I’ll be frank: I had never fully understood the phenomenon of celebrity DJs. I was not a frequent patron of dance clubs in New York and, on the occasions when I was, the DJs in the oversized headphones always looked self-important – and maybe even a tad silly.
Don’t they just push “play”?
What’s so difficult about that?
It would take Rit, the nightly DJ at Bakheng Entertainment, to teach me the error of this way of thinking.
When I arrived at Bakheng at 10pm for my spinning study session, Rit (a.k.a. DJ Star Boy) was already in full effect, with a crowd of young Khmer bouncing under the laser lights to the raucous beat of hip-hop remixes.
With his baseball cap, white athletic warm-up suit, and scruffy facial hair, Rit looked like he had been imported from some secret nation of DJs.
Rit’s real medium is the crowd itself, and he can read its nuances the way only painters can
Though he laments that a DJ’s salary in Cambodia is not enough to purchase real bling, he instead wears a silvery flash drive around his neck so that his music is always with him, and this instantly gave me greater trust in his artistic integrity.
Walking into the DJ booth behind Rit felt a little like peering into the cockpit of a jetliner, with a million buttons, fader switches and glowing numbers that were a mystery to me.
He was tending this mass of electronica with constantly moving fingers, tiny adjustments and flicks of the wrist, all in time with the music. It looked like dancing combined with the delicacy of open-heart surgery.
But what makes Rit’s profession an art (and the reason it takes him two years to train protégés) is that his talents exceed mere technical proficiency. Rit’s real medium is the crowd itself, and he can read its nuances the way only painters can see minute differences in brushstrokes. He lured dancers to the floor with the heavy bass of hip-hop, and then let them ride a wave of amped-up house beats.
He threw in recognisable favourites to give the crowd an explosion of energy, then followed them with slower numbers to allow people to change up their dance moves. He yelled into the microphone or played with the sound levels when a phrase deserved extra punch.
On nights when the crowd is thin or timid, he abandons songs from the US and Korea and plays more traditional Khmer dance music to coax the customers into busting a move. Several times I noticed him pondering the landscape of the club for a split second and then immediately turning to his expansive collection of music to pluck from it the perfect CD to keep the dancers happy.
Though the whole routine seemed frenzied at first, I watched Rit for long enough that I began to be sucked into his calm and fluid rhythm, and decided it was time to embrace my latent inner DJ. I flipped through his album of CDs and chose a number that sounded familiar: the “Get Low Remix”. Rit nodded approvingly and cued it up for me. The crowd responded well, and I felt a small thrill at connecting with so many people whom I didn’t know.
Emboldened, I asked if I could try “scratching,” using the fancy digital turntables on the top of his sound system.
It was hard to find the right moment, though, and I hesitated like I was about to step onto an escalator moving at bullet speed. When I finally went through with it, the result was unremarkable, but not disastrous. The crowd, now firmly under Rit’s spell, kept dancing anyway.
I’m not sure I added much to the entertainment that evening, save perhaps the mere novelty of my presence. The crowd seemed to enjoy the notion of a barang laying down beats.
When Rit took a break and the live karaoke band took over, one of the male singers did an excellent Khmer-language version of Play that Funky Music White Boy and I couldn’t help but feel that it was for my benefit. In the corner booth, Rit and I shared a smile and took long, languorous gulps of beer – just two DJs, hanging out.