Respected DJs are queuing up to have a pop at ‘push-button DJs’. They say the EDM explosion favours spectacle and obvious playlists over skills like mixing and crate-digging. Elder statesman DJ and Ibiza legend Tim Sheridan asks if it’s really EDM that’s to blame, or something deeper...
When Wunderground website ran a fake interview with David Guetta recently in which the DJ supposedly ‘admitted’ to pre-recording his sets, the amount of people who took it seriously (to the point of outrage) spoke volumes about the crackling tensions currently running through the world of DJing. Long-established heroes like Frankie Knuckles (pictured) and David Morales chimed in immediately. There were echoes of previous DJ beefs like DJ Sneak vs Swedish House Mafia or Deadmau5’s Twitter evisceration of ‘push-button DJs’. Even though the video was a hoax (Guetta, more than most, could claim to have served his time behind the decks over the last 20 years), it seems as though not a day passes in dance music without somebody bemoaning the rise of ‘Plastic DJs’ and what the recent EDM explosion seems to have done to our craft. There seem to be three strands to this argument; let’s have a little look, shall we?
1. “Sync buttons and laptop DJing have killed the art of mixing”
Shazam-Beatport-Sync… GO! It sounds like something you’d shout as you emerge from a telephone box while ripping your shirt open, but in fact it’s the unconscious mantra of today’s Plastic DJ. The sync function is the latest tech to burn the buttocks of the DJ panic-chatters. Typically, and utterly unsurprisingly, a world full of spotty DJ herberts has decided that the decline of our civilisation is an issue of automation. Recall, if you will, when the lip flappage was about bootlegs or MP3s, or CDs, or Walkmen, or gramophones… or the wheel. Fretting about sync buttons is a classic Clarksonian response to any problem. “My car isn’t working efficiently! Quick! Dismantle the entire universe immediately, it simply must be the onboard dongle and manifold management system” etc. No-one ever says, “Maybe you are just a fucking awful driver, Jeremy.”
It does a great disservice to the DJ and our craft if you boil what we do down to technology – or even just to mixing. To say a DJ is only as good as what occurs in the minutes he blends the tracks together is basically saying that we are some kind of flesh jukebox. When you pay to hear a DJ you are buying a ticket to knowledge. Automated mixing’s audio-Switzerland of neutrality between two awful tracks is not what makes me spray sick out of my ears, it’s the two hours of lazily chosen disco-snoring that truly pains. It’s not the L-plate and stabiliser wheels for learner DJs, like sync, that are killing us. Getting angry at the sync button is like throat-punching a Teletubbie for not speaking properly. No, it’s much deeper – and sadly more worrying.
Having said all that, anyone who uses a sync button anywhere in public should lose that finger and each subsequent appendage thereafter in Sharia Disco Law. I’d like that twat-caveat to be taken into the most stringent consideration. Just as it’s not the finger that commits the crime, it’s the person, it’s not the hands doing the mixing that make the DJ – it’s the lifetime lived, forever married to music.
2. “DJs no longer bother to ‘dig’ for their music, preferring to play the obvious hits”
I know when I stopped being a bad DJ (fairly recently in fact): it’s when I learned the true value of ignorance. It’s not the enemy – laziness is. It’s all very well shopping for music online in the genre de jour from your sofa, but being out in the world digging in crates in crusty New York (or even Manchester) second-hand shops and standing in a warehouse full of old vinyl can instil a genuinely humbling sense of wonder at the stuff that has gone before. To truly know your place in the universe it’s important to be made to feel small, not to be ‘in control’. There is a danger in sitting at home with things at your fingertips, enjoying the epitome of consumerist ‘choice’ and falling into the deep modern pit of thinking you are the balls. It’s just not real. It’s healthy to be humble, curious and open. Sometimes you just accidentally have to buy that dodgy Belgian New Beat 80s compilation or endure the rest of the job lot you bought from a mobile wedding DJ or plough through Frank Zappa’s vast catalogue to see the true scope of what it is you’re involved in. If you think you are involved in techno, or ‘EDM’, or even just electronica, you are dead wrong. We are in music. All of it.
The DJs you worship didn’t get there overnight via nicking other people’s sets and copying them. They are the sum total of years of being entirely immersed. It’s the years of not knowing, and then learning, that matter, not the five minutes of false victory after a lazy set of Top 10 Beatport bangers. I know, because I spent some lost years recently trying to compete with younger people by playing their game of dishwater-dull tech-house instead of using my clear advantages: experience and a large collection of webfooted barking cosmic wonders. That and looking a bit like a cross between the Yorkshire Ripper and a haunted badger.
When you Shazam something in those seconds you are truly losing out. Every time you do it you literally pour lost knowledge out of your head onto the ground in a sad wee think-puddle. Again, like sync it’s a tool – and a tool in the hands of a master makes beauty and truth. But when you rely on the tool without thinking, the hand that wields it is just a hand. How can you possibly love and grow with anything if you avoid all contact with it? You can’t become a DJ by plucking someone else’s tunes out of the air like nicking wishes. You can’t really do justice to music if it comes too easy. Being a DJ is about being an authority. Authority comes through contact and immersion, not prancing about catching MP3 butterflies with a digital net. In a nutshell, the true hazard of our times is that information should never be confused with knowledge. Just because you have something, doesn’t mean you own it.
3. “Spectacle has replaced music as the primary FORCE in a DJ’s performance”
When confronted by the accusation that he’d used a pre-mixed CD sans headphones at a major gig recently, one of EDM’s biggest stars not only confessed to being totally guilty, but said that it was necessary as part of his incredibly complex job of playing someone else’s record at the right moment to go with some bangers and glitter. It’s nothing new. A decade ago at Fabric I saw one of clubland’s most revered figures caught red-handed by Fabric’s owner leaping, gurning and fist-pumping like a PG Tips chimp while frantically twisting at the mixer like he was delivering a difficult robot baby with two jelly spanners. Unfortunately, the actual channels being throttled were not, in fact, in use. A mix CD was merrily working away quietly like Rod Hull; meanwhile everyone thought Robo-Emu was brilliant.
Is there ever an excuse for cheaters? Are we talking about the spectacle overtaking the craft? Certainly people describe going to ‘see’ a DJ. Not hear. And for sure, there is always fear at the upper levels of anything. Few people do live mixes, radio totally shits DJs up and some at the top have people that do everything from mixing to selection to pre-warming their underpants. Fear kills everything it touches. The conservative impulse is to preserve your hard-earned against a lifetime of shit that hasn’t even happened yet – and if that’s not fear I don’t know what is. To be at the top is to live in a constant state of mild fear that you will diminish or lose or be found out. Fear makes rational, good people do crazy things – and then even crazier things to justify the first crazy bit. Even the tired gesture of the DJ whooping and waving their hands in the air is a sign of the music drowning and the spectacle taking over. The spectacle, money and the showbiz have overtaken all – even notions of honesty.
The French philosopher Guy Debord described this in the 1950s in his ace manifesto The Society Of The Spectacle. In it he spoke of a day when nothing at all of substance would matter, only the impression of it being important. If you like, the gig is meaningless compared to the press review of it. He also predicted that “the art of the future will be to overthrow all previous art or nothing”. So who cares what we have as long as it’s not the last load of old rubbish! It really doesn’t matter if the mixer isn’t plugged in as long as everyone is talking about it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t DJ as long as thousands are stood watching – even if none of them are listening or dancing. This is the crux of the argument for modern art. If I sign a copy of Mixmag and you pay me a million pounds for it then it becomes a work of art worth a million because a million pounds have said so. Its true worth, as an object, is meaningless. Its value is purely its worth as spectacle in the business we call ‘show’.
So it begs the question: what is the actual difference between a shiny outstanding amateur talent and a shitawful professional? Is the answer ‘showbiz’? There is a fat line between being fresh and irreverent and just being lazy and shit. How do you know where the pearl in the turd is in all this? The truth is that you, dear reader, will ultimately decide.
Imagine a crowd that truly respects the professionals because they themselves have tried and failed, or seen one too many DJ cheats and found them wanting. We know rubbish when we see it. When you stop and listen even more is revealed. Strain your ears and not your eyes and you will hear the small mixing imperfections that show a DJ is not cheating. You’ll hear the very real difference between an MP3 and vinyl, and your ears will thank you for ever more when you treat them to something real rather than the tossed-off amateurism of the Plastic DJ cheats. The up-side of a world where everyone is a wannabe DJ is one day they will find out what it really takes. Then we’ll end up with a crowd full of people who really appreciate quality served up admirably by smart promoters who won’t patronise us.
So praise the lord of the dance for the clubs like Optimo, Back To Basics, Superfreq, World Unknown, Thunder, Boy’s Own and the many honourably unnamed others who graft away on the outskirts of the mainstream. It’s no surprise at all to see a rise in vinyl-only extremists and nights that have literally cut themselves off from mainstream dance music like severing a sinning limb. No huge names, no club infrastructure, word of mouth promotion and beautifully and blissfully free of all club fads. They are raves, and they’re totally for real. And the ravers are young and they might never have been out until last week but they know quality when they hear it and shit when they smell it. The worse the Plastic DJs and their clubs get the more people will draw the line and embrace the New Real. The fat cats should be scared: their days are numbered.
Perhaps the last word should go to one of the people who invented house music. Frankie Knuckles may have been responding to a spoof, but he’s always worth listening to.
“I’ve spent forty years at this craft of DJing. Every time I step up to play, to this day I’m scared beyond imagination. But I never let it get to the stage where I perpetrate a fraud on the public… Not every mix is perfect. Nothing in life is perfect.” I’ll take real over perfect every time.