Justin Barnett ’02 was supposed to be a scientist.
“I was a dual physics and chemistry major,” chuckled Barnett, a Cornell University graduate.
Barnett’s career path changed course after he accepted a fellow Cornell student’s offer to learn how to DJ. “I picked it up relatively quickly,” remembered Barnett.
Soon Barnett was DJing regularly around campus, and during his last two semesters, he interned for P. Diddy at Daddy’s House Recording Studio and RSMG. “That’s when I knew I was going to figure out a full-time path in music,” he said.
Barnett, known professionally as TK MAC (his grandmother’s middle initials are “TK” and his dad’s middle name is “McDonald”), DJs in A-list clubs across the U.S. and serves as a tour DJ for numerous artists. He’s also a songwriter, producer, engineer and, most recently, a recording artist.
Barnett’s interest in music began when he was a toddler. He played the violin at two-and-a-half years old, and just a few months later, started taking piano lessons from his father. As a teenager, Barnett explored other instruments like the trombone, xylophone, piano and drums.
At Peddie, Barnett was a member of the jazz band and orchestra. “I was also in a band called ‘Luos,’ which is ‘soul’ spelled backward, with Chris Tomson ’02 who is in Vampire Weekend, and Nick Mencia ’02,” he reminisced.
Barnett spoke fondly about his time at Peddie. “I was just coming into my own as a human being, as a young man, as a young African-American man,” he said. “I made some lifelong friends, and I had teachers that really cared about me.”
Barnett’s debut recording project, “A Hollywood Love Story,” which launched this summer, draws on hip-hop, R&B, pop, electronic music and gospel. He described the EP’s debut single, “Work it More,” as “a celebration of any woman in any capacity of your life that has gone after it.”
“I think this all goes back to my childhood,” he added. “I grew up in a household where my mom was a fairly successful businesswoman … and my dad was such a supporter of her being able to realize her dreams. That is really where the motivation for the song came from.”
While Barnett may have diverged from a science-related career, he hasn’t lost his data-driven way of thinking. “I’ve always had a knack for engineering from the standpoint of how things work, how things are put together, how to utilize formulas to make your life easier. Which is why I wanted to do the physics thing,” he reflected. “But I actually applied a lot of the same principles I learned in physics to music. I realized the more I dug down that they work hand in hand,” he said.