Way back in the mid nineties the dreams of Britain’s youth took a turn in an unexpected direction. For decades the creative impulses of the musically inclined adolescent had been defined and sculpted by their exposure to rock n roll in all its myriad forms. I was the same for a long while, being in love with various punk bands from The Jam and The Clash up to American acts like Fugazi, Big Black and Sonic Youth. Even then though, on the cusp of the last decade of the twentieth century, the heady scent of change was in the air.
At some point around 1995 or 96 sales of basic DJ set ups – a pair of decks and a cheap two channel mixer – began to overtake sales of electric guitars, and although the craze eventually faded as rock made its crusty return on the back of the dreary Brit-pop scene, a point had been made.
Nowadays the aspiring DJ has so many options and resources available that its difficult to remember how it once was. Instead of spending hours upon hours every week digging through the crates of as many record stores as you could get to, music in the form of digital downloads can be acquired almost instantly via the countless legal and illegal channels of the internet. Even the act of DJing has changed. the Sync button, once existing only in the crazed fever dreams of madmen and Richie Hawtin, is now ubiquitous not only on every Midi-controller under the sun, but expensive, state of the art CD decks. The appearance of Remix Decks and loops and samples began to redefine what DJing meant for a lot of people, and it seemed as if it would blur the line between playing records and live performance.
These changes did not go down particularly well in all quarters, of course. Purists would complain about the new DJs not having a clue as to what they were doing, that they were too reliant on gimmicks and software instead of honing the skills that would ultimately benefit them more. For myself, I remain ambivalent about it all. Due to various space constraints and the lack of a functioning mixer I DJ with controller and software. I even use the sync button on occasion – partly through laziness but also because I really hate manual mixing on a device that seems designed to force you into using the interface between software and hardware in the way the creators envisioned, rather than anything that seems natural to the user. There are elements of it I do like, though: Hot cues are a brilliant creative tool when used right, and the ability to chop out loops of a playing track is the sort of things that once seemed like science fiction.
At heart, though, I am a vinyl junkie. I learned (badly) on a nasty pair of belt drive decks before moving onto a set of Technic 1200s which remain my pride and joys. There is something about playing on a set of good turntables with a nice mixer and brand new records that mixing MP3s or WAVS on a laptop cannot hold a candle too, and when I am told by those who only play digitally that those skills I learned, the beatmatching, the phrasing, counting through the bars, are no longer needed I tend to sigh and shake my head, not because I think they are right or wrong but because they are missing the point.
Some of the technical skills that were once essential for what a DJ did are probably – from a purely mechanical point of view – no longer as important as they once were. But those skills bestowed upon their users more than a simple ability to cue up records and play them in time. learning to beatmatch also teaches you to pay attention to the ebb and flow of the tune. It teaches you how to listen to and hear the music. Reliance on a wave form on a screen encourages a DJ to pay less attention to the most important thing of all – their ears. Seeing where a break down begins, or the percussion kicks in is no substitute for knowing when these things happen through the old-fashioned method of knowing your music and having the instinct and training to react to it. The connection between the DJ and the music they play becomes deeper through understanding these basics much more than sorting your music into the correct genres or having keying software tell you what to play next. It might be boring to learn, it might even seen archaic, but it is the best way to understand what it is you do.
There is another point in all this. I’ve never been able to understand why somebody with enough interest to invest the time, resources and money in acquiring the equipment and music would not have the curiosity to want to try explore every facet of DJing? Why would you profess a love of something then ignore so many elements of it? Even the vinyl purists can probably learn a lot through examining how digital Djing works. Just because one method has been prevalent for so long, does it mean that there is nothing, no insight, no spark of excitement that cannot be gleaned through taking a look?
The sectarianism is silly and counter productive. It isn’t even as though the wider world cares that much. At the end of the day most sensible people would -perhaps correctly – point out that all a DJ really does is play other people’s music. It’s about time we stopped all the mudslinging and start doing just that – as well as we can, and with every single tool at our disposal.