Archive for the ‘ DJ Culture ’ Category

DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs – Why The Controversy? Part 1

Disclaimer: I voted this year online and viewed the results online.  If anything I say in this post is inaccurate, as I do not have access to the print version of DJ Mag, PLEASE bring it to my attention.  Thank you.

Few things cause more controversy in DJ land as DJ Mag‘s Top 100 DJs list that comes out every year.  Based on an open ballot system where people actually write in their favorite DJs it is constructed in a way to try to accurately determine who are the world’s top DJs.   What I find fascinating is the things we can actually learn just by looking at the list in an analytical way.  Because the votes are write in only it could be suggested that DJ Mag’s Top 100 reflects truly the pulse of what people like.  However, being someone who likes to analyze this kind of information I can’t help but offer my opinion on what is going on and how it can be done better.

If you are a DJ and you haven’t voted in DJ Mag’s Top 100 vote I highly encourage you to do so.  Without input from us what you end up getting is mostly results of the current fanbase which is fine and we might need to look at the results in that way.  I’m curious as to the percentage of DJs vs. fans that actually vote – a metric that I think is important for DJs to understand when looking critically at the results.  As we all know there are DJ’s DJs and there are fans DJs.  What is most important to understand from the results is that the methodology in collecting them is as fair and open as it gets. So it’s kind of like, if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the results.

I do not question DJ Mag’s purpose or hands off involvement.  I do not think it’s rigged (maybe I’m being naive), I think it’s an accurate summary of what’s going on.  However, I contend that some underlying truths have not been revealed because they’re actually not being captured. There is a bigger story here that I think is missing in the discussion and the controversy this list causes.  First, it’s context.  I do not claim to know DJ Mag’s exact demographic – some say it’s a mainstream magazine that caters to more commercial tastes in DJs, others feel it’s the best publication out there covering everything there is in DJ land above ground and underground, I think it’s a little bit of both – serving DJs and fans.  So we must understand the audience and the context of DJ Mag as a publication before we can really analyze the results for what they are.  Since we don’t really know that information to be sure, arguing about the results is a little misdirected.  Secondly, the list is just a list.  The only information that is captured is name, email address, location, gender and your votes.  There’s no information presented as to percentage of people from certain locations or gender breakdowns on voters, which could be presented but isn’t.  So we don’t really learn anything more than a vote tally ( which is a missed opportunity on DJ Mag’s part in my opinion ).

There’s two crucial things we as DJs need to know about this list before we can make any judgement on the results.  First, what is the DJ vs. Fan breakdown in voters and secondly, what is the criteria people use to decide to vote for a DJ.  If DJ Mag could ask a simple question such as “Why are you choosing this DJ for your vote?” there would be a big learning here – basically why people choose who they choose. This is an oversimplified method to be sure, but I’m just putting it out there that this is information that can be shared. It could quell a lot of the controversy or at least open up an honest and informed conversation about DJ’ing – from what is expected of us to what is considered a measure of success.  If we do not know exactly what is going on, we can’t address it or change it.

My opinion is when people get upset or there’s controversy over something like this it’s because they’re not getting the full story – the WHY.  If all that is being offered is the WHO then it’s no surprise that people ( DJs and Fans alike ) get upset about this list.  It’s simply, they want to learn more about WHAT this information means ( to them and the culture at large ) and they are left with too many open questions about it.

On October 27th DJ Mag came out with two points of order on their Facebook wall:

Two points of order.

1. DJ mag is merely the guardian of the poll. It does not reflect our taste in music.

2. The poll is not solely an EDM poll – it is open to every DJ – from Chinese Hip Hop artists to scratch DJ’s

As to there being no female DJ’s on the list we are as surprised as you are, as there are a number of 1st class female DJ’s across various genres.

However the vote is an open and public vote and the Top 100 reflects the choice of you the voter.

I intend to address these points in future posts but I want to put it out there that we as DJs need to pay attention not only to what these results are telling us but also that there’s more that needs to be learned before we make assumptions as to what it all means.  We need to be fair about it – even if we’re unhappy with it – there’s a lot to learn from something like this, even more than we’d like to admit.

For my DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs Part 2 – It’s Not DJ Mag’s Fault There Are No Women – It’s Ours go here: http://behindthedecks.org/2011/11/23/dj-mag-top-100-its-not-dj-mags-fault-there-are-no-women-its-ours/

UPDATE 11/25/11: DJ Tech Tools has done a very interesting analysis on the list “using stats from social media websites, to see who has the biggest following”.  To check out their findings and illuminating insights ( the math is sound in my opinion ) go here: http://www.djtechtools.com/2011/11/18/the-dj-techtools-top-100-dj-list/

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?

DJs – Listen!

It’s very rare that I will ever discuss what I listen to.  The reason is that I want Behind The Decks to not be about genres but to be about DJing and the creative process.  However, I had to write about an experience I recently had that inspired me to write about what it means to listen to music as a DJ.  I recently received the Plastikman Arkives LP box set.  The first thing I have to say is that this is a work of art. A truly challenging musical experience unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time.   When you get something like this, you have to just sit and listen to it.  Get your favorite chair, fire up the system, and just listen.  This made me think about how we listen to music and if we still listen to it enough to appreciate it.

These days it seems we’re either in two camps, we reminisce over sounds that just aren’t produced the way they used to be ( the “everything is crap” opinion ), or we breeze through tracks, make a mental note, put a few tags to them and then leave them ( the “I must build up a massive library for that just in case moment” ).

But what if you set up an “audio campfire” and just listened.   Following the movements and sounds and discussing how that music makes you feel – not what it will do to the dancefloor or at what point you’re going to drop it in your set or what other tracks it goes with.  Paying attention to the construction of the piece and trying to understand what the producer’s point of view is.

It’s the DJ equivalent of stopping and smelling the roses.  Something like the Plastikman Arkives box set comes around once in a blue moon and it’s a game changer in my opinion.  It is a series of real compositions that Richie Hawtin has made his life’s work and allows the remixers like Moby, Carl Craig, Green Velvet and Dubfire an opportunity to really play and extend themselves as artists ( you will not hear the usual from these guys on this album, trust me ).  It is only right to sit and listen to it without imposing my thoughts on what I would do with this material.  I actually felt smarter afterwards not just because it is an incredible piece of work but due to listening deeply.

DJ EXERCISE: I want you to go into your discography and create a playlist that challenges you.  I’m sure you have music that at some point you realized was special, one of a kind, and unable to be categorized.  Make a playlist like that and then sit and listen around your “audio campfire”.  You may have the beginnings of another threshold of musical understanding – and that’s what’s required of you as a DJ.

Recap: Take the time to create an “audio campfire”.  Listen for the point of view of the DJ/Producer.  Create a challenging playlist and extend yourself musically as an appreciator.

Open Question: What’s Next for DJing?

I firmly believe that DJ’ing and DJ culture as a whole has evolved so beautifully and elegantly. It continues to be an artistic pursuit that provides transformational experiences for many people (good job everyone!).  I was thinking – what’s next for us?   I’m musing on the stages of evolution for an art form and trying to frame it in terms of DJ culture.  I brainstormed a list of phases below.  I’m trying to work out what’s next for us and how we can keep evolving.  I can honestly say, I think our future is strong but also delicate.

I’ve kept the descriptions of each phase very general ( and somewhat cryptic ) because I want you to have some reference to what I mean – I’m sure I missed other ways to describe these phases.  Ask yourself these questions too: Where are we exactly in this spectrum in relation to DJ culture and in relation to music performance at large ( bands for example )?  Is a particular phase a function of location?  What important events have occurred or need to occur in music or technology that ushers in one phase from another?

Phases of evolution of the art of DJ’ing:

  • Pioneering – the first DJs.
  • Foundation – Small group of DJs working out the mechanics and method, the art form is being established.
  • Exclusiveness – Underground only for the select few.
  • Momentum – Forums for public performance, complete support.
  • Exponential Growth – DJs and market is fully immersed and mass audience are knowledgeable that DJs exist.  Variety of tool sets available.
  • Peak  –  Market saturation. Expectations and pressures at all time high.  Full understanding of tool sets. Potential for backlash.
  • Plateau – Technique/musicality is in stasis, longer periods of time between innovation which occur as blips not milestones.  DJs creatively regrouping. Backlash and commercialization evident.
  • Resurgence – Time has passed, less faithful and creative weeded out (although this can occur in any phase), core remaining group building foundations for next level.   Audience returns/new audience injects fresh energy and ideas.
  • Climb – Lessons from previous phases are applied.  Respect of art form re-established.  Fresh perspectives become norm.  Next phase in evolution is in full swing.

Another way to look at this list is as a cycle.  It’s quite possible you can apply the first phases to something that is happening right now in a particular technique, performance or genre.  That’s great – go for it.  The point is to find your center of understanding and take it from there.

I ran this by a trusted DJ.  We talked about when looking at it from music and performance history as a whole, DJs have only just begun (Exclusiveness/Momentum).  Looking at it from the inside, from the NYC DJ perspective, we are just cresting Exponential Growth and into Peak (again, debatable).  My gut feeling is we’ve got a potential bump in the road no matter what.  That’s Plateau. We need to think seriously about Plateau.  In my opinion, it could be the longest lasting and sedentary stage – triggering the next phase will be tough.  However, we could look at this way: Plateau might be what we need in order to take a breather and regroup from Peak.  I’d like to think that’s what Plateau can do for us, the questions still come however – are we there yet to even think about it, do we fight it or let it happen, is the concept even relevant for our culture?  I wish I had the answers.

Recap: We are evolving.  Where are we? What do we do about the possibility of Plateau? If you feel we are in a certain phase, think about what you can do as an artist to deal with the current situation and adapt/change/set yourself apart.

I’ve created a poll below.  I am curious as to where you think we are. Unfortunately, the poll doesn’t allow me to finesse location or your criteria for your answer so write to me if you want to explain or discuss this post further (BIO).

TRAINWRECK: DJs – Don’t Be Angry!

I’ve seen a T-Shirt company called “Angry DJ” that sells T-Shirts with slogans saying “Serato Don’t Make You A DJ” and “I Am Not Your iPod”.  It is no surprise to us that there are so many things that make us just damn plain angry.   Now while these expressions hit a nerve, offer a sense of universal understanding, and are quite funny, I contend that they are a quick fix in our troubled culture.

Acting out anger doesn’t serve you period.  Is it frustrating to see someone who in your opinion is taking the easy way out of DJing?   Is it frustrating to be misunderstood by the audience and venue owners? Absolutely on both counts according to a survey of DJs I conducted.  The anger you are feeling is expressive of what you are passionate about and that’s great!  It means you care about what you are doing and what it means to you in your life.  But if you are spending your valuable time being frustrated and angry you are not focusing on what you should be really working on – finding your true audience, working on your skills, and developing your creativity.  Anger, much like jealousy ( see Jealousy As a Creative Killer ), is a distraction, a wasted emotion.

I’m sharing this quote from Werner Herzog, famous director, that might lend some perspective on your anger ( read: snap out of it ).

“Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

“Angry DJ” T-Shirts brings up two really hot topics.  The digital vs. analog debate and requests.

Requests are a fact of life for any DJ.   It’s how you deal with them that makes all the difference.  How do you think an audience member would feel if they saw a DJ wearing a T-Shirt ( because you know some DJ is actually going to do this ) saying “I Am Not Your iPod”?  That’s not educating the audience, that’s further distancing them.  On top of that, if you’re spinning at a venue where you secretly feel it’s necessary to say that to the patrons – you’re spinning at the wrong venue.  Remember, you don’t have to just play out anywhere and if you are constantly dealing with an audience that is making requests, you didn’t do your homework to recognize you are the wrong DJ for that venue.  Instead, get good enough to be considered to spin at the venues where there is the right audience for your music.  Only the top 10% of all DJs in the world do not get requests.  It’s a reality in our culture, so there’s no reason to get angry and frustrated about it, or take it out on your audience – just deal with it. ( Scottie B, the founder of Angry DJ T-Shirts, claims he’s the UK’s #1 DJ and he made a T-Shirt about it so you have to assume maybe he’s getting requests too and he’s #1! ).

I want to take a moment as well to make a statement about the digital vs. analog debate because this is in my opinion what is tearing us apart ( and also because Angry DJ T-Shirts exploits this debate for the T-Shirt slogan “Serato Don’t Make You a DJ” ).

I’m going to say once and for all – I DON’T CARE AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU.

I’ve thought a lot about this and I’ve honed my opinion based on what the creative experts and literature state.  It’s about being comfortable, it’s about being engaged, it’s about being free to achieve your highest level.   So who cares what you do it with?  Things evolve, they regress, they go forward, they go backward but one thing is for sure, we will always be dealing with innovation and technology – our whole legacy is based on it.  It doesn’t matter if a painter uses a paintbrush or their feet to make art – it’s about the ART.  Now I know a lot of you are angry about the ease of which people can get into DJing and also execute their “skills” but I am fanatic when I tell you that it doesn’t matter – greatness comes because of process, creativity, hard work, and empathy – see my post on what it takes to be an amazing DJ and you will see that not once did I talk about gear.  Gear is just tools – music and your mind is your weapon but most importantly so is your heart and your connection to music ( see Why Do You DJ? ).  And if you think those DJs are “lazy” think about it this way – do you think they are engaged with what they are doing?  When you see a DJ use the sync button just between tracks ( and this is one of the hugest gripes I’ve seen ) do you think they are actually happy about the fact that they have not advanced enough to actually experiment with their music?  Understand that everyone knows they have creative constraints.  Everyone knows what they are NOT doing – so there is no need to get all in a huff about what they are doing.  Instead focus on yourself and bettering the situation and opportunities for those you feel do matter and are creative.   If you must know, I spin vinyl.  I had some upstart tell me “that’s old”.  I took it in stride, just because I’m “old-school” doesn’t mean my point of view and musicality is “less then”. You see I’ve spun it all, CDs, DVS, and I always go back to vinyl.  Why?  Because it’s comfortable for me, I can engage with my audience more comfortably spinning vinyl, but most importantly – because I know even after spinning for 10 years I haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg of what I’m capable of and that’s exciting to me.  Since I started the Behind The Decks project I realized that it makes no sense for me to get all worked up over someone who uses DVS just because I use vinyl.  If that’s what works for them – so be it, and if they are destined for greatness, why aren’t you?

Let your anger go!

Recap: Stop your whining and focus on your work! Deal with the requests, think about what you can do to change perceptions.  Gear does not make the DJ, the DJ makes the DJ.

DJ Exercise: What Happened in DJ History/Music in Your Birth Year?

Here’s a very interesting exercise.  Yes I’m giving away my age – so what, I’m young at heart!

Turns out in the year I was born Technics released the first SL-1200.  Thanks Mom and Dad!  Here are some other things that happened in my birth year – Kraftwerk, helloooooooo.

“In 1974, Technics released the first SL-1200 turntable, which evolved into the SL-1200 MK2 in 1979—which, as of the early-2010s, remains the industry standard for deejaying. In 1974, German electronic music band Kraftwerk released the 22-minute song “Autobahn,” which takes up the entire first side of that LP. Years later, Kraftwerk would become a significant influence on hip-hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles.”

( Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disc_jockey )

If you’re interested in listening to the full version of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-G28iyPtz0

I encourage all DJs to learn your history, believe it or not this has been going on since the 19th century!  What a legacy we have.  And who knows you might find artists or new inspiration for the work you are doing.

So now begs the question:  What are you doing to contribute to our new history?

If you have an interesting project or know someone who is doing innovating things – let me know!

Hot Topic: You Are Your Flyer Art

Flyer art has been a well established way of communicating and promoting a DJ or a party.  There are even sites that have libraries of flyer art – it is a truly visual creative aspect of DJ culture.   I’ve seen DJs obsess over what to put in the visual aspects of the flyer.  How do you communicate the vibe of the party, the mood of the music, your brand, the venue, all the while making sure the pertinent information is there for people to find you?  There’s a lot to consider, and with a lot of considerations, there are choices, and with choices, there are good ones and bad ones.

There has always been a segment of flyer art that uses the female form to express beauty, sensuality and transcendence.  There are exquisite examples of flyer art that profiles the female form.  Unfortunately, a downside to that is the objectification of women in flyer art.  There are some DJs who just haven’t quite caught up with the fact that women are not objects, sex toys, or exist for their amusement.

Flagrantly using women in objectified poses ( simulated fellatio or sexual positions for example ) and various states of undress on their flyer ( your basic TnA ) in my opinion and a lot of other DJ’s opinions, is a bad choice.   I’m not going to sugarcoat this, it’s catering to the lowest common denominator and in essence jeopardizing your reputation.

I’m going to lay out some reasons why DJs should rethink their approach in utilizing this tactic for promotion in the hopes that they understand how damaging their actions are to themselves, to the culture, and to the female audience.

I keep hearing DJs talk about how they want to get more women to come to their parties.  That’s understandable as women can change the nature of a party significantly in terms of creating a positive vibe and atmosphere.  So why is it that if DJs want women to come to their party they blatantly insult women with sexist flyers?  I don’t get the logic at all.  I saw a flyer for a party recently that had a woman with her bare breasts showing on the flyer.  There was also a thread on the Facebook event page where the DJs were talking about how there were titties on the flyer and how maybe they should give free drinks for titty flashes.  I checked all the “Not Attending” RSVPs and surprise surprise, at least 90% of them were women.  You see, sexist flyers only communicate one thing – that the DJ doesn’t care about women, period.   What this does is make the women they want to be at the party – the dancers, the ones who are into dance/DJ culture, the ones who wont make requests because they respect what DJs do – uncomfortable.  These are the women you want at your party – stop insulting them!  In essence, these DJs are not communicating safety, they are communicating that they are letches and that all the people at the party will be letches.  The women who don’t care about this behavior or go to these parties anyway despite knowing what they’ve seen on the flyer aren’t really taking a stand on their own feminist issues and that is a whole other bigger topic I won’t get into.

Also, it’s not just women patrons they are insulting, it’s other DJs ( and the super niche group of female DJs ).  You see there are other DJs who are actually making an effort to try and change mindsets and maintain a certain level of integrity within DJ culture.   The strongest contingent of supporters for any DJ are other DJs.   It’s difficult enough to deal with the challenges of being misunderstood by the outside world and DJs don’t particularly care for a DJ who makes everyone look like a clown.  So there’s another portion of a fan base lost by a bad choice in flyer art.

DJs who do this need to learn that if they want ANYONE to respect them as a DJ, dumbing down and selling sex on the flyer is the last way to get it.  How can they possibly be taken seriously as a DJ when their flyer has a woman on her back with her legs up in 7 inch heels and a leopard print mini-dress ( I also recently saw this flyer for a house party )? It’s like this, if the subject of the flyer is not taken seriously, by association neither will the DJ as the context bringing that subject forth.

There’s not much more I can say about this because it’s so simple to understand – you are your flyer art.  You can make the choice to use it as a vehicle to communicate who you really are as an artist.  If you choose to cop out, dumb down, and communicate the lowest common denominator you will be seen as such.  If you think that you are not doing anything wrong – count next time how many women show up to your parties.  If you’re known for your sexist attitudes, chances are, the number is zero.

I am calling out this negative aspect of our culture because I believe we are better than that.  We are better than using antiquated and demeaning notions of gender and sexuality to sell ourselves.  With so many options and creative ideas to draw from there are many unique and clever ways to present ourselves.  We do not need to do this anymore.  It’s time to evolve.

Recap: You are your flyer art.