Armed with headphones and turntables, the modern DJ (or deejay) industry has really jumped off since the days of Studio 54 and Grandmaster Flash.
Today’s deejays have become a fixture of the electronic dance music (EDM) industry and a select few have even made six-figure salaries mixing house music in clubs and on albums all over the world.
The music group Light and Sound has been hitting nightspots in Meridian, Hattiesburg and Birmingham, Ala., for just over a year turning a unique hobby into a small business and making sure Mississippi and Alabama aren’t immune to this new infestation of digital music.
Consisting of deejay Cameron Hall, lighting specialist Sam McGee and hip hop dancer Mark Cherry (aka Phantom), Light and Sound was part of the entertainment roster at the inaugural Mississippi Young Professionals Summit last week at the MSU Riley Center in downtown Meridian.
“Usually you’ll go some place and they’ll give the DJ a set list and say play these songs,” says McGee. “There’s no artistic element about that.”
After donning glow-in-the-dark masks for added effect, Light and Sound pulls off a four-hour sensory explosion that covers popular EDM groups like Daft Punk and Schoolboy and explores growing subgenres of electronic music like dubstep, glitch and trap. They make between $400-500 a night depending on the size of the crowd.
Dubstep, which began in London dance clubs in the early 2000s, has since been popularized by DJs like Sonny Moore and Joel Zimmerman, better known by their stage names Skrillex and Deadmau5 (“dead mouse”) while the highly dissonant glitch and trap music was featured in this year’s “Harlem Shake” viral videos.
Forbes magazine included Moore and Zimmerman on their recent list of the world’s highest-paid DJs along with Scandinavian trio Swedish House Mafia and “Jersey Shore” TV star Pauly D.
“We were there first to play dubstep in Meridian,” Hall says. “It has so much energy to it. It makes you want to dance. I was into heavy rock and metal but just got tired of that.”
Cherry met Light and Sound in 2011 as he was starting his own side career as a club dancer. The Virginia Beach, Va., native says he got hooked on dancing in high school watching “America’s Best Dance Crew.”
Cherry began dancing publicly while attending Meridian Community College and uploaded plenty of video samples on YouTube, patterning his moves off of Michael Jackson and Usher. His ability caught the attention of MeloSounds.com and Cherry became the first American profiled by the British online magazine.
“Mark brings a different element to it all. It really helps and he enjoys the attention too,” McGee says.
While Cherry dances, Hall is able to transform measures from any percussive song into an otherworldly opus with underwater and industrial tones all with the flick of a switch using a MacBook Pro laptop and Traktor Pro beat mapping program.
Most dubstep has an average of 140 beats per minute and the software allows Hall to synchronize songs based on theirs tempos insuring a smooth transition from one movement to the next. He also has a timecoded vinyl turntable that he uses for scratching and sampling, often play fragments of old classics like Aretha Franklin in the middle of his songs.
“I’ll have them queued in my headphones where I can hear it but the crowd can’t hear it,” Hall says.
With little formal training, McGee stands on stage along with Hall controlling the lights in a freestyle way and helping as master of ceremonies and crowd pumper. The two musicians grew up together and McGee is quick to point out that they can actually play instruments (Hall prefers electric and acoustic guitar).
“A lot of people diss DJs because they think they’re just standing there,” McGee says. “Most lighting guys, they are off in a corner so they can see everything but I’m right on stage. If something comes unplugged I’m right there to fix it. Its really fast-paced and you just have to stay focused — have to be more on top of it.”
McGee says matching color with sound is a creative process and takes a good helping of imagination. Often he will listen to a song several times and study color wheels until the right colors pop into his mind. Often he will start out with a solid color, making the light strobe at the same beat per minute as the song. More lights are brought in as the tempo builds and crescendos to an imminent release that the industry calls a bass drop.
“Its just really up to us and where we want to take it,” McGee says about their future. “Without having our own music it could be hard.”
“We’re slowly working towards that,” Hall says. “That’s our goal is to put out original music so we can get farther out there.”
Right now they say their brains are hurting after every show.