Archive for the ‘ DJ Creative Process ’ Category

TRUE GRIT vs. BORN TALENT

Photo courtesy: Center For American Vision and Values

Most people believe that talent, creativity and genius is something you are born with.   That you either have it or you don’t.  Perhaps that stems from two things: first, people not wanting to be responsible for their own success or failure so talent is something outside of their control, and/or two, it’s what the territorial successful artists/geniuses have led us to believe (to ensure their foothold as gods in a given field). Well, current research and creative literature state this is total BS.  I also believe it is total BS.  I read in Twlya Tharp’s “The Creative Habit” that Mozart, when he was a child, practiced music every day ALL DAY for years.  He wasn’t touched by God – he had a relentless curiosity.  Mozart was rigorous and tireless in his studies.  The point is that you have to work very hard to become an expert in anything, the notion of blind luck or being gifted factor very little.  If you have a mission in mind and you set your energy 100% towards it, things begin to happen!

There’s a great article called “Grit Is More Important Than Talent” that I think you should read.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Way back in 1926, a psychologist named Catherine Morris Cox published a study of 300 recognized geniuses, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Gottfried Leibniz to Mozart to Charles Darwin to Albert Einstein. Cox, who had worked with Lewis M. Terman to develop the Stanford-Binet IQ test, was curious what factors lead to “realized genius,” those people who would really make their mark on the world. After reading about the lives of hundreds historic geniuses, Cox identified a host of qualities, beyond raw intelligence, that predicted “greatness.”

Studying Cox’s findings, Harvard researcher Angela Duckworth isolated two qualities that she thought might be a better predictor of outstanding achievement:

 1. The tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something because of novelty. Not “looking for a change.”

2. The tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.”

That’s right people – GRIT.

So the question for DJs, where is your grit?  How can you continue to challenge, learn, fail, get back up and achieve?  There’s a few things that make DJs extraordinary but one thing that is very clear – you need tenacity and perseverance.  You have a multitude of things to keep you busy – ideas, new technology and technique, working on your style and musicality, collaborations, producing music, working on YOU.  Hopefully you will realize now when you use the word talented as in “That DJ is so talented” you are mindful of the meaning behind that word and use it wisely.  Talent in this day and age means deep understanding, AND GRIT, ultimately expressed.

Source: http://the99percent.com/articles/7094/The-Future-of-Self-Improvement-Part-I-Grit-Is-More-Important-Than-Talent

WHOSE OPINION MATTERS?

I get insights from the strangest places.  Case in point Seth Godin, who is a marketing and publishing guru.  He wrote a brutally honest article called “Is Everyone Entitled To Their Opinion?“.  As a DJ, you have a huge circle of people that believe they are entitled to have an opinion about you: the audience on the floor, promoters, family/friends, other DJs, fans, record labels, the outside world, even Simon Cowell to name a few.  So I can understand why it’s hard to be authentic and true to yourself with all this noise.  Turns out, there is a way to cut through the crap – read the following.  Enjoy!

The most important opinion of all is YOURS, don’t forget that.

Is everyone entitled to their opinion?

Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean we need to pay the slightest bit of attention.

There are two things that disqualify someone from being listened to:

1. Lack of Standing. If you are not a customer, a stakeholder or someone with significant leverage in spreading the word, we will ignore you. And we should. When you walk up to an artist and tell her you don’t like her painting style, you should probably be ignored. If you’ve never purchased expensive original art, don’t own a gallery and don’t write an influential column in ArtNews, then by all means, you must be ignored.

If you’re working in Accounts Payable and you hate the company’s new logo, the people who created it should and must ignore your opinion. It just doesn’t matter to anyone but you.

I’m being deliberately harsh here for a reason. If we’re going to do great work, it means that some people aren’t going to like it. And if the people who don’t like it don’t have an impact on what happens to the work after it’s complete, the only recourse of someone doing great work is to ignore their opinion.

2. No Credibility. An opinion needs to be based on experience and expertise. I know you don’t like cilantro, but whether or not you like it is not extensible to the population at large. On the other hand, if you have a track record of matching the taste sensibility of my target market, then I very much want to hear what you think. People with a history of bad judgment, people who are quick to jump to conclusions or believe in unicorns or who have limited experience in the market–these people are entitled to opinions, but it’s not clear that the creator of the work needs to hear them. They’ve disqualified themselves because the method they use for forming opinions about how the market will respond is suspect. The scientific method works, and if you’re willing to suspend it at will and just go with your angry gut, we don’t need to hear from you.

IS THE FILLER TRACK AN EXCUSE?

I was having a conversation with Mustapha Louafi from Dope Underground Beats about his trip to WMC.  In between filming and spinning he caught some parties and was filling me in on his experience.  He was explaining to me how he was blown away by some of the sets he saw but that there were other sets in the same line up that weren’t as impactful.  I thought this was interesting.  So I decided to probe deeper and I asked how can you tell the difference between the DJs that brought it and the ones that didn’t?   His take on it was preparation and focus was the deciding factor.  That he could tell the DJ who really took the time to put together a killer set (knowing the DJ they were spinning after, time of the set, etc) and a DJ who just got up there banking that they had something to play.  I still felt there was more to understand so I asked what made one set different from the other? And he said something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.  He said, the DJ’s sets that were just ok used a lot of “filler tracks”.  Eureka! My definition of a filler track is it’s basically a neutral track in relation to the set style as a whole.

Some DJs feel filler tracks are necessary and some feel they are the mark of an unimaginative DJ.

I have backed myself into a corner musically in the middle of a set with no idea how to get out of it.  I am a multiple genre DJ.  It really is a sickness that I am compelled (read: stubborn) to spin tech house, breaks, electro, and deep house all in one set.  When I am adamant that the next mood match has to be breaks and I’m in the middle of deep deep house flow, I know I need something to bridge that vibe.  I have used a filler track to transition from one genre to another or from one mood to another.  It’s a way to reset and clear the slate to launch into another direction.  I also have spun 6+ hour sets and let me tell you, if you spin that long you will need to balance out peaks and valleys with filler tracks.  DJs also feel that filler tracks are a great blank canvas on which to do other things – lay over vocals, synths, effects – it really allows them to play around.

Now, there is an opinion that filler tracks are a thing of the past simply because way back when there was a low level of production and you had to use what was out there the best way you could and the big name DJs were the only ones who had the storming tracks.  Nowadays there is tons and tons of music because we have decades of it and because the production process is more accessible and people are producing and distributing music at an accelerated rate.  So is the question, is the filler track an excuse, a legitimate one?  The fact that now DJs maybe spin for a couple of hours also influences the answer to this question.  If you only spin for a short amount of time do you even need to use filler tracks?  I think it depends on your situation but it seems to me that no, you really shouldn’t have to use filler tracks – if you’ve prepared yourself well and brought your A game.  In that respect, it is your duty to spin the best music you can.

So I think really it depends on how you look at filler tracks and make sure you’re not hiding behind them.  All in moderation and use the filler track for a purpose and not as an excuse for your lack of pushing your imagination and preparation – you are more creative than that!

THE GIFT

Part of my work as a DJ coach and Behind The Decks is to read and absorb everything there is to know about the creative process.  I have piles of books I’ve torn through and refer to constantly.  I just started reading Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World”.  I’m already struck by some of the ideas presented in the introduction.

Essentially, art is a gift.  For something to be called artistic there must be a gift component inherent within it.  Even in commercial respects, where a work or performance can be sold and purchased, if there is not a gift within it – it ceases to be art.  The act of giving of yourself, sharing a musical experience, presenting something that extends the relationship between yourself and the audience, facilitating a relationship exchange between other people in your audience is what DJs do.  So, if what DJs provide is a musical presentation (the gift) that is shared and co-opted by others and then shared again creating additional relationships – how is what we do NOT art!  I dare anyone to challenge me otherwise.

I’ve sat in on conversations with DJs and there always seems to be a debate on what is commercial or artistic DJing.  This debate is essential for the DJ to understand, work through, and find their place in the whole culture.  Where a DJ resides with what they do helps them to adjust and adapt to the challenges they may face in their art, or choose to forgo it entirely in pursuit of something more market driven (and there’s challenges within that too).

I have a possible answer to the commercialization of DJing that DJs seem to be so preoccupied with.  Here’s the thing, whatever commercialization that concerns you – how are you so sure that is not a gift to the audience that receives it?  Just because you don’t see it as art does not mean there isn’t a gift or sharing attached to it for someone else.  Who are you to judge the gift another DJ offers just because you choose not to receive it? Probably not the answer you wanted to hear, but BS excuses and pettiness are not part of my vocabulary.

Now, in relation to yourself personally, when you work on your “DJ stuff” do you think about the gift you bring?  Do you think about what you are sharing?  If you feel you are becoming a robot or feel you are on a paper chase constantly, look inward and try and recapture what it is you are really doing.  See Why Do You DJ? for some additional grounding if you need it.  The point is that for you to truly make art, you need to look at it as a gift.

Here are some quotes from the book I’m interpreting for DJs that might help you understand this perspective.

Art vs. Commodities:

“What is it about a work of art, even when it is bought and sold in the market, that makes us distinguish it from . . . pure commodities? A work of art is a gift, not a commodity. . . works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies”, a market economy and a gift economy.  Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art.” (Hyde, pg 16)

Dancefloor, Community, Relationship between DJ and Audience:

“Unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved. When gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges.” (Hyde, pg 20)

Why you may feel discouraged in light of commercialization of DJing or Superstar DJ success:

“The mythology of the market society . . . getting rather than giving is the mark of a substantial person, and the hero is “self-possessed”, “self-made”.  So long as this assumption rules, a disquieting sense of triviality, of worthlessness even, will nag the man or woman who labors in the service of the gift and whose products are not adequately described as commodities.” (Hyde, pg 16)

I’m sure as I get further into this book there will be more insights to share.  Remember, DJing is a gift, you are the facilitator of the act of giving and receiving, and that’s what makes you an artist!  Now go practice!

THE ZEN DJ CHALLENGE

The DJ Exercise series on BTD is meant to challenge and inspire DJs to get out of a rut, try something new, get the synapses firing (and create new ones), teach you about yourself and overall something to have fun with! 

Inspired by the blind kung-fu master, I came up with . . .

THE ZEN DJ CHALLENGE

Close your eyes, open your discography in a way that you can point your finger/grab and choose tracks WITHOUT looking. Pick 5 tracks, fire up the decks, and mix ONLY those tracks. No cheating – work with what you have  – sharpen those creative skills. Post your Zen DJ Mixes in the comments section within this post and talk about the experience if you’d like. Good luck – you can do it!

Fail At Interesting

Dave Pinter

I was watching a program ( one of those Iron Chef cooking competitions – don’t ask ) and one of the judges, Simon Majumdar a world renowned food critic, said when critiquing a dish “I would rather someone fail at interesting than achieve mediocrity.”  Something about this struck me enough to share it.  If you think about this statement, a number of things can be revealed to you as a DJ.

We all want to be interesting artists, re-envision a genre, make epic transitions and mixes, laser focus your performance so that when someone hears you they know without a doubt it’s a set from you.  It’s a journey to get there.  But how? And what are the risks?

I think failing at interesting can yield a lot of valuable information about yourself and is critical in your DJ journey.  Of course, you don’t want to be mediocre and yet sometimes you make concessions one way or another – whether it’s modeling too closely to your DJ idol thinking that’s a fast track somewhere, completely losing your voice and approach letting the audience completely dominate you, chasing the top 10 ( see Getting To Know Your Tracks ), and many more.  This is what I think leads someone to be mediocre – making too many concessions.

Here is an interesting example of failing at interesting.  I read this article about The Bunker party’s ninth anniversary and Bryan Kasenic aka DJ Spinoza talks about how he incorporated different elements in his party aside from The Bunker’s usual techno format.  He admits it wasn’t a complete success ( there weren’t as many people as he had hoped ) but I would say based on the feedback he got – he did something really interesting.

“I was trying to experiment on that night,” Kasenic says. “I’ve been getting into this new wave of synthesizer experimental music where they seem to be going for this meditative yet super-psychedelic sound. It’s rooted in the super-DIY noise scene: Somebody playing this beautiful old synthesizer, with a broad spectrum of sound, out of a guitar amp. It’s really brightly lit, and there’s somebody DJing punk rock songs between bands. I really wanted to see that music presented properly in New York, just to see what happened. There weren’t as many people as I’d hoped for, but the people who did show up [said]: ‘This is amazing. This is what needs to be happening in New York.”

For more about The Bunker’s history and future go here:

http://www.villagevoice.com/2012-01-04/music/the-bunker-turns-nine/

Now, I’m sure Bryan learned a lot from this experiment but most importantly he gave it a try.  Expecting to be perfect all the time is a fool’s pursuit.  So if you know that nothing is perfect why not at least make it interesting during the process!  The point is that we need more DJ’s who are different, who are pushing the boundaries, who are interesting and the only way to get there is to try even though failure is a genuine risk.  What Bryan did was contribute energy, uniqueness and new ideas to the New York scene – will he do it again, yes, even though his last endeavor there weren’t as many people as he hoped ( which is a minimal consequence in relation to the accomplishment ).

So remember: would you rather fail at interesting? Or would you rather achieve mediocrity? If the answer is the latter – than you are DJ’ing for all the wrong reasons.

The DJ Bucket List

When I first started I had this dream that I would someday spin an Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1.   Pete Tong would introduce me, lovingly mispronouncing my last name and I already knew what my last statement track would be ( Hybrid’s “If I Survive” for the curious – although I would pitch it slower a bit from the original BPM ).  It was a serious dream of mine and at one point I really believed I was on my way to achieve it.  Time has passed and I know that I won’t get there – unless I spend a good 5 or 6 more years completely dedicated to the art and have some productions under my belt.  It’s not a terrible reality that I’ve faced, it’s just my window to actually make it happen closed a while ago.  Life happens and you deviate.  But still, it would be a capstone for me if I were ever to do it.   So I started thinking, if I have that as my ultimate accomplishment.  What is yours?

There’s a few things I think DJs want to accomplish or experience in their DJ lifetime.   The bucket list is all the things you would want to do before you pass into the beyond.   I’m not trying to be morbid I’m just trying to get you to think about what you want to accomplish as a DJ and what you want to leave behind as your legacy.

You need to think of DJing and your creativity as a body of work.  So what body of work do you currently have.  Take stock of your mixes, your live sets, your productions (finished or unfinished), your collaborations, even your flyer art.  Look at it as a whole.  What does it say about you as an artist?  The purpose of doing this is so you can see where you are in relation to where you want to be.

Spend some time reflecting on what you do.  Write down whatever comes to mind as things you want to accomplish as a DJ before you go.  Give in to a little fantasizing but make sure you include tangible goals.  Do you want to produce more, do you want to have a certain style figured out – things that you can actively work on now and look back on with pride.  Is there a DJ you appreciate that you would want to talk to, write it down.  Is there a way you want to collaborate that you’ve never done before – write that down.  Do you want to have a show – write that down.  Record label – put it on the list.  Whatever it is don’t limit yourself to what’s possible and what’s not yet – just get it down.  Now take a look at your bucket list.

I bet you have a lot of work to do.

Also, I want you to consider the culture as a whole.  As a participant in DJ culture, you are also a contributor and shaper of it.  For example, another dream of mine when I first started was that I had hoped some day a DJ would play Carnegie Hall.  I don’t know why Carnegie Hall other than for me it is the epitome of classical and established musical performance.   I believed that if a DJ spun Carnegie Hall we would finally be recognized as artists.  So what do you want to see happen for us and what are you doing to make that happen?  I am happy to report that a DJ has spun in Carnegie Hall, in collaboration with a symphony no less.  Here is a link if you want to see the story.  It’s very interesting and inspiring.  DJ Radar w/the Red Bull Artsechro Symphony – Carnegie Hall

One thing I want you to realize is that DJing is a lifetime pursuit.  You may not do all the things on your bucket list but hopefully you are inspired enough to get most of it done.  The best way to feel like you are moving forward is to map the tangible goals and then the big dreams in some sort of order – small steps and hard work feed into bigger accomplishments.  The point is to have a trajectory.  If your big dream is to take the main stage – what do you need to do to get there?  I also want you to feel ok with having “small” dreams too.  I don’t want you to give in to the perception that being a superstar DJ is the epitome of success.  For me, I keep chasing down the ultimate mix, the one that truly exemplifies me as a person and an artist.  Of course, the reality is that I will never be satisfied but it’s fun thinking that there is a perfect mix in my head and I just need to bring it into the world.

Another important thing about this list is to see what you are doing now that might be holding you back.  You may be in a circle of people that don’t understand you, or you may be giving up too much to your audience and losing your “voice”, you may be spending too much time on a project that is not satisfying you.   You need to take serious stock of the things in your life, the gigs that aren’t relevant to you or are soul sucking, the genre you are spinning because it’s “hot” but you’re not feeling it, the time you are spending chasing down the latest top 10 ( See Getting to Know Your Tracks in an Accelerated Landscape ).  What are you doing now that is not proportional towards working on the things on your list.   This is also an exercise to understand what you are NOT doing.  You know if you are not giving your full attention to something.  So what can you do to commit?  In future posts I will talk about some Trainwrecks to creativity but for now – all you have is time, so make the most of it.

Recap: Spend some time writing down what you want to accomplish before you kick it.  Think about how you are going to get there.  Don’t forget the culture or your community and what you are doing to change things.  What’s holding you back and what’s moving you forward?