Interview: Kyle Smith, Master DJ
Most people you meet in this world start off as acquaintances, then become your friends if you wish to get to know each other better. When master DJ Kyle Smith meets you, however, he instantly becomes your brother, with all the jokes, s$%#&-talking, and confrontation that implies. Once you realize he means it all as a sign of respect and friendship, it’s actually quite endearing, and also means you’re allowed to give it back to him as much as he dishes it out (something you probably can’t do with many other friends of yours). Anyway, I asked my brother Kyle if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions about something he does better than almost anyone in the world: DJ swing.
Alright, forget a bio question, forget a softball starter. Let’s just jump right in: What is the most important role of a swing DJ?
The most important role of a swing DJ is to play, what is in their opinion, the highest quality dance music available. But what does “the highest quality dance music” mean? There in lies the beauty of that statement. Dancing itself if about personal expression. So too should be the music a DJ plays. The music I play is a personal expression of my passion for the music and a passion for the dance. When I am DJing music that just rocks my socks, that passion finds it way into the speakers, onto the dance floor and into your dancing.
Alright, so what kind of music really inspires you? If there were a Pandora-like list of the traits of Kyle Smith’s favorite DJ music, what would that list include?
OH OH OH! Please let it be Classic Big Band Swing! Please! Please! Please! There is nothing better than the Count Basie Orchestra leading the charge on that final chorus in “Jumpin At The Woodside”; or Artie Shaw running you through a musical gauntlet in “Man From Mars.”
I think it is the simple fact of numbers as to why I prefer the big band sound. A big band, by simple math, has an increased opportunity to deliver more texture, more variety, and a fuller sound than, say, a smaller group does. Give a listen to the Benny Goodman Small Group doing “Honeysuckle Rose,” and then listen to the recording by Mora’s Modern Rhythmists. Both songs are amazing in their own right— awesome musicianship, great arrangements— but to me the Mora’s Modern version brings that song up 60 notches.
I love how the song starts off with just the piano and rhythm section, splank splank splankity splank, then midway through, the rest of the band kicks in, HUZZAH, and puts the song into overdrive. Oh, oh, oh, but wait, we’re gonna give you a repeat taste of the piano, splank, splank and then BAM! back to the chorus to finish out the song. SOOO GOOOOD! Just talking about it makes gives me the goosebumps.
This is not to say that I dislike smaller groups, one of my favorite bands right now is the New Orleans Cottonmouth Kings (“At Sundown” is one of my favorites). About as far away from a classic big band sound as you can get. But I can’t deny the energy, passion, and inspiration that a big band song brings out in me.
Some of my favorite big band tracks are:
“Swingtime In The Rockies,” Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall 1938 (Ziggy Elman kills it on the trumpet at 2:00, I get goose bumps)
“Diminuendo In Blue, Crescendo In Blue,” Duke Ellington Live at Newport 1956 (Yes, the 15 minute song. And NO, if I am DJing, I will not call to switch partners during Paul Gonzalves’ 9 minute solo, it is far too good)
“Yes, My Darling Daughter,” Glenn Miller (A new favorite of mine, and yes Glenn Miller! I love songs where the band sings a chorus)
“Saint Louis Blues,” Benny Goodman, On The Air 1937-38 (this song has been in heavy rotation since 1998, and hasn’t lost any steam. Classic Goodman.)
Sorry if this is a bit long.
I’ll have to check, but I don’t think anyone’s allowed to apologize to Swungover for long articles. Alright, big band lover, what’s your dream big band cast? You get to choose any musicians living or dead.
All star band? 18 pieces! Here goes:
Drums – Jo Jones
Rhythm Guitar – Freddy Green
Bass – Walter Page
Piano – Count Basie (Never wasted a note)
Trumpet – Ziggy Elman
Trumpet – Hot Lips Page
Trumpet – Henry “Red” Allen
Saxaphone – Paul Gonzalves (Don’t interrupt him during his solos)
Saxaphone – Frankie Trumbauer
Saxaphone – Joe Garland (Gimme some barry sax Joe!)
Saxaphone – Alix Combelle (Parlez-vous francais)
Trombone – Jack Teagarden (Self taught master? check and check)
Trombone – Glenn Freakin’ Miller! (Listen to his broadcast recordings, you will be blown away)
Trombone – Dicky Wells
Clarinet – Benny Goodman (lead)
Clarinet – Artie Shaw (backup…ha! Take that crazy man)
Vibes – Lionel Hampton
Band Leader – Duke Ellington (Don’t mess with the best)
Trashman – Paul Whiteman (Someone has to pick up the trash after a show)
The real surprise on this list would probably be the drummer, Jo Jones over Chick Webb or even Krupa? I just couldn’t break up the Basie rhythm section, the most renown rhythm section in the history of jazz. So as much as I would love to add Krupa, or even force Django to play rhythm guitar all night long, I just can’t fathom breaking up the group. In terms of the remaining musicians, it’s a pretty stock standard list of swing music champions from the music I love to listen to and dance to.*
What do you think is the biggest problem DJs at the moment have in their DJing technique?
I think, the biggest problem DJs have at the moment is the same problem that DJs have struggled with forever: a lack of musical flow. A DJ should take the dancers on a musical journey. Watch the crowd, observe the energy shifts, and construct a series of songs that work together. Through tempo, sound fidelity, vocal styling, spotlighted instrument, genre, era, song length, energy, etc… the DJ can formulate an evening where every song moves you into the next.
This isn’t about creating one long song where each song blends into each other so much that it sounds like one long song. It is about creating harmony between the songs and then harmony between the dancers and the music. Something like this:
Let’s say I start with: “Moonglow” – Benny Goodman Small Groups.
Then, riffing off the vibes and tempo, I’ll play: “Til Tom Special” – Lionel Hampton
Then, taking the big band sound, I’ll follow that with: “9:20 Special” – Count Basie
Then I might go the the Big Band Sound again, but give it a bit more fidelity: “Splanky” – Count Basie
To keep the groove going: “Flying Home” – Harry James
Hear that trumpet? Run with it: “Troubled” – Frankie Trumbauer
Can you feel the grit in that last song? Get mean with it: “Ridin’ and Jivin'” – Earl Hines
That is just a small random sample of some songs that share a connection to help give rise to a musical journey.
The best way to create flow while DJing is to know your music. This is the second biggest problem with DJs today, their lack of intimate knowledge of their collection. Just because you have 800GB of music doesn’t mean that you know what to do with it. What does my wife always tell me? “It isn’t the size of your music collection, but how you use it.”
If you want to be a “good” DJ, then listen to your music every week. Every week you should be discovering new music that has sat in your collection for years, and you should also be discovering something new in those ‘classic’ tracks you play each week. If dancers didn’t care about flow, then they would just put an iPod on and hit random.
Okay, your mention of playing random music from an ipod made me think of The Onion AV Club’s “Random Rules” game. Basically, they get writers, musicians, comedians, etc. to put their iPod on shuffle and talk about the songs that come up. So, let’s give it a shot: choose one of your set lists, and put it on shuffle. Talk about the first four or five songs that come up.
Well, one problem with your set list question is that I don’t have any set lists to choose from. I don’t do premade set lists when I DJ, nor do I save set lists after I DJ. I guess I am still a bit old school that way. I started off DJing from CD’s, there wasn’t any playlist to be had. And now that there are playlist options, I still enjoy the idea of creating an evening’s worth of music on the fly, song by song. So the best I can do is to hit random on my entire music collection, which does include a large amount of non-swing music. I’m just going to hit play, and then type as I’m listening to the song. A sort of play-by-play, if you will. Here goes:
Django Reinhardt – “Undecided” (1939)
YAY DJANGO! So pleasing to the ear, a great way to start things off. I love Django. Oooo, there are lyrics on it. What a treat. Not many of the Django tunes I play have vocals. I like it. She [Apparently singer’s name is Beryl Davis–ed] sounds casual and so sultry. I love playing Django because it is such a departure from the classic big band sound, or even generic swing sound that is normally played at a swing dance. Ooooo, Stephane Grapelli just joined in with some really hard swingin violin. Man, this is a great tune. I don’t think that I have ever played this song before. Thanks for introducing me to a new favorite!
Swing Session – “Soft”
Dear lord. I didn’t even realize I still had this modern….stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy Swing Session (renamed Stompy Jones). While living in San Francisco in the 90s, Swing Session offered the closest idea of classic dance music that was coming out of the neo swing resurgence. The musicians are top notch, and Pops (the original lead vocal) was AMAZING! But I digress, the song. Cliche Swing Session, Erv blowing hard on saxamaphone and a mellow and relaxed rhythm section holding steady throughout the song. I would classify this is as non-threatening swing music; fun for the whole family.
Duke Ellington – “A Lonely Co-Ed” (1939)
YAY! Time for some Duke! One of my top 5 artists of all time. It’s coming across sweet with the melody, but with bits of jungle thrown in with that trumpet at the start. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to get back to the gritty, urban sound it had at the start. I really like those Duke songs that get down and dirty! Songs like: Chocolate Shake, Black and Tan Fantasy, Happy Go Lucky Local, and The Mooche.
Benny Goodman — “Sunny Disposish” (1937-38, Live)
Benny Goodman, my favorite artist of all time! However, I would not say that this is one of my more favorite songs. That classic Benny Goodman driving beat gets lost at the beginning by that swirling chorus that does nothing but confuse. They tone down the melody in the middle, for the soloits, but it’s still there and now that is all I can hear. It’s like “Skyliner” by Charlie Barnett, great song, but come on, I want to bounce not sway.
Alright, we’ve talked about the bad. What is one of the better things you’ve seen in the DJ scene today that you hope to see continue?
I really like that there are people out there who are just as passionate about their music as they are their dancing, and want to share that passion with everyone. That is the most critical element of a great DJ, passion for their music. That is a trend that I hope to see never go away.
This question is kind of abstract (see also: not clear), but I’m interested in seeing where you’ll take it. You’ve Head DJed at many events. What is the relationship(s) between head DJs and event promoters?
The relationship between the head DJ and event promoter varies from event to event. There are some events where I have very little control over the recorded music portion. I am asked to put together the schedule for the DJs (not select them), and the competition music guidelines have been pre-determined, all I do is select the songs. Then there are some events where I have complete freedom. I manage the selection of the DJs and schedule them. I also work with the promoter to put together the format for the music to be used in the competitions, including song length, tempo, quantity and style.
I prefer the high-touch approach to being a head DJ. I have a real passion for what I do and a generous amount of experience that would only help to add value to any event. However, I am always willing to take a back seat and let the promoter drive the bus. Sometimes it’s just as fun to be at the party, and not organizing it.
Speaking of which, if you had one piece of advice for competition DJs, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to play classic tunes. A competition is not the time to showcase your B-side, ultra rare, “hidden gem” of a song. It is a time to provide solid ground for the competitors to work on. Understand that not all competitors are built the same.
— For newbie divisions I like to use ultra familiar, super popular, easy-to-dance-to songs.
— For the amateur level, I am still shooting for a strong level of familiarity, but the level of difficulty of the song starts to get loosened.
— For Pro’s and Champion level dancers: it’s no holds barred…almost. I wont play a song that I hope no one has ever heard of before, but I will get a tad loosey-goosey with the level of familiarity of a song. These are pros we are talking about.
I see a hand up in the audience?
“If you are so concerned with familiarity, then how do you introduce new music in to competitions?”
That is a great question Jerome.
For the pro level music, I try to have a process. Let’s say I find a great new track that I want to use as a spotlight song, but I’m not sure what sort of response I’ll get from it. First thing I will do is play the song at the event. I try to schedule myself to DJ events for at least a one hour set on the opening night of the event to test my gear, get familiar with my surroundings, and try out new songs on an unknowing audience. Once played, I gauge the response from all the dancers in the room, specifically those who are pro level competitors. If it I get a good response, I will make room for the song in a preliminary heat for that event. If the song then performs well in the prelims (the song, not the dancers :D) I will make a note and use it for the NEXT year’s spotlight round. I say specifically NEXT year’s event since out of 100+ songs in a given weekend, I try to not repeat any song.
One final bit of advice: listen to your competitors. Talk to them after the competition and get their thoughts on the music. What did they like and dislike about the music, and why? Ask for specifics, the more information you can gather the better. Then think about their comments. Just because you think it’s a killer diller of a song, doesn’t make it so.
I remember specifically one year at ABW, I played a song for a spotlight that I was a tad unsure about (it was a Teddy Powell number). After the competition, Andy Stockdale (who got it for her spotlight with Blake) and I talked about the song and she gave me some very specific comments as to why she thought the song didn’t work. She was right! and I have never played the song for a spotlight since.
You also do talks, what are your greater goals—what do you hope to do and accomplish with your DJing and music?
The whole ‘talks thing’ came out of EBC (Eastern Balboa Championships) several years ago (1966? 1967 maybe?). I was standing outside (as I normally am), chit chatting with some people about music. No real organization or specific topic; just gabbing about cool music stories and funny anecdotes I have read/heard over the years. We had a great crowd hanging out outside the dance, the problem was…it was outside the dance! So the next year I spoke to Chris Owens about turning that outside hangout into a full blown class, and “The History and Passion of Swing” was born. Since then, I have spoken at several events across the country, all the while using several permutations of that talk, along with others such as “DJ Hero”, “So you think you can DJ”, “The Balboa Is Right”, “This Music Sucks!” and “The History of Jazz, for Dancers”.
In terms of accomplishments, I have already realized two major goals. The first one was getting asked to speak outside the US. That is when France called. I put them through to voice mail, and then waited the proper 3 days to call back (I didn’t want to appear too needy). When I called back, I was asked to come to Nice, France (woot!1!1!) and give a talk and DJ at the Balboa On The Promenade. What a thrill! The second goal was to give a talk at a non-dance event. I was able to do that when I was asked to talk at the Sacramento Jazz Festival and Jubilee. Such a wonderful event, great bands, great venues, and tons of people who share a sincere passion for the music.
That would leave one major goal. The loftiest of all three, spreading the passion I have for the music I love. I suspect though, I will never quite reach that goal, and ya know, I am perfectly happy trying year after year after year.
For an event you did an intricate song tournament, do you mind taking about that?
The first Music Madness tournament ever held was at The Experiment earlier this year. I was looking for something fun to do with music during the evening dances. Music Madness was a music tournament designed after the annual March Madness College Basketball Tournament. It’s really simple. Sixty-four songs battled head-to-head in a tournament style grudge match, cage fight to the death until one winner was declared.
The idea of Music Madness came about from the classic big band battles of the swing era. Chick vs. Benny; Fletch vs. Goldkette. And the idea of both recreating those classic battles —and battles that never happened— was exciting. Put that together with the eternal debate of “What is balboa music?” or “This song is better than that song” and you have the recepie for a down and dirty, knock out drag out music battle! Was I trying to answer those questions? Heavens, no. But it was a thrill to entertain the idea, if for only a week.
I think that my goals were indeed met for the first go round of music madness. I wanted to create something fun that engaged the dancers beyond the dance floor…check. I wanted to educate the dancers on the music that they were dancing to…check. And I wanted to add a little spice to the evening dances, without overtaking the night…check.
The exciting this was that the dancers were equally excited about Music Madness as I was. The second week had heard about it before they got there and were asking if they would get to participate as well. So in terms of success…absolutely.
I am looking forward to doing it again sometime. There has even been talks about putting it online and letting an even greater audience vote on it as well. Who knows, maybe even Korea or Italy will be asking me to bring it to their scene. The possibilities are endless and ultra-exciting.
In real life, Kyle is the head DJ and owner of Five Lines Media, a Web Design and Development firm. He also enjoys playing WOW and has a serious infatuation with argyle. Currently a resident of Orange County, CA, Kyle and his wife are moving to Denver, CO (August 2011) where he will open a new base of operations and continue his life long pursuit for world domination.
* — A follow-up footnote question, just to shake things up a bit: Your dream band needs another band to battle at the Savoy, and you’re allowed to chose those musicians as well. But, they can’t be any repeats as the first band. IT’S CRAZINESS! Who is the battling band going to be?
You are gonna make me fill another band? Geebus! Well, I want to win, but I’ll make it fair.
Drums: Bobby White
Vocals: Nick Williams
I kid, I kid.
Drums: Gene Krupa (Everyone loves a drummer who likes dancers)
Piano: Teddy Wilson
Rhythm Guitar: Charlie Christian (Father of the electric guitar)
Bass: Slam Stewart
Trumpet: Louis Armstrong (Best in history, yah!)
Trumpet: Bix Biederbecke
Trumpet: Roy Eldridge (Ball of Fire anyone?)
Saxaphone: Charlie Barnett (Such a distictive sound)
Saxaphone: Ben Webster (Take as much as you want on Cottontail, we wont stop recording this time, promise)
Saxaphone lester Young
Trombone: J.C. Higgenbotham
Violin: Stephane Grapelli
Soprano Sax: Sidney Bechet
Background Vocals: Ella Fitzgerald (She rocks at this, just listen to Live At The Savoy 1940, WOW)
Band Leader: Fletcher Henderson
Groupie: Ella Mae Morse (Who doesn’t like a woman from texas?)
This band might sound a bit awkward to put together with such disperate sounds, but I think that everyone would be professional about it, put aside their musical differences and put on one bad ass show. Who do I think would win between this band and the first dream team? The first, hands down. You wont beat Basie’s rhythm section, and Benny Goodman does not lose!