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/

A Brief Introduction to How Music Works

I came across this great series called “How Music Works“.  Analyzing the main aspects of melody, harmony, rhythm and bass it is a great antidote to the feelings that some DJs have that they do not have a good foundation or understanding of musical structure.  DJs have varying opinions on whether it’s important to have any sort of musical education.  Some believe that the only thing a DJ needs is a deep understanding of music as a listener.  Other DJs feel it is helpful at least to have a basic understanding of how music is composed.  I hear a lot of DJs talk about key clashing and that if you do not understand how melodies and rhythms work you may be key clashing and your work sounds “off”.  In my research I have noticed that a lot of DJs have had some early musical education if it was playing an instrument or an upbringing that encouraged musical listening.   If for no other reason than to give yourself a break and learn something new ( or reinforce what you already know ), I highly recommend spending some time with this series and learn about the building blocks of a DJs lifeblood: music.

Composer Howard Goodall hosts “How Music Works” and some of his thoughts on melody, harmony, rhythm and bass are noted below.

Melody: “Melody is music’s most powerful tool when it comes to touching our emotions. Our mothers sing lullabies to us when we’re infants and tests have shown that we can even, as babies, recognize tunes that we heard in he womb. Every music system in the world shares these five notes in common. Indeed, they’re so fundamental to every note composed or performed anywhere on the planet that it seems, like our instinct for language, that they were pre-installed in us when we were born. These five notes a human genetic inheritance, like the fingers on our hands.”

Rhythm: “Rhythm is the part of music that interacts most immediately and spontaneously with our bodies. Without it, music would be pleasant enough, but it would be brain food. With rhythm, though, music becomes hypnotic and sensuous.”

Harmony: “Unlike rhythm and melody, harmony wasn’t part of music from the beginning. It’s an upstart. It came into life gradually during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But what an upstart!”

Bass: “One of [the] most distinguishing features [of the opening theme from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey] — and one that’s been imitated by thousands of science fiction, thriller and horror movie scores — is the long-held bass note that begins it. It’s awesome: Bottom C. It’s big, it’s deep and it’s powerful. And it came to stand in our minds for a sense of menace, or wonder, or infinity. Just this one note. But there are loads of examples of bass lines that give a piece of music its style and its shape.”
BBC4‘s How Music Works:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnbOWi6f_IM&list=PLC720D5DC4468B9B1&feature=plpp

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2010/12/09/how-music-works/

Inspiring Thoughts from a Deaf DJ

I found this interview with DJ DEF who is deaf.  I am sharing this with you because I want you to think about two things, how are you dealing with your challenges and second that anything is possible.  I have highlited parts of the interview that I find particularly interesting and inspiring.  If DJ DEF can do it, so can you and there’s no excuses for you not to.  In addition, I want you to think about DJ DEF before jealousy and anger starts creeping into your consciousness and instead reflect and appreciate your DJ life.

The First Deaf DJ

Thanks for the time man. How’s life been?

No problem! Life has been great just working on my mixtape and hope to have it released soon.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is LaDon Battle. I was born and raised in Arizona born into a deaf family, went to a deaf school, played football at UNLV for a year, then transferred to Gallaudet University a deaf university in Washington D.C. I played professional football for 2 years until I got hurt. I started DJing as a hobby but then my love for music has always been strong so i decided to take my talent to the next level. So I burst into the scene known as DJ DEF. Being deaf is a permanent and unchangeable part of my life, so the only thing left for me to do is to strive for self-improvement in communication. Deaf people are able to enjoy and love music just as anyone else. They do not feel that their lack of hearing handicaps them or is an imposition. Deaf people love music just as much as hearing people do…they just understand it differently. They can feel it. This is in the most literal sense as well as emotional. The part of the brain that normally processes sound to those who can hear is the same portion that the brains of hearing impaired use to process vibrations of sound. Since these different processes take place in the same area of the brain, the experiences are equivalent in sound. Just because my hearing ability is limited does not mean I can’t be a DJ and make music the way hearing people could it just means I have to work a lot more harder and be more dedicated to it.

You have to have a different process preparing for a set than most DJs. How do you select what songs to play?

My sets are a combination of what’s the people’s favorite and instrumentals. I try to use a little instrumentals. I try to show people how deaf people can actuallly reconnect with the music without lyrics.

I stay up to date with record pools and go out a lot and study what the people want to hear.

Who are some of your favorite djs? And whats the best way for you to learn from others?

My favorite is of course DJ FLIPSIDE but others I admire are DJ SCENE, STEVE AOKI, DJ KLEVAR, DJ AM, DJ CRAZE and Q-Bert. I also respect every other DJ that does this on a daily basis being creative takes great minds. The best way I learn from others is to network and go out to their events and chill in the booth watch how they mix, scratch and just come home and try to learn. I don’t really have anyone teaching me the tricks or anything I just go out and watch them spin and self-educate.

You’ve played shows all around the country, where are some of your favorite places to play?

I love playing in the east coast. Washington D.C. one of the places I always enjoy. The crowd always loving the unique music and mixes they like whats not on the radio and of course a lot of raggae too.

Tell us about your main goal as a DJ.

My goal as a DJ is to become well known and respected and I want to be the first deaf DJ to spin in vegas along side with a well known DJ.

Why Vegas?

Vegas is a place where the weekend is almost never the same. Different people comes in and go and most of the well respected DJ spin in Vegas. I chose Vegas is because its the party capital of the US and I want to be able to rock the crowd just as good as any DJ. Its just one of the biggest achievement I want to accomplish.

How would you describe your style on the tables?

*laughs* Wow, on the tables all my mixes are timed, its like math. I remember them by watching the BPM and remembering what minutes and seconds comes in. Since I cant hear the lyrics, I try to stay focused. Headphones are always on and im always trying to make sure I’m on the right track because with me one little mistake and the whole thing is messed up and it will sound terrible!

Where can people hear your work?

I post my mixtapes online where people can download them and check them out. I also spin in Portland, my next event is at east china town
on may 12th with my dude Yo Huckleberry come through!

Closing thoughts?

Check out my facebook page www.facebook.com/djdef1 all my events, mixtapes, and everything else will be posted on there!

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.

A DJ Journey Begins – How 9/11 Made Me a DJ

The first time I heard techno I was 16 years old. I was with a bunch of friends. It was summer in upstate New York. We were hanging out on the lawn listening to the college radio station from the car stereo. Then this music came on. It was like we heard it at the same time. We sat up and looked at each other and collectively said “What is this?” I called the radio station in my excitement.  When the DJ got on I said “Hi, my name is Cristina. What is this music?” The DJ said “Hi Cristina, this is Techno.” I asked “What’s the name?” He said, chuckling at me:

“This song is called “Only For The Headstrong”.

One thing you need to understand.  The only music I was exposed to growing up was my mother’s New Age music and my dad’s Cuban percussion. Oh and I played classical music on the piano, by ear ( couldn’t read sheet music to save my life ).

So what do you get when you mix New Age, Cuban percussion, and classical music composition?

Techno.  I was imprinted to appreciate dance music already.

Flash forward a lot of years ( and a lot of clubs and DJ sets ) and I was living and working in the city for 6 years. 6 years I had been in the city and never once had been to The World Trade Center. Not once. The company I worked for at the time wanted me to take a tour of this high tech computer lab on the 75th floor of World Trade Center 1 on – yeah you guessed it – September 11th, 2001 at 8:30am. I was going to meet my rep Todd there for breakfast and then have the tour.

Everyone gives the snooze button on their alarm a bad rap. My snooze button saved my life. I was running about 10 minutes late. I was on the first subway that stopped at Rector street and made the announcement that there had been an explosion in the WTC. I’m not going to get into the rest. I made it out, I saw the towers fall, I walked from Houston and Varick to 95th and 3rd ave – it was like Apocalypse Now, only with lots of bottled water and free pizza.

Here’s the deal. My rep Todd barely made it out alive. He saw things no human being should see. I can recount the things he told me but they are too horrific and not the point right now. He told me there were people who turned right instead of left on the staircase and they never made it out. I could have been right there with him.

I could have made that wrong and fatal turn.

People talk about having moments of clarity. A moment of clarity is when you experience something and it changes your life forever. A moment of clarity is that moment you realize who you want to be is who you really are. When I processed everything it hit me like a ton of bricks. That close call made me think about the last time in my life that I had felt a moment of clarity. It was when I was 16 years old and I heard electronic music for the first time. When I heard it, it changed my life forever.  When I realized I got a second chance, who I wanted to be was who I was all along.

On October 9th, 2001, about one month after my close call, I opened up a cardboard box and heaved out two turntables. I couldn’t believe how heavy they were. As I was carrying them to my ramshackle DJ table I knew that my life would never be the same.

Only for the headstrong, indeed.

( A DJ friend, when I shared this story with him, found ‘Only for the Headstrong’ and I can’t believe I still recognized it after all these years – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFXQfEW5SxU )

DJs – Feeling Stuck? Constrain Yourself. (Wait, what did she say?)

Milon Townsend

DJs are really good at giving themselves a framework from which to work with.  Especially when preparing for a gig. There are a few considerations already built in to help you make musical choices – what gear you have, the venue, the crowd.  But let’s say you want to work on a mix or experiment with production and you’re feeling stuck, what do you do? It’s hard to have any direction when you have an open road in your mind.  Believe it or not if you set up some rules or constraints you can actually be more creative.  It’s a paradox, set up a mental box, so you can think outside of it.  Your mind can only effectively process a certain amount of information.  So, if you have an infinite amount of options to work with in your mind, you can go into a state of paralysis.

Let’s talk about what some of the symptoms of feeling stuck are.

  • Loss of passion – you actively make excuses to NOT practice or touch DJing.  You do not make creative time for yourself.  This could also be viewed as BOREDOM.  Everything just bores you – music, the scene, your process.
  • Frustration – this is obvious but I’m talking about banging your head on a wall anytime you make an attempt at practicing or trying something new.
  • Negative voices – you start getting down on yourself.  Thinking you can’t do it, or that you’re not creative.  You start asking yourself: why am I doing this?
  • Feeling overwhelmed – you’re having trouble starting something, it’s just not coming to you, or your eyes glaze over when you look at your discography.

If you are experiencing feeling stuck you might want to try setting up a tighter framework for yourself. There are a few kinds of constraints that might help.

Goal Constraint: If you don’t have a deadline, then you have all the time in the world to put something together and it be perfect right? Wrong.  The problem with not having a goal puts even more strain on yourself to have a direction, and you can make excuses or allow other distractions to creep in.  Look at a goal as more of this is what I want to do, in this amount of time.  Also ask yourself, what is my priority here – for example, is it exploring different sounds and making them work or is it working on your sound or style ( I have an exercise at the end of Why Do You DJ? that helps in defining your sound )?  It is something that if you were to accomplish it in a certain amount of time, you will feel you have advanced in some way.  I know some DJs who purposely tell people they will produce a track or have a mix for them just to give themselves a deadline, the pressure for them is the greatest motivator.

Subject Constraint: This has to do with the subject matter of your work. This can be genre or mood. It depends on what you want to experiment with.  Currently I’m preparing tracklists that express a certain feeling.  Things like romantic, dark, revenge, brightness, 7am.  Based on certain words that express a feeling or context, I choose tracks that only define that feeling for me.  Some DJs already do this and it’s an easy way to get yourself out of a rut.  Brainstorm some words for yourself and then see what hits you.  Then collect the music ( and dig deep here – from memory and your “crate” ) – stay true to that expressive word, then work it out on the decks and see what happens.

Task Constraint: Another way to set a constraint for yourself has to do with the tools you use.  Your gear and technique are your tools. Let’s say you challenge yourself to beat match by ear, or use effects ( or scale back on effects ), incorporate scratching, or use a feature in your gear or software you’ve never used before.  Whatever it is you are NOT doing, then add it as a constraint and do it.

So if you are feeling stuck you can set up a constraint like this:

A mix, 5 tracks, breaks only ( the kind in a track or the genre ), Blue, holding the mix for 20 seconds each transition, in two weeks.

The more complex you set up your framework the more your mind has to work with and wrap itself around.  Really challenge yourself – you can do it!  At least, if you do not accomplish the goal in the time you set, you will have learned something about yourself and would have ingrained that experimentation in your mind for future use.

Let me know how it goes!

Recap: Your mind cannot create without a framework.  Constraints are a way to give yourself rules to work with.  Goals have to do with what you want to accomplish.  Tasks are the way you get to that goal – whether they are musical themes, technique, or gear constraints.  The more complex your framework the more creative your process and output will be.  Challenge yourself!

Source: “Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough”, Patricia D. Stokes, Springer Publishing NYC, 2006.