Cutting and scratching has always been the focal point of deejaying. It is a skill that requires practice and dedication, and its acrobatic showmanship translates perfectly to competition. The international turntablist championship DMC is the quintessential tournament, and it’s been crowning the world’s top DJ since 1986. Problem is, turntablism is only part of what a DJ does. It’s also become less of a central component of the craft in the past few years, a fact that the cultural brain trust at Red Bull has picked up on with Thre3Style, the energy drink’s spin on a DJ battle.
Red Bull has always taken a hands-on approach to its involvement in music and sporting events, often forgoing traditional sponsorship deals to create its own events, like Thre3Style. Instead of focusing on feats of scratching alone, a Thre3Style competition is all about party-rocking. Contestants must span at least three genres across a 15-minute set while also being technically precise, entertaining and original. The event has become such a success that Red Bull took it worldwide in 2010, with finalists from across 18 countries competing to be body-mover No. 1.
“It was almost a revelation,” says open-format DJ pioneer Cosmo Baker, a judge of the contest, which is holding its 2012 global finals at multiple venues across the city through Saturday 29. “This is a whole dimension of the art that had never really been showcased before, and it’s something that speaks directly to me. I was sold immediately.”
Baker, who chatted on the phone from Brooklyn, is well known for championing the DJ mantra Thre3Style prizes—meaning eclectic, original and crazy fun—and got involved with the competition in 2009. “I’m kind of a skeptic when it comes to DJ contests,” he says of his initial reaction. “These types of contests where it’s all about the technical skill—which is great and it really showcases these turntablists—is an amazing artistry in itself, but in the 21st century, I’m not really sure how relevant that is.” Referencing early DJ greats like David Mancuso and Nicky Siano, Baker points out that how well a DJ incites a wanton celebration is a much better indicator of his or her overall skill.
“Restricting yourself to one particular sound or one particular genre is just boring, and it’s not challenging,” the 35-year-old DJ adds. “It’s part of our responsibility to not just entertain but to educate and to open people’s ears up to not just new sounds, but to the way that sounds can be filtered through other genres and how DJs are able to draw all these direct correlations between genres.”
Joining Philly DJ great Jazzy Jeff and Canada’s Skratch Bastid, one of Thre3Style’s creators, this week as judges, Baker will be looking for qualities he says he looks for in any solid DJ: “creativity, style, originality, taking chances, having a great energy and stage presence and trying to catch me off guard—slipping something in that I would not expect and in no way would have thought would work.”
He also looks forward to differences in how these skills manifest themselves globally. “DJ Duppy, from India, last year, he came out and I’m like, okay, they have Thre3Style battles in India? He killed it with his music, being able to bring in bhangra, making it applicable to the greater global picture.” For Baker and the team at Red Bull, this—and not merely turntable technique—is the future of deejaying. “Things change and art progresses,” he concludes. “There’s a quote from Cannonball Adderley, ‘music ain’t supposed to stand still.’ ”
Red Bull Thre3Style crowns its ’12 champ on Saturday 29.