Old Dominion University offers free DJ classes at Newport News STEAM lab

Wanda Mitchell feverishly concentrated on her controller, bobbing her head and tapping her feet as the music pierced her ears.

Although she is a Hampton High School music teacher, she was the one learning July 16 during a DJ class at Old Dominion University’s Brooks Crossing Innovation Lab in Newport News. Taught by DJ Rick Geez and DJ Karee from 103 Jamz, the class learned about choosing songs to blend together, counting bars and fading music in and out.

The program is a five-session trial on Mondays and Fridays, and ends Monday. The current class is full, but if things go smoothly, they may offer more and include children, said Mia Joe, the lab’s director.

The lab is part of a larger facility called the Brooks Crossing Innovation and Opportunity Center, focused on workforce development and STEM learning. It’s stocked with science, technology, engineering and mathematics tools — such as a recording studio, vinyl and laser cutters, 3D printers, a woodshop, sewing machines, a mixed reality space and an electronic workbench.

It’s a partnership involving ODU, Newport News Shipbuilding and the city of Newport News.

Both DJs Rick Geez and Karee are part of Music Theory Studios, a Norfolk-based company that sells beats, hosts online and in-studio classes and provides free music instruction, music and art events in the community.

Four students showed up Friday, each getting a laptop loaded with Serato DJ software, equipment to make beats and music to choose from, like The Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance” and Roddy Ricch’s “High Fashion.”

“We’re teaching them how to use the program Serato,” said Rick Geez, who has been a DJ since 1995 and has toured with the rap duo Clipse. “Last week, I was DJing for Beanie Sigel and Juelz Santana at the Norfolk Scope. I love rocking parties and DJing events. Hopefully, I can show somebody what I did and inspire other people.”

Also on the syllabus: transitioning from one song to the next and marking specific parts of the songs with “hot cues.”

Hot cues aren’t something all DJs use, DJ Karee said. Those with more experience can feel it and already are familiar with the songs, but they wanted to teach them to the class because they’re one of the basics of DJing.

“I put a cue on that part of the song so when I go DJ somewhere, I can start the song from there,” DJ Karee said. “It’s basically a shortcut to any part of the song.”

Mitchell chose to work with Michael Jackson’s 1992 single “Remember the Time” and Nelly’s 2002 song “Hot in Herre.”

She and other students learned about counting how many bars are in a song’s chorus. The instructors used a chart to help them understand and walked them through a sample song. As they listened, they focused on the song’s drums, counting along.

One, two, three, four.

Two, two, three, four.

Three, two, three, four.

Four, two, three, four.

“So this song has a four-bar intro,” DJ Rick Geez said. “So if I have a song that has an eight-bar chorus, and this song has a four-bar intro, I can let four bars of the chorus play and then bring this in. When the chorus is done, the lyrics start. This is the perfect blend.”

Mitchell was familiar with Michael Jackson’s song, but she had to go back and listen to her second track, “Hot in Herre.”

“How does the song start?” she recalled asking herself. “Where do I mark the first hot cue? It’s a listening experience.”

At one point, DJ Rick Geez came over to help out and scrubbed the record, moving the turntable to produce that old-school, transitional sound that often hypes up the crowd.

Mitchell smiled and laughed.

“I realized that I could fade the music in and out, and then it took me back to the times when I went into the clubs and I was at school,” she said.

The classes are a mixture of fun and hands-on job training for her.

“This is totally, totally selfish,” she said. “It really is for me because I really enjoy learning, but I get hands-on experience. I get to write up a lesson plan, share with my students and then bring them in here and let them experience all that.”

She was at the lab’s opening in 2019 and thinks it’s a “diamond mine” because locals can get hands-on experience for free.

She’s also familiar with DJ Karee’s wife and Music Theory Studios CEO, Jazzarae Jones, who she met a few years ago. The pair collaborate on local projects.

Mitchell was so thrilled after Friday’s class that she chose songs to practice at home.

“I’m going to figure out where the choruses are, where I want the hot cues to be, and then when I come back to class, I’m going to queue them up and I’m going to mix them in,” she said. “It’ll be fun. I get to go home and play.”