Deejay James Coles' lessons for teens come with a heavy dose of reality
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James Coles has followed his muse since he was a teenager, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Now in his 40s, the veteran disc jockey has been a survivor in a field that has no shortage of ego and drive.
"I had my own nightclub, with an ego like this big, and I was king. ... But when I lost the club, and made some bad business decisions after that, I lost everything else in less than a year."
Deejay James Coles
He has a day job as creative imaging director for Cox Radio Hawaii. Coles also promotes club events, using his love of 1980s music to book vocal acts of the era for well-attended concerts on Oahu. He even has found time to maintain his own MySpace page.
That's not bad for a busy man with a family who's also passing down his life and career knowledge to a younger generation of wannabe club deejays.
Every Monday and Wednesday at the Kalihi YMCA, he and co-instructor Donald Dowd (who regularly spins at the Waikiki Red Lion) teach their skills to teens for no charge as part of Coles' nonprofit Musical Youth of Hawaii organization.
But Coles also makes sure that his young students get a healthy dose of reality as they strive to rock the house.
Learn from what James Coles has gone through himself. The man suffered a major life crash in the late '90s after he lost his short-lived but successful nightclub, the Mixx, when the building was demolished as part of the Victoria Ward complex expansion.
"While I was achieving my goals, there was an ugly side," he told students in a recent class. "I had my own nightclub, with an ego like this big, and I was king. But I was out of control, doin' a whole lot of drugs, especially cocaine, where I was doing an eight ball of it every other day. But when I lost the club and made some bad business decisions after that, I lost everything else in less than a year," including his first wife and tens of thousands of dollars.
"It was rough," he continues. "I didn't do anything for six months afterwards, just laid around the house. But then I built the attitude that I had to keep on goin'. I went back to the clubs to deejay and later went back to being a full-timer at the Zanzabar."
At this Waikiki spot, formerly the Maharaja, Coles came full circle to a place he'd worked as a deejay years earlier.
"Now I've been clean for nine years, I'm back in radio and I'm doing concerts and promotions," Coles said. "It's all been part of the journey."
It's a journey he hopes his young charges will follow with equal fervor -- minus the missteps.
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Six years ago, James Coles set up his turntables and mixer at the Charles S. Spalding Clubhouse of the Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii, ready to teach teenagers everything there was to know about being a successful dance disc jockey.
Upcoming Musical Youth/United DJs events:
» That Big '80s Show: With Bobby Brown and Glenn Medeiros, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday at Pipeline Cafe. Tickets $40 pre-sale, $50 at door (21 and over only). Call (877) 750-4400 or visit ticketmaster.com.
» Suga Suga Teen Dance Party: 7 p.m. to midnight Aug. 14 at Hawaiian Brian's, 1680 Kapiolani Blvd.; $15
» The Big Kahuna Teen Beach Party: 7 p.m. to midnight Aug. 31 at Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park; $15 admission
And not just how to adeptly mix songs into one seamless flow -- or "scratch on the wheels of steel," in the art of turntablism -- but also how to be entrepreneurs so they can produce their own mobile parties and concerts, get radio gigs somewhere down the line or maybe even run their own nightclubs.
All this knowledge is offered for free by Coles and his assistant, Donald Dowd, in classes held twice a week on the third floor of the Kalihi YMCA. Mondays are for beginners and Wednesdays for the more advanced, the latter including members of Coles' United DJ teenage posse.
The posse -- Keegan Gladstone, Nick Park (aka DJ Cin), Blaine Bastatas (DJ Blayz), Teddy Casison (DJ Lil' Homie TC), Brad Kam (DJ Switch) and Phuong Nguyen (DJ Feng Shui) -- have been busy in recent months with mobile discos, graduation parties and a just-completed run of summer teen parties at the O Lounge. It all makes for good training on the job.
The United DJs are masters of the "one," so to speak. They're way past their Monday student counterparts, who are still learning to count off eight-beat bars in any song as part of their mixmaster training.
Coles' young deejays can smell the career opportunities. Coles passed out a job chart that spells it out: Deejays can branch out to doing CD mixes, nightclub and radio work, or music production and promotions.
Throw in the life lessons that Coles has learned himself while working in the biz for 25 years, and it's quite a lot for the teens to take in.
"It's just that I don't want the kids to let the ego get too much in the way of why they're doing this in the first place," he said. "I want them to learn the right way and not just go blindly into it."
Another thing the teens learn is patience. "In my first two years, deejaying at Cilly's in the early 1980s, when I was still going to school as a teenager myself, it was all trial and error."
During a recent Wednesday session with the United DJs, Dowd is teaching a lesson in "how to not let dudes take over your floor." At teen dances there's not much mixing between genders, and while the girls are off in groups to the side, the guys can take over the floor, aggressively "krumping" in circles.
The deejays are venting their frustrations, but Dowd reminds them that their job is "to play for everybody -- in other words, include the girls."
"You've got to learn to break it up on the floor," Coles adds. "Don't get mad at 'em -- just change the song! Don't let them throw off your vibe."
"It's a customer service, hands down," Dowd says.
Dowd celebrated turning 30 that day, and the class brought in an ice cream cake.
"I've been doing this for 11 years now," he said as cake was being served all around. "I'm more ahead goalwise than I thought I ever could be. But I admit that it's taken a long time to break into the scene. For the past year I've been at this full time. I try to stay humble, observe more and let my skills do the talking. With the help of James and doing these classes, I know what I've done is serious business."
Both men have told the teens that in recent gigs, "you guys are sounding the same." That's a challenge to the United DJs, who want to stand out for their individual mixing skills.
Coles tells them to do their homework, practice making sets of music that move the crowd. "As all of you grow older, you'll begin to develop your own style," he says.
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Phuong Nguyen (DJ Feng Shui) spins in the deejay booth. Both Nguyen and Bastatas are students of James Coles.
Asked what they want to do with what they've learned in Coles' class, Casison responds with no hesitation: "Everything."
And who knows? He could follow in the footsteps of one of Coles' first students, Betty Quin, aka DJ Betty, who Coles says is "one of the hottest deejays on the island and a high-demand buy for top promoters."
Quin is confident enough that she's moving to Las Vegas soon to try her luck in the competitive field there.
She recently wrote Coles a thank-you letter that said, in part, "You have NO IDEA how much you've affected my life. ... You introduced me to a passion, a love, a lifestyle, an alternative to working at McDonald's. It's very rare for someone to choose a career and love it with mind, body and soul. It was probably fate that we crossed paths and I feel so blessed."
But she echoed one of Coles' lessons -- "It's not all glam and glitter," she wrote.
"If there's advice I would give to future students, it would be, 'If you got no passion and hunger, you might as well quit while it's early.' "
Call Coles at 479-3008 for class information.