Start a Master class can often appear weighted with fear of engagement. After all, not only are you essentially saying to yourself, “Yes, I want to learn new skills or new ideas, and I’m willing to spend X hours on it,” but you are rolling the dice to spend time with someone who may be able or not, to hold your attention and inspire you to actually persevere. Sure, you probably worked with the production team to create something visually and acoustically pleasing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work specifically for you. (Want to know how to make the perfect Beef Wellington? Definitely. Will I listen to Gordon Ramsay’s voice for 24 minutes to make that happen? The hell out of here.)
Questlove’s MasterClass on DJing and music curation is, however, an accessible entry point as possible. Consisting of just a dozen installments (none of which are longer than 20 minutes), his series combines the basics of being a DJ with anecdotes, stories and advice on what to do in the absence of a better term. ‘I shout “to be able to appreciate hell in music no matter the situation.” In other words, if you feel like a music lover and curious even from afar what goes into the process of DJing, you are likely to find something of value here. As a music critic, I was interested to see how it could help me better understand the art form and develop an appreciation beyond nodding at the next wedding DJ I see at a friend’s wedding or whatever. The following five things are the biggest takeaways from watching the entire Questlove MasterClass, in order of their effects.
1. Questlove is very good at getting you to be a DJ
Before you saw this course, you couldn’t have paid me to do less DJing. I would generously rate my interest in getting behind a range of turntables as somewhere between “nonexistent” and “Haha, no seriously, find yourself some weird DeadMau5 wannabe I want to sell this to”. I love a good DJ mix as much as the next person and can admire the obvious craft that goes into someone who artfully syncs records to mix seamlessly from one to the next, but that’s about as far as that.
At the end of the fifth installment, I found myself Googling “affordable turntables”. So well, Questlove can make you think that this is not just a fun way to pass your time, but a noble calling that puts you in an exalted position with respect to all of the art and music. “Get to know your songs … it’s like a date,” he says at one point, pointing out that you probably didn’t, unless you actually notice when songs you like slow down changing the key, or stepping out in the middle was paying as much attention as you thought. It’s a mindset that you can apply to all kinds of things. A classic case of “The lessons he teaches can be applied to all possible aspects of your life.” Nowhere is this truer than the question he keeps coming back to, some kind of art versus consumption issue, the the focus of his lessons is: “Do you want to be good? Or do you just want to be effective? “
2. He has great stories
In terms of pure entertainment value, this MasterClass has the apex halfway through with an episode called “Surviving Failure.” To explain how we can learn and grow from our biggest mistakes and failures (again: life lessons, not DJ lessons), Questlove tells the story of his biggest failure throughout the episode: DJing the final White House party Obama. After spending months and even years imagining the biggest, most ambitious DJ set imaginable (he compares it to “CSI yarn on my wall”), he comes to the August event and begins his Unleash planned masterpiece and then end. When the POTUS pats him on the shoulder and points at his children and all of their friends, he tells the Roots drummer to please play things the children can dance to. He suddenly realized he was trying to deliver a PhD. Lecturing music to old school Beyoncé people, he admits doing embarrassing things like spontaneously Googling “songs kids like” so as not to ruin last night of fun for the administration.
It’s a fantastic story that ends with Obama trying (and failing) to reassure Questlove that it went great. “You thought you would inspire us with your intellect and you served the people,” the President told him. (Questlove makes a solid Obama impression, by the way.) But he has similarly entertaining anecdotes across the board, whether he’s telling stories about great DJ sets from the past or just talking about moments when you realize you’re musical with people connects on the dance floor. There’s enough focus on the practical mechanics of DJing that it isn’t exactly a self-help seminar, but for those who enjoy good storytelling, there are some rewards on their own.
3. You will never think as deeply about music as Questlove does about music
There are some early warnings about how seriously Questlove takes its musical knowledge. In the opening episode, he immediately admits that everything he’s done in his life – including playing in The Roots – was really an effort to give him more time collecting records and DJing. In the third, he admits it took a year to put together “the perfect 180-song set” for an exclusive Beyoncé and Jay-Z party. From then on, it only becomes more obvious that his fascination and obsession with music is matched by a few on this planet.
Subscribing to a loose twist on the “10,000 hours” rule, it repeats the amount of time you should practice scratching (at least 1,000 hours with each hand to learn the basics) and saves information about every song you might ever want to play (“For every song you play, you should know five songs that go perfectly with that song”) and even point out to the viewer how much time they still invest in this craft: “I usually take four hours on Sundays to trim or Harvest – pick 200 songs and I’ll analyze them: “This song has 73 BPMs and there’s a bridge in the key of G.” Or if they sing a certain note … I’ll repeat that – I can filter to make their voice stand out better and give me an excuse to get into the key of D. It’s like moving the mouse through the maze trying to get to the cheese on the other side. “You know, just a lazy Sunday. He’s even carefully looking for the right kind of white noise to help you fall asleep, and constantly testing different tones throughout his nights.”
This meticulous attention to every possible element of the music to which he has dedicated his life becomes even more evident in the penultimate segment “The Art Of Crate Digging”. When discussing how to get a feel for whether an old record you see while browsing through used vinyl containers might appeal to you, it goes into detail: which labels had the most reliable output in what time span? (You can trust Def Jam from 1985 to 1990.) What context cues in the liner notes can you point out if the music might be cool? Split up the outfits the artists wear on the cover, the font used for the title, the credits for the session players – anything and everything is a piece of the puzzle. (For his part, Questlove says he learned from the late great hip-hop producer J. Dilla that “boring covers” are usually a sign of promise.) Like any charismatic artist with a true passion for their medium, the excitement is even as contagious as it is at the same time is daunting. I don’t want to let him down! (This was triggered by a mid-MasterClass nightmare that Questlove showed up at my home asking to see how well I had applied his teachings.)
4. If you want to learn the basic mechanics of DJing, this is not necessarily the starting point.
Yes, Questlove walks you through many of the basics of DJing. But let’s be clear: this is not an all-purpose introductory class to familiarize yourself with the equipment and glossary required. He tosses a lot of terms around without explaining them – if you don’t know what waveforms are you need to take a break and do a little research – and more importantly, there isn’t really any guide when it comes to doing some of this stuff. And yes, he’ll say what he does and then do it, but often you just blink at a small screen in the lower left corner that shows his laptop’s display and the Serato software program he uses for DJing. More than once I lost track of how he was doing what he was describing; In the end, I always got an abstract understanding of what he wanted from me, but I couldn’t necessarily select the necessary machines and dials from a list.
Where this MasterClass is most helpful for beginners is the curation side, especially when it comes to putting together a good DJ set for any occasion. The “Planning Your Set” part is a series highlight, as Questlove guides you through all the possible deductions of how and why you choose the order of the songs to be played. He warns against dropping hit after hit straight out of the net (“You’re tireing the crowd”) and talks about the art of evaluating people’s reactions to what you are playing and any subsequent decision based on that Adjust the course. In the best case scenario, a DJ approaches his task as “a playwright treats his story structure … beginning, establishment of action, rising action, climax, falling action, end” to create an arc for the experience. It can get tough for those hoping to move seamlessly from hits of the past to the present: As he notes, today’s pop music is almost half as fast as the pop music of decades ago, and that doesn’t even speak to the way how bands often speed up or slow you down within a song – good luck pairing you without serious planning.
5. You will never see a wedding DJ – or even a restaurant brunch DJ – like this again.
I have a new appreciation for why most DJs look annoyed when you make a request. This is their art, and if you just want a list of songs you like clattering from the speakers, make an iTunes playlist. Moving from one song to another over a period of possibly hours in a row has a grace and artistry that even the average bar mitzvah DJ prides itself on. In that regard, I got everything I hoped for and more from Questloves MasterClass. Pulling the curtain back on a talent most people consider little more than pushing a few buttons (and maybe curling a piece of vinyl to create a scratchy sound) shows the vast world of challenges and philosophies that go into helping to create a person’s musical experience. And the big ones can play their crowd like puppet masters. Questlove details how he tries to change convention – like repeatedly leaving out the music when an EDM setup hits its crescendo – and shows why it benefits both the artist and the audience when a great DJ works: ” Until then, I’ll be able to get away with all kinds of musical crimes. And they and I enjoy it. “Similar to what one would assume, this MasterClass.