Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Essay: DJ Culture

Hang the dj

They make people dance. Rumour has it they get laid a lot. Most of them are bald or fat or both. Enter the world of the dj. But is ‘dj culture’ simply the biggest music fraud since Milli Vanilli? By Gary Steel

THE average punter wouldn’t know it, because the average media don’t acknowledge it, but the last five years of the century warrant remembering for reasons other than poor dead Diana and an American president’s pickle.
The implications of the explosion of electronic dance music and the cult of dj make the phenomenon deserving of a placing on the top 10 of notable social aberrations.
The inexorable rise of dance culture has fundamentally changed our relationship to music, how we listen to it, how we shake our booty to it, and how we make it.
And increasingly, we are making it, either by downloading sonic material on the internet and genetically altering the musical dna through smart software, or by assuming ludicrous dj pseudonyms, and laying our record collections on the patrons of clubs and bars.
As you pass by a multiplicity of mainstreet bars, however, it becomes obvious that one beat predominates, and the beat structure totally obliterates song content. This is the new musical domain, purpose built and empty. No wonder that for every convert to the new dance styles, there’s some bewildered rock guy standing over by the bushes, wondering whatever happened to content and, uh, the art of song.
But there’s no time to rest our designer-drug gaze on this sad creature. Instead, I want to tell you a true story:

THREE years ago I opened a record store. (The fine, upstanding ethics of this magazine preclude my revealing its name, and rightly so).I made it my mission to stock the very latest electronic sounds, and was quickly besieged by tribes of socially inept young males with a peculiar determination to attain that most spiritual of realms: the practicing dj. It soon became apparent that most of these young men knew little about contemporary dance music, and nothing at all about the history of its myriad forms. Most of them simply wanted to be djs. Translation: basking in the glow of stardom, they would get laid and get happy. Simple as pie.
I resolved to try an experiment. Having dished out my extensive knowledge to these vain, freeloading wannabes, ‘DJ Zooska’ was born, and within days I was taking my trusty cd mixer to ply my wares at various bars. Amazingly, word quickly spread and I found myself busily turning down requests to play at various events. When I did accept an engagement, I was always amused at the awestruck looks from certain members of the public, as I performed the amazingly skilled task of moving the ‘fader’ to create a smooth transition between selections.What a genius! Look at him go! I even got propositioned. Unfortunately, the wrong sex applied for the position.
‘DJ Zooska’ is no more, but the memory brings a sly smile to my parched lips.
Subsequently, it has become routine to meet people who proclaim that their boyfriend/cousin/cyber-squeeze is a dj, as though the very act of playing records to a crowd of people conferred on you godlike status. Some days, I could swear that every single person I speak to is one, or aspires to be.

SO what, then, is this dj malarkey all about? For Brit import Stinky Jim (nee Pinkney), the art of dj has been a central gig since his mid-teens (he is now in his early 30s). Jim has the highest all-round profile of any Kiwi dj, with his two peerless shows on Auckland student station BFM, Stinky Grooves and Tranquility Bass, regular engagements in a variety of locales, and membership in beat group Phase 5.
Jim comes straight to the point: "A dj is primarily a record changer. Someone with a deep love for music that comes before making any money from it. You can’t just buy a record bag and 100 records and become a dj."
In Jim’s vernacular, borrowed from the Jamaican music that is his first love, a dj is a ‘selector’ first and foremost. What’s important is playing a range of great tunes, not your skills on the turntable.
That seamless four-on-the-floor beat-din of sound-a-like ‘house’ music leaves an especially bitter taste in Jim’s mouth.
"These people are playing pretty much the same tunes, and if they’re not the same tunes, they sure as hell sound like them. Trying to make them sound as generic as possible, it’s the lowest common denominator approach. The only reason they’re doing that is to get a perfect beat match. The whole intention is to create a seamless flow of similar and slightly changing tunes, mechanical repetitive noises, with no escape from a four-four beat. When a drum and bass record came out that was in 3/4 time, it outraged certain drum and bass djs! You could mix it, it just went out every fourth bar, and then dropped back in again. I thought that was wicked."
The idea of the skill of a dj being measured by his ability to perfectly match beats between tracks is a relatively new one, and has led to an increasingly uniform approach, where special ‘dj mix’ records predominate and any hint of eclecticism or stylistic diversion is dancefloor suicide.
The rise of the dj/dance culture has threatened to go overground in the past year with a profusion of visits by commercial house music djs, packing in thousands of people at huge suburban venues, with all the attendant television advertising and corporate product sponsorship. No wonder that old rockers like former Push Push crooner Mikey Havoc have hung up their microphones for a whack at the crap house game.
"It won’t remain cool for long", predicts Jim of the current rash of dj activity. "Being a dj for a week or a month or a year is pretty easy, but beyond that it’s a struggle, and people are into it for all the wrong reasons anyway. I was dj-ing in pubs before I was allowed to drink, just because I was buying records at a phenomenal rate and I was building up a collection. And I was surrounded by people who were maybe three or four years older, and it was like serving an apprenticeship. It’s not like that now. You’ve got your record bag and your 20 crap house records and you’re down some bar on Queen St playing your hour-and-a-half set. It can’t last. It’s not built on solid foundations. Dj-ing will be around forever, but the craze will disappear like all bubbles do, there’s no doubt about that.
"It’s the cool new rock star thing to do," says Jim. "The interesting thing is you’ve got thousands of people going to events where they don’t give a shit about music. The effect is what counts, and that involves drugs and loud music. But it doesn’t matter who’s playing or what that tune was. They walk into that environment, hear that inane ‘doof doof’ beat, and know they’re going to get legless. It’s pretty close to Orwellian-scary. Just so repetitive, inane, no comment to offer, nothing to actually like or dislike. Just a shell..."

THIS vast emptiness of celebratory exaltation.It’s something we’ve been ritualising since the dawn of time.
Writing of primitive tribal trance rites in the groundbreaking anthropological work The Elementary Forms Of The Religious Life, Emile Durkheim wrote:
‘There really exist two heterogeneous and mutually incomparable worlds. One is that where his daily life drags wearily along; the other (is where he enters) into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world, the second, that of sacred things... so it is in the midst of these effervescent social environments that the religious idea seems to be born."
Yes, folks, this new dance era is just society going full circle. But in the post-religion state of the 1999, the attempt to break on through that dance music connotes is an empty gesture, a futile death shag shorn of any significance.
What Durkheim was talking about was the search for ecstacy and transcendance which is the hallmark of religious experience through the ages; for today’s dance culture, branded chemical compound Ecstacy has become the new religion, and it’s the same dance, just different beats. At once the most sophisticated form of technologically advanced entertainment, and the most primitive return.
But how can some guy with a bag full of 12" records bring about some kind of quasi-religious experience for a room full of dancing ninnies?
Stinky Jim insists that, while it’s rare, the odd top-notch dj does fullfill all the criteria necessary for this form of mystical primitive group hypnosis. His example is Detroit techno ‘legend’ Derrick May.
At one performance witnessed by Jim, "May took people on a wicked, full-on journey with lows and highs that totally effected you physically, mentally. He was inside the music, and by him being like that, everyone else was as well. Total alchemy. It’s one person communicating through technology to a large bunch of people. When it’s taken to that level it’s like looking at a great musician playing an instrument.
"People like Derrick May, when they play two tunes together, they’re making a third tune out of the two, and that’s where a skill like beat mixing is to be totally admired. He’s working beats together, but he’s also working melodically. You won’t hear him play two tunes which may be beat matched but out of key. I’d much rather djs played something where the beats weren’t matched, but it was musically sympathetic.
"He’s really using the mixer, he’s got his two records, he’s got his bass, treble and a three band equaliser on each channel, and he’s completely using it, pulling all the bass out of the tune, mixing it in, and then at a point where the tune is building, he knows his records inside-out. In the exact moment he will drop the bass in a way that everyone in that room feels is like a release, and he’s completely in charge of the room. He’s anticipating audience response, but also leading the audience . People have to read a room, but you also have to get that room to turn the page."

THE cult of dj has been around for over thirty years. Back in the late 60s, American dj Terry Noel was inventing new ways to drive audiences apoplexic with his totally eclectic mix, ranging from Bob Dylan to Otis Redding.
"I felt up the audience," he recalled in one interview. "There’s a feeling the crowd emanates, like an unconscious grapevine. Within ten minutes, I’d have them going crazy. I drove to a climax, just like in a play."
By the early 70s, New York dj Francis Grasso had become the first to perfect the technique of stitching records together in seamless sequences, inventing the trick of ‘slipcuing’: holding the disc with his thumb while the turntable rotated, insulated by a felt pad, he would locate with his headphone the best spot to make the splice, then release the next side precisely on the beat. Grasso even anticipated later developments by running elements of several tunes concurrently, but this technique didn’t become common until recent years, when sophisticated portable dj mixing stations became common currency.
In 1975, the advent of the 12" disco mix would create a tailor made format for djs, spur the disco phenomenon, and even with the preponderance of digital devices on offer in 1999, the heavy 12" vinyl platter is easily still the favoured dj tool.
The alleged ‘death of disco’ in the late 70s seemed to bury the dj-as-star theory for a while, but a number of factors have catapulted a multitude of dance music types - including retro disco - back into the spotlight.
There’s the dearth of decent rock music in the 90s, with its attendant chronic lack of real entertainment value. But the main clue to this puzzle is the advent of affordable technology.
In disco’s glory days, as now, the anonymous producer geek often made the music that made the punters go hog-wild on the dancefloor. There were no stars or personalities, and the medium remained the message. The same is true today, except that back then, they still needed loads of skilled musicians recording in real studios, and that cost loads of dosh. In the 90s, all previous music can be - and is - sampled, mutilated on computers, and totally reconfigured in any way desirable, all by one nerd and his equipment. This allows an extraordinary freedom never before possible in the history of music. It not only enables a crossover between the dj and the creative recording artist; it also means the access to the means of production is available to anyone with the technology and a hankering to make their own sounds.
The result is a glut of electronic music coming out of lonely guy bedrooms around the world, a musical parallel to the information overload we get so bored hearing about.
Out there on the dj front, resilient, purpose-built turntables are still the weapon of choice, and in this endlessly specialised field, there are those for whom their command of the turntable has reached virtuoso status. Skillful turntable ‘scratching’ and vinyl manipulation is a byproduct of hip-hop culture, and it has turned into its own artform, where ‘turntablisers’ gather to compete at dj championships. Wellington-based DJ Raw was recently voted one of the five best turntable guys in the world.
The pinnacle of turntable art is reached with the ability to ‘create’ an original musical synthesis from those scratchy platters, in the same way that many contemporary composers make music on computers and samplers from pre-existing musical soundbytes.
At the avant-garde end of the spectrum can be found turntable aesthetes like DJ Spooky, Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide, who has now ditched records entirely for an exploration of the noise possibilities inherent in the actual turntable. On the funtricknology side of the turntable fence are acts like the Incredible Scratch Picklz and Filipino dazzler Q-bert.
"When it’s done badly, it’s like an incredibly bad Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo," says Stinky Jim, "but there are some Jimi Hendrix’s out there, and some are taking the turntable to a different realm, using it as an instrument."

THE upshot of all this hoopla is that the hapless consumer has suddenly found themselves in a musical universe where the methodology behind much contemporary electronic music is simply not understood.
There is no telling whether that cool new record is completely composed from scratch, or totally sampled, or a combination of real performance and sampling. And when you’re in the ‘live’ domain it gets even more difficult. Having made records using computer technology, many artists/djs end up taking the easy option, and simply playing their own cds to a club crowd. Others take their studios into the venue, and meticulously organise combinations of computer and realtime performance. Most of the time, audiences don’t seem to know the difference, or even care...
"It’s the standard now for people to go to their gig and play their cds," says Jim, "and it’s wrong." But as regards not knowing the sources of their sound satisfaction, Jim reckons "the bottom line is that people should enjoy things first and worry about the consequences later of how it was created and what it exactly is."
He uses the example of an artist called Mr Scruff whose enticing beat concoction features a large chunk of material from blind composer Moondog. "He stuck a breakbeat under it, was quite clever with it and made something that’s infectious and catchy for people who’ve never heard of Moondog. That to me is a remix of a Moondog tune."
So... unless you’re a bona fide musicologist with an photographic memory and an encyclopaedic knowledge of musical history, then you’ll not know the next time you hear a very cool thing whether it’s original or ‘borrowed’. But why worry?
For his part, as one half of duo Phase 5 with another former Unitone Hifi member Angus McNaughton, Stinky Jim is convinced that he’s making something greater than the sum of his sampled parts on their first release, pointedly a dj-friendly vinyl-only ep.
A glorious melange of influences ranging from loungey schmaltz, bossa nova, dancehall, reggae, and ultra-cool organ, this is material that may have been through the grinder of samplers and computer programs to the nth degree, but it has come out with a creamy blend that would be the envy of any industrial food technologist.
And this eminently danceable four track ep easily espouses Jim’s original contention that dance music at its best is also a listening format. Like soul, funk and reggae, this music encourages serious booty shaking action, but it can also be a head-nodding late night delight.
Just don’t think about the process: "We will take a beat from a record, put it into the computer, chop it into tiny pieces, put it back into the sampler, then back into the computer to sequence those pieces, and then when we’ve done that, put all those pieces in the sequnce which is now a completely different drum beat than what went in, through an old analogue synthesiser to get the filter which is something that everyone knows that you only really get out of those beautiful warm old synths in the same way you get that beautiful sound out of those lovely old records. And so it’s a complete digital/anlogue conflux. And at the end, having put everything into the computer, we’ll transfer it to the tape, and that’s the final stage, because maybe we’ll want to speed it up a fraction, or slow it down a fraction."
Phase 5, unlike most of the would-be dj-types I meet on a daily basis, are in no hurry. For them, it’s about music, not stardom: Jim has turned down all other local interview requests, preferring the music to speak for itself. And getting laid? Well, that’s a bonus.

* This piece was originally published in the NZ Listener.


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