Unless you're a scratch-music aficionado, you've probably never heard of DJ Focus. He doesn't battle, doesn't rock house parties, have a weekly residency or play raves. Although he regularly releases records, his material is less an expression of personal creativity than a tool for other DJs to use and learn from. In the world of turntablism, where big egos are as much a requisite as headphones, Focus is an anomaly. The soft-spoken Valley resident has risen to prominence, not for his onstage artistry but rather his technical wizardry out of the spotlight.
A high school dropout from an impoverished background, Focus, who's called the Valley home since the early '80s, is one of the top innovators in both DJ-related electronics and scratch training. He's currently living in Hollywood, Florida, and working for Stanton Magnetics, a leading manufacturer of mixing consoles, phonograph styluses, cartridges and other niche gadgetry. Through his recent association with Stanton, and his own long-standing contributions, Focus has become a leading figure in electronic music.
Focus was baptized into the world of the DJ back in 1986, when his girlfriend's big brother cut a circle out of paper, placed it on the built-in turntable of his eight-track stereo with a record on top, and demonstrated for the young man what would become his life's overwhelming passion. "I was like, 'Ahhh, fresshh.' I was hooked for life," he remembers, laughing.
During those formative years, Focus spent much of his time at the library, continually hunkered over books on electronics -- the parallel obsession that would meld with his love for turntablism. "It's always been difficult for me to separate things, because I've always seen things as one. Anything I learned in one area I always purposefully applied in another," he explains.
Within a few weeks of acquiring his first mixer, Focus had already begun making his own modifications. It's doubtful he could have recognized how this early bit of tinkering would foreshadow his future and the impact his work would have on DJ culture.
During high school, Focus' appetite for technology became something of a career goal. But without the money to pursue a higher education in the field, he was on his own in learning both the fundamentals and technique involved in electronic engineering. "I remember thinking that I wanted to train myself to think like an engineer. When I got introduced to jazz and the word 'improvise' and what it meant, that was a turning point for me," he recalls.
Improvisational skills were essential for the youngster whose ambition eclipsed his resources.
"I used to read a lot of [electronics] projects in books, but at the same time I couldn't afford to buy any parts, so most of what I was doing was in my surroundings, improvising again -- you can always find a busted-ass radio in the garbage. I remember picking up radios and taking out the resistors and shit. If I hadn't been in that situation, I wouldn't have had the inspiration to improvise."
Without formal training, Focus was forced to develop his own unique creative process. He explains, "When I see a new piece of equipment, I study how they made it. When I have a problem or I'm trying to come up with an idea, I'm remembering what I've seen before. That's just being aware of your surroundings; that's your book, what teaches you." Building on that type of street-level schooling would become the foundation for his later efforts and landmark electronic modifications.
The achievement that's cemented Focus' place in electronic music was the creation of the first optical fader. Before his invention, faders were composed of graphite using a trace from one end to another, allowing progressive resistance of the music signal through the contacts on the fader. But graphite quickly wears out, allowing the contacts to separate from the fader, often marring the sound with static and crackles. Most conventional faders eventually need to be replaced. In contrast, the optical fader Focus invented, christened the "Focus Fader v.1.0," carries the amplifier voltage rather than the music through its circuits. And instead of contacts tracing graphite, the voltage is controlled by an infrared light, using the beam's intensity to control the sonic output. This means ultra-long life for the fader, as well as the elimination of any sound-quality concerns.
Focus associate and Prime Directive turntable crew member Tricky T describes him as "a fucking mechanical genius. He's always taking things apart and putting them back together. We [in Prime Directive] get to be his guinea pigs; if we send our shit home with him, you know it'll come back better."
Though Focus is not a natural performer, and lacks an extrovert's mentality, his role in working with a local crew like Prime Directive is closest to that of coach or manager.
"'Coach' is cheesy to me," says Focus, laughing. "Since I met these guys [in Prime Directive], I handed over everything I learned; they listened to me and ran with it. Now when you see him [Tricky T] and M2 [another Prime Directive member], they're more mature and they think on a different level. My goal when I'm trying to teach somebody is for them to learn how to think for themselves, to be a free thinker. As they start to understand, then it's mutual input.