Being a DJ is serious business. Just ask DJ Sonny, who competed for the DMC DJ world championship title in 2005. His mad skills at the turntable won him first place in Indonesia and 13th in the world. The Jakarta-born Sonny was the first Indonesian DJ to come that close to the title.
After almost 20 years behind the decks, DJ Sonny is still churning out tracks from his home studio, and passing on his knowledge and skills to the next generation of DJs. He talks about being a teacher, the growth of hip-hop and what it’s like being a famous DJ in Jakarta.
How long have you been a DJ?
I started in 1990, but I was first influenced by a national DJ competition in Jakarta in 1987.
What was the scene like here in the late ’8s and early ’9s?
At that time, we were still playing lots of R&B and hip-hop. There wasn’t too much house music.
How did the DMC competition change things for you?
I had been a resident DJ at clubs, played at events and private parties, but I never competed until 2005. In 1992, there was an international competition in Indonesia, but at that time I was still too young. I patiently waited and prepared myself for the right time. It took 13 years before another international competition came to Indonesia.
Do you play other music besides hip-hop? Why hip-hop?
If you’re asking why, my title is DMC so I have to play hip-hop. As a DJ, I have to follow the trends. I can play anything from hip-hop, R&B, progressive to house music. I only play hip-hop in Jakarta, but anywhere else, you might catch me playing progressive or house.
Do DJs make a good living?
Until today, I haven’t seen a successful DJ in Indonesia, compared to international DJs like Tiesto or DJ Armin Van Buuren who have had hit tracks. In Indonesia, some DJs produce their own tracks, like DJ Romy, but Indonesians have not supported their work.
Do you produce songs?
I make tracks, mostly remixes, and send them out to be distributed. I usually share my remixes with friends and students so they can play them exclusively. I have two different remixes, one for the public — a free download — and the other is for my crew. I also make tracks for ringback tones, short and catchy tunes like “Mbah Surip.”
In the late ’9s, DJs had a bad image because they were linked to drugs. How is it today?
I think the image is a lot better today. A DJ can play alongside bands or at a fashion show. I think a DJ competition is important because it shows their skills in a positive way.
Tell me a little bit about your DMC experience.
After winning first place in Jakarta, I went on to the national finals against nine DJs from other cities. I became national champion and was sent to London for the international competition. There, I finished 13th in solo and fifth in team. The one that meant the most for me was the solo championship. Though I didn’t win, the best part was the opportunity.
Now you’ve established your own DJ school. Tell me about it and what you teach?
I started teaching in 2005, right after the competition. Teaching never crossed my mind. It was a request from friends and other DJs, so I started my own school, DOPESPINNERS. I teach basic and advanced skills and music production. You can check out more info at my site, www.dopespinners.com.
How do you like teaching?
I love it. I have the drive to teach. There have only been two international championships in Indonesia, in 1992 and 2005. We only ranked 13th in the world, so we are still behind. I see an opportunity. I might not be the next champion, but I would like to see one of my students make it.
What type of music is in now?
In 1996 house music became big here, and also the drugs. Bar revenues were down at the time, but because the music was booming, every club played the same thing, which they still do to this day. I think house music has become a lifestyle and a big market here.
Which one do you prefer, turntable or CDJ?
I started with a turntable and vinyl, but since 1998 clubs started to use CDs. The best thing about the turntable is the image or gimmick. Imagine watching a DJ selecting the vinyl, taking it out of the sleeve, putting it on the player and bring the needle to the record. There’s a style to that. The best thing about CDJ is the digital quality. You can be creative by making your own remixes, burn a CD and play it right away.
Do you think DJs have to do some sick scratching or tricks?
Yes, because if you don’t have skills, you’re just the same as the other million DJs out there.
What’s your latest project?
I remix gospel music. I work with church and youth groups to recreate English gospel music to Indonesian and make it hip.
What do you think of the DJ business in Indonesia?
I hope it will continue to grow. DJs can still do so many things besides playing in the clubs. But they have to maintain their image so it won’t ruin the DJ reputation. They can be artists, just like any other successful Indonesian artist, so they have to be more responsible.
DJ Sonny was talking to Iwan Putuhena
Original interview was published in The Jakarta Globe