DJ Thomas James on the Most Important Skills That Every Club DJ Must Master
Drop by El Hefe in Scottsdale on any given Sunday afternoon and you'll find yourself in the middle of a party, and quite the epic one at that. The Saddlebag Trail spot is a bit infamous for its weekly 4-2-10 Sundays affair, which is one the wildest club events in Scottsdale on that particular day, and offers mass decadence, rowdiness, over indulgence, and revelry by those staying up late on a school night. Oh, and there's also inflatable zebras.
And pretty much every weekend, the man priming the party on Sundays at El Hefe is Thomas James. Besides serving at the bar's creative director, he is tasked with getting the crowd going and energy flowing as the event's resident DJ.
It's an important role that almost every single beat-juggler, knob-twister, mix maestro, or song selector placed in an opening slot has to learn, since it involves warming thing up for a headliner of just setting the tone for the evening. And James certainly adroit at it, as evidenced by the wild scene at El Hefe or the fact he was voted the top DJ by the Arizona Nightlife Industry Awards in 2012.
See also: 4-2-10 Sundays in Photos
Getting everyone at a particular party to go ratchet is something he's been doing throughout his career, from his early days spinning beats during fraternity and sorority soirees at ASU to his numerous off-the-chain club gigs with partner Mastamonk as the duo Collective Chaos. He's also opened for the likes of Hardwell, Steve Aoki, Benny Benassi, and Kaskade, as well as worked such big local EDM festivals as Soundwave and the Colossal Event.
We spoke with James about his wealth of experience behind the decks, as well as what the most important lessons and skills that every DJ should know and how he helped fuel the Sunday afternoon party scene in Scottsdale by launching 4-2-10 at El Hefe three years ago.
Name: Thomas James Hanson
AKA: DJ Thomas James
Preferred genres: All sorts of EDM. And I know that EDM can be a dirty word in the dance music community, but honestly, it's a good way to categorize electro-house, progressive house, trap house, [and] twerk. Pretty much any genre of music that's exciting and danceable, I like to play. I like it to be high-energy.
Current gigs: 4-2-10 Sundays at El Hefe Scottsdale is my biggest gig. I've been steering away from weekly residencies lately.
How come? Although they've been good to me and I've played some of the best clubs in town, they're all in town, and the goal for myself is to professionally travel. In order to do that, you need to be able to do one-off gigs and play places that you wouldn't normally play. For example, I played TAO in Las Vegas October, which was a big gig for me. El Hefe Chicago has been great to network. That was a huge for me. And I played the American Junkie out in Hermosa Beach. Those are kind of the gigs where you're not a resident DJ anymore.
So what are the perks of being a guest DJ instead of a resident? You're coming in as an artist, so you can play the sound you want to play. As a resident, you're hired by the bar to play the set that maximizes profits. That's the cold hard facts about it. Whereas, if you're a traveling DJ, people hire you because they like how you play, so you have a lot more creative freedom. And that's kind of where I'd like to go in my career right now.
Briefly, how did you get started as a DJ? The short story is, I went to Monster Massive in 2005. Saw Paul van Dyk and Armin van Buuren, and was blown away at how much fun they were having. I managed to sneak backstage into the DJ booth and I remember watching Paul building up this massive trance buildup, the lights go dark, and then all of a sudden, this huge drop happens, the lights go crazy, fire shoots and he has the biggest smile on his face. When I got home the next day, I bought two turntables and a DJM-400 and Serato and got to work.
What was the hardest thing to learn when becoming a DJ? I think that a proper DJ set is a body of work of its own. I think the hardest thing for me when I was starting to learn was opening. It's the most difficult because you don't want to burn the headliner, you don't want to burn out the crowd, but you don't want to be boring. So there's such a delicate balance in opening that you don't have [in] headlining.
Headliners just play the hits, or play hard, or play your style. You have the freedom, whereas in opening, you're constricted. And anytime you're constricted in DJing, it makes it more difficult.
What's your favorite moment during a typical set? So my favorite moment is when I'm able to execute an opening set for myself or for whoever else that is just flawless, then I look as it as an alley-oop to the next guy. That's a very rewarding moment, but as far as my favorite moment? It's gotta be that moment when you have the crowd in the palm of your hand.
You've played three, four songs in a row that have just hit perfectly. The crowd is engaged, the crowd is dancing and then that's when you can play your style. When the crowd trusts you and is feeding energy to you and you're feeding energy back to them, that's when the cycle starts. And that's the most fun. When you can be part of the energy, part of the party.
Is DJing an art form? It can be.
Do most people not see it as such? Unfortunately, I think DJing has become so watered down and technology has allowed people to "cut the line," if that makes sense, to the point where it is not artistry, to the point where it's just a hobby. If you look at guys like Qbert, those guys used their turntables as musical instrument to create a sound that wouldn't be possible without their artistry. And then if you look at somebody like Above and Beyond or Armin van Buuren who build this four-hour set and it creates this landscape of sound and music and emotion, that's art to me.
So, yes, DJing can be an art, much the same way painting can be an art. But then again, there's the smiley face, which somebody painted, but it's hardly real art. Much like you've got somebody with their controller playing "Animal" for the fifth time, Is that art? No. The tools are there to make it an art form. It just depends on the user.
Does DJing ever feel like work to you? Sometimes, but that kind of goes back to why I'm getting rid of the weekly residency thing. When I'm playing just the same cheese that you hear all the time, over and over again, it can feel redundant. I wouldn't say it feels like work, since there are people working a million times harder for 9 to 5 positions, and I respect that.
I feel very blessed to be able to come in, work for a couple hours, have a beer and party for a living. But when I get to express myself musically, then it's definitely not a job. It's definitely not work. It's fun. And the fact that people pay me for it is fantastic.
What's the most important skill that every club DJ must have? Number one rule of DJing? Play to the girls. I know a lot of people say beat-matching, a lot of people say song selection, both of which go into it, but the number one rule is to play to the girls. It sounds cliché, but I guarantee that if you get the girls dancing then the guys will dance too.
Is Collective Chaos done now that your partner Mastamonk lives in Tucson? No, no, no. We work on projects online. He comes up here and does gigs at Talking Stick [Resort] in Scottsdale. We still work on stuff, we don't gig out as much as we would like. But its hard to do when you live in different cities.
What's your favorite track of the moment? Hmm...I want to go mainstream enough that people know it, but not so mainstream that's its cheesy. Let's go with DJ Snake and Mercer's "Lunatic."
The scene at 4-2-10 Sundays at El Hefe in Scottsdale
What's been your biggest moment as a DJ? That's tough. We've done three years of 4-2-10 Sundays, that's obviously a huge point of pride for me. Played Lake Havasu with Hardwell, which was amazing. It was Hardwell, Peace Treaty, and one night I got to headline. I think it was 3,500 kids going crazy. That was a lot of fun. That was good time. But as far as pride goes, I'd say definitely three years of 4-2-10.
How long have you been involved with 4-2-10 Sundays? The first time I DJ'd a Sunday party, it wasn't called 4-2-10 Sundays back then, was early April 2011. It was about a month after El Hefe opened.
How did it start? There's such a strong nightlife industry here that people work Thursday, Friday, Saturday and they hear the same radio stuff. And they go out on Sunday with a wad of cash in their pocket. I thought, "Why don't we make it different, why don't we make it exciting, and why don't we make it in the afternoon instead?"
How has the sound at 4-2-10 Sundays evolved over the past three years? The music that was played during the first year or two of 4-2-10 Sundays was electro-house, underground stuff, unreleased stuff -- songs that people hadn't heard before. It wasn't the same commercial sound that you'd hear when you'd go out on a Friday night or a Saturday night. So when that type of music is grilled into a server or a bartender's head, that's the last thing they want to listen to on their day off.
In other words, the same club bangers that get repeated ad nauseam. It's funny that you use the term bangers, because back in 2011, people didn't like bangers. People liked hip-hop music, people liked pop music. You could maybe get away with three or four house songs a night. And so, the timing was perfect, because 2011 was right when EDM started to become very prevalent. So we were the first people in Scottsdale promoting that high-energy, big room, drop-building type of energy on a Sunday afternoon. So it was intoxicating for a lot of people, especially the industry people who come to El Hefe on Sundays.
There's a lot more than just music going on at 4-2-10. Like at the craziness with servers dancing on the bar, tossing around inflatables, and whatnot.
We like to think of the party as more of an experience, because when you have your 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. party on Friday and Saturday, it's structured in a way that builds throughout the night. But when it's a Sunday afternoon, you have to build people's attention. Especially now that there's more competition. And so we do that with things like shot girls pouring shots into your mouth, the confetti poppers -- which people love -- and we have characters, like Zed the Zebra [the inflatable animal] who like to go crowd surfing.
We like to think of it as an interactive party. We feel that too many people just have a party and open their doors and expect people to have fun. There's like a billion bars in Scottsdale, what separates one from the other? We like to think that people come in expecting to be part of the energy. You throw on one of the zebra masks, grab a popper from your table and let it off while popping champagne, and take a shot from the shot girl. It certain beats spending a Sunday at home.
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