So You Want To Be A DJ?

Inside Delhi's DJ training industry

Akbar Sami, who rose to fame in 2000 with his remix album Jalwa, is an inspiration to an entire generation of aspiring DJs. COURTESY AKBAR SAMI
01 February, 2012

ADUSTY TWILIGHT IS SETTLING OVER GURGAON. Our rickshaw hits every possible pothole on the slip road as we pass rows of boxy shopping centres enticingly calling out to their weekend patrons, who have turned out in packs. Sunantha Laxmi and I plunge headlong into oncoming traffic, dodging a torrent of craters and cars.

Earlier that evening I’d met Sunantha at Gurgaon’s packed Sahara Mall. Sporting a poker-straight bright blonde-orange bob, green pants and a laptop bag on her shoulder, she stood awkward and guarded behind an arrangement of large flowerpots that looked onto the lobby of the mall where families pushed children into playpens, couples surreptitiously convened at Café Coffee Day and late-evening shoppers began their escapades. The beginning of her workday marked the end of everyone else’s, and the guarded look she wore had become second nature—now 22, Sunantha has been a resident DJ at a local club since she was 19.

We head towards Megacity Mall, the location of the resto-bar Vapour at which Sunantha is a junior resident DJ. On the ride over she keeps up an incessant stream of chatter as I try hard to hold on to my seat. She tells me about the autowala who takes her to and from work for her ungodly 6 pm to 3 am night shift. In an area where skirmishes, drunken or sober, are regularly settled at gunpoint, it’s scary to think of this petite girl unarmed on the roads of Gurgaon.

She’s unfazed. “Oh, he’s very reliable,” Sunantha says, pooh-poohing away my unwarranted, parent-like questioning. Given the drunk, testosterone-driven local men swarming inside and outside the bars, Laxmi—or DJ Sammy, as she calls herself—plays at, the autowala is among her few security measures.

Sunantha has little time for my misplaced concerns; in recent years she hasn’t had much communication with her own parents, after all. The news that their daughter didn’t want to continue down a “normal” trajectory—IAS officer or lawyer or engineer—didn’t sit very well with them: “There was a huge fight at home when I said I didn’t want to do the LLB degree I’d gotten admission into, in a university in Pune. I wanted to do something with music. I just didn’t know what. Plus, I had no formal education in it.”

The moment she broke the news that she had finally decided to turn the many afternoons spent DJing on cassette players at house parties into a serious career, her army-officer father put his foot down. “He said this wasn’t a career. There was no future. It was a terrible choice for women, with no scope to grow”—and in the end, the 18-year-old’s father gave her a typically cast-iron armed forces ultimatum: that he wouldn’t support her if she chose this path. And, in equally typical teenage rebellion, Sunantha moved out and into the house of an uncle who was both younger and cooler.


As we sip on iced tea before her worknight begins, Sunantha continues: “After a month of living there, I went back home, without telling anyone, to find a huge padlock on my door.” Her Bengali neighbour was the first to tell her that her father had retired. “‘How do you not know?’ she asked me, so surprised. My entire family had moved home to Kerala,” she says, her eyes welling up, “and no one had told me.”

Forced to come to terms with the consequences of her family-severing decision, Sunantha realised she would need a course in DJing in order to get a foothold in the industry. She answered an advert in the papers for a BPO job, which paid a rather generous R20,000. “After I’d put away some money, I started looking for courses and came upon Jazzy Joe’s and Spingurus’s websites. And just decided to call Jazzy Sir.”

She looks down at her cell phone—vibrating repeatedly—and says, “Fish! I need to run.” We laugh at her toned-down expletive as she pushes her petite frame past hefty male bodies milling around at the entrance of the mall. The slight Keralite seems completely at home with the rambunctious crowds.

“The last two clubs I played at had lots of uska reference ka party hais,she says. “The crowds would ask me to play popular Jat songs like ‘Jat da chora’, and would threaten to call their ‘contacts’ if I didn’t have a song they wanted to hear.” Sunantha would snap back saying their fathers weren’t paying her, or would intentionally tear up the occasional napkin scribbled with a compliment. Once, she even slapped a guy who was fiddling with the console. “I just told him to F-off, I didn’t care who his contacts were!” Two years of dealing with the rowdiness of the clientele at Last Chance was enough to steel her nerves—but also left her hankering for something less conflict-ridden.

Sunantha, one of Jazzy Joe’s students, is a junior resident DJ at the Vapour Bar and Club in Gurgaon. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN / DELHI PRES IMAGES

Vapour was the place she settled forand is also where we’re soon sipping a mug of in-house microbrewed light beer. One of the few places that have opened in Gurgaon to cater to the satellite town’s more upmarket and genteel residents, Vapour’s rooftop offers diners mezze platters, a view of the glass-and-steel skyline and pints of freshly-brewed beer. It all ties neatly into Gurgaon’s desire to be more like Singapore and less like, well, a developing-too-quickly-for-it’s-own-good Haryanvi village. For Sunantha it fit like a glove.

She comes back to her story after slipping in a CD of pop hits from the 1990s to entertain the few tables with early-evening, post-work patrons. “You know, my first employers only wanted me because I was a girl, and they wanted some glamour in their club.” (A common grouse of many male DJs is that women are chosen over them and paid much more money.) Sunantha’s daily routine is to collect and archive digitally-available tracks for the rock ‘n’ roll and retro music she plays during the week. Weekends, on the other hand, are filled with mostly commercial playlists. “I’d love to play psychedelic music though,” she says wistfully. “Sometimes I just slip a track in here and there for 20 minutes, when it’s really late and no one notices!” I don’t have the heart to tell her that someone had noticed. That someone happened to be a journalist with a business daily, whose review certainly praised the microbrewery—but made a point to refer to the strange mix of trance being played at the resto-bar.


WHEN SUNANTHA FIRST CALLED JAZZY in 2008, his initial reaction was cold, even disparaging. In India, where many a DJ school is run from a bedroom or a back alley, conjuring up visions of money-spinning, fly-by-night operations, the instructors claim they crush rather than encourage the aspirations of countless starry-eyed DJ-wannabes who come to them hungry for the glamour of a DJ’s life.

At Jazzy Joe’s academy, the first cut is made when you email Jazzy. An immediate and automatic response arrives in your inbox listing the “pros and cons” of a career in DJing. The upsides, you’re told, are “no work, all fun and play, money (DJs with little or no experience can earn anything from R5,000 to R20,000), celebrity status and travel.”

And the email goes on to attempt a few witty warnings. Listed under Downsides: “1. High risk factor - if you don’t update yourself regularly or have a distinct identity of your own, 2. Grind behind the glam - since partying is a weekend activity and everyone’s holiday is your workday, 3. “Lifestyle risk” of a job associated with alcohol, sleepless nights and drugs.”

“Can you hold your own?” ends the email, ominously.

It’s his duty, Jazzy says, to warn prospective students and tell them the “hard truth”.

“DJs today are treated like dogs,” Sunantha’s guru says dramatically. It wasn’t always thus: “Back in the nineties when I played at clubs, we were gods.”

Jazzy sits curled up on a chair in his cosy one-story Janakpuri house, the air heavy with the smell of lunchtime spices. I had expected to find a flamboyantly turned-out man. The image on the website’s homepage presents Jazzy in a shiny purple jacket and matching cap, calling out “So you wanna be a dj?” But the man in front of me, with thinning shoulder-length hair, knee-high Bermuda shorts—which I suspected were chequered boxers—and a dull grey sweatshirt, conveys little of the promised pomp.

As his sister and brother bustle in and out getting lunch ready, he shuffles around with a large pile of files to make space in the 5-foot-by-4-foot living room. “I’m taking care of my father’s paperwork, and the house is a mess. My entire family is also visiting,” he says apologetically. “He passed away a month ago, so I’m taking a break from the workshops.”

The modest, middle-class living room, complete with the ubiquitous brown and maroon furniture and plastic flowers, is nobody’s picture of a DJ’s studio, or even his home. It must show on my face as I look around—so Jazzy takes me to behind the house, to a vinyl-lined room cramped with enough complicated equipment to launch a spaceship, its walls covered with posters of music greats, including the mandatory Jamaican Rastafarian, LGBT stickers, and record covers of everyone from David Guetta to Aerthra Franklin. This is where Rajiv Kishore Sharma holds his workshops and spawns mini Jazzy Joes.

Once the resident DJ at the Taj Palace’s My Kind of Place, Jazzy Joe now runs a DJ school in his house in Janakpuri. RAJ K RAJ / HT PHOTO

The son of an Indian Foreign Service officer, he grew up on the move: “Papa was a rolling stone and we rolled with him,” he said, with a slightly theatrical air. At the age of 17, he began running a fortnightly song request program at a small Indonesian radio station off his two-in-one, and a decade later Jazzy was the resident DJ at the Taj Palace’s My Kind of Place (MKOP), where he conceived of the very popular expat hip-hop nights on Fridays.

After nearly nine years as a resident DJ, Jazzy retired from the life of club residencies and began a “second phase” of his career. To coincide with the new millennium, he launched his label, Jazzy Stuff, to provide music, professional sound and funky club wear to performers and DJs, and a company, Jazzy Concepts, with the aim to “provide new and fresh concepts for the entertainment industry.” And third year into this phase of “new goals and ideas” came the DJ School.

Over the years, Jazzy has crafted a peculiar personality through which he presents his very unique sense of self to the world—something impossible to ignore when you take a look at his website, which features dozens of pictures of him dressed in imaginative, often comic, costumes. One section, appropriately titled ‘Many Faces’, is where you can go to see Jazzy playing dress-up: ‘Singer Joe’ is a skinny man in a satin white shirt, gloves and high-waisted pants; ‘Jazzy Mullah’ is in a traditional Muslim outfit—black sherwani, matching cap, prayer beads in hand; ‘Daku Joe’ is an obvious take on Sholay (complete with a hillock as the backdrop); and ‘Sharmila Joe’ is a village girl from from the hills, giggling as she carries a pot of water. ‘DJ Jazzy’ is simply sprawled across his equipment in a disco silver outfit. The pictures are, the website explains, proof of how “creative a canvas Jazzy’s face is, his penchant for dressing up, his extensive hat collection, eclectic wardrobe and body language modulation”. I was afraid to ask what the last bit means.


Underneath the obvious laughs, the pictures also reflect the DJ’s number one lesson in life: Performance. “Okay so we couldn’t split the seas,” says Jazzy of life as a DJ in the 1990s. “But only people who had the money would go to these clubs. Back then, if you knew the prime minister it was a big thing, but if you knew the DJ of a club, that was even bigger. That meant you weren’t just powerful, but you were rich. Nothing could be bigger, other than Jesus coming down to earth!”

Despite his obvious love of hyperbole, there’s something resonant in what Jazzy says. Back in the 1990s there were just a few big clubs in Delhi—Oasis, Ghungroo, Anabelles, MKOP and CJs. The even fewer DJs they had playing at them were kings and rock stars rolled into one. DJs were the only source of any kind of music. Piracy was a distant dystopian future; people would hungrily wait for whatever music the DJ would feed them. They came to clubs for their music fix, and the rarity of what they were listening to made it all the more valuable. That, back then, was the USP of discotheques.

“You wouldn’t understand,” announces Jazzy apocalyptically, “because we live in these times.”

So, what are “these times”? They’re times when every gulli, muhalla and pind in India spews out dozens—even hundreds—of wannabe Aqeels, Sunny Sarids and Suketus. As remixes take over pop culture, item girls become cultural icons and resto-bars replace mom-and-pop stores, DJs have become overnight stars. Or that’s, at least, what people think they see.

IF THE 1990S, when liberalisation was still new, saw the beginning of discotheques, making swish nightclubs de rigueur, then the 21st century has brought with it with an influx of clubs and bars in all shapes and sizes—resto-bars, lounge bars, hookah bars.

And DJing, which used to be seen as a bad career choice—associated with “daaru, masti aur ladki”—got an image makeover when albums like DJ Akbar Sami’s Jalwa and tracks like DJ Suketu’s ‘Pyaar Zindagi Hai’ began to rule the charts. “Ever since we started making top-of-the-pops remixes, got married, got good offices and studios, DJing became a more respectable career. It might be a night job but we take our jobs very seriously,” explains 43-year-old Suketu. He tells me about 19- or 20-year-old kids who walk in “wanting to do something with music”. And since learning an instrument or singing takes years of committed practice, they turn to something easier, like DJing. What adds to the allure is that the entertainment business is one of the few that seems immune to fluctuating markets; recession might sink every other industry, but people are still going to step out to drink no matter what, on happy days and sad.

Today, DJs of Suketu’s calibre are considered stars and artists. They’re feted by Bollywood celebrities. Club nights are dedicated to them. They travel the world performing for large audiences. “People see all this and think it’s an easy, sure-shot way to get quick fame and money,” continues Suketu, who also runs a DJ school in Mumbai.

DJ Suketu, who has churned out some of the most popular remixes of the past decade, runs his own DJ school in Mumbai. COURTESY SUKETU

An experienced DJ opening his or her own school has been a rite of passage in the DJing universe, but while earlier training was a prerogative of the veteran, now it’s an open field thanks to the technological breakthroughs in music production and mixing.

In India where unofficial counts peg the number of DJs in Delhi alone at more than 10,000, training schools are springing up even faster than bars. The duration of a course at these academies ranges anywhere between two weeks and three months, and the training module is a standard mix of theory on the history of DJing and introductions to various genres of music, and practice with equipment like mixers, turntables, tape decks, amplifiers, headphones, lighting effects, computers and sound processors. A workshop ideally concludes with professional grooming, a completion certificate, and, occasionally, some guidance towards job opportunities.

Every DJ school has an individual—often innovative—way of organising its teaching repertoire.

Some of them differentiate the streams by prospect: club DJing and mobile DJing. Club DJ aspirants are trained in mixing music and layering it with other techniques to create an appealing environment for a dance audience. The techniques can be mp3 mixing, pitch control, cross fading (to monitor the level of audio signal), beat matching (to keep a constant beat as songs transition), juggling, sampling and sequencing. The key is to respond to a particular venue’s music policy and their clientele. Mobile DJing requires more or less the same set of techniques, except the DJs have to carry their own equipment to social events and be an entertaining host and often the master of ceremonies.

Big schools such as Spingurus claim to offer a broader range. Based on the level of existing knowledge and technical complexity, the program is spread over four stages: CD DJing, CD turntable, vinyl turntable and digital DJing, each progression entailing more time and money. CD Djing, a popular short-cut into the industry, requires a skill with compact discs and CD decks/players as a means to mix tracks. CD turntable, known to be a common club trick, is an ingenious method of combining the convenience of CDs with the effect of a turntable. Vinyl turntable uses gramophone records and a turntable to mix tracks and is considered the consummate category of DJing, aimed only at the experienced. Digital DJing, the latest game-changer, refers to the combination of a wide range of hardware and software to replicate the existing DJ techniques. Known  as laptop DJing to the old-timers, it is often condemned for laying an easy and indiscriminate wealth of new possibilities before anybody who will ask.

Suketu calls it the time of the Internet DJ. “There’s so much rubbish online that every second person calls themselves a DJ. You put up bootleg remixes, get called for a show and usually don’t know shit about music,” he complains. “It’s like David Guetta said in [his documentary] Nothing but the Beat—a good producer doesn’t necessarily have to be a good DJ, but a good DJ will always be a good producer.”

DJ Sue (short for Sushein), the 22-year-old founder of Skratch DJ Academy, who has, according to his website, earned the meritorious distinction of being India’s youngest DJ instructor, is among those who are happy to produce DJs in bulk.

Hungry to learn, students come from all walks of life—housewives who want to entertain at their kitty parties, out-of-work models who think it’s the next glamorous thing to do, young boys who want to fine-tune their rock band’s performance, and even the DJs’ own receptionists who want to moonlight and make more money. But the most prevalent are those who are looking for instant fame, glam and glitz.

“The DJ is a 21st-century pop icon. They get paid up to ten lakhs, are featured on MTV, live movie star lives,” says Sushein. Sushein, or Blind Faith if you knew him back in 2007, runs a small neon-paint graffitied studio-office in an under-construction building along the back lanes of Haus Khas Village. “I’ve tried to recreate an Avatar studio”, he says, a gleaming smile splitting his proud face.

Leaving Spingurus over differences in teaching methods, Sushein has since tried to incorporate in his academy things he couldn’t handle at his last job. “I wanted the kind of atmosphere DJs play in, in clubs. No light or air-conditioning, lasers in their eyes. The whole deal.” Skratch Academy (with a ‘K’ to distinguish it from the more famous LA-based academy called Scratch) offers both CD and turntable courses, for which students pay anything from R15,000 to R30,000.

Belonging to a school of thought that considers DJing an extension of event management, Sushein says an important lesson is to prep students in the basics of the system, and to make sure they have essential back-ups besides their own equipment in case of an emergency. “If there’s a problem, the DJ is blamed, because he represents everything there.”

Not having lived or partied in the early 1990s, Sushein is less disdainful of “these times” than Jazzy. “We should be proud of everything going into it. Our main focus should be the music. Just because they chose to earn more money doing small parties, doesn’t mean they should be frowned upon!”

Small parties, also commonly known as ‘shaddi-vyah’ parties, are the other side of the coin for DJing in India. They’re the real business.

Mobile DJing, taking off on a British trend in which disc jockeys would perform impromptu gigs in parks or private parties, cropped up in India in the late 1990s and soon became an organised industry, when first-generation names of the DJ world like Kuki’s DJ Rummy, Ghungroo’s DJ Sunny Sarid (who also runs one of India’s most expensive and oldest DJ schools) and DJ Prince started their own mobile DJ companies. Now, a well-networked DJ with his or her own equipment can easily walk away with more money from one event than what they’d get from playing at a club for an entire month.

And it has also, complains Jazzy— who is the anti-Christ of mobile DJing—led to the death of the image of the DJ in India. “I won’t do a house party for any amount of money. There would be no respect for me. And most of my students don’t do weddings. Like Sunantha they all head towards the club industry. When it becomes about money, they become greedy and dilute the art.”

Jazzy is not completely off the mark. Mobile DJing might offer people jobs, but there is little scope for growth or innovation. DJing basics like scratching, spinning and judging a crowd are often hard to find in the business. Remixes are software-driven, and that’s as far as most DJs creativity extends. Turntables are endangered and the rare DJ that performs on them, a relic.

With a surplus flow of DJs out of the schools and onward to the market, the simple rules of supply and demand have fallen into place: DJs are now more frequently seen as workers, not artists. For every DJ who charges R10,000 a gig, there are 10 more who charge R500—or, if really desperate, would even do it for free. At some places people think “the DJ” constitutes the dance floor, equipment and lights—and ask if they can “dance on the DJ”. Sometimes the DJwala is booked along with the bandwala and the tentwala, and collects tips from the crowd after playing.

ON THE WALLS OF HIS PRITAMPURA OFFICE, entrepreneur, instructor and DJ Jitesh Dang’s vision board loudly announces his personal goals, with pictures of the latest shiny Audi SUVs and swanky Dubai- and Miami-style beachfront houses. Just like the Donald Trump poster with “think big and kick ass” boldly emblazoned on it, 30-year-old DJ Jitesh is a picture of self-aware, brash bumptiousness. Unlike old-school puritans like Jazzy, who claim to shy away from talking about money, DJ Jitesh is here to make DJs and make some money while doing it. Having started Spingurus five years ago, Dang specialises in private shaadiparties (said quickly, as one word).

DJ Jitesh of Spingurus. They represent the new league of young and entrepreneurial trainers. COURTESY JITESH

“My first question to them is, do you want to be a club or a mobile DJ? If they say club, I usually send them back,” Dang says.

“Club DJs’ lives are the hardest. They play five days a week, for most of the night. They go home late, families get disturbed and you smell of smoke and alcohol, and only get paid a quarter of what a senior DJ gets. Club managers offer you so little because there are enough people willing to play for that much. Sometimes I even feel like I should stop doing this. But I have a belly to fill!” he says while rubbing his, which looks well filled.

It might be his belly that leads Jitesh to intone repetitively and at every opportunity: “DJing is a shitty business. You need a backup career. You need a backup career!” The DJ school seems to be his.

Poke around a little more, and Jitesh tells you why he has copies of Autocar India conspicuously littered around his studio-office. He looks reasonably modest and reluctant. A former Times Music DJ of the Year (a fact that’s plastered all over a bulletin board behind him), he then talks about how he has a backup career to his backup career—to be the inventor and marketer of India’s first nontoxic and ecofriendly waterless carwash. His office, he jokes, is one-half sound-lab and one-half chem-lab.

“Now my parents can tell their friends their son has a legit business,” he says with a loud, characteristic Punjabi guffaw. “You know, DJs also don’t get too many rishtas”, Jitesh continues in a conspiratorial tone. “Not that I’m talking about myself. But parents feel shy to say my son is a DJ, not a doctor or an engineer.” Though his courses in ‘digital music production’ and ‘sound engineering’ might fare better in the marital market—the nomenclature conceivably sounding more dignified.

Parents’ opinions of the job clearly haven’t changed much from the 1980s, when Jazzy enrolled in a course in hotel management to keep his father happy.  “Today parents are more cooperative. They don’t want their children to turn around and blame them later,” Jazzy chortles. “They just want to save their own backsides!”

For parents who feel it’s a profession where kids are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol, Sushein pegs the risk as equal to that of banking and call-centre jobs, which are often higher in stress levels, he insists. He remembers how his ex-partner, a kid from a strict Jain family, would hide his equipment with the guard, and tell his parents he was hanging out with his friends. “Today, he plays at every big club in Delhi, promotes dubstep and electronica in India and earns about a lakh or so a month. But he doesn’t drink or smoke, and lives strictly by the guidelines and rules of his religion,” adds Sushein.

His Haus Khas office sees parents of all means and motivations come and go. Some drag their kids there to prevent them from becoming too nerdy and bookish, others give their kids six-month deadlines to experiment and then expect them to come back to sit in family shops or ‘bijnesses’, and still others call him up and give him a earful about how he’s “diversifying” their child.

But, at the end of the day, as DJs crawl out of the woodwork of every gulli, what distinguishes one ‘academy’ from another workshop is still a mystery. Is the word academy being bandied around too easily? Akbar Sami has harsh words: “I’ve visited schools all over India who claim they teach DJing, but these people don’t seem to know the first thing about DJing themselves. It’s all a money-making racket. They think with a few CD players, and a little teaching about stuff like beat matching and mapping, they’re running institutes!” He is exasperated with the lack of expertise and technical know-how in the market today: “You have to understand the console and people. And sound systems. They’re made by experts who know DJing is about not just the press of a button.”

Suketu is just as dismissive of the dilettantes. “They don’t understand that it takes more than just a two-month DJ course to be that successful in the industry.”

AT VAPOUR, WE MOVE UP TO THE TERRACE, where Sunantha’s seniors are now setting up the apparatus for the Friday night. Neon apples glow on the backs of the systems and the faces behind them glow in the light of their screens. She introduces me to the team—and, a little while later, as she quietly marvels at how one of the club’s senior DJs actually stands in one place and plays the entire night, I think of Jazzy’s lesson number one: Perform. In the proliferating and increasingly competitive world of DJ training, Jazzy seems to be somewhat of a misfit. Though traditionally skilled and reasonably in demand, he works at his own pace and on his terms, be it as a performer or as a teacher.

A loyal student, Sunantha justfies Jazzy’s teaching methods. They’re informal and unusual; he even encourages his few students to stay with him in creatively conceptualised bedrooms (each room is divided into three facades: funky side, simple side and chill-out side). “He teaches you himself, doesn’t give his job to someone else. Unlike other senior DJs, he shares whatever knowledge he has with you, is there for you night or day, becomes a reliable support.” She is referring to Jazzy’s contemporaries like Sunny Sarid, who charge up to R75,000—and Aqueel, whose course costs R150,000, and comes along with “bragging rights of having played besides Aqueel”. To prospective students who wonder why Jazzy’s fee ranges from just R18,000 to R20,000, he says he doesn’t want to make money.

“It’s like politics,” he says finally, in his typical melodramatic tone. “I have to stop complaining about the state of DJing and do something about it myself.” Like Anna, he finishes with a beaming smile.