Photo by Sam Harper | @fusedx
To be a DJ, one must be able to read a room, determine a crowd’s needs, and even direct them to where they need to go emotionally through the music. Freesia Towle does all of these things as a DJ and also as an academic advisor at Berklee Online.
“As an advisor, my role is really being able to empathize and take what I’m hearing in the news and reading on social media, and assume that my students are being hit with this as well,” she says. “I go into conversations with students with a certain heightened level of awareness that this person might really be in it right now and I need to give them care and compassion.”
When Freesia is not advising Berklee Online students, this same care and compassion goes into her love for curating and sharing music as a DJ. Freesia grew up in Minneapolis, which became the epicenter of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. Where she grew up greatly influenced her taste in music, in a city that was home of Prince and played a big role in the national hip-hop scene. She sees DJing as a source of community education and also a method of facilitating underrepresented music.
“Growing up in the heart of Minneapolis and going to a public high school, I was continuously exposed to hip-hop and soul music,” says Freesia. “There’s just something about being able to sing along to lyrics by Al Green, Aretha Franklin, and Anita Baker. Growing up in that environment, I just developed this passion for music.”
Freesia recalls making playlists on her iPod in high school and college, and her friends always assigned her the job of bringing her speakers and music to any gathering. Once she moved to Boston, she decided to turn her hobby into a side business.
“It’s teaching me even more so how to empathize with students who are having to practice those creative skills in partnership with their entrepreneurial skills,” she says. “Because people ask for your rates, they ask what’s in your contract, all of these things. So it’s helping me to understand the business of being a DJ.”
If you’re looking to start DJing, Freesia has some tips to help you get started:
1. Invest in the Tools and Software
If you’re looking to get started as a DJ, first you need to buy yourself some basic equipment. Freesia uses the DJ software Serato, a Pioneer DDJ-SB2 digital workstation, and a MacBook Pro to organize her music. She says it’s also good to have a small set of speakers for practicing at home. Though you’ll want to invest in large event speakers eventually, you don’t necessarily need them when you first start DJing. Most importantly, she recommends purchasing a quality set of headphones (Freesia uses V-moda headphones). Not only will this help if you live with other people, but it’s good practice for beat matching.
2. Observe DJs in Your Area and on Social Media
Whether you’re able to go out and hear live music right now or not, observing other DJs is a great way to look for areas of improvement and new techniques to implement. Freesia has been tuning into her favorite DJs through live streams on social media, including Boston-based DJ and producer Sunrae. She says that while it’s hard to compare the energy of a live stream to the energy of a real dance club, there are still things you can learn.
“I would say tune into live streams,” she says. “Listen to a bunch of other DJs right now, see how they’re facilitating their music, listen to their transitions, and listen to the styles that they’re choosing.”
Start following some DJs on social media, especially ones who are in your area. Even if you can’t see them in-person right now, you can still keep up with their work, tune into their streaming sessions, and once music clubs resume, you will know in advance which ones you want to go see in-person first.
3. Take Lessons
If you want to get serious about DJing, then consider taking lessons from a professional. Berklee Online offers the Learn to DJ with Traktor course, which Freesia recommends for her students. But she met her mentor, DJ Bobby BanGers, at a hip-hop warehouse party in Boston. For Freesia, she followed Bobby’s work for a while before committing to private lessons. She found it helpful to learn from someone whose work she admired.
“I would say if possible, try to find a mentor or someone who you can ask for questions or guidance,” she says. “My experience with Bobby was really helpful. I did make an investment in his sessions and in his teaching business. So take classes, if you can, or take classes with us at Berklee Online.”
4. Learn about the History of DJing
Freesia stresses the importance of knowing the history behind DJing. Not only will this give you greater appreciation for the artform, but it will allow you to understand the technology better when you learn how it originated.
“Don’t underestimate the history,” she says. “There was a purpose and there is a history behind DJing, so if you’re interested in it, also get some education on who created it. Grandmaster Flash is a really important name for starting your educational process.”
Freesia saw Flash live at the Berklee Performance Center this year, where he talked about pioneering turntables into an instrument and the influence it had on rap music.
Freesia suggests practicing on vinyl turntables if you get the chance when you first start DJing because it’ll help you understand what the new technology is trying to achieve.
“I would recommend if someone wants to DJ, to invest in the electronic stuff, but also try to learn on real turntables,” she says. “All of the electronic digital stuff is based off of the design of the traditional old school technology and software. When you’re dealing with vinyls, it’s so smooth and intuitive.”
5. Practice DJing Like You Would Any Instrument
Just as you would dedicate time to learning guitar, piano, or drums, you can only get better the more that you practice. And while practicing doesn’t necessarily look like playing scales, it means creating playlists, discovering new artists, creating mixes, and pretending like you’re DJing for a crowd, smooth transitions and all, even if it’s just you.
“Develop your music, your palette, and start doing some research,” she says. “There are also a bunch of different DJ pools to download music from, and just start experimenting. Don’t overthink it. Just experiment and have some fun with it. That’s how you learn. You just have to practice.”
To connect with Freesia, follow her on Instagram at @freesia.denyse.