Growing up in the turntablist age, Jay Ablan, known as Compose on the DJ circuit, began honing his technique with a small group of friends focused initially on scratching. Creating routines unheard of in Hawai‘i at the time, the versatile style and explosive showmanship of Ablan became the signature of the Nocturnal Sound Krew. A two-time world champion of the ITF DJ Battle and recent Hawai‘i regional winner of the Red Bull Thre3style, Ablan effortlessly transitions in and out of hip-hop, rock, soul, indie and dance classics. Among his many residencies at clubs around Honolulu, Compose is a founder of the fiercely popular dance party, Shake + Pop, as well as the music director of Addiction Nightclub at The Modern Hotel. Before embarking to Los Angeles to compete for a seat to the Thre3style National Finals in Orlando, FLUX sat down with the prolific DJ to discuss his come up in the turntablist age, the rise of his close-knit Nocturnal Sound Krew, and his advice for not getting “caught up” in the whirlwind industry.
How did you first get into DJing?
I always tried to get into somewhere I could fit in. I was never a good dancer. You would think I’d be cuz I’m Filipino right? I would try though. I wasn’t much of an artist, but just like anyone else, I was really into music from way back when. The movie Juice actually sparked my interest even more. I was dabbling here and there because a cousin of mine was a mobile DJ. He took me on my first gig where I had to help him bring his speakers. I was in high school, so it was a big deal to me. Saved up money, got crappy turntables, learned with that a little, saved up more money, did whatever I could so I could get real equipment. I never really did high school sports or anything. We were really more into record stores, buying vinyl and just listening to techniques and different DJs, trying to keep up.
So you spent a lot of time in the record stores?
Yeah, of course. ’Cuz in the Internet age, it’s really quick. Back then I had to go searching for what was really cool, I was really into all the hip-hop magazines, so that was how I started. I really got heavy into buying records toward the end of high school and college. I would save all my money for records. I wouldn’t even have lunch money.
Describe what it was like coming up back then. Would you guys gig?
It was completely bedroom, just by our selves, trying to just hone our techniques. It was just a hobby when we first came up. I grew up in the turntablist age, where it was focused more on skills. That’s where Nocturnal Sound Krew really formed, and I think by me starting that way, it was my leg up. Of course, there’s nothing like having a good time and partying, but I would say for the first part of my whole DJ evolution, I worked really hard on the technical side of it. Whereas now with the innovation of Serato and the computer age, I think the creativity – although it’s attainable – it’s not the same. Like, we’d be using old Disney records sometimes!
Do you still go looking for records?
Not as much as I like. And there’s no way I could’ve lasted this long just on records. Just the cost of it – I used to spend $20 just on one song, where now iTunes you’d get 20 songs. And I mean physically, we used to bring like four or five crates of records for one show.
How would you even find the record you wanted during a set?
Oh man, funny story. I am notorious for the dude that would never put his record back into the correct sleeve, so at the end of the night, I’d have a pile this big of records and the next day I would have to put them all back. Even with my computer now, it’s a mess. But I’m really happy I didn’t start during the technological age. The feel of looking for a particular song in a whole bunch of records versus typing it in – it was really a good thing for me. I’m glad now that I don’t have to do that, but I’m glad I did back then.
Do you still bring any records?
No, maybe I’ll bring one to switch out to the next guy. But there’s not reason to. I’ve never been a complete purist and a snob. But just because you have all the music doesn’t mean you can do what someone who doesn’t have as much music can do. A good DJ is a good DJ regardless – it doesn’t matter if you have all the music in the world or not.
What were you doing before you started DJing full time?
I got my degree in marketing. I did the day job for seven years at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club. Money was good, I was miserable. I knew already. Like dude, I’m looking around – not to diss people in that boat because there’s really good people there – but I knew that wasn’t for me. I’ll give you an example of what I did. Since I did marketing, I had to be on east coast time. I had to go to work at 4:30 in the morning. So I DJed until 3:30 a.m., went straight to work, then I’d DJ again. I was not only killing myself, I just didn’t find anything cool with the day job thing. Then it got to the point we were being successful DJing, and money was starting to equal out. And so far, it’s working. I’m really grateful for anyone that gives me a chance to see where this ride is going to take me. I was making good money, but I don’t know if it’s always about the money. Money’s great. But I don’t know. It’s a little more spiritual, I guess, doing what you want to do and not having to wake up and drive in traffic in fricken the worst times of the day. I’m happier.
You had a chance to play in Germany for the ITF DJ Battle. When you’re playing in a place that’s not home, what do you think translates to being a good DJ?
You just gotta try to find a way to connect. It’s about setting the tone and the mood. I pay very close attention to what’s going on around me. For instance if I’m going to another club and I’m not spinning, no matter if it’s the most commercial club or the most underground club, I try as much as possible to take notes and remember the good, as well as the bad.
How did NSK get together?
The scene back then wasn’t as big, wasn’t as popular as it grew to be. Hawai‘i’s community of DJs gravitated towards each other, and we became best friends. It was basically a group of friends who were really into the technical side of DJing and the showmanship of it. We grew up together and we’re still close to this day.
What was the scene like back then?
For those that weren’t around during that time, it was something crazy. I can’t even explain… the whole turntabalist thing was mind blowing. Creating sounds and techniques and routines that not everyone could do. Once we got together and really started noticing improvements from each other, our main competition became our selves. We started figuring out that we can compete with all these other DJs elsewhere. Because the way we found out about everyone wasn’t YouTube, it was trading videos, word of mouth, meeting people. I’d have conversations with my homeboy from Switzerland, like, “Yo, listen to my new pattern,” and he would cut on the phone, long distance from the landline. The turntablist community around the late ’80s, early ’90s was amazing, like Qbert and that whole crew. And we were just these kids from Hawai‘i who started to think, like damn, we could do it. And we did. We entered a couple of competitions, and we won and we kept on winning. We didn’t make zero dollars – like nothing – but those were some of the best times of my life.
What was it like preparing for the ITF battle?
I wasn’t the most talented. Like Kyle (Solution), he was the wonder kid. At 14 years old he was winning competitions, and everyone was like this big Filipino kid is crushing it. The problem a lot of people from Hawai‘i had was thinking they had to put Hawai‘i on the map. I never thought that was the approach to it. Don’t think Hawai‘i is not on the map. People are looking at us. So we took the mentality of, I don’t care where you’re from or where we’re from, but we’re gonna show you our drive. To this day, I still think I hold that in me, as far as really trying my best to – not in a cocky way or anything – crush everything. Everything I do, I’m trying to put my best foot forward, because that’s the only way to succeed. I try to do my research, I try to give my due work. In any craft, I think, that’s the key.
Photo courtesy Red Bull
Explain your decision to compete in Red Bull Thre3style after taking such a long hiatus from competing.
It’s been 10 years since Nocturnal stuck their neck out. It was kind of a point where I needed to prove to myself about where the hell I’m at right now. My musical tastes and the people that I’ve met, it’s all just growing, and so I’m trying to grow with it. But the Red Bull Thre3style gave me an opportunity, personally, and that’s why I took it very seriously. This is my shit. This is what I do. I don’t want to get it twisted. This is Nocturnal. This is me. And I think my set for the most part represented that. Because the reality of it is, we had a lot more to lose than to gain. I mean I know people expected me or Jami or one of us to win because, oh, we’re supposed to right? Imagine if we lost? Like, oh they suck!
A really big hurdle we had progressing as DJs was the stigma that we only do scratch. So I put that on hold and actually tried to veer away from the whole turntablist thing, and started doing parties. I think we’re doing pretty well with that. We’re doing Shake and Pop and all these things you wouldn’t have expected us to do. I don’t ever want to stay stagnant.
Do you ever worry that you’ll get too old to DJ?
Oh always. I’m looking how to parlay all this momentum, all this whatever I have, because it’s doing well, you know what I mean? It’s just the natural progression. I don’t want to do this forever. But I love it. And it does well for me. And it’s led me to different avenues I wouldn’t have expected for me.
What did you do to prep for Red Bull Thre3style in Los Angeles?
I had two months to prep, to step away from the Hawai‘i one. I haven’t really adjusted my set, but in my mind I’m trying to see how I can connect with LA. Because of course, people have supported me here, and I know a lot of people are going to be there in LA, but I gotta figure a way to connect and that’s how I’m gearing my set. It’s going to be seven LA DJs and me. I’m already at a disadvantage, but I don’t care. I just want to have fun with it. I wasn’t having too much fun with the Hawai‘i one. Like oh man, I gotta win, I gotta win, I gotta win. I stopped DJing for like a couple weeks focusing for the competition.
I think your Red Bull picture says it all…
I was relieved. I felt a lot of pressure on myself. Like that’s why I don’t think a lot of the competitors took it as seriously as myself. Then again, it goes back to, I don’t think anyone had as much to lose as us.
Photo courtesy Red Bull
And I don’t think people even knew what to expect.
Oh yeah, with our experience. That’s what we do. Competitions in the past have been way shorter, head-to-head style. You would only have two minutes a round. That’s where I learned explosiveness. Catching the crowd right away. Even me, I’m supposed to be a scratcher, but give me two minutes of that and I don’t like it anymore. In the club, I use the turntablist side to give me a leg up, whereas in competition, I use the club side to give me a leg up. I think about the builds and the whole emotion of a set. It’s not just thinking about the first song, but it’s thinking about the six songs in a set and the package with it. Like if I hear a DJ play a Kelly Clarkson song, I would want to know why he went there and where he’s going to go with it. If you want to know how I determine a good DJ, it’s the transitions between moods. If the DJ is going to play a weird song, why did he go there and how the hell is he going to get out of it? And if it’s successful both ways, then damn.
Who are some of the DJs locally you are inspired by?
Well, someone I really learned a lot from is Tina, DJ Anit, because she’s younger, and I’ll credit her for actually kind of pushing the norm out here. Before all this party stuff, it was really neo-soulish and just hip-hop. But she kind of made it OK to push it a little. Like she started playing some house and everyone was kind of like, whoa what’s going on here? Obviously, my crew, Eskae, Excel, Delve. K-Smooth, I don’t think he gets enough credit, because he’s just the radio guy, right? It doesn’t matter. I’ve seen where he’s trying to go, and it’s awesome. A lot of people have helped me, and I’m just trying to do the same. Jami, Kyle … I’d like to collaborate with people who have a little different style from us, so I can learn more of that.
What has been one of your most memorable experiences djing?
I don’t know, it just seems like it’s been one humungous party, especially since we opened Addiction. I don’t even know what day it is sometimes. I’m always looking for a way to bring back that feeling again. Whether it’s 20 people or 2,000 people, connecting with a crowd is always what’s driving me. When we do well, nothing can beat that. When I feel like I’m connecting with the crowd that makes everything worth it.
What would be your advice to up and comers?
There’s going to be ups and downs, but don’t get caught up in this … this life … it’s crazy, and it’s not for everyone. I mean, the time of what we do, is nighttime, around a lot of alcohol, around a lot of bad things – don’t get caught up. I don’t think I’ve ever claimed to be the best – I know I’m not the best – but I think I have something in me that people like, and so I’m trying to share that.