Career, Music, Q+A — October 1, 2012 4:39 pm

Career Q+A: DJ Stephen Fleg


An East Coast DJ shares insights from his career and discusses how hip-hop has changed

He’s a premier DJ, avid break-dancer/bboy and hip-hop junkie, so any way you look at it, Maryland native Stephen Fleg, 26, knows how to turn the tables. Now one of the most popular DJs on the East Coast, Fleg lives in Washington, D.C. – which seems fitting for a guy who has a bachelor’s degree in government and politics. He spoke with Verge writer Perry Simpson about how he got started in the business and what he thinks about how hip-hop, break-dancing and his profession have evolved in the past few decades.

Image courtesy of Stephen Fleg.



Q: How were you first exposed to hip-hop?
A: I guess it was through my older brother in the early ‘90s. He got into it in the late ‘80s. Whenever we were in the car with my mom, my brother would turn to a hip-hop station. That’s how I came to know what is now — a classical era of hip-hop. Obviously, it got me interested enough to explore more of it.

Q: When did you start bboying?
A: Well, if you want to call it a “start,” it started in ’99 in terms of messing around and stuff, but at that point I had no idea what I was doing. I saw a split second of a video, but that was it. I thought it was really cool and I actually saw some kids at dances doing stuff, but there was no connection to the scene or knowledge of real moves per se. But that was what I understood, so I tried to do it anyway.

Q: You mentioned a video. Was there a particular bboy or crew that you drew inspiration from?
A: Well, as I started to get more videos and such from local events, one of the biggest inspirations was the Northern Virginia scene. There was a guy named Create who was there. He had really, really dope footwork. Northern Virginia and Maryland, in general, [are] somewhere between New York and Florida, style-wise. Some guys, like Xeno from Flip Side Kings, lived in Northern Virginia for a while. I know he and Beta brought a lot of that Florida-style up there and that definitely influenced me. Then there was the sort of weirder Maryland-style, like LSD Crew and Evil Ben, and they influenced me as well — kind of a combination of those.

Q: When did you pick up DJing?
A: I started in 2001, [when] I got my first turntables and basically I wanted to do scratching. That was my main focus. I didn’t even think about spinning bboy events until a couple of years later. I just wanted to learn how to scratch and I liked hip-hop. Hearing mixes on the radio, I would want to mix that stuff with early ‘90s hip-hop and be able to beat juggle and stuff like that. That’s where I focused a lot of my energy for the first couple years of DJing.

Q: What did you originally want to do when you grew up?
A: I was always intrigued by DJing and production. I knew I liked it, but I didn’t know it was this crazy — like, “Whoa! How the hell does that happen?” I would hear [hip-hop] – especially in the early ‘90s – and be like, “Damn this track…it’s like dope as shit.” You know? Like I’d hear this new song and it’d be awesome. “How did they make this? How did they make the drums like that? How do they make these really dope songs?” I didn’t know anything about sampling or anything. I just thought it was dope. Then you switch to now, today’s hip-hop. For me, it’s like the production isn’t soulful. It isn’t like, mad-produced a lot of the time. I guess there was just a certain sound from back then. I didn’t know that I wanted to make it or DJ it, but I knew I was intrigued by the sound back then. Especially when the tracks would kick in, it was really dope.

Q: Speaking of contemporary hip-hop, what’s your opinion on the way things have changed, and how are the changes affecting you as a DJ?
A: I mean, obviously if it’s time to do commercial gigs, you just have to play top-40 and you have to accept that. So you can do that and try to have it as a way of making your money, or stick as much as possible to your ideology and try to make your money doing things you love, which goes for anything. You could be a lawyer and want to save the world and do international law, but then there’s the reality check like, “Well, we still need after-court lawyers,” which, you know, no one aspires to do that, but it makes money. In any profession you have your idealism mixed with the reality of your situation. Me? I just think it takes an effort and sort of a willingness to be broke for a while in order to succeed at what you’re really trying to go for ideologically. That’s always existed. It’s not a matter of me giving my opinion like whether or not I like this. I mean I have my opinion, but can’t say end-all-be-all, “This music is bad, this music is good.” I have my opinions on what I think of newer hip-hop and because of my ideology, I’m just like, I’ll try my hardest not to do that because I don’t like that just because that’s where the money is.

Q: The cost of entry into DJing is extremely high. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to get into it? How did you front the cost?
A: Now, more than ever, you can get into DJing without having too much money. Even though I don’t necessarily use them, there are interfaces you can connect to a computer and from one interface you have your whole mp3 library right there. That makes the barriers lower, but that also means each person getting into it may get in without having much an idea of what they’re doing.

When you had vinyl and could only use vinyl, which is how it was for a while, in order to be a good DJ you had to really go out and look for what you want and be willing to spend money on this. You had to really decide what you wanted to play because it wasn’t just like, “Eh, I’ll play anything because it doesn’t cost me more or less to play this song that I hate since I got it free online.” That sort of makes the individuality of the DJ and their sound diminish, because everyone has access to all of these songs. When you’re looking for vinyl, it’s a different game because you’d choose what you want and you’re paying for it. You had to make more targeted decisions.

I built up my equipment over like eight, nine years. I just – about a year and a half ago – got a nicer mixer than the shitty ones I was borrowing from friends or whatever. It just takes time if you really want to build up DJ equipment. My best advice would be to figure out what to play. You don’t have to buy vinyl.

Q: How do you feel about the vinyl vs. digital debate in the DJing community?
A: I like to stress this: I don’t like when certain people say a real DJ does this or that, this or that. My response to that is, you know, the people that were spinning records in the parks in the ‘70s and ‘80s were the beginning of hip-hop. If you told them, “Don’t use the most sophisticated equipment of your time. You can only use this,” hip-hop wouldn’t have been born. So in other words, “Don’t use a turntable if you use a mixer, that’s too advanced. You can’t do that. That’s not real DJing.” There would be no hip-hop. So I shy away from that. But I do mention vinyl as being a good way of seeing that individuality as a DJ. So if you don’t do that, you have to find another way of looking for music and what speaks for you; and that’s what’s going to ultimately make your style as a DJ, as opposed to, you know, “What do I have that will satisfy everyone all of the time?” That won’t help you develop as a DJ. It’ll make you the same as every other DJ.

Q: Has your experience in breaking influenced your DJ mixing?
A: I know what I like to break to. I like to break to hard drums. But, you know, as I’m developing my breaking and getting more into things like top-rock or stuff like that, I notice it’s not just the drums that are dope, the horns are nasty or whatever. That baseline gives you a certain feeling. At this point, I’m trying to keep it as raw as possible. I have several different modes when I’m breaking. I have like, battling — what I want to feel when I’m battling in order to stay hype. I know what I like to feel when I’m cyphering, you know, top-rocking and stuff. I have what I like to hear when I footwork. There’s the stuff people do power to, not that I do much power. But you recognize there is a certain, different sound that people like for all of those things. The best I can do is try to give a balance at a jam.

If you play, like, ultra hype battle music through all of the ciphers, it doesn’t give anyone the chance to vibe out and really get into their top-rock and feel the music out. So, I try to make sure I have all ends covered so everyone at the jam with any type of style will be able to have fun. The bboying affects the DJing a lot, but sometimes it’s not obvious until you test it out in a battle or something. It’s a different experience dancing to it versus listening to it.

There are songs that will hype up a crowd. They could be epic. You hear a lot of these at big breaking events.  There was a time before some of these events started getting around where some of the DJs had this whole sound like, “end of the world breaks” as I call them. That stuff gets the attention of the crowd. For them it’s like they’re seeing a movie where two medieval armies are about to clash into each other and there’s some crazy shit happening, but the point is that’s not necessarily what is good for the dancer. The song could be dope and really hype the crowd, but you have to make sure it’s danceable. I only try to play stuff I would dance to or that I think has the right cues and doesn’t cheapen the music.

Q: Where do you see your career as a bboy/DJ going from here?
A: I love experiencing other cultures. I lived in Brazil for a while and I’ve been to Japan, but I haven’t been to a lot of places. I love to see different cultures, see how they live, see how they eat and how they listen to their music, and of course if there [are] breaks in there. But besides breaks, I love music and I want to hear music from around the world that people have made because there’s so much there.  It would be cool to spin one of the big competitions and go to Europe or [somewhere] like that, to get to travel somewhere to do what I love [and] to see how other people interpret hip-hop and how they live, in general. 




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