Classically trained violinist Nolan Isozaki picked up an electronic music controller for the first time two and a half years ago, not expecting it to become anything but a hobby. On April 14, he will be DJing the after-party for the first-ever Electronic Music Awards and Foundation show in Los Angeles.
The Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, or HASOM, held a DJ competition in which students submitted 15-minute tapes, which were due March 14, to show off their music-mixing skills. The four finalists had the opportunity to DJ sets Saturday at Avalon Hollywood, a large-capacity club in Los Angeles. Isozaki won the competition judged by trance DJ and producer Paul Oakenfold and others involved in the music industry.
Tiffany Naiman, the contest coordinator and graduate student, and two other HASOM faculty members came up with the idea for the contest because they wanted to give students the opportunity to DJ in a concert setting in Los Angeles.
Naiman realized many DJs on the UCLA campus don’t have the opportunity to showcase their work, and the contest was a way to bring them together and give them a professional music industry opportunity, she said.
To organize the contest, the three staff members collaborated with Oakenfold to give individuals who were primarily students and secondarily DJs the opportunity to DJ a show like it was their own.
Twenty-four students submitted mixtapes of their work, and the beats were judged by a UCLA panel of five, including Naiman, Ava Sadripour and Robert Fink.
None of the finalists chosen were music majors. Ranging from first-years to fifth-years, the student engineers and writers all had distinctive EDM backgrounds, experiences and styles, but were united by their enthusiasm for listening to and mixing their own electronic music.
Joshua Kiley, a third-year psychology student, got his start mixing music through his high school’s Associated Student Body.
He said his best friend at the time introduced him to DJing and taught him how to use a controller and work with sound and audio engineering.
Some of the contestants, like Gillis Wang, haven’t had much public experience at all. Wang, a first-year financial actuarial mathematics student, said he hadn’t mixed music in a venue even close to the capacity of the Avalon: He normally records a mix just to listen to it at the gym.
He wasn’t even sure about making a submission for the contest until his friends pushed him to try.
“I was actually kind of hesitant to submit because I wasn’t sure – I wasn’t entirely confident in my skills, because I’ve just been doing it for fun,” Wang said.
Shan Tambat, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student, has been DJing in public settings since his freshman year at UCLA. He began mixing music about five years ago and has been playing at parties and clubs ever since. Tambat shadowed professional DJs, like Bentley Montes and Justin Edge, and said they taught him how to DJ properly and cater to the crowd.
The artistic possibilities of EDM played a large role in the finalists’ submissions and plans for their Avalon sets, allowing them to incorporate their own personalities into the audio and visual aspects of their mixes.
Kiley is inspired by turntablists like DJ Craze and A-Trak, and story-telling DJs like Cascade, Carnage and Calvin Harris. He said he likes to incorporate classic techniques like scratching and beat-matching into his sets, and tries to pay tribute to the hip-hop roots of EDM in his mixes amid the trap and house music.
Isozaki, the fourth-year English student who won the contest at Avalon, is primarily interested in deep house and techno, and cited Ta-ku as his main inspiration for the visuals of his performance.
“(Ta-ku) is also a photographer, and that’s where I find myself as an artist: as a DJ and a photographer. He finds a way to fuse the two aesthetics into something cohesive,” Isozaki said.
The works of underground DJs like Hot Since 82, Nina Kraviz, Richie Hawtin and MK inspired his submission and live set. He wanted to bridge the gap between mainstream and underground music to appeal to the judges while staying true to his style, he said.
The level of creativity and individuality among these finalists emerges through their stylistic choices in their sets, Naiman said. She added that the talent for mixing music with personality and style is everywhere on campus and this contest was designed to bring it into the context of a professional stage.
“It’s a big break even for these four people to be spinning in front of (Oakenfold) even if all four of them can’t win” Naiman said. “It really is giving them experience of what it’s really like to be a professional DJ.”