Insights From DJ Trayze
With credits that include a Red Bull Thre3Style USA DJ Championship (plus two World Finals appearances), numerous international tours, playing alongside Billboard chart-topping artists and releases on several major record labels, Trazye is a turntablist at heart who has earned the respect of countless music industry icons. Someone I have been fortunate enough to call a mentor, Trayze agreed to share his story with me for my INSIGHTS series. Our discussion was profound as he talked about a powerful cultural shift in the industry, navigating the art of DJing as a musician and opinions on the blurring lines of DJ and Producer. Believe me when I say he is as humble as he is talented.
DJ ARIA: How did it all start for you? How did you get into the DJ profession as a career?
TRAYZE: I have been DJing for 22 years and started back in 1996/1997. I grew up in the DC area and there were always good mix shows on the radio. As a kid I was always curious how the records were mixed together and had been that way since I was ten or eleven years old. My parents had a turntable and some records I would mess around with and make little recordings on their tape deck player. I then starting DJing in high school. I saved up money from my high school job to buy records, a mixer and turntables. The high school I went to had a radio and television program, sort of like a communication arts program, and I was on the radio station at school. I was doing the school radio and a lot of house parties. At that time my high school inked a deal with SiriusXM Satellite Radio, headquartered in DC, the year that they started and I was an intern there my junior and senior years. Two days a week I produced two shows at SiriusXM as a high school intern. I then got into FM radio and started DJing at clubs when I was 17. By then it’s about 1999/2000 and the story goes on from there.
DJ ARIA: You didn’t have DJ software or controllers like we have today, what was it like back in those days?
TRAYZE: CDs were the most popular format of music to buy in-store and you could still buy cassettes too. A lot of people back then would take their CDs and convert them to cassettes to share with friends. You would make mixtapes and mixes on cassettes because CD burners weren’t really affordable in the mid-90s. CD burning became more affordable in the late 90s. So as a DJ you were stuck with records or CD players that had no ability to scratch or back-cue. It wasn’t until the first CDJ-1000 came out in 2001 that you could really do anything on a CD player.
DJ ARIA: Respect to that, you put in the work back then. DJs today have it easy.
TRAYZE: Yeah, this is and was a big deal because back then, it’s a combination of the barriers to entry that were very high and the access to music was very limited. The equipment was expensive and you had to physically have a copy of the song either on a disk or on record. Now, with digital mp3s you can duplicate a zillion copies and access them online for free. The barrier to entry is non-existent and equipment is so much cheaper. If you have a $200 controller and a laptop laying around, then ‘Boom!’ you’re an instant DJ. Because of this whole instant DJ phenomenon it’s what a lot of people call ‘microwave DJs’ - like how you put your food in the microwave and ‘Beep’ a minute later you’re done. The difference back then was that no one had the money starting out to buy an entire collection of records all at once. So when you started out as a DJ you only bought a few records at a time which meant it might take you a year or two to purchase enough records to do two hours at a party. You would never even leave the house to DJ until you had already been DJing for about a year or two. Just in that year or two you have been manipulating the records, physically manipulating them, and collecting enough music to play a couple of hours at a party that you were already so much better, technically speaking, than anyone that starts out on a controller today.
DJ ARIA: Looking back on your career, there are some obvious highlights, but what moments stand out the most to you?
TRAYZE: So I am the worst at answering this question because I have a bad habit of never stopping to smell the roses. I am always looking forward and never look back at my accomplishments. As far as specific moments though, a big one would be the Lucky Bastid mix in 2014. That was the first year that Red Bull Thre3Style Lucky Bastid did the wild card thing, so for me the motivation was that there was not a Thre3style tournament being held in the US that year so I have nothing to lose and I have this great material that I want to share with everybody. At the time, the requirement for the wild card entry was a 15-minute audio mix submitted online. So I thought if I am going to go through the trouble of doing a full Thre3style set, then I might as well do a video of it because the videos I had put up in the past got such good responses. So I shot a video and posted it online even before the competition was over because I thought it was great. It was me having fun and I didn’t expect to win, I didn’t expect to get chosen or the video to be seen as much as it did. It turns out that out of every single person that entered the competition, I was the only one that did a video and everyone else did the audio mix. I kind of ruined it for everyone.
Trayze's 2014 Red Bull Thre3Style video submission that ruined it for everyone else.
DJ ARIA: Wow, that's right because now everyone has to do a video for a Thre3Style entry.
TRAYZE: Yeah, while I don’t mean to toot my own horn I would say that I heavily contributed to the fact that you have to shoot a video now. Plus it just makes sense, it’s important to see what DJs are doing. The whole idea behind 3style is that there is a performance element to it. Stage presence is a big part and having a visual is key. That was one of the biggest moments recently. Aside from that, I have had a lot of fun doing live shows backing up other artists. I got invited to DJ Jazzy Jeff’s Playlist Retreat last year which was really huge. Being able to do fun, unique and exciting things and reaching a wider audience are always great highlights for me. It’s definitely been a combination of being really well prepared and being at the right place at the right time. I’m almost 13 years into being a full-time, professional DJ not having another job and that is the greatest highlight – living the dream and trying to sustain it for as long as I can.
DJ ARIA: You have performed around the world. Are there noticeable differences in the crowds?
TRAYZE: There are definitely noticeable differences in crowds, even between cities in the US. People underestimate the power of regional music. For example, if you’re in the Bay Area you have that whole Bay Area rap. It’s important to have a bunch of that in your bag because the more research you do, the more you’re going to get loved and respected out there. Similarly, if you know how to tastefully play those local hits and make it sound authentic - and it’s not “I’m going to play this random rap song”, but rather knowing what order they are going to sound good. With the power of the internet these days it’s so easy to do the research without having to reach out to anyone in-person - between checking Shazam charts, listening to their local radio online or seeing what artists are there. There’s definitely an adjustment every time and obviously you’re playing to the crowd too. I’m not well known for a specific sound or hit record, I’m a DJ. So a lot of times I am going to know what the vibe of the club is based on who they have booked before and after me. For example, if I play in Bangkok, I know to play Thaitanium, DaBoyWay and other Thai rap and people go nuts. It’s so important to prepare and find things to throw into your set.
DJ ARIA: For better and for worse, anyone can call themselves a DJ today. Are there any trends or things that bother you in the industry nowadays?
TRAYZE: There is a big cultural shift going on and this is also the case in any creative lane or occupation that has an artistic side to it. If barriers to entry are eliminated, then everyone is a DJ and what you start see is that the general quality of DJs decreases because no one wants to invest the time in perfecting their craft and being a better DJ or a better artist. It’s all about motivation and respect for what you’re getting into. For example, I love to cook and I cook a lot at home, but I don’t call myself a chef. I would never dream of going into a professional kitchen and cook on that level without either a ton of self-teaching at home and paying my dues or training and invested time in learning the history of the game. So to answer your question, nothing really bothers me because at the end of the day there are always two categories you can lump everyone into - there are the real and the fake. The real ones are the people that are going to stick around for a long time. They are about the quality of the music and trying to be the best instead of trying to be the most popular or having the most Instagram ‘Likes’. Ask yourself if certain DJs are going to be around in five years. Ask why they added DJ to their Instagram bio. I could put Home Improvement Specialist because I fix a lot of stuff around my house, but I’m not advertising on Angie’s List. Again, I have no problem with that if that makes them happy, but when people come to see me or someone like me, they are going to get something way different, something better in my opinion because we have invested that time and you are really seeing a professional at work. There is a difference and you can tell. I don’t mean to brag about it, but every time I walk into a venue that I haven’t been to in a while, I get this from everyone there, security, bartenders, and management: “We’re so glad you’re back!” and “Why can't you play every weekend?” Sure, it’s flattering, but it goes to show that people notice. For example, I played at Tropicale [a DC nightclub] recently and it started out slow. I didn’t have an opener and started my set at 10pm. By 11:45pm it was packed because I made it my job to keep every single person that walked in that door there for the night. What bothers me specifically though? The horrible ads on Instagram for DJs bother me and my god they are awful. I even screenshot some of them and send them to my friends. I ask myself the same question every time I see these ads, “Why did you spend money on that?” These people spent real dollars on this. It’s awful photography and poorly thrown together. It goes back what I said earlier about a cultural shift. The world is a really messed up place right now with social media and people are all about getting these ‘Likes’.
DJ ARIA: You have an impressive catalog of edits, remixes and releases. What are your thoughts on production as a DJ?
TRAYZE: That’s a tricky question. So creating music for the sake of propelling a career in DJing is a mistake. If you’re trying to get booked at a festival and that’s your goal, then you’re doing it all wrong. Your goal should be to make amazing, beautiful music and if someone notices it and wants to book you to play at a festival then that should be your motivation. Too many people out here just want to get booked at a festival. This goes back to the ‘Likes’ thing, the social media brainwashed generation. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about the music. So if you’re DJing and if you’re trying to build your career DJing, you have to remember we all have access to the same music and more or less we all play the same hundred songs each night. You have to think about how you are going to set yourself apart. Am I not going to play those hundred songs? Sure, but then you’re going to be in a niche category of music. You can set yourself apart by making cool remixes and edits and being as creative as possible, but you always have to put the soul into it and have that love for the music and the culture. Don’t do it to propel your career to get bigger and better gigs. The quality and authenticity should be what sells you. As far as being a producer, I make a ton of my own music and my own edits, but I do it for me. I make them for me and they are useful for me. If someone else finds them useful then that’s great and I am happy to share them with everyone. It’s another way for me to have a creative output and that’s how I feel personally fulfilled is by having that creative output. I don’t think you have to be a producer though, you just have to think about how you want to set yourself apart. Be unique, be you, be different and be original. Originality is everything.
DJ ARIA: What gets you excited as a DJ and Producer?
TRAYZE: I’m always inspired and excited when I hear new music and it could be old, but something I have never heard before. Especially with DJing, it’s always about linking back to another song. So I hear one song and it makes me think of another song and how can I play those two songs together or combine them in a cool way. That is always inspiring to me.
DJ ARIA: What is on Trayze's bucket list? Are there any artists or venues you would like to work with?
TRAYZE: It’s not specific places or artists since there are tons of artists I would love to work with and I’m no good at choosing favorites. For 2019, I want to transition into being more of a performing artist and recording artist. I will still do a ton of DJing, but I want to focus more on my music and maybe do a tour of a solo show of my own music - something shorter, not a long DJ set, but more like an hour long show of my own music live with me or a band and a lot of gear on stage. That’s on my bucket list - to book a ticketed tour and it is definitely something that I am working very hard on.
DJ ARIA: What advice would you give to today's aspiring DJs?
TRAYZE: I get asked this a lot and on the DJ tip - start your own party. Don’t make any money in the first year or two and then grow it into something huge. I mean look at U Street Music Hall, that whole venue came about because these guys knew how to throw their own party. On the production tip, and I always kick myself because I’m so bad at this, but put your music out there and don’t care about what anyone else thinks. Throw it all out there and see what sticks. That would be my advice and that’s my advice to myself now.
Check out Trayze online, links below.