It’s the first day of a new round of classes at Scratch DJ Academy in Manhattan, the world’s first school for hip-hop deejays. Rob Principe welcomes sixty students of all shapes, sizes, and ages with one thing in common—enthusiasm for making music with mixers and turntables.
Principe opened the school with the late Jason Mizell, better known as the hip-hop legend Jam Master Jay, from the rap group Run-DMC. Mizell’s murder in a New York recording studio in October was the kind of blow that could have destroyed the fledgling business. But Principe, twenty-nine, has kept it alive, unwilling to let the violent tragedy dim his dream.
In the sixth-floor studio, a welter of sound fills the room as the students, ages twelve to sixty, practice behind a bank of dual turntable systems. One of New York’s hottest deejays demonstrates how to manipulate the vinyl record across the needle to create the scratching sound that’s central to hip-hop. As a photographer from The New York Times snaps photos for an upcoming feature, the deejay also shows the students how to work the high-tech equipment—two turntables with a mixer—to seamlessly blend songs from different records.
For Principe, Scratch DJ Academy has become the most visible part of a growing enterprise called Scratch Media Productions. In less than a year, Scratch Media Productions has produced an instructional DVD, sponsored performances at forty colleges, and begun developing a Broadway musical, detailing the history of hip-hop through Mizell’s life. Scratch Media now has six employees, including David Perpich ’99, the academy’s director of operations.
With little written about deejay technique, Scratch had to develop a manual that details deejay techniques. Principe has also harnessed the energies of some of the industry’s top deejays to teach classes, including I. Emerge and Mista Sinista. “It’s like learning a forehand from John McEnroe,” says Principe, who played on Duke’s tennis team.
Principe worked in the entertainment field, with stints at USA Networks and SONY Online Entertainment, following graduation. One night, at a party in Manhattan, he observed how a masterful deejay could whip up a crowd. “He flipped a crowd of 1,500 and made them go bananas. That’s an art form, and I wondered how people learned to do it.”
He discovered that there was no place that taught it. He found that deejays operated on word-of-mouth and experimentation at a time when $1,500-deejay consoles were outselling guitars, and music lovers were spending millions on deejay-driven CDs. He knew that starting a business in the highly competitive music industry would not be easy. But Principe, who listened to Run-DMC as a kid in suburban Long Island, had a few connections and the strength of a good idea.
His youth tennis coach, Reg E. Gaines, writer of the Broadway hit Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, joined as Scratch’s co-founder and poet-in-residence and toured with the DJ Academy to college campuses, where he would moderate workshops on the nascent art form. Gaines says that Principe’s cool temperament and confidence has helped him persevere.
“ He can walk the fine line between being a good businessman and a real human being,” Gaines says. “These deejays can be the most irresponsible bunch of knuckleheads. Rob is stressed, but I’ve never seen him yelling.”
Principe’s confidence paid off when he put his business plan together and approached Mizell, the world’s most famous deejay. “I had a short list and Jay was at the top,” says Principe. “His reputation was flawless, he had incredible name recognition, and he had pull.”
Principe laid out his plan to Mizell’s manager, who invited him to the Green Room of The David Letterman Show. Mizell was getting a haircut when Principe made his pitch. Principe brought along a prized photo of him and Mizell, taken backstage at a San Diego concert in the mid-1980s. Mizell embraced the idea and joined on.
“ There’s a huge demand by those who want to deejay,” says Principe. “And just like learning an instrument, it takes focus and discipline as well as listening skills and creativity.”