Rob Principe: Scratch Master with a Mission

When Rob Principe was a kid, he met Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay on a flight to San Diego. Little did Principe know that they’d one day start a company together.

That company, Scratch Music Group, has started to capture a good share of the fast-growing market for DJs by training aspiring stars — the next Aviciis — and helping them land gigs. Its DJ academies — in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Atlanta — train some 50,000 students a year in beat-matching, mixing and (of course) scratching. As a result, it’s spreading the art of DJing, once relegated to the underground, to a wide array of music fans. In turn, it’s made Principe a go-to authority on DJ culture, tapped by brands such as Nike and Gap when they need music cred.

In the pre-YouTube age, Principe had no obvious DIY path to becoming a DJ. So he set out to forge it himself.
Like Airbnb for guest beds and Luxottica (owner of Ray-Ban and LensCrafters) for eyewear, Scratch is consolidating a market once fragmented among mom-and-pop shops. In recent years, the DJ-driven genre of electronic dance music, or EDM, has exploded in popularity. According to Massive Advisors, a music-industry consultancy, it’s become a $15 billion industry. In the years since Scratch launched, other DJ academies, such as Dubspot, have opened. And last October, SFX Entertainment, which owns the Tomorrowland festival and other EDM-related businesses, went public.

Principe, a lifelong hip-hop head, first got interested in DJing after attending a Kid Capri concert in the late 1990s. Then working for a dot-com company, Principe “had one of those religious musical experiences,” he says. But in the pre-YouTube age, he had no obvious DIY path to becoming a DJ. So he set out to forge it himself.

Principe, little more than an enthusiast, needed a partner with credibility and experience. He’d idolized Jam Master Jay ever since that San Diego flight and, through friends, he got the contact information for Jay’s manager. After Principe hadn’t heard back for months, she called one afternoon, asking him to come meet with Jay in 20 minutes. Principe raced home to grab a photo he’d taken with Run-DMC on that fateful flight and flew to the green room of the Letterman Show, where the group was performing, and made his two-minute pitch. The legendary DJ quickly bought in. As Principe tells it, “He said, ‘I want my children to work here, so let’s get started.’”

The Scratch DJ Academy opened in 2002 in New York City’s East Village. Principe used a $1,000 birthday check — intended to be $100, but his grandfather had mistakenly added an extra zero — to launch the business. With Jam Master Jay’s backing, the academy attracted hip-hop legends such as Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc as guest instructors, and it turned a profit immediately. But the partnership didn’t last long. In October of that year, Jay was killed in a shooting at his recording studio in Queens. For a time, Principe, still a newbie to DJ culture, felt disoriented. “It was a lot of me finding my way on my own,” he says.

Principe’s knack for finding new markets has turned what might have been a modest business into a company that has tripled its sales over the past three years.

Fortunately, word-of-mouth continued to build around the academy. Prominent DJs including A-Trak and DJ Premier, of the hip-hop group Gang Starr*, taught courses. Scratch gave them a way to pass down a craft that previously could only be picked up by knowing a DJ. “We were passing on knowledge, and nobody had ever done that before in this art form,” Principe says. “So they loved that, they embraced that, and they delivered such a great experience.”

Since then, the company has worked with Pepsi, Volkswagen, Bloomingdale’s and others. Today, Scratch Events books DJs for some 11,000 corporate events each year and brings in nearly half of the company’s revenue. Scratch also works festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo, and it even has partnerships at sea: With Royal Caribbean, it hosts mini-DJ academy sessions for cruise guests. In 2010, Principe launched Scratch Weddings to bring the company’s services to the bridal market.

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