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We sent two artists back to school to take the UK’s official DJ exam

As exam boards start to include DJing as part of their music GCSE, DJ Mag sent some legends of the artform back to school, and put them through the exam to test their skills...

Late for the school bus, boring assembly, double maths, a quick gossip or kickabout at lunch — followed by a music lesson playing banging techno and house tunes, with some oldschool Detroit classics mixed in. It’s fair to say that school days have got a bit more exciting in the last few years. 

While the traditional DJ blueprint to success is well established, there might be another way to start your journey to the top. Following the GCSE reforms in 2016, the music GCSE offered by the OCR, Eduqas and AQA exam boards has been modified so that pupils can now choose a turntable (or CDJ or controller or even laptop programs) as their instrument. 

We decided to send the Utah Saints and Denney, two world-class DJ acts, back to school to take the performance element of the GCSE, partly to see how they’d cope under modern exam standards, and also to assess the GCSE syllabus for DJing. Will it give the next wave of DJs the skills needed to make it in an increasingly competitive market? And how effectively can DJing really be assessed, with its many genres, sub genres and styles, not to mention the technology changes that have made the art form evolve so quickly?

The Utah Saints were one of the first arena dance bands, selling out huge stadiums back in 1995 when the current bunch of GCSE applicants weren’t even a romantic glint in their parents’ eyes. With three UK Top 10 chart hits, and another 10 Top 40 singles, the duo toured with U2, re-wrote the electronic rule-book with their Kate Bush-sampling ‘Something Good’ smash, and have since become festival favourites and launched cult breaks label Bomb Strikes. A DMC finalist in 1987, Tim from the Utah Saints is a genuine scratch DJ, as happy dropping mid-tempo breaks as he is tear-out drum & bass or electro. 

The other DJ we chose was Denney, a staple of the house music scene for the last 20 years, having cut his teeth at Back2Basics in Leeds, before progressing to huge releases on Hot Creations, a Global Underground mix album and a forthcoming single on FFRR. A go-to hardware tester for Pioneer and an annual guest speaker and lecturer at Leeds Met, Denney regularly took part in DJ competitions as a teenager (coming third in the country at Earls Court in 2001), so he was the perfect DJ to send back to school. 

Want to read more? Check out Denney's playlist of his favourite Fatboy Slim tracks here.