SU students use music to make the most of quarantine

House music

How three members of SU's extended music scene are using extra time at home to hone their crafts
Published: April 30, 2020
A pair of headphones hangs over a laptop behind a keyboard.

Two weeks after Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud announced the cancellation of residential instruction for the remainder of the semester due to COVID-19, last fall’s Bandersnatch opener, DJ Troyce Pitones tweeted, “I’m gonna be so nice at DJing when quarantine is over I’ve been doing nothing but practicing.”

Pitones, better known to professors as Khari Brandes, is a junior in the Bandier Program at SU, and like many within the university’s extended music scene, was forced to adapt to the adverse conditions of life in quarantine. Pitones returned home to London after the chancellor’s initial suspension of residential instruction, and quickly began capitalizing on his newfound free time. Without his daily commute to and from classes and other campus activities, Brandes has been practicing DJing more than ever. Not only because he has more time on his hands, but also because certain stresses of being on campus don’t exist at home.

“It’s not like I have a busy, eight-hour day with a two-hour roundtrip commute and then I just want to like, eat dinner, play some video games and go to sleep,” he said. “It’s become something where now, to unwind, I just start practicing DJing.”

And for someone who’s been DJing since age 12, that practice is particularly working to hone what he calls the “technical skills.”  Whether that’s messing with EQs, mixing on his Pioneer XDJ-RX2, using reverb to make a transition sound a certain way, or beatmatching without using sync so that songs are gridded as precisely as possible and their tempos match, he noted that each of these improvements will help him whenever he can get back on stage.

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“It’s becoming more like an autopilot thing where it’s like the technical mixing is becoming second nature because it’s something that I’m just doing by default,” Pitones said. “And because no one’s around, it’s easier to go through things and get more comfortable with it. So once I’m back in front of a crowd it’ll just be more so like muscle memory.”

Technical skills are just part of it though. Music choice is imperative and, according to Pitones, having extra time to comb through his library has allowed him to make more diverse mixes. This rings true especially for 11th Street Radio, a bi-weekly mix and radio show he posts on SoundCloud. While on campus, Pitones said he might throw together an 11th Street mix the night before it’s supposed to come out, because of the time crunch that is being a full-time college student.  He would string together songs with the same beats-per-minute (making transitions easier) into what he calls just a “really hype mix” and that would be it.

“Generally when I’m doing mixes, especially if I’m in a hurry, it’ll just be kind of whatever songs I want to play with that BPM,” he explained. “It’s not so much about curating a full vibe when it’s that quick.”

Over the last month, more time to play around has led Pitones to pick more creative songs which, combined with greater technical skills, has led to better results. Some 11th Street mixes may have been rushed in the past but during this quarantine, Pitones has been able to spend the two weeks between episodes curating multiple mixes at a time, each one conveying a different mood.

That increased level of dedication to their work isn’t unique to Pitones.

Anthony Obas, SU senior and author of “Shifting Your Music Into a Career,” calls himself a brand manager, despite self-admittedly wearing many hats. Working day-to-day with rapper nikmoody and to a lesser degree a handful of other artists, Obas said not being able to be in the same physical space has been tough, but not impossible.

While simultaneously posting a batch of short skits on Instagram and blogs on his website, Guided by Obas, he makes sure to keep in contact with artists via FaceTime and Zoom. Obas has been working with artists he’s familiar with, as well as new artists to keep his business flowing.

Artists who had wanted to work with Obas in the past but couldn’t due to time constraints suddenly have a much larger window for collaboration. Obas has been emphasizing collaboration with all the artists he works with, trying to connect those who have complementary skill sets.

“We also see where we might have missed with collabing with somebody,” he said. “Let’s say somebody is good with engineering in the call and someone is good at rapping … it’s good to do that cross introduction.”

For Obas, the name of the game is planning. Planning for the immediate future, planning for when social distancing measures are lifted and the music scene returns, and planning for if something like this ever happens again. And even though Obas said the COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing fallout showed a lot of artists which “tools they should’ve had in the arsenal,” he acknowledged the difficulty of the situation. While some artists are capable of making and releasing music on a whim, many independent artists don’t have the necessary equipment at home.

For somebody like rapper Squilly, or Will Bradley-Villarini, a 2019 Bandier graduate, having even a very basic setup makes all the difference. Using just a USB microphone and his laptop to record, Squilly is making up for the time he wouldn’t otherwise have had to devote to music.

“I have a full-time job. So I don’t have time, ever, to really work on music and finish songs,” he said. “This has given me a lot of time to focus on that stuff.”

For Squilly finishing songs during this quarantine is the main goal. Because his time is usually so limited and he’s planning on releasing an album in the near future, it’s important to him that he complete songs in single sessions, without leaving any blanks or need to return to the track later. He said he wants to get it done then and there. Squilly has already released twice in the past month, first with “Find Love,” and second with “Lost,” a collaboration with SU senior Gianni Villegas. He explained that it makes sense that a larger pool of people stuck at home would lead to a larger reception for new music.

Despite their streaming numbers on par with previous releases, Squilly said the social media reception to his new releases, was lackluster.

“I feel like people might be tuning out and maybe it’s just me,” he said. “People have been kind of like, it’s not absent, but a little less interested. Maybe people are taking breaks from social media and seeing [coronavirus] stuff on their phone all day, but … there’s been a little bit of a decline.”

Still, Squilly continues to make music and hone his craft. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get as much time as he has now to work on music and he’s taking full advantage of it. The same goes for Pitones and Obas. Where music may previously have been a piece of a larger puzzle, this pause in day-to-day life has pushed these student musicians and industry entrepreneurs to lean into the music. Immersing themselves in their art has provided them with comfort and clarity, in these uncertain times.

“When I was in the swing of everything with class and internships and everything else, DJing was kind of another thing I had to fit in,” Pitones said. “It’s helped to be able to take a step back and do it just because I love doing it.”