Beginning a MasterClass can often seem weighted with trepidation about commitment. After all, not only are you essentially saying to yourself, “Yes, I want to learn a new skillset or new ideas, and I am willing to commit X number of hours doing so,” but you are rolling the dice on spending time with someone who may or may not be able to hold your attention and inspire you to actually follow through. Sure, they’ve presumably worked with the production team to create something visually and aurally appealing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you, specifically. (Do I want to know how to prepare the perfect Beef Wellington? Absolutely. Am I going to listen to Gordon Ramsay’s voice for 24 minutes straight to make that happen? The fuck outta here.)
Questlove’s MasterClass on DJing and music curation, however, is about as accessible an entry point as you can get. Composed of just a dozen installments (none of which tap out above roughly 20 minutes or so), his series blends the nuts and bolts of being a DJ with anecdotes, stories, and advice on what, for lack of a better term, we’ll call “being able to appreciate the hell out of music, no matter the situation.” In other words, if you fancy yourself a lover of music, and are even remotely curious about what goes into the process of DJing, you’ll likely find something of value here. As a music critic, I was interested to see how it might help me better understand the art form, and develop an appreciation that goes beyond nodding at the next wedding DJ I see at a friend’s nuptials, or whatever. The following five things are the biggest takeaways I have from watching the entire Questlove MasterClass, ranked in order of how impactful they were.
Prior to watching this class, you could not have paid me to give less of a shit about DJing. I would generously rank my interest in getting behind a set of turntables as somewhere between “nonexistent” and “Haha, no, seriously, go find some weird DeadMau5 wannabe to sell this to.” I love a good DJ mix as much as the next person, and can admire the obvious craft that goes into someone artfully synching up records to blend seamlessly from one to the next, but that’s about as far as it went.
By the end of the fifth installment, I caught myself Googling “affordable turntables.” That’s how good Questlove is at selling you on the idea that this is not just a fun way to spend your time, but a noble calling that will leave you in an elevated position with respect to all art and music. “Getting to know your songs… it’s like dating,” he says at one point, pointing out that unless you’re actually noticing when songs you like slow down, or change key, or drop out in the middle, you probably haven’t been paying as much attention as you thought. It’s a mindset you can apply to all sorts of things, a classic case of “the lessons he’s teaching can apply in all sorts of aspects of your life.” This is nowhere more true than in the question he keeps coming back to, a kind of art-vs.-consumerism issue that is at the heart of his lessons: “Do you want to be good? Or do you just want to be effective?”
In terms of the pure entertainment value of this MasterClass, the apex comes at the halfway point with an episode called “Surviving Failure.” In order to explain the ways we can learn and grow from our biggest mistakes and failures (again: life lessons, not DJ lessons), Questlove spends the entire installment recounting the story of his greatest failure: DJing the final party of the Obama White House. After spending months, and even years, trying to imagine the greatest, most ambitious DJ set imaginable (he compares it to “having CSI yarn on my wall”), he arrives at the august event and begins unleashing his planned masterpiece, only to end up having the POTUS tap him on the shoulder and point to his children and all their friends, telling the Roots drummer to please play stuff the kids can dance to. Suddenly realizing he was trying to deliver a Ph.D. lecture in music to people for whom Beyoncé counts as old school, he admits to doing embarrassing things like on-the-fly googling “songs that kids like” in an effort to not ruin the last night of fun for the administration.
It’s a fantastic story, ending with Obama trying (and failing) to reassure Questlove that it went great. “You thought you were gonna wow us with your intellect, and you wound up serving the people,” the president told him. (Questlove does a solid Obama impression, incidentally.) But he has similarly entertaining anecdotes throughout, whether telling stories about great DJ sets from the past or just talking about moments when you realize you’re connecting musically with the people on the dance floor. There’s enough focus on the practical mechanics of DJing that it’s not exactly a self-help seminar, but for those who like good storytelling, there are some stand-alone rewards.
There are a few early warnings of just how seriously Questlove takes his knowledge of music. In the introductory episode, he readily admits that everything he’s done in his life—including playing in The Roots—has really been an effort to allow him to spend more time collecting records and DJing. In the third, he confesses to taking an entire year to compile “the perfect 180 song set” for an exclusive party thrown by Beyoncé and Jay-Z. From there, it only gets more obvious that his fascination and obsession with music is matched by few on this planet.
He subscribes to a loose variant of the “10,000 hours” rule, repeatedly stressing the amount of time you should practice scratching (1,000 hours with each hand, at minimum, doing the basics), memorizing information about any song you’d ever consider playing (“Every song that you play, you should know five songs that will blend in perfectly with that song”), and even clueing the viewer in to how much time he still puts into this craft: “Usually on Sundays, I’ll take four hours for pruning or harvesting—choose 200 songs and I’ll analyze them: ‘This song is 73 BPMs, and there’s a bridge in the key of G.’ Or if they sing a certain note… I’ll loop that—I can filter so their voice stands out more, and gives me an excuse to get into the key of D. It’s like the mouse through the maze, trying to get to the cheese on the other side.” You know, just a lazy Sunday. He even cops to painstakingly researching the right kind of white noise to fall asleep to, continually testing out different tones during his nights.
This meticulous attention to every possible element of the music to which he’s dedicated his life comes into even starker clarity in the penultimate segment, “The Art Of Crate Digging.” In discussing how to get a sense for whether an old record you see while rifling through the used-vinyl bins might appeal to you, he gets granular: Which labels during which span of years had the most dependable output? (You can trust Def Jam from 1985 to 1990.) What context clues in the liner notes can clue you in to whether the music might be cool? Break down the outfits the artists are wearing on the cover, the font used for the title, the credits for the session players—anything and everything is a piece of the puzzle. (For his part, Questlove says he learned from the late great hip-hop producer J. Dilla that “boring covers” are usually a promising sign.) Like any charismatic artist with a true passion for his medium, the enthusiasm is infectious, even as it’s simultaneously daunting. I don’t want to let him down! (This was sparked by a mid-MasterClass nightmare that Questlove showed up at my home, demanding to see how well I had applied his teachings.)
Yes, Questlove walks you through many of the basics of DJing. But let’s be clear: This is not an all-purpose introductory-level class, in terms of familiarizing yourself with the gear and glossary required. He tosses around a lot of terms without explaining them—if you don’t know what waveforms are, you’ll need to hit pause and do a little research—and more importantly, there’s no real how-to when it comes to doing some of this stuff. And yes, he’ll say what he’s doing, and then do it, but oftentimes you’re simply squinting at a small screen in the lower-left corner, which shows the display of his laptop and the Serato software program he uses to DJ. More than once I lost track of how he was doing whatever he was currently describing; in the end, I always understood in the abstract what he wanted me to do, but I couldn’t necessarily pick the required machinery and dials out of a lineup.
Where this MasterClass is most helpful for beginners, though, is in the “curation” side of things, especially when it comes to putting together a good DJ set for any occasion. The “Planning Your Set” installment is a series highlight, as Questlove walks you through all the possible derivations of how and why you choose the order of songs to play. Warning against just dropping hit after hit right out of the gate (“You tire the crowd out”), he talks about the fine art of assessing people’s reactions to what you’re playing, and adjusting every subsequent decision based on how it’s going. At its best, a DJ approaches his task the way “a playwright treats his story structure… beginning, establishing action, rising action, climax, falling action, ending,” to create an arc for the experience. It can get tough for those hoping to seamlessly transition from hits of the past to the present: As he notes, today’s pop music is close to half the speed of pop music from decades earlier, and that’s not even addressing the way bands will often speed or slow down within a song—good luck pairing to that without serious planning.
I have a newfound appreciation for why most DJs look annoyed when you make a request. This is their art, and if you wanted to just have a list of songs you like come rattling out of the speakers, make an iTunes playlist. The transition from one song to another, over the course of potentially hours in a row, has a grace and artistry that even your average bar mitzvah DJ prides themselves on possessing. In this regard, I got everything I hoped for and more from Questlove’s MasterClass. Pulling back the curtain on a talent that most people tend to think of as hardly more than pushing some buttons (and maybe squiggling a piece of vinyl to make a scratchy sound) reveals the vast world of challenges and philosophies that go into creating someone’s musical experience. And the great ones can play their crowds like puppet masters. Detailing the ways he tries to upend conventions—like repeatedly dropping out the music right as an EDM build-up reaches its crescendo—Questlove demonstrates why letting a great DJ work will benefit both artist and audience: “By that point, I’m able to get away with all sorts of musical crimes. And it’s fun for them and me.” Much like, one assumes, this very MasterClass.