School of Scratch 

Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't party, DJ.

Picture John: thirteen, clumsy, and shy. Gray hoodie wide, pants wider, eyes widest of all. Tastefully spiky-haired. Caucasian. Mute, mostly. Soaking it all in, here at open house for DJ camp.

Project yourself into John's mind.

I want to meet girls. I want to meet so many girls that I require some sort of heavy-duty vehicle -- a limo, a Hummer, a dump truck -- to transport these women back to my house, whereupon I will reenact the lurid details of a great many choruses currently bangin' on KMEL. As I am only thirteen, half the time I don't quite grasp what said choruses are referring to, precisely. But I will learn.

I will accomplish this by becoming a DJ.

Picture John's mother. John's mother has brought John here, to the office/studio/classroom hub of the Northern California DJ Music Production Academy. Lodged in a swank SF office building, in a small space doubling as a production studio, the Norcal mother ship is offering folks like John DJ lessons. Learn to mix. Learn to scratch. Learn to rock a party. Learn to drive the dump truck that will transport the girlies back home. Your home. Or at least, your mother's.

"I've listened to this music since the fifth grade," John mumbles. "And I finally wanted to start DJing, so I got some turntables, and it's my birthday, so my mom signed me up for this."

"This" is a Norcal open house, consisting of two hour-long seminars, a climactic "Scratch Session," and myriad opportunities for John's mother to fork over anywhere from $350 to $1,150 for honest-to-God night school courses in such black arts as Turntable Basics for the Art of DJing, Scratching Fundamentals, or Electronic Music Production Utilizing the Akai MPC-2000XL.

The what? If indeed they'd arrived with the All-American image of the DJ as the new Guitar God, the DJ as Hugh Hefner, the DJ as the Ecstasy-and-Hoochie-Mamas-Inundated Life of the Party, John and his mother are in for a shock, because they are surrounded by frickin' nerds.

Frickin' nerds who, incidentally, are offering unquestionably the coolest summer camp you've ever heard of. For justifiable reasons, John and his mother won't be taking the bait tonight. But I will.

Thoryn Stephens -- molecular biologist, "glitch-hop" enthusiast, and Norcal's 25-year-old founder and CEO -- repeatedly uses the phrase "acoustically architected" to describe his company's digs: a swank series of offices, space-age studios and, most tantalizingly, the Scratch Room. He is playing carnival barker to his small crowd of open-house partyers, including renowned Bay Area luminary DJ Quest.

Someone asks Quest to name an amateur turntablist's biggest mistake.

"No rhythm," he replies.

Thoryn then presides over Seminar #1, in which he describes the endless wonders of a computer program called Ableton Live. Fifteen people sit in cushy office chairs and gawk as he demonstrates how to mix together a synth loop, a few drumbeats, and a field recording of a pro skateboarder into a seamless club-banger. The discussion is moderately cool but severely wonky: He uses the words "wav," "compression," "algorithm," and "quantized." He comes off like a computer scientist plowing through a PowerPoint presentation. He notes that he prefers Logic as a sequencer. A few house partiers nod knowingly.

John nearly nods off.

"Well, we're confused," John's mother admits afterward. "He wanted just to learn scratching. I think it's a little over his head."


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