“Layering multiple songs and loops in work towards creating something completely new and different from the original”, explains Aj Cullinan on the challenges as a DJ and mixing in its purest form, which he finds “imperative to follow.” In comparison to producing your own music, the young spinner notes that “this challenge reaps the biggest reward as a DJ, when your creation is witnessed and absorbed by the crowd in-front of you. This adrenaline rush is an addiction and feeling like no other.”
Hailing from the no beach city (Johannesburg), actor/DJ Aj Cullinan is part of a multi-faceted collective named Chaf Kozy, who help run Cerebral, one of Joburg’s biggest art, fashion and music events.
Pinning opportunities to share the same line-up as two of his biggest idols Enoo Napa and Da Capo, as an incisive moment in his artistic career, Aj notes that he considers himself an enigma, mentioning that “when you grow up in a paradoxical city like Jozi and bear witness to its cruelty, you begin to find happiness in the success of those who you consider family, and this is where I find my motivation to better myself every day.”
I caught up with Aj to find out about his mixing adventures.
When/how did you start DJing – and what or who were your early passions and influences?
From an early age I was exposed to electronic music by being that laatie running around nightclubs and events. I loved it, hearing these dark and groovy basslines mixed with layers of sound and synths all culminating into my first love and passion, Techno. There really is just nothing like it, an endless journey of sub genres that hits the sweet spot in your ear every time. This infatuation I guess was gifted to me from Johannesburg’s number one spot and those involved in it, Toy Toy. Undoubtedly one of my biggest influences, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to listen to masters at work within those four walls for years and train my ear as a DJ better than any other place could. Eventually when time came for the first Cerebral, I promised myself that if I’m going to throw a party one day that I definitely need to be on the line-up, and so the grind and journey began.
Could you tell me about the type of music you play/make? How would you best describe your sets?
As a DJ you are constantly and consistently evolving and curating your own unique sound. There has to be something that differentiates [you] amongst the rest. I would describe my sets as bridging the gap between European and African, and focus on giving my audience the opportunity to walk away from my performance filled with emotion and answers to questions that they have been seeking. If you had to put a label on the music I play, I guess it would be Afro-Tech. My goal is to play and produce a unique African sound and export it wherever I can, instead of importing a westernized sound into my home environment. I don’t find pleasure in that. That is not “home” for me.
What do you usually start with when preparing for a set?
Prepping is tricky. A lot of people often over prep to the point where they know exactly what to play and when to play it, basically forming an order of songs that they have sat and worked with and already know the outcome. I don’t find any enjoyment in that. I find the magic in the art to come from creating on the go. I usually just throw a large amount of songs into a playlist that I think would best fit the vibe and environment of the place where I’m spinning, and decide when and what to play during the set by analysing the crowd and see what is working best for them. I think this is an important note, you have to connect with your audience in the moment and see what they like and don’t like, and proceed from there.
How important is building a real relationship with the music you’re playing for your own approach? There’s so much music out there, is it even possible to build meaningful long-term relationships with a particular track or album?
Oh man, good question. Becoming one with your music is essential. You can see the connection a DJ has with the tunes he spins whilst watching him. The wide brimmed smile they have during a perfect mix or the clenched bumping fist when a track drops are two of my favourites. Yes, there is an infinite amount of music out there, but deciding, sifting and forming what you want to play makes you who you are as an artist. Building a meaningful relationship with your music creates the vibe you want wherever you’re playing. If you aren’t even grooving to your tracks, how do you expect anyone else to?
When there’s more music than one can possibly take in, it is becoming increasingly hard to know what constitutes an original and a remake anymore. What’s your opinion on the importance of roots, traditions, respecting originals and sources?
A song is an audible piece of art and respect must be given to its creators, always. The amount of time, effort and dedication that goes into your musical experiments deserves the reward of knowing that what you have worked so hard on cannot be replicated or reworked without permission. The importance is clear. Respect others and their art the way you would want yours to.
What are you currently working on?
I recently just finished a 3 track EP with two of my closest friends and extremely talented producers Jesse Alexander and Charlie Brown. There are a few more spanners in the works not just in my music career, but unfortunately I can’t touch too much on it. But plans are in motion, so stay tuned.
Keep an ear out for the EP drop and upcoming gigs.
Image from Chaf Kozy: Swift Thrift Lookbook
Creative Direction: Joseph Ntahilaja
Photography: Tarryn Hatchett
Models: Aj Cullinan