Hang the DJ

Doesn’t it seem like there are DJs popping up every five minutes? Thanks to computer programs like Serato Scratch Live – a program that enables computer files (mp3, wav, etc.) to be manipulated with actual turntables – anyone is able to take some software, raid their iTunes library, and make a mockery of what was once called musicianship. So please stop. There are already too many DJs!

Anyone more than a quarter of a century old should know that DJing, in its turntablist form, originated in 1972 along with the beginnings of Hip Hop. The tool that sparked its birth was the Technics 1200 turntable. These had a direct mechanical motor, an evolution from the archaic rubber-belt driven turntables of yesteryear. The direct drive allowed for intricate scratching and tempo matching, revolutionizing the DJs role into a true art.

It was as simple as two turntables, a mixer, and a sound system. But what kept it interesting and inventive was the DJs taste in music paired with their creativity and skills with vinyl. Being a disc jockey was more than just choosing track after track, but making those songs into another beast altogether. For example, “breaks” were taken from funk and soul songs to be renegotiated into another piece of music altogether, hence breakbeats.
Turntablism quickly became a recognized art form, and as the years rolled by, legends emerged, like Grand Master Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the late Jam Master Jay. Soon genres were crossing, and purely electronic music was opening doors for even more innovations.

One of my favourite DJs of all time, DJ Z-Trip, a Phoenix native now living in East LA, is one of the smartest and most innovative in his art form. Regarded as the father of the mash up, he has opened for Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. He does live mash ups and is known to take something like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and mix it with Clipse’s “Grindin”. His live show simply cannot be touched.

Before the term “mash up” even existed, Z-Trip and many others were mixing something familiar with something unheard of on a regular basis. Nowadays it just seems like a factory pumps out these “mash ups”. It’s these seemingly ironic mixes that have now bred the everyman into an annoying computer DJ, playing poor quality MP3s downloaded from the Internet. There was a time when the DJs role was beyond entertaining but also acting as a middleman to bring the new tracks to the public. “So many people call themselves DJs, or are DJs, and don’t even play records, they just go up and play stuff off their computer,” says Z-Trip of the terrible phenomenon. 

Yet no one can sum up exactly how I feel like the Smiths, on their song “Panic” – “Burn down the disco. Hang the blessed DJ. Because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.”

The truth of the matter is that I can’t completely blame the overcrowded DJ scene on technology. But I can blame it on poor taste. A true artist would take the newest technology, pair it up with their already immaculate collection and turn it into a great DJ set. An amazing DJ is able to read the crowd and play to them accordingly. Nowadays it’s just top 40 tracks with a shitty mash up made by someone’s computer.

Z-Trip, someone who undoubtedly has an amazing collection of vinyl, says that Serato has “brought a breath of fresh air into DJing for me because it allows me to do things I wouldn’t do normally.” Z-Trip uses Serato in conjunction with the magic he has already collected and ends up blowing away the strictly computer DJs. 

The magic I refer to is born in the endless hours that he and any other DJ worth his tables spends in little known record shops. Crate digging is something that should not be put to bed just because of the technological advance. It might only take money to get a computer and download music, but it takes a whole lot more to be a valid DJ. It takes taste, skill, dedication and personality – something that not everyone has. 

At the same time, it does take a great amount of experience – years, you might say, and a lot of money spent on a vinyl collection to make a great DJ. So on the flip side, maybe the new technology can break down these barriers to allow for someone who has great taste but limited time and funding... I still don’t think so, but hey, what do I know? I’m just a drummer.

// Karen Lum

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com