The gift of sharing new music is powerful. As a DJ, it’s what you do for a living—use music to leave a lasting impression on listeners.
This sounds like a dream for a lot of college students. Sitting in a room with a microphone and picking music for yourself and others to listen to every day. The rewards seem fulfilling, but they don’t come easily.
In Malcolm Brinkley’s years at Arizona State University’s Blaze 1330 AM, he worked on crafting his mixes, perfecting his voice, and most importantly, bringing a vibrant positivity to the station. During his time with the college station he DJ’ed at ASU events and brought on comedians like Marlon Wayans and Jay Pharoah from “Saturday Night Live,” as well as plenty of local acts.
Brinkley graduated in May 2015, and is now a late-night DJ for iHeartRadio station 104.7 KISS FM. Aside from his regular gig, he works on his own personal projects, including organizing the One Love Music and Arts Festival this past April and curating an upcoming event series. You could say the grind never ends. “I find myself going the extra mile,” Brinkley says. “Where you stop, I’m going to keep going.”
According to Brinkley, there really isn’t a direct formula to make it as a DJ. Like any job, much of your performance has to do with your mindset. However, he did share with us some of the biggest lessons he has learned.
CONFIDENCE AND AUTHENTICITY
Things don’t always start off easy.
“You have these abstract ideas and ideas of how you want things to go, but you might not have that direction,” Brinkley says.
But having confidence in your personality as a DJ is one of the first things Brinkley worked on. Standing out, whether that was in his music choices, work ethic or brand, was all up to him and his choices and he knew that.
The DJ scene is already a crowded market, much of it made up of people trying to follow trends or get mainstream attention. What matters more is how genuine someone is in their craft; there’s a lot of value to be found in that.
For Brinkley, it began with wanting to dismiss stereotypes that are so often put on young black men. He saw how he could be able to do that through the power of sharing music.
“When you are progressive, you are truly caught between category and definition, and people and society are so mad because they can’t pin you,” he says.
Over the years, Brinkley saw his confidence as a DJ develop in real time. In an environment that limits ambition and resorts to categorization, he sought out to defy stereotypes and take pride in himself.
“It’s taken me four years, I’ve been out here since 2011. But first it started with confidence and loving myself.”
PLAY WHAT YOU FEEL
Sometimes in radio, you have to play certain mainstream tracks. But when you’re starting out, the music opportunities are boundless.
Though early on in college he was playing hip-hop, recently Brinkley has been gravitating more towards house music. As long as it’s forward thinking, it could end up on one of his mixes.
“That’s how I evolved. It turned into something where I saw I could really change lives, I could really share experiences and emotions.”
The results didn’t come instantaneously, but he was consistent with the amount of product he was putting out and it eventually worked.
“People love to listen to Top 40 stations and that’s great, but they also want to hear something new, something genuine, something with real substance,” Brinkley says.
SURROUND YOURSELF IN POSITIVITY
Brinkley first started out DJing after a peer invited him to join the Blaze in his freshman year of journalism school.
It was then that he found his place behind the microphone. “Without him, I would not be where I am,” he said. “I don’t think I would ever consider radio.”
Now Brinkley wants to carry on that good deed and help find more good people to populate the airwaves.
“Phoenix is such a new breeding ground for creatives,” he says. “I just want to be at the forefront of that, in regards to giving people the opportunity to create and collaborate in an open, encouraging environment.”
While a positive environment is helpful for gaining ground as a DJ, so is the knowledge that there is always room to learn. Receiving feedback from those he cares about, and strangers who took time to listen, helped take Brinkley’s DJing to better places.
However, for Brinkley, the best criticism comes from self-reflection, and recognizing that there are always ways to improve what you do.
“After anything I do, whether it’s events, mixes, photos, videos, I love hitting the drawing board at the end and saying, ‘What worked and what didn’t work?’” Brinkley says. “And I do look forward to seeing what didn’t work. It’s not pessimism—it’s learning.”
PUT IN THOSE HOURS
DJing is a strange blend of personality and technical skills. Making a smooth transition during a mix or having a recognizable on-air voice doesn’t happen naturally. It comes through practice.
“I’m a firm believer in 10,000 hours. It can be stressful. You’re going to get tired,” Brinkley says. “The grind and being ambitious is not easy.”
After he got his college-radio start, he began looking at other ways to improve as a radio personality. He interned at iHeartRadio Mix 96.9, cutting audio, giving out concert tickets and getting to learn from other radio mentors.
Soon enough he would be hired part-time by a station, then start working full-time right before graduation.
So though promotional efforts, music choice or gear helped to create a DJ, it’s the amount of work that Brinkley put in that makes him truly stand out. He didn’t get comfortable just doing one thing.
“I have an idea of where I want to be and what I want to be like,” Brinkley says. “If I have any breath in me, I’m going to keep working to get there. Why stop?”
You can follow Malcolm Brinkley on Twitter at @MalcolmAlexndr.