Matt Novick, a DJ of six years, was about to perform for one of the biggest crowds of his career — the entire city of Cleveland and LeBron James.
The city was filled with a million people, as many people as Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and they were ready to rejoice Cleveland’s first championship in 52 years with a parade for the Cavaliers. Novick had his equipment ready in his Uber to help Cleveland party all day, but it appeared he was not going to make it.
While in the gridlocked traffic, Novick’s driver told him it would be best to start walking. He got out and carried his equipment, worth thousands of dollars, more than a mile in the 80-degree heat to Azure, a rooftop club downtown.
Though carrying his gear was not ideal, weaving through hundreds of Cavs fans on the way, he did what he had to do to arrive just in time to play 12 stories above the parade for one million people.
Novick, or his promotional name Mattitude, works for Rock The House Entertainment which booked him the rooftop gig as well as many other private and public events. But the company wouldn’t have given that gig to just anyone. It took Novick years to build up the Mattitude brand — deejaying is only one of his skills. He’s also the marketing assistant for Rock the House, a content coordinator for online music news site Leak Jones. He is a 2016 graduate from Bowling Green State University with a degree in telecommunication.
Novick kept the party going for Cleveland into the night. There is truth, he said, to a DJ being the lifeblood of a party, though the generalization that anyone can do it looms over professionals such as himself. DJs are bending in different ways to compensate as entertainers by giving more heart and skill to a crowd than what the stigma of a DJ implies — posing and pushing a few buttons.
“There’s more to it than just pressing play,” Bobby Fleck, an Ohio University sophomore studying music production and DJ of four years, said. “You’re going from song to song, and you’re creating a flow. You need to know when to keep the certain energy up and when to slow it down.”
Brandon “DJ B-Funk” Thompson, a 2003 OU alumnus and local DJ, said being a DJ was not nearly as cool back then as it appears to be now.
“Back in the day, you would just hear a Sublime album or a Bob Marley CD played from front to end,” Thompson, who also helps plan the annual Athens Halloween Block Party, said. “Now, you really just need a laptop, and you can go and get your software, and you’re off and running.”
But more equipment than just a laptop is required for a professional setup. Novick’s purchases went from a “super cheap mixer from Guitar Center” for $150 to a new setup of a computer DJ and DJ mixer in April. What he has now can be found in clubs throughout the U.S. and is “up there with what Diplo uses.”
Computer DJs, a machine more commonly known as a CDJ, plug into a mixer and allow the user to manipulate the music that is on a CD or on a flash drive. DJ controllers can be plugged into a laptop with software that makes mixing much easier for beginners, Thompson said.
According to Music Trades, a trade publication dedicated to the music industry, retail sales of DJ equipment in the United States increased from $114 million in 2011 to $145 million in 2015. The study included equipment such as CD players, turntables, digital DJ controllers, DJ mixers and special effects lighting units.
Thompson’s setup is worth about $10,000, which includes his DJ mixer, MacBook Pro, two CDJs and his own speakers.
Novick said technology gives those serious about the profession more ways to do a better job. “You don’t have to carry around eight crates of vinyl records (and) two bags of CDs trying to figure out what to play,” he said.
The more professional the equipment, the harder it is to justify working at house parties as being worth the risk.
“I’ve had beer spilled on my equipment before. I’ve had my equipment stolen before, my speakers blown out,” Jarman “DJ Smit” Smith, a senior studying marketing and business pre-law, said. “So it could be somebody else’s risk. It discourages me, I’m not going to lie.”
Many hosts offer to pay if equipment is damaged at parties, but Novick said the offer is empty and unrealistic.
“Do you have $5,000 just sitting in your bank? Probably not,” he said.
Oliver Hamlin / For The Post
Jarman Smith, a senior studying marketing and pre-law, shakes his head during his performance at The Venue of Drxvms on Aug. 26, 2016.
It’s for that reason Thompson advises DJs to insure their equipment, a cost he said most “completely forget about.”
Smith said the equipment he bought in college was for his own curiosity — he had no intention of officially branding himself as a DJ like many who stumble into the side-profession during college.
Smith deejayed at Indie Fest with Juicy J in 2015 and said he enjoyed being on a stage of that size. However, he said the elaborate stage was equally as fun as a house party he did at Palmer Fest this year.
Party limitations are disrupting the growth of the DJ business in Athens, Thompson said.
“A lot of parties that would have normally gone on most nights or would have gone on a little bit later, are getting shut down pretty early,” he said.
According to sections 9.14.01 through 9.14.99 of the Athens City Ordinances, police can shut down a party if it is deemed a nuisance.
Thompson cited an example of when he was studying at OU in the early 2000s. He and his friends deejayed house parties during Mill Fest and Palmer Fest for a solid 12 hours before the noise ordinance went into place at 12 a.m.
“Now, most of the fests are done by 5 p.m.,” he said. “You’ve got to get $250 or $300 for a DJ, and your party might get shut down at 2. You’ve already paid the DJ — that’s just money lost.”
Hourly rates vary depending on what city a DJ performs in and the complexity of the setup, Thompson said.
Oliver Hamlin / For The Post
Jarman Smith performs at The Venue of Drxms on Aug. 26.
Smith said he charges anywhere from $100 to $150 an hour whereas Fleck usually incorporates one flat fee from $100 to sometimes $350. Both Smith and Fleck agreed price is also driven by competition in the area.
Thompson said DJs in bigger cities such as Columbus or Dayton are territorial when it comes to gigs, but he does not see Athens to be that way.
“If someone asks me questions about deejaying, that’s what I’m all about,” Thompson said. “It’s always good to find someone else in the game to bounce ideas off of.”
Having the tools to DJ are essential, but Thompson said a laptop and easy access to equipment don’t give anyone the right to call themselves a DJ.
“It’s an ongoing battle to know what an actual DJ is,” he said. “Just standing in front of people and playing music is technically a DJ, but there’s got to be some skill. I just keep getting emails of people wanting to DJ at Halloween. That wasn’t the case four, five years ago.
The skill Thompson refers to is more than mixing. Fleck makes his own music — sometimes a hard concept to grasp because the sounds are virtual. At gigs he turns on switches to speed up the beat and raises bass levels at the time he thinks is right and when it’s necessary on tracks he made.
He described house parties as having a more relaxed tone when it comes to playing music. There’s more room to experiment and have fun. “Everybody is not as opinionated than in a bar or at a club,” he said.
Fleck added that being a real DJ doesn’t stop at just deejaying.
“I’m my booking agent, manager, roadie at times. I do it all,” he said.
When Fleck started deejaying, he did not trust himself enough to go to a gig without a little knowledge or a setlist under his sleeve. Now, he’s more comfortable freestyling.
“At one point I was like, ‘All right, I’m just going to wing it each time.’ It always ends up a lot more fun that way,” he said.
Fleck’s friends know him from his nickname “Bobby Booshay,” a reference to The Waterboy. He and the character from the movie are both named Bobby (although the character spells the name ‘Bobby Boucher’) and both stutter, so it morphed as a good stage name too.
When he started promoting himself four years ago in his hometown of Cleveland, he had to sell tickets for his own events to help gain notoriety.
He learned the hard way not to depend on venues and promoters for his business. “I would never hear back from them,” he said. “It got to the point where I just said ‘screw it. I’m going to do what I do and do the best I can and make a lasting impression to the point where these promoters will come to me.’ ”
Each DJ has their own way to set up for gigs. Most of the time, Thompson said it’s too expensive to own speakers and a separate laptop, so it’s normal to use the same laptop dedicated for schoolwork and rented speakers.
Novick said it takes him no more than 15 to 30 minutes to set up his equipment, but he gives himself a full hour to soundcheck. At Azure, Novick said the technology was not as complicated as some gigs, so he felt comfortable jumping right into his set.
Oliver Hamlin / For The Post
Jarman Smith, a senior studying marketing and pre-law, performs in front of a group of partygoers at the Venue of Drxvms in on Aug. 26, 2016.
There’s a power to understanding music and how it can create a memory, Fleck said. “The DJ controls the party. You’re making everybody dance, and besides alcohol, you’re making people stay.”
Like many DJs, Smith isn’t without his stories. In April, he was deejaying at the Venue of Drxvms on Stimson Avenue and invited anyone on stage. When the beat dropped on a song, everyone on stage jumped in the air at the same time, and the stage broke.
“When I’m deejaying, I’m partying too,” Smith said. “When people play music sometimes they just stand there, but I be partying at the same time.”
However, if someone’s DJ career is only a handful of stories, Thompson said that DJ has not reached his or her full potential.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys who come through OU, and they start white hot and they’re awesome and they’re rocking it and then they graduate, and they are like ‘Yeah, I don’t even DJ anymore,’ ” Thompson said. “That’s when you find that they’re not doing it for the right reasons. They did it for the popularity or wanted to be that guy or girl everyone knew at the party.”
The evolution of music is also changing how people party and the necessity of DJs. Music curators such as Spotify and Apple Music allow anyone with an oftentimes-free account to select pre-made playlists for hosts in a pinch.
Music curators are not bad, but Thompson said pre-made playlists can take out the heart and energy a DJ puts into a party.
“A computer cannot get the next big track. It can only play what people are telling it to do,” he said. “A lot of things are working against a DJ, but at the same time, people still want quality and care.”
Novick is optimistic about his deejaying career looking at the next 10 years, but he still has a contingency plan. “I probably won’t be doing it at all, or it’s all I’ll be doing. Right from the get-go, I never would have saw this five years down the line,” Novick said.
For him, though, it is moments like deejaying during the parade in Cleveland that reinforces how cool the business is. “At the end of the day you just have to go up and kill it,” he said.