struggle by every available means to gain or achieve something.
Much has been written recently about the art of DJing, and the suggestion that this art is being ‘killed’ by a variety of factors. In Mixmag last September, Tim Sheridan explored the three main supposed threats to the DJ: firstly the idea that digital DJing is ‘ruining the craft’ of mixing; secondly, that easy accessibility to the most popular current tunes is making DJs lazy; and lastly, that spectacle and performance is now often taking primacy over what the DJ is actually playing.
He makes some good points, ultimately suggesting that DJing should be about substance and not style. To some extent, he does also counter the digital haters:
It does a great disservice to the DJ and our craft if you boil what we do down to technology – or even just to mixing. To say a DJ is only as good as what occurs in the minutes he blends the tracks together is basically saying that we are some kind of flesh jukebox.
– Tim Sheridan, Mixmag, September 2013
Yet despite this, he still goes on to criticise ‘anyone who uses the sync button in public’. Of course. The ‘sync’ function often employed by the digital DJ has long been characterised as the devil in button form, despite the fact that it is simply a tool – a tool which helps to alter the tempo, or to synchronise beats to mix two records together. Sheridan actually accepts that condemning it is a bit like a driver criticising another for using an automatic car, or a cake maker getting grumpy when other bakers whip out an electric blender, instead of using good old-fashioned elbow grease. It just doesn’t seem right to specifically blame new technology, or its users – especially as, let’s face it, it ain’t going anywhere. In fact, it seems a bit ridiculous.
Crucially, what Sheridan does not accept in his ruthless generalisation of digital ‘sync’ users is that – you know what? Digital DJing is often the cheapest, quickest way to learn the basics, and to get out there and play. As a learner DJ myself (though I’m still pretty much a beginner in terms of technical ability, I’ve had paid gigs and I’m actually doing it out of a genuine love of the music) I think it’s unfair that an elitist attitude continues to immediately write off all digital DJs as fakes, phoneys or cheats. A poor student when I started (and now an even poorer graduate), I contest the idea that I should not be able to play, purely because I’m not using the correct kit. This is not to say that I don’t respect those who mix using vinyl and their ears, or that I don’t intend to learn myself – when I can afford to. Good quality turntables, CDJs, mixers and speakers certainly don’t come cheap. The fact that I was able to acquire some decent software for free (that might not have been legal, but, er, see the definition of ‘jockey’ above) to use on my ageing but portable laptop, and pick up a cheap midi controller deck from Cash Converters illustrates how democratic DJing can now be, despite the high cost of the best technology – if you’re keen enough.
Of course, what the whole sync-button-bee-in-the-DJ’s-bonnet issue comes down to is mixing. On the one hand, in his article Sheridan acknowledges that there is currently too much emphasis on mixing in DJ culture. Yet on the other, he simultaneously attacks those who use any means (including the bloody sync button) to live up to the expectations and pressures on them to mix – even if they are beginners, starting out on digital technology. By claiming that any sync user should have their finger cut off, Sheridan ultimately suggests that mixing should only be done ‘properly’ i.e. basically, only by those who can afford quality decks. He therefore ironically reinforces the general emphasis on mixing that he claimed to be problematic in the first place.
… a scary number of kids think it’s just about technical skills and access to the most upfront tunes… The other great misunderstanding is the obsession with mixing. Today’s styles place an unhealthy emphasis on the mechanical side of things, and most of the best DJs do have impressive technical abilities. But don’t let this overshadow their more fundamental talents – for discovering music and for playing exactly the right record at the right moment… Some of the world’s greatest DJs have been pretty ropey mixers.
– Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster
The rage aimed at the ‘plastic DJs’ in Sheridan’s article is justifiable – he is certainly right to criticise those who think they are the biz for playing a dull, predictable set comprised of the Beatport top 20. But their crime here as DJs is not in the technology they use – it is that they are merely regurgitating, and not innovating. They are not music hunter-gatherers, but instead supermarket sweepers, choosing to play the biggest Coca Cola tracks in ‘EDM’- even the term is clinical, shiny and boring – rather than demonstrating a genuine personality through the music they play.
I’m of the opinion that as a DJ you must always play what you love and ignore what’s “trendy” because true passion always eclipses what’s fashionable. Quality is always fashionable.
– Boy George
As it is now possible for anyone and everyone to be a form of DJ, in the sense that it is so easy to make and share playlists, to be a music ‘selector’ no longer seems as unique or special. But as Broughton and Brewster simply put it: ‘Music is what motivates the finest DJs: they love it, they live for it.’ It is worth remembering that the word ‘discotheque’ translates as ‘record library’. The DJ’s role is to do with knowledge, specialism, and educating – opening up ears and minds to sounds they have put effort into sourcing.
In his book Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, Peter Shapiro investigates the origins of the disc jockey, and his findings come as a revelation. The very first DJs were not those such as Terry Noel, who was the first person to mix two records at the New York club Arthur in the 1960s, or even the disc jockeys who played rock n roll at ‘record hops’ in the 1950s. Shapiro locates the first DJs even earlier: within the youth movements rebelling against Hitler – both the ‘Swing Kids’ in Germany, and ‘Les Zazous’ in Nazi-occupied Paris. He describes the parties that often took place underground to avoid discovery by the Gestapo, in which young Europeans could dance wildly to American swing records. Significantly, the music would be chosen by an individual from his own collection, and played out on a portable gramophone:
While people had been dancing to recorded music for years at American bars and roadhouses that had jukeboxes or, even earlier, piano rolls, both jukeboxes and piano rolls were serviced by distribution companies that chose the music themselves. The gatherings of the Swing Kids mark the first instance that a ‘disc jockey’ played music of his own choosing, and not necessarily what was in the hit parade.
– Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco
The main point I’m trying to make here is that all the fuss and hullabaloo about the sync button and digital technology stem from an attitude that frequently singles out mixing as the DJ’s primary skill – and that the vital connoisseur element to the craft is often overlooked. Sheridan rightly states: ‘Being a DJ is about being an authority.’ The tools a DJ uses to acquire and play their music should not be particularly important- so long as they are doing it with a genuine curiosity and a desire to explore, acquiring knowledge and an appreciation for various sounds that comes through in their individual record collection, and their sets.
This brings me neatly to my last point – one which Sheridan also discusses in his article – which is the elevation of the DJ to a position in which certain prefixes such as ‘superstar’, ‘super-fly’ or other irritating terms often appear. Because the DJ has entered the glossy world of showbiz, that vital afore mentioned nerdiness that characterises the best disc jockeys is once more pushed to the side, in favour of some attention-seeking moron who likes to fist-punch the air and has probably decided to take up DJing because of the supposedly ‘glamorous’ lifestyle, or a desire to be popular. Or of course, if your name is Paris Hilton, as yet another PR stunt to add to your career of varying PR stunts. As a female DJ myself, I would love to say: “Great- good for you Paris!”– except that Paris’ DJ move reeks so strongly of everything that is wrong with our celebrity and image obsessed culture – those glittery diamond headphones say it all. If there was anyone with the time and money to really dedicate to acquiring records and learning to DJ ‘properly’, it is surely Paris – but then this would involve graft and dedication to something other than coming up with a name for a new perfume. Money, spectacle and ego – the reason the brilliant ‘DJs complaining’ blog and twitter page exist – these are the factors that are overshadowing the real disc jockey’s craftsmanship, rather than digital technology or the internet.
When I started, DJs weren’t in the media, electronic music wasn’t in the sales charts and a DJ was the freak in the corner who provided the music while other people had fun. So to do it, you must have been a freak and a music lover. And I still am: this is still the engine which drives me.
– Paul Van Dyk, DJmag
As the dictionary definition of ‘jockey’ suggests – the DJ’s craft is one that demonstrates hard work, and it doesn’t simply come down to mixing. The ability to mix is great, because it enables the DJ to maintain a level of energy, a rhythm, a groove – but also to create something new in those moments in which different records overlap. But – a passion for delving into music, for learning the craft of selection, for being creative and unafraid to play lesser known records within a set, and an unquenchable need to be continuously learning, discovering and sharing those audio gems – these are the qualities that separate the true DJ wheat from the (diamond encrusted) chaff.
So kids, to be a great DJ is to be a great nerd. Take it from one of the coolest freaks around- Theo Parrish – whose disc jockey philosophy features on Kid Fonque’s smooth ‘2Sides’: