In middle school, Emman Twe was told he would never play music and that it was pointless to try.
His left arm had to be amputated shortly after birth. And though he spent his childhood immersing himself in music, he was often harshly reminded of his condition.
“They gave out instruments in band class, and I wanted to play trumpet and guitar like my favourites: Miles, Prince, Hendrix, Bootsy Collins,” Twe says. “And I was told, you’re never gonna be able to play those, so you shouldn’t waste your time.”
The experience hit him hard. But Twe had other things going for him, namely a supportive family and the drive to keep going. “People ask me, how do you do X, Y or Z?” Twe says. “But when you’re born with something, your mind immediately mutates. So it kind of all morphed into, OK, how do I make stuff work?”
Now in his thirties and living in Atlanta, Twe is a podcaster, producer, DJ and independent musician. He releases music under the name Small Eyez, creating much of that work with his iPhone, which he uses “like a Swiss Army knife”.
“I’ve been a power user since day one,” he says. “I told myself, I’m gonna Jimi Hendrix the iPhone – and I feel like I’ve gotten there.”
His primary means for doing so are the apps Djay for iOS and Djay Pro for Mac, powerful tools that bring deejaying abilities to the masses. Djay is a two-time winner of the Apple Design Award, claiming the honour in 2011 for iPad and 2016 for iPad and Mac, in no small part for accessibility features that founder Karim Morsy says have been baked in since the app launched for the Mac back in 2006.
That whole ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ thing was real for me.
“Deejaying should be thought of as something like cooking. Everyone should be able to do this. Our mission was always to make deejaying accessible to anyone,” says Morsy, adding that Djay first arrived as boxed software. “We wanted not just to avoid locking people out but give them tools to unleash their creativity.”
In Twe’s case, those tools are intuitive enough that he could teach himself the intricacies of the art form. “It’s not like I thought, what’s the best app?” he says. “Deejaying is deejaying no matter what device you’re using, but this app consolidates it into one screen. If you’re someone who might not have the same abilities as someone else, all you have to do is basically move a finger. That’s pretty revolutionary.”
Twe says he never thought about the app strictly from an accessibility standpoint. “It was more that I needed something that was really dope for me to execute. Two of the biggest things right out of the gate were the ability to cross-fade and the size of my iPhone 7. It was very easy to do everything with my fingers.”
Djay integrates accessibility in many ways – and for many people.
Using VoiceOver, the app will speak the name and function of any feature on the board. (Don’t worry: the audio output is split, so only the DJ hears this while the audience is dancing.) The feature even extends to a track’s embedded metadata: Djay will tell you not just a song’s title but also its key and BPM (beats per minute) – which DJs rely on to transition imperceptibly from one song to the next.
Also, the app shows waveforms that identify not just the fluctuating amplitude but also the sounds of specific instruments (snare drum, bass drum) to provide a more detailed visual representation of what you’re hearing.
Finally, the iOS version integrates haptic feedback – the gentle vibration your device makes. “We were super excited when haptics came to iOS devices,” Morsy says. “We immediately said, wow, we have another modality we can map information to.”
As you manipulate waveforms and scratch virtual records, you’ll feel haptic feedback on the beat to help you keep time. The Mac version adds Automix A.I., which uses artificial intelligence to scan the songs’ waveforms and finds the best way to blend them.
Maybe somebody’s an incredible curator, but his hands aren’t that fast.
Twe has spent much of his adult life at the intersection of technology and the creative arts. He worked in an Apple Store in Atlanta for 11 years, he was a prolific blogger and in 2016 he launched Digital Good Times, a successful podcast about tech diversity.
But when it came time to stage public events for his various projects, he found himself frustrated at the idea of having to hire out for the music. “That whole ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ thing was real for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to buy equipment, and I didn’t really have money.”
He did, however, have an iPhone 7. “All right,” he thought, “I’m gonna have to teach myself how to deejay.”
The learning curve was real. Deejaying is not a passive art form. It requires the technical proficiency to match beats, meld songs and mind each song’s key – and to do that on the fly, often in front of hundreds of people counting on you to never miss a step.
But within a few months, he was booking gigs and playing live sets. “People would see me a little as a novelty, like, Is he really doing this from his phone?” he says. “That made me think, OK, this is unique.”
He felt the pressure, to be sure. “That was the thrilling part of it,” says Twe. “Thinking, OK, I know I can’t mess up. But I also knew that if I could pull it off, I’d have done something nobody else could.”
Twe sees connections between the app and the very history of the music. “It’s all about what you can use with the tools you have,” he says. “That’s the spirit of hip-hop.”
This tech is an equaliser.
The tech, he says, makes the music available to people of all backgrounds. “Maybe somebody’s an incredible curator, but his hands aren’t that fast,” he says. “Maybe an ‘able-bodied’ person doesn’t have the dexterity to pull this off, but they have the ideas and they know how to convey a sound. This tech is an equaliser.”
Twe’s live sets are now powered by an iPad Pro and a set of digital turntables. And he says he never really thought about his middle school experience until he started doing interviews. Now it’s what he takes the most pride in. “I try to operate by this philosophy of adaptive vitality, which means you move and adjust yourself in ways that allow you to maximise not only your effect but also your impact on others,” he says. “The Djay app has helped me execute that.”