An LA club that specialises in “underground house music” recently banned DJs from using laptops, inevitably leading to a flurry of online responses. The club’s owner, Kenny Summit, was upset with laptop DJs not being able to plug their gear into the club’s system. He complained in an interview that DJs “don’t know what to connect with our Pioneer system; they have no clue what they’re plugging in or what plugs they’re taking out”. While Summit’s anger was aimed at amateur DJs, arguments were sparked between vinyl DJs, laptop DJs, and everyone in between over the legitimacy of laptops in clubs.
An old guard versus new guard debate over what DJs actually do and what they should do had been re-ignited.
The biggest contention in this twitter-finger war was over beatmatching. The technique involves blending two records to the same tempo to create a seamless mix, something that is much harder to do when using vinyl. On many modern laptops and digital mixing programs there is a sync button that automatically beatmatches – although its use is generally frowned upon. According to Seth Troxler, a DJ and prominent critic of “mainstream” dance music, “there are too many kids out there who actually don’t know how to beat match”, adding that this is the line between a “DJ and an entertainer”. Inherent in these remarks is the idea that a real DJ is much more than a mere entertainer; an artist perhaps?
And so the long debate over dance musicians in our culture continues. The issues are similar to those raised when CDJ devices first appeared on the market, replacing vinyl DJs, and also to those when vinyl DJs themselves replaced dance bands. As Sarah Thornton discusses in Club Cultures, the original dance musicians were highly skilled musicians whose livelihood was built around their virtuosity and wide song repertoire. From swing to rock’n’roll, and through much of the rock era, music for dancing was generally performed by a band who would play the latest hits for their audience. During this time, the playing of records began to replace the hiring of bands on the basis that you only had to hire a single DJ as opposed to a whole band, and they could theoretically play any track without having to learn it. The use of DJs was very controversial for a long time. As Thornton points out:
“For many years, records were considered a form of entertainment inferior to performance; they were not regarded as the ‘real’ thing or as capable of delivering an authentic experience of musical community. Records had to undergo a complex process of assimilation or integration.”
On top of their dubious musicality, DJs were taking skilled jobs away from musicians, leading to the British Musicians Union placing strict rules on venues to use an allocated amount of music performed by bands. The concept of live music arose from a campaign led by the Musicians Union against DJs (the implication being that recorded music was dead music); the dance bands, and the Union, could then stress the musicality of their performances while simultaneously insulting the machine-like DJs. However, as Thornton notes, records, and the playing of them by DJs, began to be thought of as more musical over time as records were “naturalised”. The perception of the DJs changed “from unskilled worker through craftsman to artist”. This is a crucial part of the way technology works in our culture; as Thornton writes: “At first, new technologies seem foreign, artificial, inauthentic. Once absorbed into culture they seem indigenous and organic”. Moving forward to the current day, we see that vinyl, as an older technology, has lost its foreignness and has been absorbed into dance culture. The older set-ups of vinyl decks are seen as instruments (as opposed to technologies), and those that play them are seen as musicians. Laptops and their software, however, are still seen as unmusical technology.
This matter goes to the heart of everything that the word DJ means. When talking to someone who doesn’t really listen to dance music, the word DJ might be used in the same way you use band, but its meaning is far more complicated. If someone asks: “Who is Four Tet?”, you’d say: “He’s a DJ”. But DJing is the tip of the iceberg in the electronic dance music world. Dance music is made up of two very distinct roles that are generally thrown together: production and DJing. Production is not mentioned by many people, as it’s poorly understood and mostly happens in private. Using everything from up-to-date software to old analogue hardware, producers create dance music through a long process of composition and editing. For most dance music musicians, this is where the majority of their time is spent; DJing is often just a way of promoting the tracks made as a producer. The evidence is there amongst the number of great producers who are mediocre DJs. This being said, there are many DJs who don’t produce (Jackmaster, Oneman), and producers who don’t DJ (Burial). Those that don’t listen to much dance music might claim that it’s “simple”, and that they could’ve made it, but if you’ve ever actually tried to use production software (Ableton, Logic, Cubase), then you would quickly realise that this is not the case at all. These programs might seem simple to use at first, coming as they do with many built-in synthesisers and drum machines, but to become a master of a program like Ableton, it might take takes years to train your ear to be able to hear subtleties in difficult-to-understand necessities like compression or EQ. This process is not dissimilar to that followed by someone learning to play a “real” instrument, such as the piano.
DJing then, is about playing the tracks made by producers. It is about entertaining a crowd and making them dance. In an underground dance club, you can often barely see the DJ; the room may be dark with only the sound and the physical presence of the music occupying your senses. All other senses are removed as far as possible to allow focus on the music. The crowd may have no idea whether the DJ is using vinyl, a laptop, or is playing “live” with hardware synthesisers. In this case, it seems smart to ensure you have sufficient options to keep the crowd entertained, and not to limit yourself artificially for the supposed sake of authenticity. Using a laptop here allows you a greater choice of songs to play, while allowing radical on-the-fly remixes and edits that can involve a theoretically unlimited – as much as your CPU can handle – number of songs to play at once. Vinyl DJs, on the other hand, are able to show off their deep record collection by playing rare cuts that are out of print anywhere else. Vinyl also is known for having a better sound than digital, but while I’m sure vinyl does technically sound better, how many people can really tell and how much is it a social effect caused by the fetishisation of older technology? Another issue for the vinyl DJ is the expense of amassing a huge amount of records, and the concurrent space that these take up.
Then there are those DJs playing in the opposite of dingy basement clubs: dance music festivals. For this, many DJs and producers have to rethink their approach. Many dance musicians whose studio work features fairly sedate electronica tempos play incredibly up-tempo, dance-worthy DJ sets. The music that worked well in a dark club now has to literally face the light of day. In this case there is often a need for something a bit more. This might involve incredible visuals, an oversized personality, or the often less-than-satisfactory attempts at a live band. This is something I think The Chemical Brothers have mastered, while I’m not sure Ricardo Villalobos has. The main stage of a festival is probably one of the biggest stages a DJ could play; for that sort of stage, a solitary figure hunched over decks playing some light techno is not particularly exciting. To entertain that many people, a big sound and visuals are necessary; a large stage immediately forgoes any attempts a band can make at intimacy, and so a vastly different approach is necessary. Due to the complexity of these stage shows, many producers end up hardly DJing at all. The producer Deadmau5 talking about his live show, says:
“i just roll up with a laptop and a midi controller and ‘select’ tracks n hit a spacebar. ableton syncs the shit up for me… so no beatmatching skill required. ‘beatmatching’ isnt even a fucking skill as far as im concered anyway. so what, you can count to 4. cool. i had that skill down when i was 3, so dont give me that argument please… my ‘skills’ and other PRODUCERS skills shine where it needs to shine… in the goddamned studio, and on the fucking releases. thats what counts”
He goes on to say that what makes his shows special is:
“the fans, the people who came to appreciate the music, the lights, all the other people who came, we just facilitate the means and the pretty lights and the draw of more awesome people like you by our studio productions.”
Strangely, dancing is something that is often overlooked in lots of the discussions that people have about electronic dance music. As Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson point out in Discographies, Western thought has a long history of separating the mind from the body, privileging the former whilst disparaging the latter. Music that is made for quiet contemplation is generally given more praise than that for dancing; it’s argued that the former is thinking music ,as if dancing has nothing to do with thought. In classical music, the physicality of music is given little value, and the musical score is often given importance over the actual sound of the music. This removes many of the things that are central to dance music ,such as the texture of synthesisers, the feeling of bass, and the groove of rhythm. This is clearly part of a line of thinking in Western culture that has discomfort with the body, especially with sensual pleasures like dancing and sex.
This can be traced back to the origins of Western thought in Ancient Greece. For Socrates, Gilbert and Pearson write: “Music [was] devalued … when it [was] associated with physical pleasure or intoxication”. They go on to discuss German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant who separated art into aesthetic categories: “the beautiful” and “the pleasurable”. Kant’s superior category of “the beautiful” requires arts “which are appreciated through reflective judgement rather than mere sense experience. The ‘pleasurable’ are those arts with merely physical effects”. In my view, the entire separation of mind and body into two separate spheres in the first place is completely unfounded. Gilbert and Pearson argue that: “All activity and experience involves some degree – however slight – of thinking, classifying, and meaning”, while the musicologist Simon Frith writes: “To dance to music is not just to move to it, but to say something about it”. This calls back to Seth Troxler’s separation of DJs who just “entertain”; they provide Kant’s distinction of the “pleasurable”, not “the beautiful”.
Throughout popular musical history, music has started off as dance music before becoming art music. Gilbert and Pearson argue that this movement “defined the classical tradition”, as the music moved “from cyclical repetition and rhythm, towards melody and complex harmony as sources of musical pleasure”. We can see this same instinct in the danceable rhythms of Dixieland jazz becoming the harmonically complex bebop or abstract free jazz, or backbeat-driven rock’n’roll becoming the irregular time-signature toying of progressive rock. Electronic dance music itself is constantly battling over this. In the mid 1990s, the concept of IDM evolved; IDM, or intelligent dance music, made the head/body split explicit. The music made by many practitioners of this genre avoided the notion of dancing by being either too abstract or too sedate for the dance floor. Interestingly, many artists and labels who had previously made “mindless” body music went on to make IDM, and labels like Warp and artists such as Nightmares On Wax began to release albums as opposed to singles. The album/single distinction is crucial in this divide, as the album initially brought popular music away from the bar-jukebox-blaring, three-minute, quick-changing songs back to the solo listening of the home – from a group of teens going crazy to Little Richard to an older more “serious” listener listening to Dark Side Of The Moon in their bedroom.
This notion of head versus body is crucial when it comes to understanding the concept of DJing. DJs focusing entirely on the complexity of their mixing, while putting down DJs who “merely” entertain the crowd, is a clear example. This isn’t to say mixing isn’t important, just that it’s not the be-all and end-all. We’re clearly uneasy with the idea of simply making people dance; music has to seemingly be technical, or involve a “higher thought” than simply keeping a room of people on their feet, for us to take it seriously. One of the problems with this is that it’s very hard to say why one DJ is better than another; how it is that they keep us dancing. Like most of the way we talk about music, discussion about DJs is full of mysticism and abstract ideas about “vibe”, “reading the room”, or “building a set”. As Simon Frith writes: “A good club deejay can play a club as if choreographing a dance”. Precisely how a DJ is able to choose the right song at the right time is beyond something the crowd or even the DJ is able to put into words. This means that when a DJ uses techniques that take more of what we conventionally understand as talent, like their mixing or scratching skill, this DJ will be easier to praise. Being a good DJ, however, is far more than pressing play on an iPod as its critics often suggest; you have to do more than just play a series songs that you like in a row. A good DJ has a deep understanding of the songs they play, while knowing what tracks will work and which won’t (although like any improvising musician, they will occasionally hit a bum note). Knowing which tracks, in which keys, in which BPMs, work together isn’t easy even with a computer; a laptop can only get you so far. A good DJ is like a good chess player; they have to be able to think ahead and see the bigger picture. Thinking only about each individual move in isolation will get you nowhere and while many will try it, few will turn pro.
And so the various cultures of dance music comprise a series of attacks on established Western ideas of individualism, sobriety, and the traditional concept of music; part of the pleasure clearly comes from the brief feeling of liberation from our parent culture. However, as we can never truly escape the Western culture we were brought up in, there are constant, contradictory tensions between the idea of a technological party music and a soulful head music. Dance musicians themselves clearly feel this tension. As they age, many perhaps become less interested in music that attempts to exist so far out of the Western idea of music, and we end up with instruments as opposed to technology, quiet contemplation as opposed to party music. We can see this tension in the career of Daft Punk, who in 1997 made a track like ‘Rolling And Scratching’ (essentially synthesiser noise and drums) and then in 2013 made ‘Give Life Back To Music’, a far more tranquil track attempting to return to the ‘musicality’ of 70s disco.
What DJs actually do, then, is complex and there are varying degrees of “musicality” in different situations. A main stage EDM artist is not doing the same thing as a DJ in a London basement, nor a DJ at a wedding, but these are all lumped under the title DJ, even though they’re all totally different ways of entertaining different crowds. Part of the attack on laptop DJs is an implicit attack on the current popularity of dance music and the lower barriers of entry to this new world – occasionally, brilliant artists like Skrillex are able to play a festival main stage just as well as a hipster basement (and maybe a wedding, who knows?). Inevitably though, the success (and unquestionable bloating) of the EDM industry and its lack of talent (both real and imagined), has led to a search for symbols of authenticity like vinyl and “proper musicianship”. The idea, however, that underground techno has a monopoly on “musicality” while EDM is full of talentless hacks is absurd; every scene is full of innovation and imitation, and in fact these contradictory attributes can exist within the same person. We see what as creative and musical are viewed through our own culturally constructed lenses that are highly subjective and constantly changing. It’s likely that there are just as many wannabe techno DJs living in Berlin as wannabe EDM DJs in LA.