Sound Source: Breaking down AJ Denhoff’s beats

Lucia Barnum and Missy Scavongelli

Northwestern producer AJ Denhoff discusses his musical style and methods, as well as the growing producer community on campus.

[nat sound AJ making a beat off the word Sound Source]

LUCIA BARNUM: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lucia Barnum.

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: And I’m Missy Scavongelli. This is Sound Source, a podcast tuning into the music scene on and around Northwestern’s campus. You might know AJ Denhoff as one of the guys who made the SoundCloud rap about Josh McKenzie a few years ago. But the Weinberg senior isn’t just a SoundCloud rapper. 

LUCIA BARNUM: It’s okay if you haven’t heard his other tracks — we hadn’t either. 

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: So, what does the rest of AJ’s music sound like? 

[“CORVUS” starts to fade in]

LUCIA BARNUM: I’ll be honest, it’s kind of all over the place. Sometimes, it’s fun and sounds like pop…

[“CORVUS” plays]

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Sometimes, the vibe is a little sadder.


LUCIA BARNUM: And sometimes, it’s more like soft jazz — perfect for your study playlist. 

[“LENS KIT” plays]

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Even AJ can’t put a name to his craft. It’s less about the audience and more about the friends he produces with and for. When we asked him what his music style is, he said there isn’t a genre to describe it. He just creates music that speaks to different people. 

AJ DENHOFF: I’ve never really found love for making solo music. For me, it’s always been trying to help somebody else tell their story.

LUCIA BARNUM: AJ says he started producing music in middle school. In high school, he performed in orchestra and jazz band, where he did lots of writing and arranging. But he didn’t want to go to college for music production. 

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Actually, he’s a computer science major. He always knew that music wouldn’t be something he would pursue as a career. Instead, he makes music for fun, without any obligations. 

AJ DENHOFF: It’s too much pressure. I think a lot of why I enjoy the stuff I make is because it’s made without deadlines and without monetary incentive.

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: For AJ, music production is about more than just making beats. He says it’s almost like a form of therapy.

AJ DENHOFF: I think now I’m realizing for the first time that it’s something I should keep around, because I think it does well for my mental health when I’m stressed to just sit down and make something.

LUCIA BARNUM: If you look on AJ’s SoundCloud, you’ll see his top hits. But he showed us what it looks like on his end. We saw dozens of private tracks only he and his closest friends have ever heard. 

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Sometimes, they aren’t even real songs. Some are collections of sounds that mean something to only AJ and no one else.


AJ DENHOFF: I found it personally really useful for if I’m dealing with an emotion that I don’t know how to communicate, I can just go and make like a weird little Ableton project and put a bunch of. And nobody else has to understand it. Or it’s just the thing I had to do to understand that emotion is just like, make a bunch of sounds and then keep tweaking them.

LUCIA BARNUM: AJ tried to walk us through how he makes his beats — 

AJ DENHOFF: OK, I think you guys should make something. 


MISSY SCAVONGELLI: And it was equally fun and absolutely chaotic. 

AJ DENHOFF: There’s no bad ideas right now. It’s all a bad idea, so it doesn’t matter. 

LUCIA BARNUM: AJ uses a music production software called Ableton. To us, the buttons and levers were like a foreign language. Even AJ, who’s been using the program for years, is still learning new tricks.

AJ DENHOFF: And still, to this day, I’ll have friends who will be like, “Hey, have you ever pressed this button?” And I’m like, “No.” And they go, “Really, I love that button.” And I’m like, “I never even thought to press that button.” 

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: Watching him, you can tell it really is about trying new things. He plays around with dials, adds new levels of bass, changes the frequency, the pitch, sound effects — 

AJ DENHOFF: OK, what if? What if we made it — we just have to keep making it more ridiculous until it’s no longer ridiculous. 

LUCIA BARNUM: — and honestly, he just has fun with it. 

AJ DENHOFF: It’s just a silly little sound, but you just kind of … But I’m enjoying it, so I’m going to keep going.


MISSY SCAVONGELLI: AJ’s music is centered around the people he makes it with. But when asked if there’s a community at Northwestern for students interested in producing music?

AJ DENHOFF: I haven’t found it yet, honestly. I think I’m trying to make it. 

LUCIA BARNUM: It was easier before COVID-19, when he and his friends could host more live events. But with school in person again, they’re finally building up momentum.

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: AJ is currently subbing in as the bassist for Morning Dew, a student band that has played gigs around Evanston this quarter. As restrictions loosen, he’s hoping to do more large-scale stuff, too, and reintroduce the live music scene to underclassmen who’ve never been able to experience it for themselves.

LUCIA BARNUM: On campus, AJ is a part of .WAV, a student organization he sees as the most promising community-building platform for artists on campus. Through .WAV, musicians can submit their information and be added to a group chat and Northwestern artist directory. He hopes they’ll hold events later this year. In the future, he wants the club to be a space for new artists to learn the craft, too, because it’s not as intimidating as you might think.

AJ DENHOFF: Because people don’t think they can make a song. Like that’s out of reach. It’s like, “Oh, you need to go to a recording studio and do this and do that and get discovered and get a, like — But you could just make a song.

[“DANCE WITH ME” plays]

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Missy Scavongelli. 

LUCIA BARNUM: And I’m Lucia Barnum. Thanks for listening to another episode of Sound Source. This episode was reported and produced by Missy Scavongelli and myself. The music in this episode was produced by AJ Denhoff, and some of it features Medill senior Taj Smith. 

MISSY SCAVONGELLI: The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Jordan Mangi, the digital managing editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.


Email: [email protected] 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @luciabarnum_

Related Stories: 

Freshmen team up for hip-hop homage to administrator Josh McKenzie

Student band Morning Dew release “Coffee” on Spotify

Producer Ray Tsao talks making music in a small Elder dorm