Pittsburgh's DJ scene keeps a steady beat at Carhops' Sub Shop

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Editor's note: This event has been moved to 328 Atwood St. in Oakland

It’s one thing to make music. It’s another to make music work.

The artistry of DJing is alive and kicking — emphasis on kicking — in Pittsburgh with pros who have been mastering it for decades and new talent and technology emerging all the time.

Which brings us to Train Wreck Tuesdays, a weekly gathering of beginning DJs at Carhops’ Sub Shop in the Strip District.

“This is where a DJ really gets his first experience working in front of a crowd,” said T.J. Harris, who puts the event together. “We have a first-come, first-serve signup at 8:30 and the DJs start playing at 9. We give four DJs 30 minutes each. Then, after that, one or two more experienced DJs come in and play. But the beginners can play with somebody who can show them some pointers.

“It’s actually a competition in which the opening acts perform and are judged by a group of peers. Whoever we think was the best performer of the month will then get a paid booking at Pub I.G.”

Pub I.G., of course, is the club in the basement of India Garden on Atwood Street in Oakland. If you don’t know about that hot spot, it’s probably because you’re not supposed to because you’re not cool enough.

DJing is serious stuff to those who are good at it. An under-appreciated art form.

“There’s no better feeling than rocking a dance floor to the point that nobody can stop moving,” Mr. Harris said.

“If you’ve got track selection and the right skills, you can keep a dance floor packed, and everybody’s smiling and moving. There’s just this energy that fills you up. It’s a sensation that you can’t understand unless you experience it.”

In addition to being a DJ himself, Mr. Harris, 30, of Mount Washington, books a number of DJs throughout the city.

“I stumbled into the dance music community when I was about 13,” he said.

“An older girl that I knew invited me to a party and it just completely blew my mind. I started going out more frequently and then when I got old enough to get into places I started doing my own events.”

Born in Squirrel Hill, Mr. Harris graduated from Allderdice High School and chased his dream to California. A couple of years ago, he came home, where he often can play as many as six shows a week.

“Pittsburgh’s a really difficult market because there’s so much competition,” he said. “I mean, it is a job and the hard thing is that the young kids come in and don’t understand all the time and effort we’ve put into it. We’ve established ourselves, which is why we charge more. Then these kids come in and tell the club owners, ‘I just want to play. I’ll play for free.’ And the club owners are like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to pay for entertainment? Great!’ And they book them.

“Six or seven years ago, we used to be able to get $500, $600 to play for a night. Now, you’re lucky if you can get $25, $30 an hour.”

Still, there’s demand. So many bars and clubs, but also weddings and social events.

“A Nike shoe store might put a DJ in the corner,” Mr. Harris said. “I know a guy who’s using DJs for his exercise class.”

Some tips?

“First thing you really need to figure out is what kind of music you like,” he said.

“A lot of the time kids will come in and just play all the new music, the top 100 tracks. I never do that. I have a very distinct sound and people who come out know it’s me, they know what I play. It’s not musical snobbiness. But there is individuality, and I think that’s really important.

“Then you have to learn to transition from song to song. That is extremely important. Beat-matching is the first fundamental you really need to learn, where you drop the bass of one song and bring the bass up in another. It’s complicated, but I have to say that after so many years it’s become like a muscle memory for me.”

And Train Wreck Tuesdays?

“Train Wreck is a learning process and we make it fun to learn,” Mr. Harris said.

“When a DJ makes a mistake, it sounds like a train wreck. That’s where the name comes from. Whenever two songs come out of the speakers and they aren’t beat-matched, it’s this horrible off-beat drum pattern that doesn’t work. We call it a train wreck.”

Fortunately, the crowd doesn’t heckle the guilty DJ for his error — because it means everyone in the place gets $1 shots.

There’s no cover, so there’s no reason not to try it. The music starts at 9 p.m. at Carhops’ Sub Shop, 1806 Smallman St.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.

First Published January 7, 2014 4:30 PM

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