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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Columbia Journalism School

Animal Rights Activists Decry Central Park Horse Carriages

BY JUSTIN CHAN

On a busy street by Rockefeller Center, Diane Oltarzewski wore a sign around her neck urging tourists to stop riding horse-drawn carriages. She could barely navigate through the crowd as she talked about her upbringing with horses.

“I grew up riding horses,” said Oltarzewski, a calligrapher who has spent the past 15 years writing letters to animal rights organizations to stop the practice. “And the first thing you learn when you’re at the barn is never ride a horse on pavement. It’s bad for their legs.”

Oltarzewski was one of approximately 10 protesters from animal rights coalition Horses Without Carriages who spent Saturday afternoon encouraging passerby around Rockefeller Center and Central Park to spend their holidays without riding horse-drawn carriages. At times, the demonstrators got into heated exchanges with nearby horse carriage drivers who were waiting for customers.

“They’re strapped into these contraptions by a buffoon like this gentleman,” said Eddie Sullivan, as he pointed at a horse carriage driver who had just dropped off a couple. “This is not a veterinarian. This is not an animal care expert. This is a glorified taxi cab driver.”

The protesters walked around Rockefeller Center before arriving at the corner of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue. Though most pedestrians walked by them, some of the demonstrators caught the attention of two Central Park guards, who cautioned them to stay at least 20 feet away from the drivers. But most of protesters remain undeterred.

“New York City is probably one of the most, if not the most, congested cities in the world,” said Mary Beth Artz, who has been involved in efforts to save Prospect Park’s Canada geese. “Horses just don’t belong on city streets. It’s a no brainer. It’s not the 1700s.”

The carriage business is subject to city regulations. During the winter, drivers are not allowed to operate carriages when temperatures are below 19 degrees or during a blizzard, according to Central Park’s website. Operators also cannot drive carriages below 34th Street, the site says.

“I just think that in society, in general, you’re always going to have people objecting any time you own an animal,” said Brendan Feron, who has been a horse carriage driver for the past 30 years. “They’re the ones attacking us. We’re not going out and attacking them.”

Some horse carriage drivers cursed at the demonstrators as they got in the way of tourists who wanted a ride.

“You’re dealing with a sector of people that are very loud and are very vocal,” said a spokesperson from the Horse and Carriage Association of New York. “They’ve never interacted with horses. They don’t know anything in regards to our horses.”

Roughly 150 licensed operators out of 300 currently work in the city, he said. Local 553, a labor union that represents the drivers, did not respond by deadline.

The carriage business has been the center of criticism from animal rights organizations that say that the operators have not treated their horses properly. In August, a spooked horse ran through traffic on Columbus Circle and its carriage flipped over. The incident left the driver and his two passengers injured and two cars damaged.

“The A.S.P.C.A. is not categorically opposed to the use of horses and other equines in pulling carts and carriages for hire, provided that all of the animals’ physiological and behavioral needs are fully met, housing and stable conditions are humane, and their working hours and conditions are carefully regulated,” Bret Hopman, a spokesperson at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, wrote in an email. “In New York City, however, we believe the horses’ living and working conditions are inadequate.”

The carriage industry has received strong support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In October 2011, he rejected calls from councilmembers to ban the carriages. Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito had introduced a bill that would have replaced the carriages with electric vehicles that look like vintage cars a year before. State senator Tony Avella, then a councilmember, said he had also introduced legislation that would have shut the industry down.

“This is a tremendous cruelty to the animal and a huge safety issue for the driver and pedestrians and motorists,” said Avella, who has proposed a similar bill in the state senate and is waiting for the senate to convene on the matter. “When is the city of New York finally going to ban the practice?”

As some of the protesters confronted the drivers, some tourists who had gotten off the carriages said they did not agree with the demonstration.

“It’s a horse’s job,” said Jennifer Funck, a Pennsylvanian tourist who went on a ride with her husband and granddaughter. “I mean, as strange as it may seem, that’s what they’re made to do. That’s what they’re made to do. That’s what they’re bred for, and so they’re probably happier.”

Gary Funck agreed.

“These horses probably have it better than a lot of people in New York City because they’re not homeless,” he said. “They’re fed. I assume the city regulates this.”

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Columbia Journalism School

Brighton Beach Students Deal With Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy

BY JUSTIN CHAN

After Superstorm Sandy damaged her house in Brighton Beach two weeks ago, Girisha Kethees, a second grader at nearby Public School 253, stayed at a friend’s house in Queens. When the city’s education department relocated her school to Crown Heights’ Intermediate School 246 last week to continue classes, Kethees stayed home. Her pregnant stay-at-home mother Vinoj said she could not bear to tell her daughter that they had lost almost everything.

“She don’t know about that because she stayed with her friends,” the older Kethees said. “Now, she don’t have anything in her new house.”

Although classes resumed at Public School 253 on Tuesday, some students who live in the neighborhood, like the younger Kethees, are still struggling to recover two weeks after the storm hit.

“Many of them have to find other apartments because their apartments were destroyed,” said Gina Dacchille, the school’s parent coordinator. “So they’re going to be traveling, but they’re going to be traveling from Bay Ridge, from Queens and Staten Island.”

Two weeks ago, the storm left the school without power, its basement flooded and its boilers destroyed, according to the school custodian Christopher Ball. It took the following week for the school’s janitors and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove the water and fix the boilers, he said. As the crew worked around the clock, the education department relocated students to Intermediate School 246, where several teachers at the affected elementary school said they were warmly received.

“They gave us rooms,” said Sue Kertes, who teaches classes at all grade levels. “They even prepared the food that our children need to eat. They gave us supplies. All we had to do was ask.”

Though students from the Brighton Beach school had to adjust to their new surroundings in Crown Heights, they stayed positive, some teachers and parents said.

“They were in good spirits,” said Josephine Ocello, who teaches first grade. “You know, they were happy just to see their teachers and their school community.”

Roseanne Romeo, a Brighton Beach resident who was forced to relocate to East Flatbush with her son Jaiden, agreed.

“At first, he was a little concerned,” she said of her son, who attends prekindergarten. “But when he saw people that he knew and saw a couple of his classmates, he was more comfortable.”

But for others like pregnant stay-at-home mother and Brighton Beach resident Anna Singh, whose daughters Alyssa and Selena did not attend school last week, the road to recovery has been more difficult.

“My kids are traumatized,” Singh said. “They don’t want to come to school. The kids saw everything. Trees falling. Houses on fire.”

The education department closed most schools in heavily hit areas last Monday as workers fixed power failures and removed flood waters. While many of those schools reopened after Election Day, some, like Public School 253, remained closed, and their students and teachers were relocated to other school buildings miles away. The schools provided displaced students with Metrocards, but several parents like Angel Berla, who lives in Coney Island, said the fares were no use.

“Where I live, there was no transportation,” said Berla, whose daughters Valentina and Amira missed classes last week. “There were no trains coming to Coney Island. I don’t know why they sent them over there.”

Despite the struggles many Brighton Beach students have faced, some teachers said they were hopeful that things would return to normal soon.

“As long as we work together, we’ve been a family,” said Melissa Roberts, who teaches first grade. “These past two weeks have really shown how much we’ve been a family.”

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