Schaumburg native making waves on the DJ scene
All eyes are on Sahaj Shah, who peers back at the crowd through his trademark black-rimmed glasses.
The turntables start to rotate and the Schaumburg native transforms into DJ Mr. Shaw, an artist who has just five minutes to convince the packed parking lot his spinning skills are legit.
School: Conant High School, Columbia College
Who inspires you? There are so many. My inspirations were the guys from the '90s. DJ Flipside and DJ Vice were the guys I looked up to.
What's on your iPod? Believe it or not, I don't have an iPod! But if I did, I'm pretty sure I would have a lot of '90s hip hop, R&B and some of today's hits!
What book are you reading? Currently, no book. To some people it's a form of relaxation, but as a DJ, I have music to do that.
The three words that best describe you? Independent, compassionate, motivated
Sahaj is among five semifinalists from across the country chosen to compete in the senior division Boom DJ Battle, part of the B96 Summer Bash festivities last month at Toyota Park.
The savvy Conant High School grad dons an Andrew Shaw shirt, using the timing of the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run to his advantage, and immerses himself in a role that requires him to be part-musician, part-engineer and part-street performer.
Packed with creativity and technical acumen, the set begins with a phone call from his "DJ Battle guru from a past life," who makes sure Sahaj has everything he needs.
Laptop, turntable and mixer? Check, check and check.
Also on the checklist is the audience, which throws its hands up as the mashup of tracks and sounds progresses and an impressive piece of audio artwork takes shape. They bob their heads and lap up everything Sahaj throws at them.
The set is clearly a hit, and few are surprised when Sahaj comes away with the title of this year's Boom DJ Battle champion.
"I stayed up day and night for a long time preparing for that," said Sahaj, who credits DJ Drummer for inspiring the set. "I didn't even talk to my family or my friends. After finishing in second place last year, I wanted to win."
Sahaj's title earns him an upcoming hourlong guest spot on the B96 Street Mix, a popular radio program that features various DJs every Friday and Saturday night. He also received new Denon DJ equipment and a set of state-of-the-art Sensaphonics headphones that allow the user to control sound from both the music and the crowd.
But more importantly, the strong showing is yet another sign that DJ Mr. Shaw has the potential to be one of the greats in the night life world.
Nowadays, most modern DJs do far more than the traditional disc jockey who introduces and presents music. They take songs and sounds and then combine, remix and reedit them to produce something new. Setups can resemble a mission control center as digital technology advances.
Sahaj, a senior at Columbia College, demonstrated an aptitude for music before he could speak full sentences, according to his mother, Rita Shah.
"When he was a baby, he'd use my kitchen utensils like drumsticks and make dents and bumps all over my pots," she said. "It made so much noise, too much noise. I never imagined it would lead to this."
As a child, Sahaj played a traditional Indian drum known as a tabla. He eventually got a drum set and learned the piano and guitar. He's completely self-taught, not a single lesson under his belt.
DJing piqued his interest at age 12. So he made the most of what was available to him, setting up a vinyl record player to his left and a CD player to his right. He'd listen to DJs on the radio and take notes on transitions between tracks.
Weddings also provided an opportunity to learn.
"In Indian culture, we go to a ton of weddings," he said. "I used to be so bored, but then I started standing next to the DJ and watched everything he'd do. It was fascinating to me."
Sahaj and a neighborhood friend realized they shared the same interest. Shivam Thakkar said the pair would spend hours together practicing, eventually tag-teaming as DJs at one of Conant's dances when they were students there.
"Sahaj likes to mix it up and use different genres of music," said Shivam, a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Sahaj's roommate during the school year. "You won't listen to the same song or beat for long, and he understands what the crowd wants. He's humble and puts in an incredible amount of effort. I tell him all the time that he could be one of the best DJs in Chicago."
While still in high school, Sahaj began spinning at house parties, neighborhood block parties and even the Zero Gravity young adult dance club in Naperville.
"Until then, I didn't even know what the inside of a club looked like," Sahaj said.
Knowing talent will take a DJ only so far, Sahaj decided to go to Columbia College for its graphic arts program. He's learned to market and brand himself, creating posters for his more high-profile gigs. They always include a silhouette of his face — and those glasses.
About two years ago, he joined the team at Boom Entertainment, a special events and production company based in Arlington Heights that sets him up with regular appearances at clubs, school dances and parties.
The schedule can be grueling at times.
This past weekend, he played four gigs, including an hourlong set at the Wavefront Music Festival at Montrose Beach. Depending on the venue, he may not get home until 4 or 5 a.m. On off-days, he's inevitably working in his studio/bedroom.
Sahaj's next goal is to get picked up by the Skam Artists, a management company that counts many of the most in-demand DJs and artists among its ranks such as Jermaine Dupri, Samantha Ronson, Nick Cannon, Taryn Manning and DJ Vice. Ultimately, his dream is to get signed by a record label or go on tour with another artist.
"I'm just going to keep hustling and hope I can make a career out of this," Sahaj said.
Sahaj is quick to credit his family for not dismissing his untraditional path. Rita sings and father Sunil dances "like an Indian Michael Jackson," so they've always had a love of music and an appreciation for the art and hard work that goes into his craft.
"Indians are supposed to be doctors and lawyers, but I'm not ashamed to say I've always been horrible at math and science," Sahaj said. "That's just not me. My family has always been very supportive, and now they're seeing it mold together pretty well for me."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.
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