There’s a new buzz-word in the world of DJing: “Button Pushers.” As the DJ moves from club booths to festival stages, the equipment has become increasingly varied. And as the lines continue to blur between a DJ who mixes and a producer who presses play, questions of authenticity have been raised. I should mention that I am a DJ myself. I won five world DJ championships (yes, there is such a thing) at a young age, and this has been my career for 15 years, so I feel a certain responsibility to weigh in on the subject.
Traditionally, a DJ spun vinyl records on turntables and would change his set every night. So what about guys who play on laptops? Those who spend more time raising their hands than mixing? Or those whose presence is lost behind intricate light shows? Esteemed electronic producer deadmau5, who recently graced the cover of rock bible Rolling Stone wearing his namesake, robo-rodent mask, decided to blow the whistle himself with a refreshingly frank tumblr post entitled “We All Hit Play.” Explaining how his pre-planned stage show works, he admits that the term “live” is an overstatement. But his tone is strangely defensive and he unjustly lumps DJs into the argument, reducing their craft to mindless beat-matching: “I had that skill down when I was 3.”
Coincidentally, the same week the DJ world was set a-twitter (literally) by SNL-worthy videos of Paris Hilton’s inaugural DJ set. In fact, this DJ-as-Milli-Vanilli debate started simmering last summer with the emergence of a YouTube clip entitled “Steve Angello — How To Fake Your Fans.” It showed the Swedish House Mafia DJ playing 15 minutes of a pre-recorded set from a single CD deck. He later explained that this was the finale of a show where fireworks, pyro and CO2 were timed with certain cues and that it was impossible to perform this segment while mixing live. Having seen Steve mix in front of me many times I can attest to his (actually remarkable) DJ skills. But let’s back up a bit: fireworks, pyro and CO2 with house music? Something new is going on here…
A large part of the attention that DJs are getting at the moment is due to the Electronic Dance Music explosion. There’s another buzzword for you: EDM. For better or worse, this rising genre is dominated by laptop production whizzes who do not play live instruments. Thus, there are inherent challenges to what an EDM performance can be. Look no further than this year’s Grammy Awards: the way David Guetta and deadmau5 were lumped with Chris Brown and the Foo Fighters seemed like an awkward foreign exchange, didn’t it? But Guetta and Mr. Mau5’s music is catchy and hugely successful. Fans want to experience it in large venues, so there is a need to build a show around it.
Festivals started spending millions equipping their stages with the biggest LED panels and brightest lights, competing with rivals all in the name of this “experience.” Now we are in the middle of an arms race where every DJ tries to out-do the next one with shock and awe. As the performance aspect becomes predominant, a paradigm shift is underway. Crowds used to come see DJs for a musical journey. Now they expect to hear specific songs and furthermore, they want to see a show. I can attest to this myself: the craziest crowd response that I get in my sets is when I play my own tracks, and I built a huge, illuminated A-shaped structure that I bring to my biggest gigs. But one has to wonder, when so much emphasis is put on hit records and mise-en-scène: is there still room for DJ skills?
I come from the most technical tradition of hip hop DJing, known as turntablism. I practiced daily for years with monastic discipline, learning and creating intricate patterns of scratching, beat juggling and trick mixing. To me there is a certain romance to this arcane craft. To me this is DJing, an art that fascinates because it’s a subversive way of playing music. In any genre — whether it be hip hop or electronic music — DJing is equal parts technique and selection. A good set is like a convincing speech: the message is as important as the delivery. The magic happens when the tracks are assembled in front of (and in reaction to) a given crowd. When a DJ mixes, his creative effort takes place on the spot. In contrast, for a performer like deadmau5, the creative tour de force takes place ahead of time, in the conceptual stages of his show, and he is then able to execute it like a theatre play. Good theatre is entertaining, it is moving and certainly has value. This is a classic dispute of apples and oranges, and deadmau5’s only mistake in his tumblr post is trying to compare the two. I happen to know him; he’s a smart guy and he can take a joke. I also think he doesn’t fully understand — or care for — what DJing is at the core, but that doesn’t take away from his talent.
Recently there was a very cogent editorial post on the EDM blog Dancing Astronaut entitled “Dance Music Has Gone Mainstream But It Doesn’t Have To Sell Out.” It accused EDM DJs of becoming complacent in their selection. The writer states: “What worries me is not that DJs are simply ‘pressing play’, but that they’re pressing play on the same tracks in the same order night after night after night.” This is very true and might be the source of deadmau5’s confusion. For the DJs who bounce from venue to venue, playing the same set without the redeeming quality of a personalized stage production, there is no excuse. This laziness is actually giving “live” performances more value! After any big EDM festival, look up the DJ playlists. They’re frighteningly similar. This scene is turning into a caricature. Explosions, private jets, standing on tables (I plead guilty to the latter), and now carbon copy playlists… The hair metal soap opera of EDM risks devaluing a culture that has waited for its big break for 30 years.
Real DJing lives when you witness someone play for hours and take risks, reading the crowd and surprising them at the same time. On festival stages, it makes sense to use fool-proof equipment and put together a spectacular show. In today’s context, wouldn’t it be fair to say that the holy grail is a live performance that has the flexibility to integrate true improvisation? That is the ultimate win-win. To the DJs who choose to bypass the LED screen arms race and stick to their decks, I respect that too. Just make sure you give your audience something new every night. If you want to play David to deadmau5’s Goliath, earn it. Challenge yourself to challenge the crowd. And to all the new fans just discovering this genre, come to the shows with an open mind. Don’t just wait to hear the songs you already know. There’s a reason you’re not watching a band. DJing is still at the cutting edge of new music. Let yourself be surprised.