On the state of DJing: Wisdom from dance music’s big wigs at CMW
Last weekend we sat in on Canadian Music Week’s Dance Summit in Toronto, and the panel discussion went much deeper than clubs and drugs – one topic being the lack of originality in DJing today. With the advent of globalism and online downloading, the concern is that dance music’s regionality (ex. Chicago vs. New York vs. Parisian house) is fading. Here is their talk, if you have the attention span for a real-life length conversation.
Tommie Sunshine: DJ/Producer known for his remixes of pop songs including chart-topping Yoko Ono’s Give Peace a Chance (L.A., Brooklyn).
Nav Sangha: One of the most grassroots club owners (Wrongbar) in Canada. DJ (Nasty Nav) and former owner of Play de Record (Toronto).
Kenny MacIntyre: Cultural Marketer for Red Bull and probably the only trustworthy and street-savvy marketing guy we’ve met (Vancouver).
Adam Gill – Pres. Embrace Productions (promotion co. that books up-and-coming big electro and cross-over acts in Toronto).
Arthur Baker – Producer/remixer since the 70s (worked with Afrika Bambaataa, New Order (Boston, London UK).
Jackie McCloy – moderator, 40-year veteran DJ, radio host, NYC music pool director.
A few minutes into the panel, Kenny MacIntyre, creator of the annual Red Bull 3-Style DJing competition, brought up what he’s seen across the board in clubs over the past 10 years. Given the advent of laptop DJs who bring with them a library of thousands of tracks to choose from, this amount of choice is NOT creating better DJ’s:
Kenny MacIntyre: “Before, you’d go out and see a DJ with 30 records in his bag; he couldn’t change his set so he really had to bring something that carved out him on the stage. Now, they have this library and every jam of all time, and somehow you go to a bar and you hear the same music every night. It makes no sense. They have the ability to play so much, but everybody plays the same stuff.”
Tommie Sunshine: “We (DJs) walk a really fine line because we want to keep people interested in what we do but at the same time we want to be artistic. A DJ is many different things. There are the ones who are incredibly artistic with little or no concern with who’s listening, and then there are people on the other extreme who are entertainers – they’re not artists, they’re jukeboxes. I’m holding onto never DJing with a laptop. First. I don’t want people to think I’m on twitter while I’m playing, that’s what it looks like to me when someone’s digging in a laptop I think it looks absolutely ridiculous. I play CDs. I still, from playing vinyl, like digging though things. There’s a physicality to it. If I had a hundred gigs or a terabits or whatever-the-hell-it’s-called worth of music, I would go crazy! No one would ever want to hear me play a set like that, I’d be playing Pink Floyd because I’d be doing what I want to do. Too many possibilities has ruined the fun I think. You should focus.”
“There are the DJs who are incredibly artistic with little or no concern with who’s listening, and then there are people on the other extreme who are entertainers – they’re not artists, they’re jukeboxes.”
Kenny MacIntyre: “But those Ableton destroyers, the classics guys, those guys change every night with different sets they have their stems, like Flying Lotus, watch him DJ or smash his MPD all night, he’s playing a lot of songs but he’s also playing different stems from the songs and I think that is going to be the exciting thing in electronic music going forward. DJs will always be there but the real excitement is going to be this live performance where software meets the stage, performances that are analog and digital.”
Adam Gill: “I agree, people like Deadmau5 are pushing technology, making their own instruments, making visuals… that’s one of the ways an artist can separate themselves from others.”
Nav Sangha: “One thing Kenny brought up about the downfall of all the digital downloads and free access to music is, a lot of it is being given away and you walk into any given club and everyone’s playing the same stuff they’ve downloaded from the same popular blogs, whether it’s discobell, discodust , or what’s on top of the hype machine . It used to be you could find a DJ from Chicago and you’d hear something really regional with what they’re doing. Some jackin Chicago house or like some New York guy playing some really deep deep tribal house. A guy from Paris would play something very different… There are those who aren’t really paying attention to that, but there is a huge contingent who are playing the same blog stuff.”
“Everyone’s playing the same stuff they’ve downloaded from the same popular blogs … It used to be you could find a DJ from Chicago and you’d hear something really regional with what they’re doing (like) some jackin Chicago house.”
Jackie McCloy: That’s interesting, Nav, because you were a DJ and now you’re a club owner, and I’ve found that some club owners, even if they have a DJ background, they’ll ask the DJs to play those popular cuts because that’s what they thing their people want in the club. What kind of freedom to you give your DJs to play something different from what the crowd expects?
Nav Sangha: “Honestly, even on a Saturday night which is supposed to be your ‘give them the hits and pack them in’ night, I want people to come to my club and to walk out and say ‘Wow, what was that.’ I want them to be rushing the booth to try to figure out what they just heard… Sure people need anthems and something to hook onto to get them on the dance floor, but they also need to be challenged a little bit.”
Kenny MacIntyre: “You want people to have that ‘I gotta have that’ feeling so strong they’re going to go tear down the record store the next day to try to find it. Before that was really hard to do – they were all white labels. Now, everyone can get it (online) and the weirdest part is the opener (DJ) always plays it, no matter what! It’s 10 o’clock and somebody’s got it jacked so hard, that it’s impossible for the night to grow. Electronic music is supposed to be this night-long experience where you get to this peak, but when that’s at 10 o’clock, I’m like, I can go home by 11, I’m bored, I’m done.”
Nav Sangha: “They should have touring opening DJs, it’s such a skill to do it right, so many of them are hammering through the hits – you can’t get a dancefloor started with that.”
Tommie Sunshine: Ya, I can probably count on one hand the guys who played before me who had an ounce of – and it’s not even respect – just a real understanding that they’re setting it up to give it to someone else to really take it from there. It’s really hard to do and the people who do it well should be lauded for it…”
Perhaps the most compelling advice for any DJ is occurred two minutes later, when Sunshine broke down the essence of his sets:
“I’d like to give people the same experience I had when I first heard electronic music. I try to play from a totally unforgiving psychedelic background. You know, when I first came into dance music I was dropping acid and freaking out and loving everything I heard, and, I’m five years sober now, but when I play records – I’m high as hell. Don’t even try to talk to me when I’m playing because I am completely in the ether, and I’m dragging you with me.”
- Marsha Casselman