Confessions of a DJ

Mark Richards, Control Data Corp 6660, 2007, from Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers, by John Alderman & Mark Richards, Chronicle Books. Color Photograph. Courtesy of the Artist.

I’ve DJed in more than two dozen countries. What I do isn’t remotely popular in any of them.

It’s hard to reach North Cyprus—the Turkish portion of the island that seceded after a war with Greece in 1974—not least because only one country, Turkey, officially recognizes it. Yet there we were, whizzing through arid country past pastel bunker-mansions, the architectural embodiment of militarized paranoia and extreme wealth, en route to an empty four-star hotel. We were going to rest for a day and then play music in the ruins of a crusader castle. It was the year 2000. I was the turntablist for an acid jazz group from New York City. The band didn’t really need a DJ, but it did need someone to signify “hip-hop,” and that was me. There were six of us—our saxophonist leader, Ilhan Irsahim; a singer, Norah Jones, before she was known for anything besides being Ravi Shankar’s daughter; a bassist, a drummer, and a Haitian sampler-player. There were four attendants in the hotel casino, bored behind the gaming tables, and only two other paying guests—British pensioners, holdovers from remembered pre-1974 days when Cyprus was undivided.

I sat beside the pool talking to our host, trying to figure out why we were there. Down the coast, thirty miles away in the haze, a tall cluster of glass-and-steel buildings hugged the shore. “What’s that city?” I asked. It looked like Miami. “Varosha,” she said. Completely evacuated in the 1974 conflict. A ghost town on the dividing line between North and South Cyprus. The only people there were UN patrol units and kids from either side who entered the prohibited zone to live out a J. G. Ballard fantasy of decadent parties in abandoned seaside resorts.

If North Cyprus represented the forgotten side of a fault line of global conflict, how were we getting paid? Who owned those scattered mansions that we saw on the way from the airport? Was our trip bankrolled with narco-dollars, to please the criminals hiding out in an empty landscape, or with Turkish state funding, to win tourists back? I never found out. I bought a laptop with my earnings, quit the band, and moved from New York to Barcelona.

DJed music develops in the great centers: London, New York, Paris. But the artists make much of their living in forays to the periphery. To state culture bureaus, our music sounds like art and the “avant-garde,” a means of prestige. To kids coming of age in a world of technology and unhinged capitalism, our music seems to sound the way global capital is—liquid, international, porous, and sped-up.

Yet our sounds are also a vocabulary for those who detest the walled-off concentrations of wealth, and steal property back: the collectives that build their own sound systems, stage free parties, and invite DJs to perform. The international DJ becomes emblematic of global capitalism’s complicated cultural dimension. On flights and at the free Continental breakfasts in hotels, often the same soul-destroying hotel chains in each city, we get stuck chatting with our fellow Americans and Western Europeans, the executives eager to find compatriots. We make small talk with these consultants and deal-makers in the descending elevators in the evening—then go out to the city’s dead-end and unowned spaces or its luxury venues to soundtrack the night of the region’s youth, hungry for something new. DJ music is now the common art form of squatters and the nouveau riche; it is the soundtrack both for capital and for its opposition.

As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it’s what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it’s largely illegal.

In 2001 I recorded a three-turntable, sixty-minute mix called Gold Teeth Thief. I put it on the internet so my friends could listen. Who else would? One magazine reviewed it, then another, and soon a lot of magazines, leading to hundreds of thousands of downloads. Meanwhile, I was in Madrid without regular internet access. I didn’t know what was up. A few months after it went online, I got a phone call from a large European independent label. I’d used one of their songs on the mix. They loved it! It was the best DJ session they’d heard in ages! They wanted to license the mix, assuming they could pay the various labels a fee of $1,000 per track. (There were eighteen tracks on the run list.) “That’d be fantastic,” I said, “but pretty expensive. I use forty-four different songs on it. Some of those are major pop tunes, and a bunch are unlicensable bootlegs. It’d be a nightmare to do legally.” They insisted that I send a complete track list so that their legal department could decide. Result: “Impossible. Our lawyers laughed at us.”

If I were a band, and Gold Teeth Thief an album, not a mix, that would have been my big break. A powerful label, big advance fees, well-connected publicists, a coordinated tour. But it’s more common for even a popular DJ to receive a cease-and-desist order than to get a mix-album deal with a large label.

It’s hard to care. Viral culture doesn’t play well with intellectual property laws. I knew Gold Teeth Thief couldn’t enter the commercial world when I did it. I didn’t need it to. Word-of-mouth buzz and bootleg mixes are the DJ’s symbolic currency; gigs provide the cash. I’ve toured well in countries where my music wasn’t available for purchase—people had heard it. On his first visit to Moscow, a rapper friend named Sole found his own music bootlegged in a black-market mall. In fact, the place is called the Black Market Mall. He was thrilled, and with good reason—that night’s audience sang along word for word. He was able to tour. Metaphors of the “underground” and codifications of the “commercial” mean less and less with MySpace.

Economics favor the DJ. A club can make an event out of one big-name DJ plus local support, and pay just the headliner. (And DJing can make for a long night of drinks-buying: in a rare example, eight hours of nonstop entertainment from a particularly famous Chilean-German drugged-up minimal techno superstar.) A popular indie band would have to be paid vastly more for each member to walk away with similar earnings. Plus it’s only one plane ticket for the DJ; the band needs to drive, needs roadies, et cetera. Even in cheapskate America—a country notoriously apathetic toward DJ culture (which it created!)—upper-echelon techno DJs have received, say, $18,000 for a three-hour club performance in Manhattan. That’s $100 a minute. But only a few dozen DJs worldwide can command those fees. The much more common scenario is that of the DJ who plays for free drinks and cab fare, never earning more than he spends on records.

At the other end of the spectrum from the official luxury clubs lie the squatted venues, the microcommunities. These anarchic spaces are best understood as alternative social centers, especially in Western Europe where property laws offer squatters a modicum of legal protection. A thousand people came to the last party that my friend Filastine and I threw in La Makabra. La Makabra sprawled across media manzana (half a city block) in the Barcelona district called Poble Nou—“new city,” in Catalan. The squat had a gymnasium, library, nursery, skate park, two concert halls, and space for at least thirty people to live. They had a lawyer. We met Swiss gallerists and homeless kids, all dancing. Six months later the cops evicted the residents (illegally) and bulldozed the place within hours. But Makabras exist all over Europe: in Milan, Paris, Ljubljana.

Between the rich and spiritually vacant venues and the poor and illegally occupied ones are all manner of places to perform, from crazy artist-run clubs like Hamburg’s infamous Golden Pudel to countryside festivals with temporary populations the size of a small town (including the teknivals staged by “travelers,” a European hybrid of ravers, anarcho-punks, and off-the-grid nomads). Not to mention middle-range loopholes where economic rules are suspended. Government money for cutting-edge parties? It happens. Impossible things become possible. Dead of winter, somewhere in Austria: we’re playing outside—well, technically we’re playing inside a subzero meat locker in a parking lot near a cleaned-up industrial canal. We, the performers, are in one meat locker, and the speakers are in two adjacent meat lockers for the audience, where the thermostats are set as low as they can go. I can’t remember if the hot cider was free or not. I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t have been: everything else was funded by Austrian taxpayers. Arts funding in Europe is like magic dust.

When you’re back home, a different kind of magic accompanies the DJ’s aura: the easy money of remixes, corporate events, advertising. Twice I’ve been scheduled to play a gig with a really well-known DJ. Twice he’s canceled to do a corporate event. Global brands fly him around the world to entertain their private parties. Since these events pay so well and are so fundamentally uncool, there are DJs whose corporate earnings far exceed that from their public gigs—but they’ll never admit it. A couple of years ago a magazine even flew me across an ocean to play for forty-five minutes. Naked girls on pedestals got their bodies painted and everybody else shouted at each other over mouthfuls of free sushi.

I do receive plenty of remix offers, courtesy of everyone from an Algerian raï singer to a Spanish girl group asking me to “improve” their number one hit. You can’t improve a number one hit by making it better—not in these people’s world. When people request remixes, what they really want is to attach a DJ’s name to theirs. Aura is contagious, aura rubs off. The music tends to be secondary. And so the more money a label offers me to remix, the less time I spend on it. For remix offers of $1,000 and up, my time limit is eight hours of work, start to finish. If I spend any longer, the track will inevitably get more personal and the label people will be less likely to accept it. Besides, eight hours is a lot of time to spend on something that you won’t necessarily get paid for. If a label rejects your remix, you can’t release it elsewhere, since the label owns the music.

On tour, life becomes simplified. Travel, wait, play, sleep, repeat. Countries blur. Languages splinter; all you need is English. Few musicians bother to learn about the countries they perform in. We’re the opposite of tourists. All cities look the same when you arrive at night, get driven to the venue and leave the next morning. But DJs understand rooms as few others do. You can walk into an empty venue and instantly envision how that night’s crowd will react to the architecture of that space.

Both DJing and electronic music production are learned in an artisanal way. One is generally either self-taught or apprenticed. The mechanics of DJing are simple to demonstrate. All you need to do it right are years of practice and the sensitivity of real listening. For the DJ, the actual performance is never just about the musical selection and mixing, something you can work out in advance. There’s the dynamics of the sound system to contend with, and how the bodies are reacting to what comes out of it, and what you then have to do about it. When I DJ, I almost never pick out individuals in the dancing crowd. At a good party, the temperature will noticeably heat up when you put on a song that makes people move. You can feel it on your skin even if you don’t look up from your decks.

You have to be watchful for the pieces of musical culture that don’t translate, even when they come from the places you’re playing in. A few months ago I performed in Dubai. I’d mix in a big Arabic tune, but blend it with other rhythms, so that people would hear my mix style cutting up and overlaying the Middle Eastern source records. I’d do a dancehall reggae riddim underneath Egyptian cabdriver chaabi. A stuttering breakbeat pulse bulwarking Rachid Taha’s remake of Dahmane el-Harrachi’s exile anthem “Ya Rayah.” The Lebanese contingent went wild. But a concerned Arab came up to the booth. “Could you play less Arabic music?” He pointed to two blonde Western girls he was getting down with. Arabic language alienated them, whereas the “niggas” and “bitches” of my rap a cappellas made them want to party. I changed course. Later in the evening the Scottish club manager came over with the same request. “Too much Arabic music. Do you mind ending with something in English?” “It’s not Arabic,” I said, “it’s Berber. From North Africa—Morocco.” He shrugged. He later told me that nobody had ever played Middle Eastern music on his night. He’d be able to spin the whole thing into a noble example of his ecumenical curatorial slant.

Near the beginning of my career, I wound up doing a DJ set at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Up in the mountains of Switzerland. For me it was crazy. I was DJing in front of a thousand people for the first time, and it was working, they were following me. I was doing what I would do at home, no holds barred. It’s a predominantly white, European crowd, and I’m a black DJ. (The festival program said I was a woman of Egyptian-Italian descent, but we all make mistakes.) There’s lots of security up front, and I see this one other black guy, trying to reach me.

“Hey!” he’s yelling. “Hey DJ!”

I didn’t look up. Ten minutes later he’s still there, still gesturing.

I asked the security to let him get close so I could hear. “‘Back That Azz Up’!” he shouted. “Play ‘Back That Azz Up’!”

Ten years later, it’s no longer a Juvenile song, but a song by a kid from Juvenile’s crew—Lil Wayne—that somebody will still shout for, every night, anywhere in the world.

Bands perform songs, DJs perform records. With the old techniques, scratching, cutting, beat-matching, and blending, DJs synchronize two records around a common tempo, using a mixer to blend the songs together. The how-to developed in the hip-hop scene of the South Bronx in the 1970s and has changed little since. The workhorse turntable, standard in clubs the world over, is still the Technics 1200. The design of this twenty-six-pound behemoth hasn’t changed since its 1978 debut. I purchased my 1200s, secondhand, over ten years ago. They work as good as they did the day I bought ’em.

I use three turntables, which makes things more delicate. One slip will send the pattern from harmony into “trainwreck,” so called because the arrhythmic clatter of beats will derail the dance floor. But if you mix right, you can get a single “new” totality, whose individual elements can still be heard clearly if you know what you’re listening for. A fan who’s been watching comes over and says, “I really like that song. What is it?” I can only ask, “Which one?” The DJ’s job is to make disparate records sound like a whole, and the more successful you are at it, the less likely the novice onlooker is to know it. DJs have to work to avoid silence and make things appear seamless. You build things up. One of the paradoxes central to the DJ’s art is that some of the most demanding, virtuoso work is the hardest to recognize.

Live electronics performers, streaming their own recorded music from laptops, work differently. They follow the basic template given to us by dub reggae. Take a preexisting song, add effects, momentarily remove (“dub out”) parts. Live electronica performers basically mess up their own music, which is prebuilt and then disassembled. The more “active” they appear, the more the original piece is being interrupted.

Just as there’s a limited number of computer programs that let you make beat-based electronic music, only a few let you perform it. In the past half dozen years, nearly all have been supplanted by a popular upstart—Ableton Live. The majority of “live” dance music acts now use Ableton, won over by its performance-optimized stability. I grind my teeth when I recognize Ableton’s built-in FX. That ping-pong filter-delay algorithm is so obvious! It’s like pouring ketchup on everything! My friends tell me to relax.

Which program you use can affect the product and sometimes nearly determine your genre. With Ableton, it’s as if the software’s Berlin-based programmers wanted everyone to play techno. Max/MSP tends to produce tone-clouds of granulated noise. FruityLoops favors the stiff drum programming found in reggaeton. The most popular music software in the favelas of Rio de Janiero and their villa counterparts across Latin America is Acid (what I started on, and my favorite program to date, truth be told), a simple application for making sample-based music—perfect for folks without much musical training. Nearly all of us DJs try our hands at making original electronic music at some point. It’s a tricky proposition. Good DJs must have great taste, but great live DJ mixes are exciting in precisely the way that great original albums aren’t—they’re heterogeneous, unanticipatible, improvisatory.

In 2005, I made an original album, Special Gunpowder. I’m not sure I’ll ever make another. Why? I’m lazy. I was trying to push too many different kinds of sounds instead of one marketable line. The album-as-major-statement seems less viable nowadays, anyway. (Watch out, novel!) Between the shuffle function on portable MP3 players and the single-song downloads of iTunes and audioblogs, the album’s heyday as a sequentially ordered object of contemplation is ending.

It’d be easier to dispense with the notion of albums (and album sales) if Americans were more hip to DJ culture. Unless you’re playing weddings, this is a bad country in which to be a DJ. The fees tend to be lower than in Europe, and the treatment by venues is almost always worse, not to mention the ubiquity of rock sound systems ill-equipped for dance music. It’s not uncommon for DJs and electronic musicians who can draw a substantial crowd in middle-size European towns to face half-empty rooms in US cities.

Why hasn’t DJ culture taken off here like elsewhere? I’m not sure. Americans do love a spectacle. One of the most talked about electronica groups of recent years, Justice, perform their Parisian electro-disco with a stack of iconic Marshall amplifiers, unplugged, onstage. Without the rock facade (and Daft Punk’s manager steering their career) they’d be another faceless techno act.

American audiences like to see the artist expressing inner joy or channeling demons (or at least dressing up and dancing). The connection between a guitar and its player is physical: each action corresponds to a sound. The same thing is true of a DJ using vinyl, but the correspondences are more difficult to see. As for musicians and DJs using laptops, for all you know they could be onstage checking their email.

I recently moved to New York City after seven years in Spain. My “quality of life” ratcheted down several notches; my living expenses doubled. I no longer live next door to an active bullfighting ring with views of the Mediterranean, Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, and the mountains. (At the start of my time in New York, I lived in a room in a shared loft. Rent on that Brooklyn room cost approximately as much as that of a family-size apartment in Barcelona.) Staring at my bank account, a strange fact hits home: as an international DJ, the scale of my income is completely uncoupled from the costs of wherever I happen to live. It’s inadvisable to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities when your workplace is global. Money burns faster here.

DJs are improvisers, however. We adapt. As for me, I take a lot more transatlantic flights than I’d like. I do more concentrated touring now.

Media attention cycles continue to shorten. Trends in dance music accelerate, with each new flavor yielding a clutch of DJs and producers offering free material online, their sheer numbers slowly pulling entry-level booking fees downward. Hot DJs spend less and less time in demand, especially ones coupled to a particular style. Dubstep, a genre splintered from UK garage, is only two or three years old, yet it has become codified, arthritic. The genre’s pioneers distance themselves from the name as satellite scenes outside of Britain trudge on in disbelief—“How can this be dying down if it hasn’t really started here?” MP3 revenue doesn’t compensate for plummeting CD sales, which prompts record labels to make highly conservative decisions when signing artists. And let’s face it: even if you can survive all this to scrape out a living, do you really want to be playing raves when you’re 40?

I’m not saddened by the state of things. I was inspired to become a DJ by nights spent in an after-hours club in Boston where you couldn’t see the DJ performing. The DJ wasn’t an icon of cool there, he or she was a faceless person surfing the restless slipstream of musical pleasure. Now is the best time ever to be a music fan. The overall movement is toward more ways to share music (and ideas) with like-minded individuals, whether online or face-to-face, body-to-body. What DJ is not first and foremost a music fan?

Between tours I’ve been tapping into the enormous amount of unreleased music I receive. In addition to releasing other people’s music on my homemade label, Soot, I’ve gotten involved in another start-up—Dutty Artz. We’re producing an album by Jahdan Blakkamoore, a Guyanese reggae vocalist who sneaked into America, alone, when he was 8 years old. Our business model would be incomprensible to an old-time record exec. We’re releasing music commercially, giving away more pieces for free, pumping internet TV episodes into YouTube (interviews, street fashion, cooking shows, party footage), and, on rare occasions, deliberately inserting our official releases into the bootleg CD gray-market economy. (One man’s piracy is another’s distribution network.) A trio of Africans runs the NYC bootleg market. If you hand them your original, they give you a flat fee of $250, and then make as many copies as they like, selling them for $5 apiece. Of course the $250 is really a courtesy since they bootleg whatever they want anyway and usually don’t pay a dime.

When you tally up the work we put into them, the records we release don’t make money—they push sound into the world. Business model be damned. In 2008 you need to believe in music or money, not both. And what I do with all the artists is try to tell them the truth about what’s happening. Since the official music industry is a kind of pathetic vivid nightmare, run by greedy people, dilettantes, and folks who don’t like music, it’s surprising how helpful honesty can be.

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