Columbia Journalism School

Deaf but Not Disabled

Deaf DJ Robbie WIlde Photo via Jonathan Echeverry

Deaf DJ Robbie WIlde
Photo via Jonathan Echeverry

BY JUSTIN CHAN

The walls of the West 30th Street music studio were a dark gloomy purple. The one and only window faced an unappealing row of high-rise buildings. I had hoped for a space that was more aesthetically pleasing, since I was accustomed to seeing large, fancy recording studios featured on MTV. I waited several more minutes before Robbie Wilde came in. Nothing about his physical appearance — the ear piercings or the arm tattoos — immediately suggested that he was different from any other artist. On the surface, he seemed like another regular DJ in New York. But Wilde isn’t just another DJ: He’s deaf. As a result, lots of people wonder if he can be any good.

Prior to meeting Wilde, I had assumed that his manager Kevin Ricupero would help translate my questions into sign language. I thought my interview with Wilde would, perhaps, be more time-consuming than normal. I had never interviewed a deaf person before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t even think to ask Ricupero how Wilde and I would communicate when the time came.

“As you can see, right now I’m staring at your lips,” Wilde said. “When it comes to communicating, I have my own techniques of how to hear, in my own way.”

Great, I thought. At least, we have that problem settled.

Wilde began losing his hearing at seven. By the time doctors diagnosed him with a hearing impairment four years later, he had already lost much of his hearing in his right ear — on which he now has a tattoo that jokingly reads “Out of Order” — and had 50 percent remaining in his left. The news was devastating for his parents, who do not know how to sign. To communicate with their son, they would face him and make sure they had his full attention before speaking, hoping he would somehow pick up their words. A speech therapist later helped Wilde grasp spoken words more easily.

“I had to force myself to learn and understand and adapt to the hearing community,” Wilde said. “By doing that, I was just forcing a lot of my hearing and lost it little by little.”

Now almost entirely deaf, Wilde remains devoted to music. When he was young, his father would play old-school songs, many of which he still hears in his head.

“When I’m on a set, I love throwing old-school stuff,” he said. “For me, I’ll throw in Ace of Base. I’ll throw in Biggie Smalls. I’ll throw in Duran Duran and go down to Frank Sinatra.”

At one point, Wilde attempted to play instruments before he settled on deejaying.

“I played the clarinet, the bass, the drums — it wasn’t until a buddy of mine took me to party that his brother was deejaying at in Atlanta,” Wilde said. “Just seeing the reaction of the energy being pushed out and the feedback from the crowd trapped me in.”

To the average clubgoer, deejaying may seem like nothing more than just a pair of hands moving two vinyl CDs back and forth on a phonograph turntable. But the process is a lot more complex. For deaf DJs like Wilde, deejaying is even more complicated to learn, since they must rely on other physiological capacities to mix and match song tempos.

Wilde was 18 years old when he first learned how to beatmatch — a technique that involves shifting pitches and timestretching tracks. It took him five years to learn; at first, he had trouble beatmatching properly. He would often clash melodies together. But he has since adjusted, with the help of his friends and Serato, an audio production program that colorizes waveforms and allows him to differentiate between bass, vocals and snares.

“I can’t go into the club and just throw in a track because I feel like it,” he said. “I can’t use headphones and peep it before it gets played. So for me, it’s a lot of preparation.”

Wilde also uses a SubPac, a cushioned seat that sends low frequencies to his body.

“I call it the headphones of the deaf community,” he said. “We listen to music in a different way. We love it just as much and probably more than the hearing community, but our way of hearing is through feeling.”

To know that someone like Wilde had managed to nearly master beatmatching in a matter of five years was beyond my comprehension and, at the same time, admirable. While in college, I had dabbled in turntablism myself, out of curiosity. I had even bought a cheap plastic set from Kohl’s — who knew a clothing outlet like Kohl’s would sell turntables? – and played around with it for a good two years, struggling to beatmatch, before giving up.

“Once I learned how to properly beatmatch using my other senses, I wanted to scratch,” Wilde said matter-of-factly. “That’s when everything kind of fell into place with what I really wanted to do with my career.”

Most experienced DJs manipulate music rhythms and create new sounds by actively using a crossfader or upfader while scratching a vinyl CD simultaneously. Scratching is a technique that can take years to master, since there are many forms of it, like the transformer scratch and the two-click flare — both of which involve moving the record and crossfader in different rhythmic motions.

“At first, people were like, ‘Yo, you’re clashing the vocals together,’” Wilde said. “I would still be jamming. So I had to figure it out. I talked to myself like, ‘All right, I’m deejaying for the hearing community. I have to cater to their needs.’”

Wilde remained determined. He reached out to two-time Disco Mix Club World DJ Champion and Harvard graduate Samuel Zornow — known among his peers as DJ Shiftee — and asked whether Zornow would teach him how to scratch.

“I asked him, ‘Yo, you’re always up for challenges. Here’s one. Teach a deaf kid how to scratch,’” Wilde recalled. “Three days later, he was like ‘Yo, challenge accepted, kid. Come through.’”

For about a year and a half, the pair spent two days a week at Dubspot, a DJ school where Zornow teaches, working to improve Wilde’s skills. Zornow taught Wilde basic scratching techniques and how to scratch through muscle memory. Part of Wilde’s instruction involved learning visual cues, such as placing stickers on records as reference points and recognizing visible waveforms.

“It ended up being, from a teaching perspective, not as difficult as I thought it would be,” Zornow said in a phone interview several weeks later. “Robbie adapted very well to the visual-based instruction.”

Wilde’s work ethic has since earned Zornow’s respect.

“It’s always a joy to teach someone who is dedicated and works really hard,” Zornow said. “To look at the obstacles he’s overcome and the success he’s having now and the work that he puts into what he does — it’s definitely gratifying to be a part of that.”

Midway through my conversation with Wilde, his iPhone lit up. He stopped me for a second and signaled at Ricupero, who had been in the studio during our entire interview. Ricupero nodded, grabbed the phone and excused himself from the room. I had forgotten that I was speaking to a deaf person who, naturally, needed help whenever his phone rang. I had been so absorbed in our conversation that I had forgotten Wilde was deaf. What I saw in that very brief moment was humbling, to say the least. For a minute, I began to appreciate something that I had always taken for granted: my ability to hear.

When Wilde began deejaying professionally, he immediately stood out. Aside from being deaf, he dressed differently from other DJs and played cheesy pop songs that nobody seemed to appreciate.

“Everybody really wanted to hear only hip-hop or straight house music,” he said. “There were no in-betweens. I’m the hipster white boy with the tattoos. I look like I belong in Cali.”

I wasn’t surprised. He did, after all, look like a hipster. The plaid shirt. The tight black jeans. The wild hair. It was hard to fault his critics for seeing him differently. He didn’t have the swagger of a hip-hop DJ. But Wilde knew he just had to prove himself.

“That’s the beautiful part about deejaying,” Wilde said. “If you don’t take a risk on something different, you’re never going to know if it sounds ‘good.’”

His efforts have paid off. Impressed by his talent, computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard recently invited Wilde to be part of a 30-second commercial advertising a new touchscreen laptop. Wilde has also gone from deejaying at small venues to coveted events like the Sundance Film Festival. His newly acquired celebrity has even taken him overseas (before the interview, I overheard Ricupero discussing a trip to the Caribbean with one of his colleagues).

“We’ve definitely had a lot of support,” said Wilde. “My supporters are really strong and they really appreciate what I do. I go a long way with my team.”

As our conversation drew to an end, I asked Wilde about his future as a DJ. It was a generic question, to say the least, but given the struggles he had to overcome, I could not help but wonder about his next move. He had already defied all expectations. What more could he accomplish?

“I’m very blessed that everybody’s giving me a big opportunity,” he said. “Twenty years from now, I hope I can make a big impact enough in the industry that my name will be a legacy.”

For some established deaf artists, like Detroit rapper Sean Forbes, Wilde has already made his presence known.

“Robbie Wilde is the shit,” said Forbes, who founded the nonprofit organization Deaf Professional Arts Network in an effort to make music accessible to the hard-of-hearing community. “When I see someone like Robbie cutting songs, chopping them up and mixing them, I truly appreciate what he is doing. He’s helping to trailblaze and change perceptions, one fan at a time.”

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