From Sweatbox to Stadium
I can barely bring myself to utter the word DJ, much less refer to myself as one. The term seems so devalued by it’s current ubiquity – so overused that it has lost all meaning and started to sound like neon gibberish. So it was interesting to re-evaluate shifting roles and perceptions in this article which was first published HERE
The definition of DJing has grown increasingly ambiguous over recent years. Changes in technology and the nature of clubbing along with the recent explosion of mainstream interest in dance music have all led to shifting perceptions of what a DJ actually is. When Tiësto recently announced that Las Vegas has “become like the new Ibiza,” he arguably drew a new line in the sand between two very different realities. In light of the EDM explosion, it seems fitting to take a step back and examine the shifting paradigm of the DJ in our cultural narrative.
From the mid 70’s when disco set the streets of unbridled hedonism ablaze, the role of the DJ has been central to dance subculture. Innovation ricocheted off the mirror balls as the advent of beat mixing awoke the subliminal ride of an unbroken soundtrack. No longer was a succession of tracks played in short bursts of individualism the defining thread of a night – but the tracks themselves began to be subsumed by a greater whole. Trance flickered through the falsettos as a serpentine wave of music dispensed with such conventions as ‘beginning’ and ‘end’. The accepted format of music consumption was recontextualised into a long improvised symphony, and the subconscious was mystically elevated, both through the meditation of motion in dance, and the surrender to a continuous sonic flow.
Dance music, whether in the nascent strands of raw urban hip-hop or as the melting pot of downtown disco, spoke to the outsider archetype. It was by its very nature shaped on the fly, a DIY, roots driven improvisation. It took existing technology and ideas and reframed them into the community’s own image – whether by mixing a couple of four-to-the floor records to create a layered moment of harmony or by cutting beats and scratching up a storm. It was in many ways a pirating of the music industry’s apparatus into something new and genuinely representative.
It was Farley Jackmaster Funk who drew the comparison between club and church, describing the club environment as “a parody of our experiences in church.” So much of early house had its roots in gospel, with the idea of a pastor leading a congregation in transcendental communion. That may sound like a very strange comparison to Europeans, but it is important to remember the participatory nature of Sunday service within the black, American gospel tradition. Every member of the congregation was fully immersed, clapping, singing, dancing and embracing. The pastor was ultimately in the service of both his congregation and a perceived ‘higher power.’ It was no coincidence that Larry Levan’s sets were called Saturday Mass.
For people like Larry Levan in New York, Frankie Knuckles in Chicago, and Norman Jay in Britain, eclecticism was key to providing experience. A breadth of musical knowledge, an openness to new sounds and a steadfast refusal to become ghettoized inside a specific genre allowed dancefloors to be taken on journeys. At their best, these journeys united mind, body and soul into a space that touched the spiritual.
As acid house and rave broke out, history and chemistry synthesised the abstraction of repetitive beats, the idea of the DJ as ‘star’ was anathema to the era’s cultural strength. It was almost a form of situationism, taking the conditioned understanding of a concert’s power dynamic between performer and crowd and subverting it completely. The dancefloor was the star, not the DJ. This was a statement of egalitarianism and unity that was absolutely fundamental to the identity of these emergent scenes. The performer didn’t have to be on a pedestal with all eyes slavishly upon him. In fact half the time, people neither knew nor cared where the DJ was.
In early rave, just as in disco, barriers came crashing down. Black, white, gay and straight all hit the same groove as DJs drew on musical references from across the spectrum. Hip-hop used DJ culture to create a voice which was infinitely more real and relevant to its community than anything the mainstream could offer.
Over time DJing became less about fusions and more about creating soundscapes for crowds that grew ever more sophisticated and demanding within a particular frame of reference. As scenes and sounds probed further into self exploration, we witnessed the first wave of the ‘superclub’ and the superstar DJ. For many original pioneers this was a bizarre development. Here we had the inversion of many of the scene’s founding ideals. But such evolutions are the inevitable result of any cultural phenomenon being popularized, and despite clubs such as the faintly ludicrous ‘Home’ popping up in Leicester Square, and clubs like Cream and Ministry hitting stratospheric proportions, somewhere inside the new layers of glitz, money and individualized celebrity, DJ culture was still identifiable.
Success always breeds change. Call it corruption, call it evolution – it’s counter-productive to step outside the present and gild a bygone age. Things change and we change with them if we want to remain relevant. So what if there is now an elite rung of über DJs, has that really affected our Saturday night? It wasn’t until the dawn of the digital age and the dry realities of its economics that things really began to change.
Producing and DJing were two very separate skill sets right up until the millennium. Both could earn a living and both had their roles but crossovers between the two spheres were actually surprisingly rare. Being a good producer didn’t give you the instinct for DJing, and knowing what worked on a dancefloor didn’t necessarily translate into a good studio session.
As financial conditions tightened, producers who could no longer earn a living were forced to play out – often very reluctantly. As they began to compete for slots with DJs, society, as it does, decided to find a way to measure worth and merit. That intangible aspect of DJing – the ability to transport a crowd – was very difficult to measure and quantify. Over in the mainstream, your bankability as a live artist was dependent on the success of your latest single or album. It was an easy, comprehensible hook to hang your decisions on, especially as a promoter or a club owner. That mainstream measure of value began to filter through into the ‘underground.’ You want to play? What have you released recently?
And then of course there are the top DJ polls. They were a very strange intrusion into the concept of DJing; a linear, formulaic measure of something entirely unquantifiable. Even before they were corrupted by absurd PR pushes designed to garner votes, they seemed to come from a parallel dimension that didn’t understand what a DJ did. Is there such thing as a ‘best’ DJ? Didn’t the subjective, live essence of each set defy that kind of commodification? Why did we insist on sterilizing the ephemeral?
The inevitable result was producers being booked to play off the back of chart successes and rankings. The incentives were there to corrupt both processes, either by buying your chart position on Beaport, or by launching voting drives X Factor contestants would squirm at. Booking acts on this basis made sense in the rock and pop sphere but it was a completely warped understanding of DJ culture. You go to a band’s concert to hear songs you recognize, but you go to a club or a rave to be taken on an abstract trip – one infused with a live energy.
Deadmau5 is famous for ridiculing the whole concept of DJing. He revels in rubbishing the idea that DJ’s do anything beyond pressing play, saying recently ‘Here’s to another awesome year of Ableton doing everything for me’. His caustic contributions to the debate raise some interesting points. On the one hand, he is a refreshing voice of honesty along the EDM stadium parade, a man who gets paid a fortune to press play on stage, but no matter how loud he shouts the fact that he is doing nothing during the actual ‘performance’, the crowds still flock to see him.
His act could be seen as the ultimate mirror to vacuous musical consumerism, complete with mouse mask, bright lights and a statement of its own lack of substance. But whether he is the Andy Warhol of EDM or not, he both calls truth on the commercial EDM scene and completely misses the point by extrapolating what he sees there to the entire scene and all DJ’s. And in doing so, reveals how blinkered his reality actually is. When he says “now it’s just a bunch of producers like me who pretend to be DJ’s.”, he may be right in Tiesto’s Las Vegas, but not at Ibiza’s core.
30 years ago a DJ might have been seen as some kind of witch doctor. He was part of the tribe and knew how to open the portal into other dimensions. He commanded respect but certainly not the adulation we now see showered upon the star DJs of today. The crossover to a pop audience has a lot to answer for. Togetherness has transformed into shrieking fandom, at least on the commercial end. Back in the real clubs, anything like this would be seen as embarrassing, but the respect is now more solid and practical than the alchemy-tinged perception of a DJ back when there was still an element of mystique.
But mystique is always a casualty of time. There were two very important strains in the 70s and 80s that have now evaporated. One was the sense of groundbreaking new music. Funk was being heisted by hip-hop, rapping reinvented conventional vocals, scratching a record had become an instrument and disco was building a movement that evolved into house music. But most important was the sense that DJs were providing the soundtrack to a wider movement.
Whether you were gay and expressing your identity through groove, whether you were black and redefining a community’s sense of self, whether you were a football hooligan hugging someone you were battering the week before, whether you were creating temporary autonomous zones that the police couldn’t touch – you were part of a social revolution. At least for a moment in time. And the DJ played a central role in all those intensely visceral waves of microcosmic history.
Today, it simply isn’t like that, but then nor should it be. If we genuinely believe in dance music as a lasting force, it has to make it into maturity and not just fade away after a gloriously turbulent adolescence. People have wildly different expectation from their dance music. Some want it to mean something, like CeCe Rogers’ Someday, or for it to address social issues like Phuture’s Your Only Friend. Others resent DJs preaching to them and see dance music as pure hedonism, such as those you’ll find in a typical Berlin basement.
Perhaps dance music, DJ’s and producers should make more of an effort to follow the thread of social consciousness that nurtured its roots rather than just promote their latest release, but it’s always a fine line. Endless petition requests and do gooding posts also wear very thin. Perhaps stepping out from being a tightly controlled public persona nervous of making a mistake (a good metaphor for many DJ sets) and displaying engagement without actually preaching would be the right balance. And of course many DJ’s do exactly that. More power to them.
The transformation of the DJ from disco and hip-hop into Tiësto and L’il Wayne is an interesting one. EDM may be difficult to take for many within dance music, but it’s nothing compared to how the conscious soul was torn out of hip-hop by commercialisation. Larry Levan may have turned into Afrojack, but Chuck D has turned into Nicky Minaj. At least within the overground narrative.
It is easy to let the synthetic absurdity of where EDM has taken the concept of DJing overshadow the realities of clublife, but the fact is DJing is in many ways far stronger than it was 15 years ago. The intense gentrification of the mid 90s has reversed to a large degree and we are now seeing DJ sets that embrace diverse influences, fusing them into sets the same way that the original DJs of the 70s and 80s were doing.
Most DJs are admirably switched on and socially conscious in the finest traditions of their craft. There will always be vinyl purists making unsustainable arguments for not adapting and there will always be people using the Tiëstos of this world to mourn a bygone basement, but there is an argument to be made that things have never been stronger within DJ culture. The music may change, the technology may hit manifold possibility, commercialization may threaten our sanity, but those ideals, shaped in a sweatbox are still beating hard. And that Mr Tiësto, is a quite dazzling triumph.
Smiley acid house photo taken at Genesis 88 by Sam Williams
Tesla image by Toni Bratincevic