It All Starts With The DJ
Veteran DJ James Coles promotes concerts to raise funds for his nonprofit DJ school at the Boys & Girls Clubs, teaching them the ‘good, bad and ugly’ sides of the music business
By Lisa Asato
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On Friday nights in Honolulu, Power 104.3 turns its air waves over to DJ Winnie, a 17-year-old Kalani High School senior who mixes hip hop and
R&B for an estimated 25,000 listeners.
DJ Winnie, aka Winnie Lau, lights up when she recalls the first time she heard her mix on the air. “I was in a parking lot at 7-Eleven with all my friends, and it was coming to that time,” she says. “It was like two minutes away, and it’s not like I heard my name first, but I heard my (track), and I was just totally speechless. I couldn’t say anything. My friends were screaming. I was just like, ‘Wow, that was cool.’”
Lau and her older brother Peter, who is a disc jockey at Zanzabar Nightclub, got their start at Musical Youth of Hawaii, a nonprofit organization that teaches students free of charge how to mix, scratch and produce music; how to do concert, club and radio promotions; and how to make compilation mixes on CDs and “ultimately own your own label,” among other things.
Students - “if they’re lucky” - get additional training by performing for the school’s fund-raising arm, United DJs, which founder and veteran DJ James Coles says targets mainly the 13- to 17-year-old set. “That is our market, we own it,” he says.
“One of the biggest things we’re doing now that I believe is a big positive in the community and for our schools is throwing what we call ‘all-ager rager’ teen parties,” says Coles, who is creative imaging director at Cox Radio Hawaii.
“It’s called Suga Suga. We throw them at various venues across the island, ranging from the biggest being, say, the (Hawaiian Waters Adventure) park where we get 3,000 people sometimes, and smaller being Zanzabar or Pipeline or O Lounge, whatever it may be.
“All these venues have been very, very nice to us. We go in there, we pay them a flat fee, we charge a fee at the door, and that’s how we raise funds for our program. ...
“The Suga Suga thing is a big fundraiser for us. Sometimes the parents might think it’s a bad thing, but it’s a great thing. We’re giving the students a place to throw a party under one groove and support a community program. The students get to play for them. It’s just a win-win.”
United DJs will present its next Suga Suga party March 27 at Zanzabar. Tickets are $15 with a flyer before 8 p.m., and ages 13 to 19 are welcome.
Betty Qian, one of the original Musical Youth students when it started in April 2002, is now the principal DJ at Red Lion near Puck’s Alley. Her first paying gig came at a 21-and-older party at Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar when she was 16. “I was so happy,” says Qian, who goes by DJ Betty. Her goal is to become a music director or program director at a radio station, or at least “something to do with music ... deejaying opens a lot of doors.”
“When I’m not working, I’m always in the clubs listening to people, trying to better myself to get more educated and a sense of what other people are playing - what kind of style they have,” says Qian, who’s 18. “For about six months from the time I started to live on my own, I was out every single day. It was hectic. If I wasn’t working I was listening to people. If I wasn’t listening to people, I was at record stores. I was doing everything I could.”
Coles predicts that DJ Betty and DJ Winnie are “going to do it all.”
He himself has done it all during his 23 years in the business: night club promotions, teen parties, CD mix compilations, mixing and music direction for I-94 from 1989 to 1999 “with maybe a break of two or three years in there somewhere.” Not to mention DJ stints at ‘80s hot spots that include Spats, Cilly’s, The Point After, Pink Cadillac and Bobby McGee’s, before going on to own his first club, The Mixx, when he was 29.
As a veteran of radio and night clubs, he wants to teach his students “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the profession. He’s experienced them all, from success, money and fame to cocaine and bad business decisions blinded by ego.
“Let’s not candy-coat it at all,” he says. “There’s the drugs, there’s some alcohol, there’s drug pushers - all that goes with the night clubs, and when you’re a DJ that’s (where you begin). (But if you) go there to serve and give everybody a good time, you won’t have to worry about the others.
“A few parents have come in, they really wanted me to go into detail what I was going to be teaching (their children), and I love that,” Coles adds. “I encourage them to come in, because when they do come in and see, they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I understand now.’”
Coles says the school a long time ago outgrew its space at the Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii on Waiola Street and is saving money for big-time growth. Plans include expanding its business side and finding a grant-writer “who can understand us and help us make our dreams come true.” For Coles, that means owning “our own building so we may teach thousands of teens and be self-sufficient.”
Part of the expansion involves producing Hawaiian and hip-hop CD compilations and selling them in stores and online. Coles envisions a time when five businesses will support the nonprofit, and share a space that operates the businesses during the work day and functions as classrooms after hours.
A parent of three himself, he encourages other parents to support their children’s interests - musical or otherwise - because it’s all about the passion. And if their interest is music, they can come to the school, play with the equipment, see how they like it, and make up their minds from there, before spending $2,000 on home equipment.
Besides, he says, opportunities nowadays are brighter in the music field than when he was growing up.
“Deejaying in a nightclub, that can seem small,” but “from the DJ comes everything. You can be a DJ, you can be a program director, you can own your own radio station. From a DJ you can run your own record company, you can be a producer, I mean, it’s just the sky’s the limit. But it just starts from here,” he says as he taps his forefinger on the table. “All that starts from here.”
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