Camp DJ: Opening Young Hearts and Minds With Music 

Summer is here at last, bringing with it that mainstay of seasonal fun — youth camp. And while there are camps covering every conceivable interest, Camp DJ Memphis may be the most cutting-edge. Though DJing has been established as an art form in its own right for decades, the summer camp universe is just catching up to it, at least in Memphis.

The brainchild of Devin Steel, senior vice president of programming for iHeart Radio Memphis and popular radio show host on K97, the camp is only gaining momentum as it wraps up its second year. "It's a huge success," says Steel. "We put the information that we're accepting applications out on social media, and it usually fills up half-full immediately. After the fact, I always get 40 more people requesting. But I wouldn't take over 20 kids." Indeed, he found the 15 students attending this year to be quite demanding enough, even with three other DJ/counselors assisting him.

click to enlarge A young DJ at Camp DJ Memphis caption caption
  • A young DJ at Camp DJ Memphis caption caption

"Camp is from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and you're on your feet a lot. Once everybody starts going, you have 10 or 12 sets of equipment, and everybody's playing something different. Every station has a speaker on a stand, so you're constantly getting hit in the face with 12 different things."

Though DJing historically developed as the art of playing vinyl records on turntables, it's morphed in the digital age. A more affordable option was to match pairs of students with a Serato interface, which mimics a turntable but actually plays audio files from a laptop. "That way, everyone can pick their favorite music to work with," says Steel. "Some of them brought their own laptops, and we provided them to others. I had three returning students this year. They had gone out and bought their own equipment. Mom had invested in them!"

Though some lessons did involve actual vinyl and old-school turntables, Steel notes that even the digital workstations require considerable dexterity. "Even on a controller or something digital, it's a very touch-based hand pressure and muscle memory kind of thing," says Steel. "So it's interesting to see kids that young learn that. It's almost like playing an instrument. When I DJ, I feel like I'm playing an instrument. It's not visually looking at waveforms on the screen, but hearing it, and seeing it in your mind. You can see where the file starts, but you have to let it go at the exact same time and tempo.That's what we try to teach."

Students learn many technical basics of the craft, such as counting beats per minute or how different source tracks can be combined in real time. Steel emphasizes that DJing also exposes young people to many facets of music production. "Camp DJ is also an idea starter," Steel says. "'If I can do this, then maybe I need to be making beats. Maybe I need to be able to produce.' With a lot of the software that a lot of these kids use, you can do different things. So it's a natural stepping stone. The goal was to open up their minds to seeing there are other careers that you could springboard yourself into. That's why this year we did a field trip to the studios at David Porter's Made In Memphis Entertainment."

Beyond teaching 12- to 17-year-olds about the music industry, Steel has seen the camp's salutary effect on kids' characters as well. "It's a huge self-confidence builder, because you're performing in front of friends, in front of people that you don't know, when we first go in there. And then the last day we do a thing where parents and family can attend. We were packed yesterday. We probably had 50 or 60 people in there, and each kid did a little routine. The most interesting thing is, the first day they get in, everybody sits down like they're at a piano recital. By the last day, everybody's running around, everybody's come out of their shell and feels good. They're talking, they're dancing while they're DJing."

To learn about Camp DJ Memphis, visit campdjmemphis.com.

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