’s a fine line to walk between muscling your own style and what you want to play, and balancing that with what the people need to hear. It sounds like a catch cliché, “the people,” but it’s true: you have to have a good eye for what people are enjoying, how they’re reacting to the music. If you play something that’s whacked, chances are that people are going to stop dancing. And once that happens, it’s like a domino effect. People start looking around, and they’re like, “oh, now there’s five people that are really not into it. Oh, now there are ten people that are really not into it. Damn, let’s go!”

That’s a DJ’s nightmare, basically. So you have to keep an eye out for these kinds of things – you have to be very sensitive. And I think it helps to have gone through the dance floor – I was much a dancer for the first three years, always watching on the dance floor instead of actually playing. So you watch people and you see how their bodies react, and their facial expressions. This sounds bad, but it’s true. That’s the first part.

And then who have to be able to implement what you think is the appropriate next step. You have to have the skills to bring in another record that’s going to keep that energy going, you have to match it in with the song, get the tempos to be almost exactly the same, and then blend from track A to track B smoothly enough so that people are not thrown off by it, it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the music. A really bad mix is called a “train wreck,” when two things collide that are not supposed to be colliding. It sounds and looks awful – you want to avoid the train wreck. You want to move from one record to the other and keep that kind of energy going.

And if the energy’s dead, then you have to do something to pick it up. And if it’s too high, and you think that people are going to be too tired too soon, then you have to slow it down. So basically it’s a process of processing what you see, and then the actual mixing. You manipulate all these levels – it’s all a matter of doing this [makes quick turning motions] to create this kind of smooth movement back and forth.

Do you get excited when you’re behind the table? When the crowd’s really into it, do you feel it too?

Oh yeah. A good DJ should consider himself an extension of the crowd. Since you’re always process what’s going on outside, you have to internalize that, and understand what it is. You’re kind of dancing with the crowd – obviously, you’re not dancing, you’re worrying about the music. It’s very exciting because you’re under the pressure of keeping the energy going and not making some awful mistake.

Also, of course, the nice thing is that you actually have a say in the matter. You can choose where you want to take this party, or take this energy. There’s a lot of pressure not to make mistakes – it’s not like playing in a band, where if you strike a wrong string [it’s no big deal]. Every little detail is loud and clear, and people who have seasoned ears can really be turned off by something if you do it wrong or they can be really appreciative of something that you do well.

So yeah, it’s very exciting, and I think the live element of it – it’s happening right then and now and it’s kind of an exchange between the DJ and the crowd – I think that’s excellent. When I’m dancing, when I go to a big party or rave or whatever, I always go right up to the DJ, and he might be one of the best DJs in the world, and I’m just Joe No One down there, but there’s still an interaction. It may be very subtle – he may just look down and say, “Yeah, OK, these guys are liking it. I’m going to keep playing more of this stuff.”

It may be like that, just going on in his head. Or it may be like the guy comes down and gives you a high five, or something like that. It’s that kind of thing always, just to a more extreme degree or to a lesser degree. I think that’s a really nice thing about this type of performance – it’s not really a stage, it’s more like one dance floor.

What gives a DJ a certain style? I know some of it is the music that he or she plays, but what else is it? What’s your style?

This is something I’ve started thinking about more in the last couple of months…I once asked a really big DJ when I was in Tokyo, I asked him to go through my records with me, and just tell me what he thought. He was like, “Crap, crap, crap, this is ok, this is….crap, crap crap, crap…” I told him, “I feel like right now I’m just borrowing styles. I will just look at a DJ, say DJ Dan, I really like him. I’m going to buy as many records as I can, just like his, and I’m going to try to mix like him. And then I’ll move to another guy, DJ Sneak, I’ll buy all his records, and try to imitate him.” So I’ve been thinking about this for the last year, and only now am I started to have enough experience and have done it long enough to really see – I’ve looked around to other DJs who are amateurs and professionals and compared myself to them.

I’ve entered more into this world now. So you start to compare yourself, saying, “this is what I do, and these guys do it differently.” And I started thinking more about “what is my style?” A lot of it, like you said, is the kind of music you play. It’s the most obvious thing – this style is hard techno, or funky house, or funky deep tech house disco break crap – “Yo that’s my style, man!” [laughs] But I think what really is the most important thing in one’s style, which is not obvious, is all the music one person’s been listening to for their whole life.

I like to call our generation the “Walkman generation.” I realized that we’ve just been walking around with Walkmans on our heads for our whole lives, and I don’t think that many people before our generation were doing this. The most important thing in one’s style is everything from the first thing you heard up to the last thing. I never forget the stuff I was listening to when I was a kid, or the first Beatles record that my mom played for me. Obviously, they don’t come directly into it, but they build a 15-year history of recorded music in my head. That plays a huge influence in how your style comes out and how you choose to create a tapestry of music with your decks.

I didn’t really realize it, but a couple of my friends said, “your songs are always very funky, very festive, they have a lot of movement in them.” And the more I buy samba records, I think listening to this kind of stuff really comes out when I’m DJing. You try to evoke moods, pop synapses in peoples’ brains. Whatever makes me move will hopefully make other people move.

So are you going to keep doing this?

Yeah, until they think of something better…people have been playing records for a really long time, and for all the innovations, you still can’t beat vinyl singles back and forth. That’s the best way to do it right now. It’s a perfect combination of recorded and live – if you go one way, you end up going a little too live, and dance music becomes difficult. But if you go too far the other way, you’re virtually listening to a CD or something.

So this is the perfect combination because it requires a lot of performance on the part of the DJ, and of course the dancing people, but it also is recorded music, which is optimal for listening. It’s a pretty happy medium, and I’m definitely going to keep doing it wherever I go. It’s such a big part of my life that I can’t put it down. Wherever I go, there’s going to be me and my turntables and hopefully a bunch of other people, with their turntables and their dancing shoes.