On a rainy Thursday evening, I made the trek to TPA Studios, a new DJ/production school at 28th and Broadway, in the heart of Manhattan’s wholesale district. Sandwiched between a pair of perfume shops characteristic of the area, but across from Maison Kitsuné, one of a few high-end shops that has infiltrated this seemingly forgotten section of Broadway, a nondescript glass storefront door marked by a paper sign leads to a quad-burning three-story staircase. At the top is a DJ/producer’s wet dream.
“The goal was always to create an immersive atmosphere that would take somebody from practicing in this room to going into a nightclub situation and feeling totally at home.”
The main lecture hall at the rear of the space is split down the middle by a central aisle leading to a stage complete with a massive, retractable flat-screen television, a table full of the latest DJ equipment, a fog machine, and an impressive Funktion-One sound system. Individual learning stations flanking the thoroughfare feature Pioneer mixers compatible with Serato DJ, Technics turntables, CDJs, and laptop stands for the modern digital DJ.
Toward the front, an impressive production studio—complete with high-end monitors, analog drum machines, synthesizers, MIDI controllers, and the latest production software—is where I meet DJ/producer/TPA founder JP Solis. Sporting jeans, a TPA T-shirt, and his signature baseball cap perched high on a full head of shoulder-length black hair that he obsessively tucks behind his ears, he could pass for someone a decade his junior. After exchanging pleasantries, we get down to brass tacks.
Tell me about the why and the how of TPA.
This all happened by accident. I stumbled upon this space through a collaborator of mine who wanted me to establish a studio that would be a home for my weekly radio show called Noise 212. At the time, I had a live-streaming series where we would feature a lot of the trap and twerk Mad Decent guys before they were being signed to Mad Decent and before trap music was even a thing. We would find guys that were doing cool and interesting stuff, and we would invite them to play a 30–45 minute DJ set and interview them post-DJ set. We were doing this on 21st Street at a club called Slit on Sundays, and it was always inconsistent… so we needed a new home.
It took us about three months to build it out, and upon completion, I took a trip out to Disneyland. I said, “I need a break, and I am going to go find some inspiration.” Somewhere between the Peter Pan ride and the Winnie the Pooh ride, an image just flashed in my head: Grammy Museum. I was pretty curious, so I followed my gut, pulled out my phone, ran a search, and it turns out there’s a Grammy Museum at the Staples Center in L.A.
I drove out there and got there a half-hour before it closed. I went through the exhibits, and one specific exhibit poster caught my attention that said, “Tin Pan Alley: Birthplace of the Music Industry.” In the first sentence it said, “located on 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue.” It was referred to as the birthplace of American pop music because a lot of early American composers and songwriters had studios on this very street. It was referred to as Tin Pan Alley because every time you walked down the street, it sounded like tin pans clashing together because nobody had any soundproofing; it was pianos over pianos.
While I was down there, a friend of mine approached me to build another DJ training facility similar to Dubspot, which I had cofounded in ‘06. We went ahead and signed the lease for another floor beneath the floor we had just built for Noise 212… I figured I would name the new studio Tin Pan Alley because of that little revelation that happened while I was in L.A. That’s how TPA started.
How is TPA different from other DJ schools?
First and foremost, the facilities are the first of its kind. We’ve got fully lit LED dancefloors with a Funktion-One sound system… The goal was always to create an immersive atmosphere that would take somebody from practicing in this room to going into a nightclub situation and feeling totally at home. I wanted to create an experience that was as close as possible, if not better than, a top-tier nightclub. It would also instill the feeling of what it is really like to play a real club so the student, mentally, is already prepared to take on that type of responsibility.
On certain sessions, students are allowed to bring one to two of their friends to see them play up on the stage, to get the accustomed to playing to bodies in the room. A lot of DJing is about having that sixth sense for what the vibe of the room is, based on who’s in the room. I wanted to create scenarios or instances where you are actually playing for live people in the room. We have drop-in sessions where students will come in and play a tag-team set with me for 15–20 people in the room… It is a live exercise.
What can you tell me about the DJ curriculum at TPA and how it relates to your own experience?
The way we have structured the curriculum at TPA is so that the culmination of all the training that you do here is to be able to show up in a room, and be able to read a room, and play to the room, and get the room from point A to point B, which would be a frenzy or higher energy level—whether it’s playing one style of music and playing different shades of that specific genre of music, or playing multiple styles of music within a set and creating a story and a journey. All the fundamental techniques that you learn in here work toward you being able to create a story and be able to present that to a dancefloor and keep it vibrant, keeping people rooted to the dancefloor.
What classes are you currently offering?
We are offering DJ classes, production classes, and will be offering music theory for arrangement and composition, which will include things like how to build a chord and write a simple melody. We are still in the design phase, but we will eventually have a full-service boutique for artists. It is end-to-end artist training and development.
What kind of music and ideas are your students bringing to TPA? What are they going to bring to the clubs of New York when they leave here?
These young kids are coming in with very fresh ideas, with no preconception of what New York was or what it was like going to Twilo at 5 in the morning, or Arc, or Vinyl, or Crobar—or any of these iconic clubs that happened between 1995 and 2005. These kids have no idea. What they know is the velvet-rope style of bottle-service New York. I think we’ve reached a point where that is no longer relevant, as well. The velvet rope/bottle service house DJs are trying to go out there and be Martin Garrix.
I think there is a very, very interesting gravitational shift in NY—Manhattan in particular—where I think there are a lot openings for a new sound and a new style of DJing to emerge and take hold with a wider acceptance that revolves around electronic dance music… or maybe a mixture of pop music with cool electronic dance music. Music these days is so accessible that it’s easy for you to find really cool stuff on the internet and mix it with stuff that people love and create an entirely new style.
Now that the floodgates have opened and America is more conscious and aware of DJing as an actual thing, there is a lot more room for DJs who are skilled at rocking parties and programming music the way it should be programmed. There is room for them to occupy some space in this new generation and get the credit and appreciation they deserve. Now that we know what a bad DJ sounds like, we know what a terrible set sounds like, if they can experience what a good DJ sounds like… Once you’ve expanded your mind, you can never shrink it back.
Do you have any thoughts on the new generation of DJs?
One thing I wish that the new generation of DJs would develop is the patience to go through paying your dues… playing an opening set to an empty room and being totally cool with that, and playing a closing set at 4 o’clock in the morning, when there’s nobody there. I think the best DJs are made through years of experience reading rooms and playing shitty venues. I think that’s what makes a good DJ.
People often ask me, “How do you walk up to a booth and within three minutes, it’s a party?” That’s experience. Showing up to a packed club with a 45-minute set you prepared on Rekordbox is not always going to work. The festival mentality of playing has its place, but I don’t think it is a sustainable model if DJing and rocking parties is something you want to be doing.
Do you think it is necessary for DJs to be making their own music?
To be perfectly honest, I see no difference fundamentally between what’s happening with market saturation now and the dawn of house music in Chicago in 1986. You had a DJ on every single block in Chicago fighting for time at the Warehouse or wherever Ron Hardy was playing, but what made Jamie Principle, Marshall Jefferson and Kevin Saunderson in Detroit household names is that they were making music. There is always going to be 100 DJs in any specific movement in music, but what makes one or two of those DJs a bit more marketable is because everyone knows their song. Out of every single name you see on a festival flyer, how many of those guys don’t have their own tracks? None.
“A DJ going into production has a lot more advantages, because you understand the dancefloor. You have what I like to refer to as ‘the feel for the floor.’”
Do you encourage your own DJ students to make tracks?
I have encouraged them all to release edits, remixes and originals, in that order, just to get your name out there so other DJs are accustomed to seeing your name pop up on their playlist. That creates familiarity, and when it comes time for you to hit up this person on SoundCloud and this person appreciates some of the stuff that you have done, they view you as someone who is legitimate enough to have good content.
Second to that is to throw your own parties. If you are not particularly good with people or promoting, find two or three friends who support you and who are good at talking to people and creating a network. It could start with 20 or 30 of your friends in your living room, and you can take that to a club and get an opening set for yourself. The next thing you know, you are in a position to book a guest DJ from either within New York City or the Tri-State Area who’s got a bit of a name. Now you know a guest DJ, and you can work on tracks together… Networking under the right circumstances and context is important, and being viewed as somebody who is respectable, reliable and serious is very important. Broaden your influences; broaden your range.
What advice do you have for fledgling DJs?
DJing is about connecting with people in live situations. Expose yourself to as many different styles of music as you can. Listen to every genre and subgenre of dance music as you can, and spend a lot of time listening. And never say no to a gig, for the sake of the experience of just reading a room and being able to play for actual people. There is nothing more important than knowing what it feels like to play for a room full of people and getting them from a certain mood to a different type of mood, just using the songs that you play and being able to create an atmosphere using music.
Young DJs should get as much experience playing in front of people as you possibly can, whether that’s playing for your friends on a Saturday afternoon in your room or opening for a local DJ. What makes great DJs, first and foremost, is first your taste, then your song selection, then the way you create a story using records… the order in which your records go… which we all refer to as “programming.”
What advice do you have for fledgling producers?
My advice to fledgling DJs and producers is similar. I encourage producers to expose themselves to as many different styles of music as you can, particularly if it is dance music that you are making. Go listen to some dance music from the 1800s or early 1900s… Listen to some flapper music from the 1920s… What you are looking for is the fundamentals of what moves people. If you can understand what moves people and be able to internalize that emotion—that feeling when you are sitting in front of your DAW—then you have won half the battle.
Producing is about connecting with people in intimate situations. People are going to listen to your music on their iPod, or when they are jamming out in their car, or hanging out with their girl, so music that you make has a lot more potential to stay in a person’s life for a very long time, especially if the music you are making is impactful and comes straight from the heart. Being able to express emotion through different genres is a very valuable asset to have as a producer.
What’s going to get your name out there as a producer is if you have something useful, you have something DJs can play. If you are coming into production as a DJ, then half the battle is already won when you are already exposed to all styles of music… A DJ going into production has a lot more advantages because you understand the dancefloor. You have what I like to refer to as the “feel for the floor.” Good DJs have a feel for the floor.
Are there any artists that you are working with that we should keep an eye out for?
You should keep an eye out for Gromo, one of my students. His tracks sound amazing, and his ear for rhythm and really unique sounds is really pretty special. You should also look out for Callie Reiff, who is 15. She is a pretty good contender for being a top female DJ in the electronic dance music industry.
What motivates you here at TPA?
I’ve always been inspired by fresh talent. Part of what keeps me going with the daily operations of running TPA is discovering new talent, discovering new sounds.
What are you listening to these days?
I am listening to a lot of deep house and tech house… some techno. My heart has always been classic New York house music; those are my roots, and so any offshoot of that sound, I am always drawn to. I am a huge supporter of Mad Decent, Diplo, and all the artists that are associated with that genre, as well as more unique-sounding big-room stuff.
What do you do in your downtime, when you are not DJing or running TPA?
Nothing… sleep. (Laughs)