“There’s going to be sing alongs, there’s going to be funny moments…I’m going to play party jams, man! Though crowd response is one-fifth of your score, it affects everything. If your technicality is on point and your scratching, mixes and blends are super tight, the crowd will definitely react to that. Everything comes back to rocking the crowd. That’s what the battle is about. It’s about rocking the crowd for 15 minutes. If you can rock the crowd the best, you’re going to win.” – DJ Trayze
In the quiet, slightly off-the-beaten-path just over the D.C. line enclave of Mount Rainier, MD, there’s a world-renowned DJ making grand championship level mixes in his basement studio. Matthew “DJ Trayze” Alexander is his name, and he’s emerged from being a seemingly unassuming competitor in 2012’s Red Bull Thre3style DJ competition D.C.-area qualifying round to now being the defending East Coast Red Bull Thre3style DJ competition champion, Red Bull Thre3style World Finalist and YouTube celebrity. He’ll defend his title in the three-round, 15-minute open-format set competition on January 29th at U Street Music Hall. in this interview, you get a sense of the mix of talent and humility that has served him well in the midst of his unexpected rise.
So how many years has it been now for you as a Red Bull Thre3style competitor?
The first year I did it was 2012, so this is my fourth year. However, in 2014, there was no US Thre3style battle, so I had to enter online for a wildcard slot against DJs from all over the world [to enter the World Finals], and I won, which is crazy!
How many people were in the international wild card?
I don’t know an exact number, but from the number of posts and mixes I saw online, it was at least a couple hundred. I was surprised there weren’t more people. In fact, I was surprised there weren’t more people from the US who entered.
There’s an A-Trak led movement in EDM right now that’s praising #realDJing. So, I wanted to ask, how does it feel that having actual skills in turntablism are becoming in vogue yet again?
It’s cool. I respect and look up to guys like A-Trak, Craze, anybody that respects the roots of the art form. I’m not an old curmudgeonly, stale DJ that hates on the new technology, styles and techniques, though. These guys are using vinyl, turntables and mixer, but are incorporating new controllers and playing modern music. The new and the old are being brought together and still pushing the music forward which is cool. I think it’s great. The more people who want to play on vinyl and do scratches in their sets, that’s awesome.
So, let’s go back to 2012. You get up onstage, and you’re the first DJ I’ve seen in the Threestyle competition who is embracing showing off all of your controllers and more technical pieces of your craft. I feel that’s something that made you a standout. Why did you do that, and your thoughts about getting a crowd to interact with the more technologically-advanced side of DJing?
For me, I include the controller element to the turntable/mixer setup so that I can do more advanced tricks and techniques, plus use some of the more advanced elements of DJing software. I can trigger cuepoints (specific moments of tracks), samples and loops. If you’re hiding what you do onstage – whether it’s because they can’t see what you’re doing, or there’s a wall or barrier in front of you – it detaches what you’re doing from the crowd. In a live setting, the visual element is really crucial in the quality of the production of your performance. If you’re using any type of equipment where you’re manipulating buttons, knobs, platters, controllers, the crowd should be able to see you, and it should be an engaging experience. If they see you hitting a pad, doing a scratch or turning a knob, there should be some audio feedback to go with that so the crowd can go “wow, that’s really cool.”
You have a million-plus viewed YouTube clip of you DJing. Thoughts about the importance of YouTube to DJ culture, and the importance of YouTube to your career, too?
Yeah, YouTube was crazy. Before I posted my 2012 set, I didn’t really invest a lot of effort into my YouTube channel. Some friends of mine had already been using YouTube for a minute, and were like “Yoooo YouTube is the future! You have to have a presence on there if not anywhere else, just focus on that.” I took that to heart. I videotaped my [2012 Threestyle] set because I was proud of it and I wanted to share it with everybody who couldn’t be there that night. I was not hesitant at all to post it up online. I tried to tag it properly, so that when you search for it, it’ll show up. I tagged the video right with “Threestyle,” “battle,” “competition,” “scratch” and “DJ.” I didn’t expect the video to clock a ton of views because I only had a couple hundred subscribers on my channel, but by the end of the first month it had reached 4,000 views. I was like, “wow this is cool.”
By the end of the summer, it had jumped up to 50,000 views, and started clocking 3,000-5,000 views per day. Right now, it’s at a million and gets thousands of views a day, which still blows my mind. From there, I’ve built this following on my YouTube channel. I have thousands of subscribers now, people hating in the comments, dudes arguing in German in there too, it’s crazy! YouTube has literally changed my career. I know that’s a cliche thing to say now because there are so many “YouTube stars,” but it honestly has. A band based out of Mexico called Plastilina Mosh, they discovered me on YouTube. [YouTube] is the way to get noticed. It’s the number two search engine in the world and it’s the number one source for people to discover music. It’s a no-brainer.
So, the East Coast Threestyle Regionals are at U Street Music Hall on the 29th. You’re at a point now where people know what you do, and people have a certain expectation for your skills. As well, it’s the East Coast regional, so you’re looking at a much larger pool of talent. What’s going into your planning insofar as stepping your game up to meet the challenge of this level of competition this year?
Obviously, I’m really excited. I like being the underdog, I’m used to being the underdog and in my eyes I still am the underdog because I lost at the [Thre3style] World Finals in 2014. When, yes when, I make it back [to the World Finals] I will win this time and I’ll still be the underdog. I’m definitely the target now. I’ve been doing this for awhile, so everyone is going to be gunning for me. I’m defending my title, so I’ll have to come with the super fire heat, which I plan on bringing, of course. It’s so exciting. I’m glad that Threestyle opened up the battle to applications for this year, so a bunch of my friends are in it who weren’t in it in past years, so the skill level has been raised really really high. It’s motivated me to practice more, and I want to do things that nobody’s done in a Threestyle before. I want to show the crowd and the judges some new techniques and tricks. It’s going to be fun.
What has been the most amazing and/or gratifying parts of this process for you as a DJ competing in Red Bull Threestyle?
Definitely going to the World Finals in Baku in 2014. When I was home last summer, I was in my studio and this kid posted on my page that I had won DJ Skratch Bastid’s Lucky Bastid competition for Thre3style. All of the countries who didn’t have battles in 2014 were allowed to enter the [Lucky Bastid] competition. You had to submit a 15-minute mix to Threestyle online and it was judged by Skratch Bastid and a panel. They would pick two people to be sent straight to the finals.
I’m thinking, “this looks fun, there’s no battle in the US, so I’ve got nothing to lose!” I came up with this crazy set, had fun and I was the only one out of everyone else who made a video for it instead of just the audio mix. I posted the video on YouTube. I only had two weeks to put the set together from start to finish. I had a bunch of ideas and little mini-routines that I’d been doing all year from my club sets, so I took that and built it into the set [that I submitted]. I tried to make it funny and exciting. I didn’t expect to win at all, I mean, it’s the world, what are the chances? But, then I got the phone call and I was like “Whoaaaa,” and I was super floored. They’re like, “you’re going to Baku.”
Just being there was a mind blowing experience. Like, sitting down at breakfast with [legendary DJ] Z-Trip and Jazzy Jeff every morning, talk about Serato and nerd out on stuff was so cool.