When Ben Cohen was in the third grade at Atholton Elementary School in Columbia, he acted as a disc jockey for a spring fling dance, plugging two Walkman into a speaker system and playing Top 40 hits.
It was "rudimentary, cave-man" DJ-ing, he said, but Cohen loved it. He had nearly forgotten about the experience until he was 15 and on a family cruise to Alaska. While on the ship, he wandered into the teen center and came across a DJ performing. His memories came flooding back to him.
"DJ-ing became an obsession," said Cohen, now 16 and a rising senior at Hammond High School in Columbia. "The culture, the positivity, the experience of being able to make my own music. That's all I want to do."
Cohen was one of 73 students from across the country selected to participate in the ninth annual Grammy Camp program in Los Angeles from July 13-22 at the University of Southern California Thorton School of Music. He worked with about a dozen other students in the electronic music production track as they learned from industry professionals about what it takes to be successful in the business. The camp was sponsored by the Grammy Foundation — the same group that holds the annual music awards — and the Grammy in the Schools program.
"When we started this Grammy in the Schools program nine years ago, we had very high hopes and aspirations for Grammy Camp," Neil Portnow, president and chief executive officer of the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation said in a news release earlier this summer announcing the camp attendees. "And I can truly say we've met our goals to offer young people a hands-on experience that delivers a sense of what it's like to have an actual career in the music industry."
During his 10 days at the camp, Cohen worked with professional DJs, learning how to better create his own music and attending panel discussions with figure-heads in the music industry like Ryan Seacrest to better understand the business. Between creating music, networking and making new friends, Cohen described the week as "the best experience of my entire life, hands down. I didn't want to leave."
DJ-ing is different now, Cohen said. While many people still think of the genre in its early days of scratching vinyls on turntables, now it's nearly entirely computer-driven. It's not so much scratching over other music, he said, but "beat-matching and lining up the two songs you're mixing so they sound smooth and in-line."
At camp, Cohen said he specifically learned a lot about mixing his music, making his music sound "cleaner." He's moved on from mixing together other artists' music and creating his own in his basement studio — his father, Bob Cohen, said the house is always "bumping" — and occasionally plays at shows during Hammond's annual spirit week.
"I've always been into music, and I'm classically trained as a bassist, but I couldn't see myself doing that (for a living). I can see myself doing this."
Bob Cohen said Grammy camp was an opportunity for his son "to travel on his own and do what he loves to do with people who love that same thing.
"It was a good chance to get to know people like him, and people who have a perspective on the whole business," Bob Cohen said.
Cohen's DJ name is RXN (pronounced "reaction"), and he plans on studying music technology, production or audio engineering in college. Music is "Plan A," Cohen said, and while he knows making it in the industry will take a lot of work, he's determined to make it happen.
"I mean, just imagine this — you're on a stage and there's lights on you, lasers, pyrotechnics, huge screens, and you're the only one up there," he said. "It's just you and your equipment, and there's 50,000 eyes on you and they're all listening to your music. That's what I dream about. It's going to take a lot of dedication, but I'm going to do what it takes."