Mixed Metaphors

by Misha Lepetic

Digger2There's a certain kind of conversation in which I find myself every so often, which can roughly be summarized as “What's the big deal about DJing”? As someone who was a quasi-professional DJ in a former life, and is currently what one friend terms a 'monastic DJ', I've sensed a substantial gap in lay understanding of not just what a DJ does while engaged in the act of mixing, but also the place occupied by DJs in the contemporary musical ecosystem. This attitude — not unlike looking at a Jackson Pollock while muttering to yourself that you could do just as well — has received further support from the rise and fall of the spectacularly excessive (and, to my ears, creatively bankrupt) EDM scene; the unholy marriage of superstar DJs, casino-based clubs and overpriced bottle service; and the fact that watching someone DJ is fundamentally uninteresting.

Is there any value in mixing other people's music? When viewed from the most reductive position, the answer is clearly not. As critic David Hepworth noted in a now-deleted blog post, “You must surely realise that you make your living by putting on records, which is only a tiny bit removed in degree of difficulty from switching on the radio.” If that's all that DJs are good for, then I suppose it's a relief that streaming services and software-driven playlists have come along to put this particular horse-and-buggy paradigm out of its misery.

Instead, it's more helpful to look at the larger role that DJs play in parsing the ocean of music in which we swim in these post-Napster days. Just as we turn to critics in other fields to understand what we should be reading or watching, we also turn to DJs for clarity on what to listen to. In this sense, the appropriate metaphor is one of the DJ as tastemaker.

In order to talk about how a DJ guides others' taste in music, we have to address the DJ's own, internal process. Over time, a DJ is a collector, a curator and an editor. Of course, being a DJ involves inhabiting all three of these roles at the same time, all the time, but there is also a progression here. I'll go over each of these and then return to what it means to be a tastemaker at the end of this post.

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Digger3Collecting is the baseline activity for any DJ. Obviously, pretty much everyone has a music collection, but DJs take it to an obsessive level. Whether you're steeped in a particular genre — probably the most common trajectory—or collect the music from a particular era or geography, a DJ's collection is the foundation from which everything else flows.

Collecting is an endless process. To be sure, there is a real joy in finding obscure gems that might be decades old, or music that's just extremely overlooked. This is generally known as crate-digging. Collecting can also become an arms race — ie, the competition to access new releases before they drop commercially. But even if you have the hot new remix from so-and-so, or a white label vinyl pressing that no one else does, you might be ahead of the game for a week, and then only in your little tide pool of the electronic music universe. And while the collecting arms race led to interesting collective responses, too, such as the creation, in 1975, of record pools, any DJ quickly finds out that simply having a solid collection is necessary, but not sufficient, for realizing the work itself.

If collecting is about wrapping your arms around as much of your chosen domain as possible, we may logically ask if there is a thing as too much music? It's not unusual for DJs to have 15,000 or more tracks in their collections, as well as stacks of records and CDs that patiently await a critical listening. To which I would say, that's like asking a painter if they have too many colors in their palette, or an interior decorator if they have too many fabric swatches, or a fashion designer too many styles of buttons. All of these professionals engage in the act of remixing their materials into new, exciting and perhaps most importantly, appropriate arragements that speak to the needs of a unique aesthetic moment. So it's not so much an issue of having too much music, but rather the possibility of owning something and not knowing that you do.

The DJ's collection is the DJ's instrument.

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Digger4Curation is, admittedly, a word that's been beaten to death in the last few years. Everyone is a curator now — if only because they are ‘curating' their own life. This is nonsense. It's kind of like saying that we're all knowledge workers, or that everyone we work for is a client.

In a stricter sense, curation is the act of assembling a representative collection of (traditionally tangible) objects. The assembly makes sense in some way — it is literally sense-making. So if you went to the recent Picasso sculpture retrospective at New York's MoMA, you didn't expect to see all of Picasso's sculptures, but a strategic sampling of them, displayed and annotated to demonstrate the artist's progression through time and across media.

In the same sense, the DJ is a curator for a particular domain of sound. Having listened to thousands of tracks, the DJ can select the seminal compositions that demonstrate the development of a sound or genre through its history (indeed, in some musical cultures DJs are known simply as ‘selectors'). This curatorial act can be performed either in real time, or in hindsight.

In the case of the former, the DJ is helping to define the sound of the moment. Kool DJ Red Alert did as much for hip-hop in the 80s and 90s with his long-running show on New York's 98.7 KISS-FM. But DJs also continue to define the contours of a genre even after it's become well-established. A good example here is the seminal set of mixes that Solitude (Tom Bond) has done for UK dubstep.

One more distinction bears mentioning here: while valuable, the kind of curation seen in various oral histories and “bluffer's guides” around the Web differs from the curation a DJ does (a charming example is this guide to Italo-disco). It's also distinct from the kind of magisterial presence that trend-setters such as John Peel had. In Peel's case he cultivated a weekly show for BBC Radio 1 over the remarkable span of nearly 40 years and helped to break countless bands to a global audience.

In contrast to these functions, the DJ presents the results of curation in the form of a mix. This may seem trivial, but the fact is that much of this music is designed to be heard in a mix. For example, it's not uncommon for dance tracks to begin in a thoroughly uninspiring manner, as with a simple kick drum hitting every beat. That's because producers know that DJs need a few bars to sync up the new track to its predecessor; a naked kick drum is the toehold that allows for a quick and effective transition. By the same token, dance music tracks, unlike pop music, rarely fade out, but will have elements drop out over a regular increments of time (usually denoted in cycles of 16 beats), until there is usually only a kick drum remaining. This way the DJ can mix out of the expiring track in an elegant and seamless manner. Thus, this design for mixing carries the additional, curious trait that certain parts of a track aren't meant to be heard by anyone but the DJ.

The mix is the preferred, long-term format for understanding electronic music. When DJs listen to individual tracks they are always thinking about how those tracks can be made to interact with other tracks in their collection. A beautiful song that has no possibility of interacting with the rest of a collection is simply not useful, since the desired outcome will always be a series of relationships between musical thoughts. Another way of thinking about listening to mixes versus standalone tracks is comparing it to the difference between reading a paragraph and immersing yourself in an essay. A good mix is an extended, coherent argument.

In the same way that you go to a museum to understand how to think about Picasso, you listen to DJs in order to understand how to think about a genre, or to see where a particular sound is headed.

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Digger1Finally, editing draws upon the DJ's skills in making decisions in real time. This can be within the context of a live gig or a studio recording. Both have advantages — the good DJ feeds off the crowd and tailors selections for the moment, while studio recording allows a DJ to carefully assemble a definitive statement over the course of days or weeks (this exemplary techno mix by British selector Objekt took several months to refine and polish).

In both cases, DJs not only select what they will play, and in what order, but make many other decisions. There's really no reason to play a track all the way through, and DJs who tend to only do this I generally regard as pretty lazy. It's more interesting if you can start Track A at the breakdown, then mix Track B from its beginning, then mix back into the beginning of Track A, and end with the second half of Track B. Even better, save the second half of Track B until you've played some of Track C.

All of these decisions are accompanied by the skills and tools that DJs have traditionally had — equalization, cross-fading, pitch shifting, simple hi-pass/lo-pass filters. Digital DJing has added many more, such as effects, loops, and cue points. The ability to access tracks, beats and samples quickly has also reduced the time it takes to perform an edit in real time, to the extent that DJs with the right raw materials and skills can execute what are essentially remixes on the fly, or custom flows that can never be repeated.

It follows, then, that DJing technology blurs the lines between the extroverted phenomenon of playback and introverted correlate of production. While it's not production as it's commonly understood, what's created is a grey zone that may make the source material difficult to separate out from the mix as a whole. A good DJ will emphasize specific aspects of the music, or bring elements from different tracks into dialog with one another. This is all in the service of showing a listener the best that a certain collection has to offer. I discuss an example from my own mixing here.

Good DJs take the most interesting bits and put them together in the most interesting ways.

To return to the idea of tastemaking then: the DJ stands as the interpreter through which listeners access sound. In fact, this is virtually a requirement for electronic music in particular, with thousands of producers working across hundreds of genres that are constantly cross-pollinating one another. Moreover, the tempo of production has increased dramatically, due to the falling cost of both studio gear and distribution (at this point, only a laptop and an internet connection are needed to launch a project or even a record label). This is radically different from any other genre of music, which either has a fixed repertoire (classical) or is expanding, but slowly (jazz, rock and pop). It's an ocean of oceans out there — let a DJ help you make sense of it all.

This post is an expanded version of the first post on my new Medium blog, which focuses on the art of mixing records.

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