Many people remember the familiar sight of teenager Joseph O’Brien when he was a student at Fatima College, riding his skateboard at school and along Mucurapo Road, up to when he graduated from Upper Six in 2015.
He is the embodiment of courage and inspiration, and as a person with a disability, he is not letting anything get in the way of leading a ‘normal’ life.
He has proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), a complex birth defect in which the upper part of the femur bone is either malformed or missing, causing one leg to be shorter than the other, and he’s missing one arm. He also has kyphoscoliosis, an abnormal curve of the spine on two planes: the coronal plane, or side to side, and the saggital plane, or back to front. It’s a combined spinal abnormality of two other conditions: kyphosis and scoliosis. But O’Brien is determined.
At 25, O’Brien’s indomitable spirit and joie de vivre are as strong as ever. He is now living his dream and riding the airwaves as a DJ, his DJ moniker is Joe Brien.
He placed third out of 100 contestants in Slam 100.5fm’s Slam Shandy DJ Challenge in July and received the popular vote in the voting segment of the competition and will be their guest DJ for the coming year and selected events, COVID-19 permitting.
O’Brien’s passion and joy doing something he loves are evident as he mixes music with his one hand much better than many DJs born with two arms. He is featured on Youtube, Facebook and the Djcity Instagram page used by world champions in the DJ world.
His interview was punctuated with his sense of humour. Speaking from his Maracas Valley, St Joseph home, O’Brien said “I’ve been a DJ for five years now. Since primary school days, I would be listening to music in bumper-to-bumper traffic going home in Central and the East as well because we moved around a lot.
“I wanted to be a DJ in Form One, but never got the chance to learn. I always followed my DJ friends around to see what they were doing and how to do it.
“Five years ago I was playing with DJing software, I had no idea how to mix. My neighbour was DJ Systematic at the time.
“If you can’t mix, you will annoy the living daylights out of a DJ; to him, it will sound like nails on a blackboard (laughing). He came, sat me down and showed me how to mix and set up.”
He said he spent every day for the next month practising and making sure that every single mix he made was correct and downloading music. He was fascinated by the nuances of deejaying.
O’Brien said his neighbour who worked at a karaoke company pulled him in to work as a karaoke DJ, including singing from time to time and that was where he learned to perform before a crowd.
He said he first started with his laptop he had from school loaded with DJ software, music and a $50 external sound card he bought with the earnings he made from the karaoke company. He used that humble setup to DJ at parties going up against DJs with elaborate and expensive equipment and held his own.
O’Brien said over time, as he did more gigs, he gradually bought equipment piece by piece, until he had his own state-of-the-art music system. He was very thankful to his friends, family and supporters who helped him.
He said an uncle saw him making progress and also bought him a speaker and microphone to practice.
O’Brien said initially his parents were not too thrilled when he told them that he wanted to be a DJ, admonishing him for tossing aside his education at Fatima to be a DJ when he could be so much more.
He said it was the only place he felt at peace, being able to watch other people go from completely standing still, hating their jobs to throwing their drinks in the air in spontaneous celebration, dancing and enjoying themselves brought on by his music.
O’Brien said he considers Barbadian DJ Puffy, Selectah Kerry (real name Kerry Anderson Nicome) and American comedian Dave Chappelle his role models. DJ Puffy won the largest international DJ competition in the world, the Red Bull 3Style competition in 2016. He said DJ Puffy came to Trinidad for a Groove Theory DJ workshop and he talked to him about time management, attitude, attitude towards work, mannerism and many other things in his lecture that changed him as a DJ and person.
O’Brien said he respected Selectah Kerry for his incredible talent, cool, and humility. From Dave Chappelle, he learned about maintaining integrity, doing what’s right versus what’s better and the way he handled adversities in his life.
He said when the Slam Shandy DJ Challenge was down to 20 finalists in June, he was fortunate to be paired with MC Lurbz who made the whole experience feel as if they worked together for a while and made him feel comfortable behind the set.
O’Brien said he felt like being behind the turntable was where he belonged. He had been working towards that goal for years and felt it was the place he should be.
Laughing, O’Brien said that he was so excited throughout the competition that he didn’t notice he had a migraine headache during his performance and only felt it after.
O’Brien said some of the events he deejayed at were Au Revoir, part of Yuma’s charity arm bPositivo, local bars, nightclubs, Miami Beach, private and corporate jobs, like Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Ltd, the law firm Lex Caribbean’s Christmas party and birthdays.
He said on his DJ journey he had learned a lot this last five years, made amazing new friends and reconnected with old ones. Ryse Media, the company responsible for his marketing and management, ensures daily that he keeps working towards his long-term focus. Additionally, O’Brien and over two dozen of his peers have formed an alliance known as “The Family” and have been working on a series of various musical projects together for the last two years.
When asked if he had any words for children or people with a disability, O’Brien said they should not let anybody tell them what they can and cannot do, since they received negativity all the time, but it should not define them. Prove them wrong, he urged.
Quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, one of his favourite French philosophers, “Hell is other people.” He said this quote resonated with him deeply throughout secondary school and UWI.
O’Brien said he spent a lot of his childhood with a negative mentality comparing himself to others, wanting what they had and hating them more for him not having these attributes. He said he realised that these negative emotions were holding him back from achieving his goals. Thanks to the example set by his colleague DJ King James, O’Brien was still making adjustments to one or two challenges to become that positive person he wanted to be.
O’Brien said the secret was to accept the person for who they are, disregarding, but not disrespecting, how others saw that person, not to compare oneself to another and have tunnel vision in achieving your goals.
Currently, O’Brien has started taking classes with DJ David868, DJ Nick and Diisiimo with hopes of representing T&T in many international DJ competitions like Redbull 3style and DMC world championships. He hopes to be a world-renowned DJ and producer.