In the age of laptops and Abelton Live, a DJ no longer needs nimble hands and a giant record collection to land a $400,000 headliner gig at Hakkasan. But the hard skills that once defined electronic music are no less impressive today than they were back in the genre’s beat-juggling, vinyl-scratching infancy. And leave it to Red Bull—the world’s leading sponsor of badassery—to make sure we never forget. Earlier this month, the best turntable wizards in America assembled in Phoenix, Arizona for the USA National Finals of Red Bull’s Thre3style tournament, billed as the “world’s largest DJ competition.” Over the course of a weekend, twelve contestants performed back-to-back sets for a live audience, while a panel of judges helmed by veteran wax-wizard DJ Jazzy Jeff assessed them on technical skills, song selection, and showmanship. When the dust settled, J. Espinosa, a radio DJ from sunny San Francisco, emerged the victor, and is now set to represent the U.S. at the 2015 World DJ Championships in Tokyo this September.
Maxim spoke with the 31-year-old mixmaster about the evolution of electronic music, the tools of the trade and why turntablism ain't dead yet.
How did you train for the competition?
I took time off from my radio job for two weeks and I was just at home literally waking up early and working all day. I would just leave to get food or use the bathroom. Literally weeks, hours of time preparing, putting my set together, trying to get inspired, looking for new ideas. That was the only thing I was doing. I didn’t want to have to focus on anything else.
Do you think your competition came equally prepared?
Yeah I’m sure. These were all the best guys from all over the country and they were no joke. Everybody definitely came through and killed it. I was talking to some of the other guys when I got to Arizona and this last competition you have to have two sets, and I was talking to the other DJs and everyone was asking “oh you got two sets already?” And I was like “I got one and a half”. So, on Friday night, after I competed, I went back to my hotel room and I stayed up the entire night finishing my second set and finished an hour before we had to go to sound check.
Do you think turntablism will ever make a comeback?
I know there are kids out there that are really interested in scratching and all that stuff. And, yeah, it's kind of a dying breed. The majority of the very popular DJs nowadays are producers. They didn’t grow up as a DJ, and they had to learn how to DJ because they suddenly started getting booked to do these big festivals. But there are still guys like A-Trak and DJ Craze who do a lot of open format. And club DJs—like Four Color Zack and DJ Jean—these guys are really out there really ripping it up and bringing the whole turntable thing to clubs. So I don’t think it's going anywhere. I just think there are a lot of guys who don’t do it who are really popular. But it’s still a life, for sure.
How was it different when you were coming up?
Back then you bought some turntables if you wanted to DJ, and it was like, "ok what am I going to do with these records?" So you had to actually scratch and do stuff and do a capellas over different beats. But now there’s all this technology and people have just taken it to a whole other level. I think it's cool, whether they're doing turntablism or not. If they’re pushing the limits and the boundaries of what you can do with all this technology, I think it's great, and it actually makes the turntablists have to step there game up, too. There’s turntablists that are really dope that are juggling, scratching and then there’s these guys who are really tech-savvy, who are using these mini-controllers and they're like, "ok I see you do that beat juggle but can you do this?"
What's your style?
I don’t use anything—just turntables and my records. I’m pretty true to the art form. Actually, in the final round of the competition I used Dicers made by Novation. They don’t do anything crazy other than just control what I can do, like if you want to hit the key points on your laptop or you can hit them on the turntable so you're not standing there looking like you’re checking your email.
How has your life changed since winning the Thre3style National Finals?
Honestly, it’s been pretty crazy. I feel like over night my life kind of changed. Coming home obviously everyone is so proud. In the Bay—I don’t know if its like this everywhere else—but if somebody from the Bay area wins something, like if the Giants win the World Series, if anybody does something big from home, it's like everybody feels like they won and they are with you. It's so cool to see everybody proud. I literally woke up the next morning and had emails from some of the biggest DJ booking agencies and I've definitely booked a couple of gigs that I haven’t booked before. It's surreal.
How are you feeling about competing on the world stage in Tokyo?
I don't know. I just know everybody’s going to be good—like, really good.
Photos by Photo: Aaron Rogosin/Red Bull Content Pool