Be sure to check out this mini-documentary from Mixmag on the enigmatic Detroit producer Moodymann. I love his vision for his city, his ruminations on record shops, and how the staff at Archer Record Pressing warmly welcomes him. But mostly I love this, said to Gilles Peterson:
We went to the club to get down and dance. Everybody knew the DJ and we didn’t sit there and look at the DJ. He provided the music … we was more into the room. He provides the soundtrack, we make the movie. Well, nowadays everybody just stands there and looks at the DJ. It’s not like that’s Prince up there performing live. That’s the fucking DJ.
I got into DJ’ing via punk rock. That may seem like a non-obvious association, but hear me out. What I liked about underground punk rock was that the band wasn’t the star — the band was merely the facilitator, and everyone in the club was on an equal level. We were all part of the show, and together we made it memorable.
There was a similar feeling in underground dance music when I started DJ’ing. It was fine — even preferable — if the DJ was in the dark or behind a wall looking through a slit.1Many clubs in the early ’90s had ‘the slit.’ I admit that I hated this at first as it seemed like a (literal) wall between the DJ and the audience. But I’ve grown nostalgic for a time when the nature of the booth implied that the music was the true star of the show. We were there to come together, every person as necessary to this party as the next, rejoicing in the feeling of the music. That vibe, combined with the fiercely independent distribution and economy of underground dance music, was, to me, a new kind of punk rock.
I’m not shaking my fist at a cloud or feeling like things are worse or better than ‘back in my day.’ But it’s different. And I feel Moodymann’s frustration here. A couple of decades ago the role of DJs changed, elevated to stars as punk rock bands eventually were. And more and more it’s a DJ’s responsibility to be the movie. When that happens, who’s the soundtrack really for?
Related: On the Music Tectonics podcast The Verge’s Dani Deahl mentions, with trepidation, a new AI engine that selects, programs, and mixes music from a DJ’s predetermined selection. That way the DJ can focus on ‘performance’ rather than pesky details like queuing up and beat-matching songs. Canned performance is nothing new — the draw of many DJs and music artists is a cult-of-personality anyway — but the thought of such an app has me looking testily toward the sky.
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