The Art of the DJ. Is it Dead?

In short, the answer is obviously no.

Not everybody can be a DJ.

But if you look at the root of the problem, it lies in its definition; It is an assumption that all people can DJ. Being a DJ, like many things, is an art form of multiple factors. There is a strong amount of talent and practice that goes behind this art just like any other, inside of many different areas.

Not every sculptor can be a great painter.

Not every celebrity can be a DJ.

Or can they?

The term “DJ” is the problem.

Nobody really understands what a DJ does, in reality they just suppose they play music for their raving-mindless fans. All the while, there are some outlets focusing on bringing these fans into the “limelight” and exposing “certain truths” about the culture. If you really think about it, creating a great mix can be about as (if not more) difficult than composing a piece of music, for example. This is how we separate artists from actors in electronic music. There can be both a DJ who represents a label, playing out certain key tracks to an audience (similar to how an actor would represent a film) and then someone who either produces, engineers, or composes music (similar to someone who would as an artist).

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Don’t be confused about the two, because believe it or not they are entirely different (see the hundreds of articles distinguishing the two), while some DJ’s enthuse the area of representation, style, and formalities of turntable-isms, others emphasize creativity, spontaneity, and raw force of the underground sounds being created.  These differences do not break the DJ, but instead, they make and mold their image.

The position of the DJ is no doubt important to dance music culture and clubbing, without it, we would see a less representative part of the culture. “To replace the DJ,” in all their individual and separate powers of shamanic influence. It’s not just about beat matching, and that argument hilariously was laid to rest a long, long time ago. It’s perfectly fine to sync. In fact, some artists are almost required to, as due to the complexity of their performances, using multiple sources to manipulate the tracks unlike a simple old-fashioned SL-1200 setup. This type of setup deserves protection, as it may outlast many DJ techniques as a form of culture.

None the less, these things are never brought forth into the “limelight” of most clubbing fans. There is a whole new world of discovery much further deep into DJ culture. This world involves the open and active expression of many artists working together to forward a particular style of electronic music. This isn’t your celebrity DJ we are talking about, but instead, the guy you actually have never even heard of. Here’s the big question about the art of DJing: performance or expression?

You can perform all the latest demos that have been sent in by artists representing a label, or you can express your own demos in art form. You can perform the songs that will make people dance, or you can select the tracks which will have the most impact on the moment. These differences are observed as crucial to defining a DJ’s style.

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Geography should not affect the way their styles can be differentiated. It does however create separation between the two different areas of performance versus expression. I’ve personally always thought that the DJ is most effective when he is closest to the culture or the underground scene that they belong to. Take for example Richie Hawtin; Growing up in Windsor and moving into Detroit, playing the tracks which most expressed the sound he loved at the time. This isn’t something you can hear on a radio, but none the less, there were DJs present there. I think this closeness factor helps differentiate between expression and performance (for an audience). A DJ could be measured as more close when he is more expressive and connected, and less close when he is performing and acting for the sake of the music and his job. This lies in motives as being either intrinsic or extrinsic in nature. The intrinsic nature of artistic expression only grows the underground dance music culture, where the performance can makes it more competitive.

Technology can make the job of the DJ easier, it will allow for a larger scale of proportion which in turn can result in bookings and money: These are all comparative factors for competition.

We need to get to the source of why the question of death is being asked: expression or performance?
Once the expression of the DJ is eclipsed by social comparisons about style and technologies, we will see a much more ambiguous question: Is the DJ expressive, at all?
Yes, we know they all press play, but pushing a button does not define the DJ or his performances, rather, it is what comes after the button is pushed.

Think of these buttons as piano keys, and Beethoven as the pusher. Was there expression present in his notes? There most definitely was. It is up to the underground dance music community to show appreciation of the difference between these two factors of performance and or expression. If there is no expression present, the DJ is largely lacking a crucial concept and is more so an “actor” of sorts doing what they have been told, in order to make money and further their external causes.

I wrote last about the struggles DJs face based on their cultural locations. I found it fascinating that DJs in rural locations were more often expressive and on the cutting edge of what was happening in their genre (technology STRONGLY insignificant in this). Additionally, as the DJ became more city-based their external motivation seemed to increase more and more, based easily on social comparisons from having the scene so closely knit around them. Is this difference creating the art form of the DJ or destroying it?

However simple to answer, the fact that DJ culture is becoming diluted with sad competition and social comparison is underwhelming. What should be said about the art of the DJ is that expression and individual connection to the music should always be present a main factor, even above performances, venues, or technologies.

It really truly is about the music people!