Everyone likes an underdog story. The idea that someone comes from behind to exceed expectations and surprise all observing parties. It’s the belief that we all contain some special hidden talent or ability that inspires others which makes us so agreeable to this concept. While Rod Dawson did not emerge from obscurity, he most assuredly made a massive impact on the Australian DJ scene when he entered the All Hands on Deck DJ Competition located at The Helm nightclub on the Sunshine Coast in 2016. Rod’s career was years in the making but this competition is what announced his preeminence as one of the new voices at the forefront of the community. It may have not been Ralph Machio facing off against the members of the Cobra Kai dojo (ala Karate Kid) but this tipping point for Dawson was equally as thrilling, definitely more so for the audience and judges in attendance at the grand finale. After winning this competition, Rod went on to residencies at some of Australia’s most prestigious clubs as well as touring the country/continent as a headliner. His admirers these days include names like Slushii, Skrillex, and countless others but there was a time when Dawson was another face in the crowd…with a hidden talent that would change his life.
Rod Dawson can list hit-maker and international touring artist to his credentials these days but as recently as 2016 he was simply one of the undiscovered DJs in the Australian music scene who was looking for that big break that would give him the exposure necessary to take him to the next level. A friend had told him about an upcoming DJ competition but he didn’t pay it much attention until he saw the word going around on Facebook about it. Thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go, he created the required twenty-minute live mix required of all entrants and left it at that. Rod was chosen as one of the forty DJs out of the more than three hundred applicants to perform in the first round. This premier group performed a twenty-minute set at the Helm nightclub in front of a crowd and panel of judges. These competitors were trimmed down to 15 for the semi-finals and eventually the final six for the grand finale, in which Rod was included.
The Helm is a sizable venue holding between 800-1,200. The vibe is more like a festival with an impressive (and perhaps intimidating) stage and PA set up. The patrons that frequent the club prefer top 40 sing alongs with hard hitting dubstep bangers but the discerning judges of the competition were looking for an artistic sensibility beyond simply appealing to the masses. They were seeking a DJ who would set themselves apart and offer something unique and fresh. Rod communicates, “I think my experience in clubs was a major factor in my winning. Even though this was a big event with a lot of attention, I was used to being in clubs and reading the crowd while simultaneously seeking ways to be creative. I think this is exactly what the judges were looking for and it’s an instinctual thing for me at this stage of my career. I didn’t have to prepare because I am normally playing every weekend and during the week. I am always playing so much different music in different environments which gives me a lot to choose from. As a contestant, we would find out who the judges where and I would play things that I thought they would like as well as always playing me and my own brand. I wanted them to see me and what I had to offer. At the finale, we had No clue who the judges were going to be so I just made a set that I knew If I heard someone else play, I would love it. I guess I'm saying that I just did me 100% and it paid off.”
A talented individual will have their good performances here and there but a true professional is called on to dig deep and present greatness every night. Four consecutive times, Rod was charged with impressing the crowd and the judges and he delivered each time. The judges’ score sheets and notes showed that Dawson not only won the contest but also had the highest scores in every single round. This is inconsequential as the crowd was chanting Rod’s name before the official announcement of his victory was announced. Jake Pengelly was a judge at the competition (as well as booking agent for the Helm) and declares, “When we hosted the All Hands on Deck DJ comp there were countless entries but Rod definitely stood out from the crowd. He slayed the decks and the other entrants didn’t even come close. I’ve been doing the main bookings at The Helm (and other venues throughout QLD) for a while now and I knew instantly that Rod would be perfect for sets with us. His mixing skills were great, moving very quickly through tracks.”
As a result of winning the All Hands on Deck competition, Dawson was awarded a residency at the Helm. While this led to an increase in his notoriety that he was happy about, it wasn’t the most important facet of his experience. There is a trait held by many successful artists, that is...self-evaluation and facing challenges. To be amidst the other DJs and feel the pressure, it was Rod’s primary goal. He concedes, “I am one hundred percent about being creative and not viewing these type of events like a competition between artists. Music to me is never a competition and I have always seen it as an escape from day to day life. Music is my happy place and what I love to do for myself most of all. My mental and emotional preparation was to look at the All Hands on Deck as a catalyst for my own creativity. I was there to bring my best. That’s much easier to do in the solace of your own apartment, taking chances and finding what works in front of a huge crowd is the real test. Having other DJs perform on the same night just added to my ability to see what kind of pressure I could handle and what it would do to me. Believe me, facing a crowd who is there to see you because they already know and love what you do is a much different experience than being in front of one that is saying ‘Okay, you think you’re really something? Prove it to me! I think I not only proved it to them but I proved it to myself…which will stay with me for a long time.”