For DJ Charles Ku, rocking the crowd takes more than knowing how to use a turntable and mix together songs.
You've got to watch the dance floor, adapt to the audience and toss in surprises to keep people coming back.
That attitude earned Ku the Red Bull Thre3Style Regional Title last month in Charlotte, N.C. The longtime Tampa resident heads to Orlando June 21-23 to compete against nine DJs for the national crown.
Known as DJ KU, he credits the win to his stage presence and versatility more than his technical skills. Each contestant had to perform a 15-minute set containing three genres. He chose rock, house and hip-hop — his favorite.
"He's eclectic, original and creative with his selection of songs. A lot of the DJs stick to the same hits, but he puts in songs that people don't expect,'' said Carlos Corcho, the west Florida rep for the Red Bull Music Academy who goes by the stage name DJ Chang Bang. "He's one of the best mashup DJs in the area.''
Born in Baltimore and raised in Tampa, Ku (pronounced KOO) got his start 10 years ago as a student at Jesuit High School, where he was known around campus as the music guy. He used to buy the latest CDs and sell burned copies to friends at school — a not-so-legal activity that nonetheless got him well-versed in music.
Today Ku, 26, is resident DJ at the Blue Martini on Friday nights and the Hyde Park Cafe on Saturdays. About two times a month, he performs at clubs nationwide and will be on the West Coast most of July for gigs in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and other cities.
Ku gravitates toward old school hip-hop and rappers who talk about things other than women, drugs and money. He's a big fan of Ol' Dirty Sundays at the Crowbar in Ybor City, and considers the Kennedy one of the area's best venues as far as sound quality and attention to details. He hates dubstep.
Ku was one of the first local DJs to introduce moombahton, a new style of rhythm-driven music that mixes house music and reggaeton. Started in Washington, D.C., and popular on the East Coast, he describes it as slowed-down dirty Dutch house. Clubgoers love it.
"People are eating it up and they don't even know what we're doing. They're like, 'What is this?' '' he said. "And the good thing about it is that girls like it.''
Ku played moombahton at the Sunset Music Festival May 26 at Raymond James Stadium. He was both shocked and honored to perform after deejays Sabo and Nadastrom, two leaders in the genre.
The only Florida DJ in the regional Red Bull contest, Ku spent nearly two weeks creating his set, which contained tracks from 25 songs. Judges awarded him the title based on his track selection, creativity, mixing skills, stage presence and audience reaction.
Ku is making two, 15-minute sets for next week's national competition in front of live club audiences. The winner will receive $3,000 and a spot in the Red Bull Thre3Style International Finals in Chicago in September.