Quarantine DJ: Tre Smith
Written by Jake Moore // Photographed by Maclin Bilski, Bobby Booshay, and Karli Kaufman
Cleveland Producer and DJ Tre Smith Streams Live DJ Sets Through COVID-19 Pandemic
In the COVID-19 crisis, music artists all around the world have had to find new ways to get their content out to listeners. With festivals canceled, concert venues closed, and social distancing rules in place, this virus has given the face of music a new look.
The pandemic has hit the reset button on live music. Anything people were accustomed to when it came to seeing an artist perform in person has been tossed out the window. Drive-in concerts of artists performing are popping up around the country. Musicians have also been posting free stay-at-home concerts on YouTube to keep listeners occupied.
These video shows are a good way to produce content for viewers at home in lieu of the pandemic, but it doesn’t give the happening right before my eyes feeling of a live show. Music lovers have a void in their hearts and are looking for anything to fill it.
Since live streaming services like Twitch have been flooding the market, some artists have started performing through these services. In particular, DJs have been able to curate whole mixes and perform them live while also interacting with fans.
Cleveland-based producer and DJ Tre Smith has been doing these performances since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith has now been able to focus on these sets, as it is the only way to perform for listeners.
“We’re having a creative content renaissance right now” Smith, 24, said. “Creatives have been exploring their options in any way they can and are making beautiful things.”
Smith has established himself in the Cleveland music scene after years of hard work. He has played at venues such as the House of Blues, Grog Shop and many others. In addition to playing his own shows, Smith had a show with his long-time collaborator Young Cap in which they opened for Jack Harlow, who had the number one song in the country at the time, “What’s Popping.”
Smith was able to meet via FaceTime to discuss how he started getting into music, what he has accomplished and how he crafts his DJ sets.
To take it all back to the start, when did you start making music?
S: Honestly, I started them both simultaneously in 2010 when I was 15. I quickly noticed that a huge strong suit of mine was that I was always networking. Whether it was in school or out, I always loved getting to know more people. I was young and got lucky because of this too.
Do you remember what drove you towards this career path?
S: There was actually this moment when I was really young — maybe nine years old at the time — when I was on a family vacation. We were in Tennessee and I remember picking CDs to play. And all of these older people around me would ask, “Who is playing this?” I would tell them that it was me, and they would always be surprised it was me. They thought a nine-year-old had no business knowing anything about what good music was. I think it subconsciously stuck with me and shaped my life towards that ever since.
Is there a moment in the early stages of your music career that made it seem real for you?
S: Yes, I actually had an immense amount of opportunities for someone my age. The one that really did it for me was playing at the House of Blues while I was still in high school.
How did that happen with starting off so young?
S: The band I was in at the time actually got picked to participate in the Tri-C High School Rock Off. I need to give a shout out to everyone at Live Nation for putting that event together and believing in me so young. They really opened up our minds to opportunities I wouldn’t think we would have before that time. Things didn’t end up working out with me in a four-person group with all different perspectives and energies being thrown in.
Is that when you decided to start building yourself up in music?
S: Being in that group taught me it was hard to keep my personal goals in sight and do what I wanted to do creatively. Even during that time I was in a rock band, I was always making beats and figuring out my craft. I just decided I need to do what I have to do to let these goals come to fruition.
Are you glad that you started young?
S: I think it is very important to start young because it gives you all the more time to find yourself and your style. There is a weird part of me that almost wishes I started now. I’ve gone through so many personal hurdles that if I just got all this stuff together, I would be able to focus more. Everything happens for a reason though, so I’m happy I’m where I’m at now.
Have your goals changed since you were young making music versus now?
S: Not really at all, actually. I have always wanted to make music that inspires people the way my predecessors inspired me. When I was young, listening to Tyler, the Creator, he showed me that it is okay to be myself in music and to never stop creating and pushing creativity. Now there are modern artists like Khalid that started young and are still making it big. Them inspiring me just makes me want to continue that gift to other people.
What is one highlight of your career you always look back on now?
S: One that meant the world to me was getting to work with Mac Miller’s producers ID Labs.
We were all working on beats and just having a real positive and good time. I was literally one seat away from Mac Miller at one point and I’ll never take that for granted especially after the tragic passing of him. It was a great opportunity to work with professionals that have made it and just be able to learn.
Being a Cleveland artist yourself, do you think it is important to help each other out in the music scene?
S: I think that is something that Cleveland’s scene specifically needs to get better at. I don’t think there are enough artists trying to boost each other up. And in turn, that hurts the whole industry in Cleveland. There needs to be more community-driven events and [we] really [need to] strengthen each other. I have been doing a lot of great work with Young Cap. He is working towards changing up his genre from being known as only hip-hop. He is having a personal renaissance and making really honest and genuine music. DJ EV who is one of my mentors and someone I have always looked up to — he and I are able to actually collaborate now and it’s surreal. There are many more, but people should try to get connected and support these people.
Since the pandemic hit has it been harder to keep up with collaborating with artists?
S: Overall, yes. But it has actually given more time to focus on my interests and goals. I have actually been working heavily with my roommate and music artist J-Work. We had a really good summer just stockpiling a bunch of records and a bunch of songs we are very proud of. He and I have a lot of good stuff coming out soon we can’t wait to share.
Do you remember what was going through your head when the stay at home order went into place?
S: The most wild thing to me is that I had a DJ show at 1899 in Downtown Willoughby that was packed to the brim just two days before that happened. All I could think about is that I hope everyone that was there is safe. I don’t want my fans, casual listeners that just came out or even myself to be hurt from that. It was a lot to process and I’m just glad I never heard anything bad happening from it.
Has this stunted your growth as an artist?
S: I’m going to be honest. I can’t speak for every musician out there, but personally it was a new opportunity for me. I have been able to learn more and focus my energy on the things I have personally wanted to do. For instance, with DJing, I haven’t been hired for a gig where the people want a certain type of music being played so on these online sets I have been curating mixes and sets that speak to my creative taste. It has been a weird time but good for me as well.
Can you take us through your process of making your online DJ Sets?
S: It was different, but these days when I’m starting with the music, it no longer is all thought-out and hard work. The songs and vibe just kind of subconsciously happen. I just sit down to start and before I know it I have a mix or a vibe I can ride all night. The most important thing for live DJ sets is the visuals. Before, when live shows were happening, I would just put my phone up, have my speakers loud and play it through that. I realized I wanted to make a quality stream so I found out about this program called OBS where you can put graphics and text on the screen, have multiple camera views and use green screens. With the combination of that program, putting multi-colored lights in my room, and setting up a chat in the stream for viewers that is essentially all the components to my Live DJ sets.
With chats on streams, it has brought in an in-person aspect to the audience. How do you feel about this feature on streams?
S: I think it is a great tool for the audience and I to engage with each other again. When I stream on Facebook, Twitch, Twitter or Periscope, I have it set up to where I get all them sent to me in one place. I have a mic set up where I can just talk to the comments I see coming in from there. I’m not Steve Aoki, so I can actually talk to someone in these sets. I was on Periscope really early in the morning once and there was just one guy watching me. I was asking him what he wanted to hear, and I ended up just DJing for him. I wasn’t trying to get my personal flare out. Instead, I was able to give him a personalized experience which is something we couldn’t do before.
Do you now have a preference between online and in person DJ sets?
S: They both have pros and cons, so I don’t think I could just definitively pick one that is better, but I will say, I have been enjoying the freedom in the online sets. I have been able to totally control the visuals happening on the sets which is a key factor. I love the free range of songs I have been able to do now as well.
What puts your online sets apart from others?
S: There can be so much detail in that but overall, I think it’s that I am not going for a genre-niche audience when I do them. On the last stream I did, I was mixing Kid Cudi’s very first mixtape that isn’t even on streaming services with The Box by Roddy Ricch. I am making a melting pot of beautiful combinations to listen to.
Do you have anything coming up that you want readers to know about?
S: There is just so much content in general I am working on that I’m excited to get out. I’m taking some time off of social events that are even allowed to happen to just focus on content to get out to listeners. I have been making a lot of beats and doing studio work with artists across the country and I’ll have so much in store before 2020 ends.
"I am making a melting pot of beautiful combinations to listen to."
Be sure to follow Tre Smith and his work at tresmith.com where you can find links to his social media and the creative content he’s putting out.