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Focus Pocus

Henry McHongon

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.

"I'm putting together these products to help the art that I'm into. If it helps somebody else out, speeds up his learning process, that has helped my art, the scratching. Before I leave the planet, I want to see scratching, the art form, go as far as it can."

In that spirit, Focus has also released several records on Focul Point Records, a joint venture with Swell Records' owner Russel Ramirez. The imprint's first two releases, Turntablist Compositions and Tools of Destruction, are sonic workshops for aspiring DJs, containing sample sounds, piano octaves and scratch-friendly beats. The imprint's third release, a seven-inch titled Precision Incisions -- Precision Scratch Training Vol. 1, is the first in a series of records designed for precise hand motion conditioning, a training tool designed to ingrain proper technique into the muscle memory of scratch artists' hands.

It's generally uncommon for scratch artists to use seven-inch records, but with the step-by-step system that Focus has created, the smaller vinyl size is vital to first-stage development. "It's smaller, it's lighter, easier to push, there's less resistance than with a 12-inch record. A little bit of motion, finger vibration, makes a big effect," claims Focus. "It conditions you to be more refined, more precise with your motions. Once you use that enough where your hands get the motions to be second nature, you go to the 12-inch that's coming out [Precision Scratch Training Vol. 2]. It's the same sounds, but the vinyl's heavier, there's more resistance."

Urban Sprawl had local DJ Drunk Jeff demo the seven-inch training record, which contains basic sounds, beats, samples and counts for novices to train with. He noted that training with the smaller record not only hones hand precision, it also encourages proper hand placement for 12-inch records.

Aside from its value as a training tool, the record's beats are dope enough to be of use to any working DJ; Focus claims he's heard it used on several recent recordings by other artists. The samples can similarly be used as a smooth segue between tracks.

Focus' other crucial contribution to the scratcher's arsenal of tools is the Vinyl Beat Counting System record, which Morse Code's DJ Jay Why? calls "the most important record I ever bought." The album works as a tool for DJs to get a feel for the BPM (beats per minute) of each record in their collection to avoid "train wrecks," the sonic accidents that happen when a DJ mixes two records whose beats don't flow together.

All of the aforementioned innovations predate Focus' current relationship with Stanton Magnetics, the company that has Focus poised to burst out of the shadows of the underground and into the national spotlight. Although his Focus Fader v.1.0 has been around for several years, it was only recently that it began to be manufactured en masse. "Me and Russ [Ramirez, of Swell] were gonna manufacture it, and ITF [the International Turntablist Federation] was gonna distribute it. But just the mold was gonna be $18,000; I don't have $18, much less $18,000."

Fortunately, fate, in the form of Bombshelter DJ Emile, intervened. Emile contacted Stanton about Focus' revolutionary fader, and the company flew the pair out to its Florida headquarters. "I had a meeting with them, it was like the movies -- big oval table -- and started talking. I brought this modified mixer and they didn't even plug it in 'cause I made such a big impact on them," Focus recalls. The result was an agreement on Stanton's part to patent the Focus Fader, manufacture a signature Focus mixer, and to give the self-taught electronics whiz a full-time position with the company.

Stanton's marketing manager, Laurent Cohen, offers glowing praise of Focus: "Being a highly skilled turntablist, all-around DJ and self-taught engineer, [Focus] has all it takes to take our full line of DJ equipment to the next level -- and as you can see, together we have already started to do so."

The Focus Fader, adapted to fit exclusively in Stanton products, is currently available on the SK-2F Mixer, and will be featured on future mixers manufactured by the company, including the DJ Craze signature model Focus is currently developing.

 

For Focus, taking a full-time position with Stanton was not as easy as it might've seemed. First, it required him to move to South Florida, a step he wasn't prepared to take. "I live at home with my mom [in Phoenix]. I feel an obligation to be around her and take care of her. They kept asking me, though, they saw my value."

Stanton recently bought Huntington Beach, California-based KRK Systems, a leading manufacturer of high-end studio monitors, and has offered Focus the opportunity to relocate to its new SoCal digs instead. "It's closer, and it'll be good for my music; I can network," he says.

Currently, Focus is doing a two-month stint at Stanton's Florida offices before returning to the Valley and eventually shifting bases to California. The change in fortunes -- from being an unrecognized figure on the electronic-music periphery to having a full-scale manufacturing outlet for his ideas -- has given him new perspective on his art, and provided a light at the end of the tunnel. "I've dedicated my life to this; I don't wanna be at the end and be like, 'Fuck, this was all a waste.'"

Focus' greatest liability, recognition-wise, has always been that he doesn't perform in public, and therefore lacks the high profile afforded other innovative talents. The notion that a DJ has to be onstage to validate his art doesn't faze Focus, however. "There's being a performer and being an artist, or you can be both. I consider myself more of an artist and I don't have to be out there to entertain people. I can just be putting stuff out on my record label or doing the stuff that I'm doing now. I'm trying to advance the art; it's about that, not performing. We're making history."


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