'Course I was Djing at house parties back in the mid-80s, you know. Jealous? DON'T BE. It was Djing of a peculiarly un-interactive, hands-off nature, really. Realising that the equipment would be rather basic (i.e. someone's midi-system if you were LUCKY) it was a simple case of just whacking a load of good tunes down on tape and taking it along. NO WORRIES.
Of course, the more devious amongst us would make up several tapes so we could play a "set" that slotted in nicely with the mood of the party - i.e. banging boshing tunes if the crowd was up for it and ballads and downbeat stuff if people were just drunkenly groping each other. Inevitably there would be a lot of thought put into track-listings, a lot of trying to stretch your wages from stacking shelves in the supermarket at the weekend into buying cheap records, and all the usual argy bargy involved in fighting off all-comers to ensure that you got your turn on the night. Come on, then!
This sort of stuff was definitely my apprenticeship - all the skills I learnt at parties when I was still at school are the foundation of what I do today. Not that that's saying too much - if you were expecting tips on how to become some kind of celebrity DJ at a super-club, you are in the WRONG PLACE. Fuck all that stuff, quite frankly.
If you include the pre-taped sets mentioned above, I have now been "DJ-ing" on and off (mostly off - sometimes it's twice a year) for 16 years - including 12 with the proper "decks and cross-fader" set up. I think I've been paid for it about 6 times in that period. I still can't beat mix. I do alright. Without coming on like your grandad, things have changed quite a lot since I was a spotty teenager with a fetish for New Order. I think it's got a lot more regimented, less chaotic. Worse.
All the dance mags were ejaculating with excitement when it was revealed that decks were outselling electric guitars for the first time in history. This has gone hand-in-hand with these same mags promoting DJ's as stars since acieeeeed house kicked off big style in '88 and had all the "rock" magazines pissing in their putrid leather trousers because it was all so anonymous. Ha! If only it WAS anonymous - then we wouldn't have to deal with all the bullshit that spews out of yer average celeb-DJ's coke-addled brain. Or their records, for that matter.
"Back in the day", the NME was hailing dance music as being the new punk - anyone could mix records together and anyone could buy a sampler and rip off all the best bits of their favourite tunes to make New! Exciting! Dance music. Ignoring the small fact that samplers cost about a grand and decks aren't much cheaper, this represented a move away from musician as virtuoso and hailed a new era of Top Tunes being made by legions of guttersnipes who couldn't play a note.
Well that didn't last, did it? Bah! Foiled Again! Yeah, we still have an endless array of anonymous white-labels (mmmmmm just off to stroke and sniff my records ), but unsurprisingly there were a few people only too happy to buck the anonymity trend - Adamski, Orbital, etc. Nowt wrong with that, but it's an interesting lesson in how the needs of the rock press and music industry will always be met. The gits.
And then DJ's started to become interesting. Except they didn't, really. They just got loads of coverage. Coupled with loads of "lifestyle" features about clubbing that focussed on pictures of beautiful dancers (and ugly DJs), the experience of clubbing became fetishised, fashionable and a feeding ground for advertising execs and small businessmen. (To the extent that clubs like Open on London's Charring Cross Road are now said to have a private room for ad-execs to monitor emerging trends on the dancefloor through a 2-way mirror. Pervy or what?)
Throughout this process, the idea of what a DJ is started to change from a bloke in the corner putting on records to the club DJ as "star". More emphasis was placed on the supposed skills of the trade, like beat-mixing or programming a set. More emphasis was placed on the glamour of drugs, groupies (Muzik's 1st cover story was about DJ-groupies) and the glamour of being a top of the league DJ. All the dull bits like endless motorways, hanging about in dodgy hotels, playing to empty clubs, and grief from club promoters were airbrushed out of the picture to present a gleaming view of DJ as rock star.
The kids lapped it up (and I don't blame them), bought decks, started hanging around in record shops and aspiring to Make It Big. This also lead indirectly to a specialisation of what kind of music people bought, and therefore played out. No point in bothering with anything too left-field because you can't play stuff like that down at The Ministry, can you? And you need to be ready because that Big Break might be just around the corner yeah right.
This sort of specialisation reinforces the idea that you can only be a success if you're playing the Latest Tunes to a big crowd of people in a big club (and, by implication, living the glamorous lifestyle that goes with it). Anything less simply will not do. Aspiring DJs therefore end up competing with each other for the affections of promoters, record shop staff, label owners and so on. Because there ain't much room at the top, is there? Particularly as all the places have already been nabbed. There is a tendency to focus on the trappings of success and how to get there instead of the rush of pleasure you get from playing a great tune or getting people dancing.
All of this has been confirmed with conversations I've had with kids that are just getting into clubbing. There's a kind of awe that goes along with the very fact of knowing, or being, a DJ. My status at work rocketed when people found out that I had decks at home, despite my vigorous denials of being any kind of DJ - "I just play records!". Talking to DJs has revealed a kind of latent conservatism - there are so many people these days that only stick to their own particular sub-genre, because they don't have the time or money to check out anything else. Therefore any kind of eclecticism is buried under the desperate need to keep up with all the latest tunes of a particular type.
So, what to do, eh? My guess is that the role of "DJ" as specialist is here to stay, and there's not much idealists like me can do about it. Having said that, it is always worth analysing your motivations and having a critical look at the machinations of the music industry. It also worth trying to subvert things on a small scale by demystifying the whole "DJ-as-rock-star" thing by:
I think, analysis aside, that my main problem with all of this is the effect it has on people and the way they relate to each other. Even at house parties you get an absurd amount of DJ politics with people worrying about when they're going on and their "sets".
It's become less and less about hustling to get your particular kind of music played, with all the creative possibilities involved with that like sticking on weird mixes of records, obscure tunes, and creating strange conjunctions as part of a set.
Conversely it's become more and more about a career path - occupying a space for people who are quite rightly not keen on a 9 to 5 grind. (It's been said that being a web designer or a DJ is the new being on the dole.) This isn't to say that wanting to be a DJ is a bad thing. Let's face it, the attractions are obvious. My concern is that the culture of DJ has shifted the emphasis in dance music away from something open, co-operative and innovative - and back to the old rock star drool.
There is something fundamentally worthwhile about a good house party with various mates having a go on the decks and then returning to the party - people doing stupid dancing and whoops making the night just as memorable as the outrageous bullshitters holding court in the kitchen, who are just as important as the people who did the food, who are just as important as the bods on the turntables. Those roles are immediately closed down even in small clubs - the finances dictate that there is an immediate split between punters and staff - and you don't have to be a genius to figure out which side the DJ is on.
I guess it's inevitable that whenever an area of creativity and hedonism opens up that this will become a commercial concern. My problem, as I said, is not with people who are aspiring DJs. My problem is that fucking about with a bunch of records is increasingly a means to an end rather than an end in itself. People don't bring tapes to parties these days.
LOKI 15th March 2001