The Grimy Edits logo is recognisable even to those who don’t know Zernell Gillie’s work as a DJ. How? He vistited Catalyst [formerly dBs Berlin] to show and tell us some good business practices. Read everything we learnt below.
Zernell Gillie is no stranger to the world of DJing; his interest sparked back in 1984 in his teenage years. Born in Chicago, he grew up in the glory of disco and witnessed the invention of house music first hand. Frequenting local venues like The Music Box at a very young age, his introduction to clubs was focused on the music alone; all-ages clubs in the US are alcohol free. With this long exposure, he has collected his fair share of wisdom and experience, and he was nice enough to share some of it with our students.
We set up the turntables and Zernell brought his token crate of vinyl. He knew each one of these albums by heart and took only a moment to decide which to play first, treating us to an absolute rarity. It was a test press of Phuture’s Acid Tracks. As the story goes, Ron Hardy played it at The Music Box from beginning to end 3 times, filling the floor on the last round.
After that we heard a remix of the Skatt Brother’s Walk the Night, Roy Ayers’s Love Will Bring Us Back Together and some Byron the Aquarius. Each track was played in response to a question he fielded us. We would listen for a while and then Zernell would fade it out and continue our discussion.
1. Have a brand and be persistent
When we say brand, we mean story. The story behind Grimy is that Zernell used to play a lot of B side rare groove disco records. At the time the term dirty was used to refer to this practice since these tracks were less likely to be played. That brought Zernell to the word grimy. But since he thought his DJing was clean, he wanted his logo to reflect that – hence the soap and suds. People really picked up on the image, resulting in thousands of t-shirt sales for album promotion. The logo is also on all the album artwork so a physical record acts as a sort of “glorified business card”, as he put it.
Persistence on the other hand, is in reference to building relationships with local businesses and sponsors. Find points of mutual interest and work together towards achieving them. Whether it’s a brand of turntables, headphones, party planners, or an organisation that promotes the vinyl trade like Crate Diggers, there are plenty of opportunities for you to contribute to projects while furthering your own goals.
2. Do a lot of research
Doing research? Yes. Thousands of hours of it. Listen to records, go to events and see other DJs perform. Push yourself into new genres and places. Go deep into history and tap into the huge stores of older music available on vinyl. Experience every type of party and learn what about it made it a success. Get as many examples as you can of moments where a connection was happening between a performer and the audience. Try to understand what can prevent that from happening. Having a wide breadth of experience is key to achieving the final point.
3. Build a collaborative relationship with your audience
The magic happens when you and your audience are participating in a feedback loop. There should be moments of escalation and tranquility and look to the people in front of you to tell when each is needed. Use trial and error and don’t be scared of failure. If you never clear a floor it means you never took a risk. People go out to have a good time and also to have new experiences. Your job is timing, and as any musician can tell you timing is all about practice and listening.
Never for a moment did we doubt that Zernell loves the work he does. That was obvious because he was so nice! He mentioned, only informally, that having this kind of attitude can foster great returns. But who knows how many opportunities he opened for himself by being polite and engaged. He is also investing in the future of the DJ world by taking an active interest in sharing knowledge. There is nothing nicer than some good karma coming back around to you.
A massive thank you to Zernell Gillie for coming in to speak with us!