A Local ‘Brotherhood’: Behind The Booth Of State College’s DJ Scene
It may look easy, but DJing isn’t simply playing music off of a laptop. With the rise of electronic dance music over the last few years, DJs have gained more recognition in pop culture, and EDM producers have paved the way for hopeful newcomers to join the growing genre.
I spoke with five DJs involved in State College’s expanding DJ and producer scene. Each had their own story to tell. But through them all, I realized that the profession, which may seem mundane to the uninitiated, actually has a science and a method behind it. It’s a lot like a band during a set — the DJ has to get a gauge on the audience and atmosphere of the establishment in order to successfully perform.
Honing The Craft
Most DJs in State College seem to get their start in the fraternity party scene, before working up to the downtown bars and clubs for more intimate shows. At most venues, DJs normally fall under the open format style of the profession. Indigo Entertainment Coordinator and local DJ Alex Nepa explained that open format DJs play all genres of music for their sets, ranging from throwback favorites to electronic dance music.
“A year or two ago, DJs used to play four hours of EDM,” Nepa said, referring to the rise of EDM’s popularity. “Now, it’s a bit more mixed.”
Open format DJing may look simple, only a person behind a laptop spinning tunes, but it has a fascinating science to it. Nepa described a number of factors that go into a set for an open format DJ –- the most important of which is connecting with the crowd.
“I almost imagine being inside the crowd’s body. I try to think what I’d want to hear if I had a few drinks in me,” Nepa said.
A lot of DJing involves trial and error; what may have worked one night might not work the next in the same venue, even if the crowd is similar, Nepa explained. However, most places trust the DJs to keep the crowd moving. Right now, songs like “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars and Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You” are popular, Nepa said, adding that hip-hop is more present in sets now than EDM.
“Groove-based songs typically go over better than a drop bass,” he commented. “It all depends on the environment and location.”
Levels open format DJ Jason Downey, known locally as DeeJayJD, said another component of open format DJing is keeping customers in the bar or club in an effort to sell more drinks. Upbeat dance songs will hold people to the dance floor, and a mellower tune every now and then will allow patrons the opportunity to grab a drink.
The major venues for DJs downtown are Indigo and Levels. Both harbor talented DJs from the area and beyond, while other establishments downtown, like Inferno and Chrome Liquor Lounge, host local DJs to set the mood for the bar.
After returning to State College in 2012, Downey got his chance to break into the downtown scene by playing sets at Levels. A lover of the club atmosphere, it was always Downey’s dream to perform at Levels, even when it was its former establishment, the Mezzanine. When he first started, Downey had a set once a week at Levels. Now, he is one of the main DJs at the venue and plays four times a week.
He’s a product of the Penn State fraternity scene, but found it could get a bit chaotic, and his nights would often end with damaged equipment. Levels occasionally hosts formals for fraternities, giving Downey a sense of nostalgia and a chance to connect with his former audience.
Fellow open format DJ Nick Petrunyak met Downey during his freshman year at Levels, where the two were competing for sets. Despite seeking the same gigs, the two became friends and played frequently together over that next summer, where Petrunyak gained experience by opening for the night’s main DJ for two hours.
Like Nepa, Petrunyak said the challenge for the night is to feed off the crowd and play what it wants to hear. Sometimes, a set for him could go from playing house to hip-hop to trap music. A mixed playlist is his goal, but Petrunyak likes to keep certain consistencies in his list as well.
Student DJ and producer Keegan Tawa occasionally plays at Chrome on Wednesdays when the bar hosts DJs. As audible in the above set, a DJ’s set at Chrome calls for a more relaxed, groove-based feel, fitting for the casual atmosphere of the bar and hookah lounge. Nepa said these Chrome sets, though less intense, still require current beats with vocals mixed in. Though Chrome is a smaller venue, Nepa said people still get up to dance, so there is some movement from the crowd during the set.
Inferno brings a different vibe than that of Chrome. Tawa said it allows for a more diverse mix of songs, ranging from the ’70s to modern hits. To compensate, Nepa said he strategically places the throwbacks in with the popular songs of today so that it’s not completely random, or too one-sided. A throwback mixed with current favorite “Uptown Funk,” for example, would receive a better reception from the crowd than a randomly placed classic song in a set. That’s why it’s key for an open format DJ to get a feel for the crowd and the atmosphere of the bar.
Downey, Nepa, and Petrunyak have all toyed with the idea of producing their own EDM music, but all three prefer to produce their own remixes and edits. After being a DJ for six years, Petrunyak said he can tell the difference in DJ’s experience levels when listening to their sets. He said it takes time to build up a tracklist and practice the trade. As someone who works in staging, lighting, and sound, Petrunyak said he felt it was natural to get into the DJing world.
“Why not ride the wave? It’s something I enjoy — it’s something that relaxes me and is a stress reliever,” he said.
Tawa, a senior studying software engineering, has DJ’ed for four years and has a very active Soundcloud page. Proficient on the saxophone, Tawa has always played and been interested in jazz music. When he discovered electronic music, he blended the two genres to make a genius blend — perhaps most apparent in his “Summer of Groove” EP.
The continuous mix of his most recent EP, “Sunlight,” has reached over 1,500 listens on Soundcloud. With two full songs and three interludes, the EP features not only Tawa’s flawless production quality, but the talent of his friends as well. One of those is Myles Billard, who is frequently highlighted throughout the work. Billard created the lyrics, combing the jazz-infused beats with his poetic verses.
Featuring Mute Cities drummer and vocalist Zach Kramer, “Beautiful Motion” is the highlight of the album, encompassing Tawa’s use of groove-based beats and synthesizers while maintaining the jazz and classical elements existent in most of his work. “Sunrise In Blue,” starring student songwriter Olivia Price, shares many of the same qualities as “Sunrise In Blue,” and highlights Price’s ability to melodically glide over the track with the help of Billard’s lyrics.
Tawa said he typically starts on a blank space, playing around with a chord progression, harmony, or melody. From there, it becomes “a cascade” of ideas, as he attempts to scribble down his thoughts as fast as he can so as not to forget them. Tawa said he spent countless hours perfecting the EP before its release, sometimes not realizing how much time flew by while working on his production software.
“I’d get on the computer to work on my music for only 20 minutes,” Tawa said. “Seven hours later, I realized that I’ve been on longer than I planned.”
An up-and-coming music producer himself, Kramer is studying at Penn State for audio production, fitting for someone whose goal is to be a freelance producer after graduating. Kramer wants to make sure his work is perfect before he releases any original content as an EDM producer, so he’s been hesitant to rush. As a frequent collaborator with Tawa, it seems Kramer looks to his friend as a mentor.
“He inspired me to get my act together,” Kramer said. “He really has potential to kick ass in the industry.”
In the meantime, for those who are curious of Kramer’s production talents, you can look no further than to Mute Cities’ recent debut release, “Strong Work.” As I wrote in my review, the production is flawless, and clearly important to Kramer in making sure the quality well represents the band.
Kramer has contemplated making a remix EP of Mute Cities’ original music for release, and showed me initial stages of a potential remix utilizing the marimbas from “Salt.” If released, it would definitely set the band apart, giving Mute Cities a completely different EDM sound to its normal indie-rock vibes. It would also showcase Kramer as a producer for multiple genres.
Brothers Among DJs
State College may look like it would have an abundance of opportunities for DJs to show their skills. But Indigo and Levels are really the only two nightclubs downtown, and that can cause plenty of competition. Despite this, Nepa described the DJ community as a “brotherhood,” adding there is a healthy competitiveness among the group.
“There is definitely a mutual respect, and 99 percent of us talk to each other,” Nepa said.
Tawa and Petrunyak take that statement a step further, as the two are roommates, and close friends with Downey who frequently spends time with them at their apartment on Allen Street where they have a small studio set up.
Downey and Petrunyak had the special chance to open up for Diplo at the Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 18, a series of firsts for the two DJs. The two originally had a set planned, but had to improvise after they received word from Diplo’s team that it wanted to go a different direction. It was the first time Downey and Petrunyak experimented with diverging from the tracklist, requiring a mix of teamwork and improvisation throughout the set.
Downey, who specializes in lighting and sound tech, said looking at the technical aspects of a performance is equally important as the musical side, especially during the Diplo set. Aside from recording in the studio together frequently, Tawa also has close ties to Kramer, dating back to the middle school jazz festivals.
Tawa suggested that Kramer helped him create the instrumental in the studio for “Beautiful Motion,” crediting Kramer for formatting the main drop in the song. The talent from both musicians shines through on the track, as Kramer’s vocals and Tawa’s production quality mesh together to create one of Tawa’s best to date.
The two have kept busy, teaming up to open for Mat Zo on March 26 at Levels Nightclub, and popping into the studio in the Music Building to begin recording a new song together.
What The Future Holds
For most of State College’s DJs, the art is just a hobby. Downey, for example, isn’t sure if he wants to DJ for the rest of his life, but said he’s making every moment count for the time being.
“I hope to tour the U.S. one day in the club circuit,” he said. “With DJing, you have to make the years valuable.”
Tawa said producing and DJing is his primary hobby as well, so when he eventually moves to Philadelphia, he may try to make his way into the city’s scene.
Kramer, however, does hope to make a career as a freelance producer. He dreams of becoming a Ryan Lewis to someone’s Macklemore — a producer for a rising artist, or even a frequent collaborator with multiple artists. And though he’d rather be making music during all waking hours, Kramer’s main focus right now is to graduate, so his work as an EDM producer had to take a back seat.
“After I graduate,” he said, “I’ll have all the time in the world to work on music.”
Photos and videos courtesy of Jason Downey, Keegan Tawa, and Zach Kramer