What It’s Like to Be a Deaf DJ

Music is not all about hearing.

By Robbie Wilde and As told to Kenneth Miller
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine August 2014

deaf djSilja Goetz for Reader’s Digest
I was born in England with perfect hearing. In 1990, when I was five, my family moved to the United States. I started getting ear infections every three months or so. We didn’t have health insurance at the time and when I got a third infection, my parents couldn’t pay for the treatment. I went deaf in my right ear and was left with 50 percent hearing in my left. Over time, my remaining hearing dropped to 20 percent, where it is today. My doctors predicted that I would be completely deaf by now, so I think I’m doing pretty well.

There was always music on in my house when I was little. I loved listening to Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson. My dad was a DJ, so he played disco, folk, dance, rock, and music from other countries. For my 18th birthday, my dad asked me to deejay at the restaurant he owned. After doing that for a few weeks, I was hooked. I wanted to learn more.

I e-mailed DJ Shiftee, a well-known New York City DJ, when I was 25: “I know you like a challenge. How about teaching a deaf person to deejay?” He wrote back the next day: “Challenge accepted.” He tutored me twice a week for two years, helping me develop correct technique. I practiced four hours a day. Now when I’m performing, muscle memory takes over.

When I started, I wouldn’t tell the club managers I was deaf. I would just show up, introduce myself, and start playing music. At the end of the night, someone would say, “Oh, here’s the check.” And I’d say, “What? Oh, I can’t hear.” They were always so surprised. Sometimes I would bring doctor’s notes because they wouldn’t believe me. It was reassurance that they were giving me gigs because I was good, not out of sympathy.

Eventually people started calling me “that Deaf DJ,” and the name stuck.

For a show, I set up one speaker facing my left side, my good ear, and crank it all the way up. The speakers that play the bass are on the floor behind me so I can hear some of the lower frequencies and feel the beat in my feet. And I can feel the energy of the song and the crowd goes crazy, you feel that. The song comes to life.

I use software that turns the music into lines of color on a computer screen. Red is the bass, blue is snare, green is the vocals or melody. I’m visually hearing the music. What I love about deejaying is the creativity, what you can do with a machine, two turntables, and a mixer.

The next time you go dancing cover your ears, and you’ll feel a little bit of how I do it. You’ll start using your other senses. You’ll start seeing that you’re able to hear the music in a different way. Music is not all about hearing.

I play all sorts of get-togthers now, from college parties to corporate events. I also go to elementary schools for the deaf and talk to the students about motivation and believing in themselves. I’m big on talking to the parents. I tell them, “My advice to you is to let [your kids] chase their dreams. I’m a deaf DJ, so why not?