Sunday, May 22, 2005

We are the messengers of music

Blogger arriviste Steve Ayers aka Confablog mused on the role of the dj . As my reply kept growing I thought I’d post it here.

The professional DJ is someone with more interest in music than anyone else, who thinks (s)he can offer a better soundtrack for drinking/drugging/dancing and has the determination to carry that out, through developing the best contacts, knowing where to shop, developing a style, etc. The true DJ is obsessed with music, and can bore even the likes of us with more than our fair share of fascination, but then (s)he’ll spin a knock-out tune at 4am and you can only nod in approval. The best DJ takes you on a trip for an hour then brings you back with a classic. (S)he joins the dots.

At its best it’s about being on the frontline of a developing culture – the Jamaican sound systems, the 80s warehouse boys, enlightening others. It’s about bringing other people’s culture to your own, mutating possibilities. It’s about religion, with you as the divine messenger. It’s also about “programming” – ie, tune selection, tailoring the sound. All the new york greats said as much. Larry Levan was known to play a tune seven or eight times a night if it worked. It’s about technique – beatmixing is a requisite but the specialists take it far further. It’s about being in tune with your audience. It’s about having a gimmick – three decks, scratching with your arse, I dunno. The disc jockey as mediator of music is so grounded in today's cut-and-paste popular culture that its central tenets are so established/assimilated that we part-timers know the basics to get by. Mama, mama, we’re all djs now. The Mecca is Hard to Find Records in Birmingham, thousand of square feet of pure wax. Bring your tissues, trainspotters.

The experience/journey the dj offers is not going to be replaced but rather augmented by MP3s and other aspects. Many jocks already use far more than the basic kit to express themselves – ie, loop and sequencing machines, samplers, fx boxes, the VJ. Some of the best djs can achieve the value-added 'wow' factor without the extra bells and whistles. So the new generation may be able to choose from a selection of 5,000 tunes and 10,000 loops ripped onto a couple of cds but the mainstream of even the rave culture is still going to want some kind of narrative/text. That ohmygosh sound has to have a context other than a series of fuck-me noises.

The chief problem with dj culture as I see it is segmentation, the vast majority of djs serving niche industries, protecting their own genre and then propagating it through producing their own facsimile output. Where are the pantheist pioneers like Francis Grasso, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash who saw no barriers, only opportunity? Now the mix and match culture is frequently served up as a gimmick like 2 Many DJs. And is ‘breaks’, for example, really that special that it deserves its own room, its own magazine, its own annual awards? DIY culture allows you entrance to the industry, but the small scale you operate on and the diminishing returns it offers means you must be identified for one area. Jumpin Jack Frost used to talltale about playing the ‘circumference’ but this was disingenuous, referring only to the full spectrum of d&b.
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