As Shane Canfield DJs, he lets his musical logic sink in as he evokes the useful combination of exigent curiosity and the quest for technical proficiency. These are the sensitivities of a driven artist. The idealized concept of successful art demands subtlety, technicality, and inspiration. And yet, it evolves a considerable distance from its theoretical beginnings. Broad exposure and mass appeal galvanize the entire attempt.
These ideas could describe the genre of DJing, turn-tabling, and all of its exponents. The internet’s communality and the modern tendencies toward labeling have produced several subgenres and predictably, micro-genres. One might speculate that these contemporary genres, based in hip hop culture, have their roots in musique concrete. But would those composers who first pursued that style have been able to conceive of or predicted where it eventually would lead? The pursuit of DJing is a near-perfect amalgam of many base sensibilities and mediums. While it employs advanced and subtle technologies, it also involves a modern manifestation of the innate and evolutionary percussive impulse in all humans. The technique of “scratching” is the act of moving the turntable’s needle across a vinyl disk to create rhythmic ideas and phrases that work with and against the material contained on the record itself. The genre is intellectually, artistically, and culturally significant. To some, it's primitive, yet those in the know attest to the highly-cultivated nature of the genre.
I would think that, to the artistically consecrated mind, DJing should be immune to the ugliness of competition. However, the inclusion of competitiveness proves to be a virtue rather than an idealistic defrocking. The Red Bull 3Style has become, in its short life of nine years, the world's largest DJ competition. Artists are selected to compete against each other in not just one genre or subgenre, but three. They are judged on whether or not they have developed a comprehensive yet personally unique style as an artist. In just fifteen minutes, they must be able to demonstrate their artistry to both the judges and the audiences who gather for the event. There are National Finals in over twenty countries, and the winner will represent their country at the World Finals in Moscow, Russia, in April of 2020.
For local DJ Shane Canfield, Moscow seems like a world away, perhaps an entire dimension away from his home in St. Joseph. This is where he began life and developed his craft as a turntable artist. He arrived where he is by the sometimes-shortened route that modern communication allows: self-producing a video and submitting it. His language with the medium was enough to secure him a place in the San Francisco melee of United States Final of the Red Bull 3Style competition which took place in December of 2019. Though Canfield did not win the final — that distinction went to DJ Lazyboy — he described the experience as spectacular. In the following interview, I talked with Canfield about his life in DJing, his experiences at RB3S and where he sees the genre moving in the future.
Video: Shane Canfield re-introduces himself to his followers and the Red Bull 3Style community on his instagram account (@shanecanfield). Video posted January 7, 2020.
Smile Politely: How do you see the genre evolving?
Shane Canfield: I see DJing becoming simpler, and purer. DJing has gone through so many phases and has been appreciated for many different reasons over the past two decades. We’ve gone through the battle era, the party rocking era, the mash-up era, the celebrity DJ era, and more. But now I think we are hitting a point where we all have to generate something that is both understandable and quickly consumed. Many aspects of DJing tend to not always translate to crowds and may seem overcomplicated. Some styles of DJing appear mundane or boring. I think that as DJ’s we need to take the same approach as new artists do. We need to express ourselves but it also has to be accessible to listeners/fans. To be a successful DJ you have to give other people a good time. You have to play good music. So I think that there is going to be a big push for DJ’s to focus more on simply playing great music, and giving crowds and fans something they can be a part of and can comprehend.
SP: What do you think sets your medium apart from more conventional ways of music production?
Canfield: DJing stands out to me because of how hands-on and quick it can be. I have experimented with other forms of music production in the past (and still plan to in the near future), but I always had trouble because of how tedious of a process it is. DJing is fast, it’s very active. It gives me the freedom of improvisation right at my fingertips like an instrument does. The possibilities are endless, and when you throw in all of the technological abilities of the equipment, it really does become infinite. We have the ability to take the mood and direction of a night anywhere we want to. DJ's also have this super cool opportunity to connect with anyone in the room on a personal level. You never know when you may happen to play someone’s favorite song.
SP: How exactly did you gain the attention of the Red Bull competition?
Canfield: Each year, they allow DJs to submit videos for a chance to be selected. It has to be a five minute long video that showcases your DJing. The only rule in regards to content is that you have to include three different genres of music. So this past July, when they were accepting submissions, I recorded my video and sent it in. They did not announce who got in until September 16th, so I was on the ice for a minute. But when the time came, they posted the names, and I was one of them. It was surreal! I had been working really hard and putting out solid content for about a year leading up to submitting. I already had garnered a lot of attention from many DJs who are involved in Red Bull. Aside from the actual video submission, it is said that they base their decision on your existing body of work, and I feel that mine played a big part in me being selected as well.
SP: How was the whole experience? Who were some of the standouts that impressed and inspired you?
Canfield: Man, the entire experience was spectacular. The whole weekend was wild. Being on that stage and having that platform to share my work was something else. To actually see and feel the benefits of your own hard work is always incredibly rewarding. The support and encouragement that I received from so many of my peers were overwhelming in the best way possible. As far as the standouts of the night, first and foremost DJ Lazyboy. He won. It was as inspiring as it was impressive. Next I have to give it up for my good friend Matsu. He put so much hard work and time into his set, and he executed it all extremely well. He crushed it. He was the runner-up, but I think it could have gone either way. Each competitor did a really good job of bringing their own personal style, and that was honestly the best part. To see all six of us be ourselves — that was inspiring.
SP: Music is about finding your “inner” voice. Do you feel that you’re on your way to this?
Canfield: That’s a tricky question, haha. Since I work mainly with other artist's music, there is a bit of what I feel is a small creative barrier. But there are workarounds to that. I’d say yes, I am on my way to this. I do feel like I am finding my own way of expression through DJing. For every emotion, there is a song to match it. A song or series of songs that we correlate to how we feel at any given time. I think I am finding a unique way of piecing that music together to display my "inner voice" or express how I am feeling throughout my life. And that will grow and develop more over time. At the end of the day, to get anybody to come to a show of mine or support my work, I have to sell them on a feeling. So if I can find the right feeling, at the right time, then maybe my voice would be heard.
SP: What are some of the techniques you favor? Would you please briefly explain what they are and what makes the way you use them unique?
Canfield: As a DJ, of course, I love to scratch. I shy away from it a lot, but now I am trying to incorporate it more frequently. I like my scratches to make sense with the flow and natural rhythm of the song I am using. I never want to fight against a song. I think I have the ability to make my scratches unique because I try to create a melody with them. Something that the ear can catch and hold on to. Another technique I use often is referred to as "tone play." Essentially, this is taking notes or melodic sections of one song, and using them to play a whole new song. It works really well if you can use samples and melodies that people will recognize right off the bat. I do a lot of melodic tricks, connecting like-melodies between songs that some might not realize can go together. These tricks are nothing new, I’m not reinventing the wheel, but I believe that I am unique based on my ear. We all hear things differently. And I have been given the gift of getting to share how I hear music when I use these techniques.
Image: Shane Canfield, wearing an overly large orange t-shirt, looks out onto a crowd as he DJs. Canfield smiles as he raises one hand to the audience and uses the other to adjust the nobs on the mixers that are arranged in front of him. In the corner, one can see part of a sign for the Red Bull 3Style competition. Image from Canfield's BandCamp artist page.
SP: It’s easy to see that the nature of the performer/listener relationship is different with respect to your chosen genre. How would you describe it?
Canfield: This is a really, really good question. I think about this a lot. Since I am not a musician that is creating original work, how do I connect with my listeners? It’s honestly something that I don’t believe I have a great answer for, but I have some thoughts on it. We all look up to our favorite artists or bands. We follow them, watch what they do, support their work, even dress, and maybe want to act like them. There's very much an "I look up to this person" sort of relationship there. And honestly, I don't feel like it's that different for DJ's. I think listeners look up to DJ's too. I think we appreciate artistic expression, and if a DJ provides that (which so many do), then the same type of relationship forms naturally.
SP: Do you feel that there could be a place for conventional instruments in what you do?
Canfield: I definitely do! There’s been a big trend recently of DJ's incorporating guitars into their live sets. I do not have a musical background, and I do not play an instrument right now. But I am the most fascinated by the piano. I have had a few lessons and spent a lot of time reading and trying to teach myself very basic things. I have a piano app on my phone (LOL) that I constantly use when I listen to music to try to play along and train my ear. I think incorporating a keyboard somehow could be super dope. There is room for instruments for sure, and technology is still opening more doors, making that possible.
SP: Do you feel that there’s any kind of stigma attached to your genre — whether mainstream media-related or with musical traditionalists?
Canfield: I would not ever want to talk about this in a negative light, but I do feel that there is a stigma around DJ's. I think that we can sometimes get viewed as less significant, or unoriginal, or corny/gimmicky. It is unfortunate that plenty of circumstances have created that type of environment for DJ's. Still, I think it is our job to turn that around and flip it. Not out of malice or revenge, but out of respect for an art form. On some level, everything that we do is art. I do the best that I can to be a humble, gracious person when facing these stigmas because, for me, music as a whole is about expression. DJing may be a form of expression for someone in the same ways that playing classical piano may be for someone else. How we all decide to express ourselves is our choice and it is our job to own that choice. Music is fluid and constant and can mean any number of things to any number of people. I think we only fit into the stigmas of our crafts if we allow ourselves to.
SP: How do you think what you do could be expanded in terms of musical scope?
Canfield: Oh, my gosh, there are so many ways. For me, the first step I personally have taken is teaching myself about [musical] keys. I have been practicing mixing in key for the past year now. It makes such a huge difference sonically. I think the care and time taken to create a solid mix and transition that sounds great is important for listeners. Somebody is not going to want to listen to something that does not sound good, it’s as simple as that. If I want someone to go back and listen to something I have done multiple times, it has to sound good to them. I hope to expand on my knowledge of mixing in key and learn how it can also affect moods as well. Other areas I want to expand on are my musical timing and my musical knowledge. Timing as a DJ is almost less of a skill and more of an intuition. And knowledge is well, knowledge haha. I have to know music to select music. And to know music, I have to research. In theory, I have every song under the sun right at my fingertips, thanks to the internet. I hope to never stop expanding on my musical knowledge.