Is Controllerism The New Underground?

Phil Morse | Read time: 6 mins
controllerism underground
Last updated 30 November, 2017


token emulator
Controlling Traktor DJ software with the Emulator by Token. Part of the new underground?

I recently re-read an enjoyable rant entitled David Guetta & Laptops Don’t Kill Techno. You Do!, from a music blog called Argh, It’s In My Head.

Covering the moodiness of “hipsters” in dance clubs, and how the in-crowd tends to turn on any producers who have a sniff of commercial success with their music, the article then moves on to state that maybe laptop DJs are actually the new underground.

That got me thinking about what makes a scene underground. When I first got into the house scene back in the late 80s:

  • You couldn’t go and hear anyone doing it in mainstream clubs
  • You couldn’t get anyone to take you seriously when you said you were into it – they were all listening to indie or hip hop (or worse – step forward, goths)
  • You couldn’t hear anyone playing it on the radio
  • Some of the productions and performances were very rough around the edges

It was undeniably an underground scene.

OK, let’s look at those 4 points and compare them to controllerism today:

1. You couldn’t go and hear anyone doing it in the clubs

We used to set up our own parties, and attend similar parties, outside of the club circuit. We couldn’t make money from it yet; this was for love.

On the odd occasion when we did convince someone to let us throw a party in a small club, jaws dropped left, right and centre. (The bar staff were usually the first to “get it”, and the first to insist on a rebooking…). You had to search hard to find clubs playing house back then. Today, walk into 99% of DJ-fronted clubs and the DJs will be using turntables or CDJs and mixing their music this way. Not so many use real vinyl (although plenty still do), but nonetheless, CDJs remain highly popular, or of course vinyl via Serato (or increasingly Traktor) Scratch. Why? Because both CDJs and Serato allow DJs to perform how they’ve done it for years – two turntables and a mixer. No need to change or grow.

But if you turn up to play a club gig with a controller or simply a laptop, you still get raised eyebrows of the “does he know what he’s doing?”, “he’s not plugging that in here!”-type. You still get interested punters coming and looking at your gear when you’re playing, and you still have to perform better to convince other DJs you’re not a fake. You’re still on trial, basically.

Rave map
In the late 80s in the UK, hearing dance music involved mobile phone instructions, scribbled maps, car convoys and police dodging. All good signs of an underground scene…

In most cities, if you want to go out on a weekend and hear controllerist routines or DJs doing interesting things with Midi equipment, you need to put on your own event or know the right people, because you still won’t find sich things in most “proper” clubs. It’s still “underground”.

2. You couldn’t get anyone to take you seriously when you said you were into it

Back then, we couldn’t convince many of our peers to come party to house music with us, try as we may. Once we finally managed to get some of them to come along and do it for themselves? Then they got it. But for a few years, we were definitely in the “everyone hates us, we don’t care” category.

People ridicule what they don’t understand. One of the single biggest challenges facing DJs who use Midi controllers and laptops is getting people to take them seriously. Believe me, it comes with the territory when you’re doing something new and different.

Just because people ridicule something, it doesn’t automatically make it “underground”. But sure as hell, if everyone understands it, it ain’t underground any more.

3. You couldn’t hear anyone playing it on the radio

OK, back then we didn’t have web radio so the fact that (here in the UK) there were a few pirate stations dodging the law who actually were playing our music was our saviour. But hearing DJs mixing music on mainstream radio? That took years to catch on.

“Underground” kind of implies word of mouth. Something that can’t easily be commercialised. The thing with controllerism is, it puts more control into the DJ’s hands, it puts immediacy into his or her hands, more than ever. Put simply, you can really perform for your crowd on digital DJ kit. Try doing a 4-deck mash-up on two 1210s. And that doesn’t travel well.

Pirate radio
Back then, if your scene\’s music was only available through an illegal radio station broadcasting from a briefcase, you could be pretty sure it was underground. Pic: Amoeblog

The performance comes from feedback from dancers. It comes from catching the eye of some mentalist who’s conducting your dancefloor and showing him you’ve just doubled the length of a break, just for him! It comes from pauses, from volume changes, from big genre changes, from DJ interactions, from live music mixed over the top – from all the things Midi gives you that 2 decks and a mixer can’t.

None of this stuff translates to record or to the radio, or even to YouTube particularly well. More than ever, you simply have to be there. Now that’s pretty underground.

4. It was rough around the edges

I had a musician friend who hated my house mixtapes because he thought Frankie Knuckles and Todd Terry’s tracks were sloppily produced. And yes, you could choose to look at things that way – but these tunes were the building blocks of a culture, not over-produced, bloated statements of a year’s work or whatever. They were banged out to get the ideas down and move on to the next 100 tracks in the producer’s head.

Fast forward to today and some of the controllerist routines you can see on YouTube or hear out and about are frankly a bit rough – fair cop. And just a word of warning: be careful if you get into a conversation about controllerism sound or production quality with an old school musician or DJ!.

In an age when we’re streaming audio (= bad quality), people illegally rip from YouTube (= very bad quality), we’re extracting vocals as best we can to mash them up (= yeah, you guessed it), an age when we use laptop sound cards to add to our botched-together set-ups, when we suffer latency as we push our kit to the limits, when we record, produce and master from our bedrooms – yes, quality suffers. Yes, we’re not producing music where sound quality is our first concern. So what?

Now add instant sampling and looping, a plethora of effects, and people behind the controls who are learning as they go along. You know what? Some of this stuff is completely rough around the edges. And your point is?

What the old school don’t seem to realise is that yes, we would love everything to be 24bit/96kHz, uncompressed, perfectly mixed and mastered perfection – but it can’t always be that way. What do you want us to do, give up and go home? When we’re having so much fun?

The home studio
Hacking together your own home studio is a standard way of re-editing, mashing up and creating new music to DJ on your controller with. No, it won\’t sound like it was done in a $$$-a-day studio. Is that really so important? Pic: Gorski

Yes, those who’ve spent 25 years perfecting something that they’ve invested too much in to change are going to get angry with the people they feel are destroying it. But equally, new DJ / producer / mash-up controllerist artists can’t help but feel that these folk should go and clean their vinyl, slip into their armchairs and slide their expensive Pioneer headphones on and, well, doze off to sleep.

Meanwhile, there’s a party going on, and I take no real joy in pointing it out, but sometimes you have to destroy to build. That’s how things change.

Remember though, nothing is underground forever

Back in the early days of house, we always thought the scene would die in the next 6 weeks, perpetually. But it carried on for months, then years. For some of us, it became our careers – probably the best thing we’d ever do with out lives.

But it inevitably changed as it did so, in some ways for the better, in some for the worse. The truth was, though, that the early, underground days put the fuel in the tanks for when it launched into the mainstream.

As a digital DJ, you already know that Midi and digital music aren’t a cop-out, that they aren’t cheating.

You know (or at least are looking forward to!) the joys of hacking together a keyboard mapping, a couple of bits of software and some new hardware to make a personal DJ set-up that lets you express yourself just how you want.

And you know what it feels like to pull something off on that same equipment that, in their hearts, at least some of those now deeply conservative old school DJs would just love to.

The truth is, the best of the old school DJs have progressed with the technology too and are just as excited about today’s developments and gear as you are. Not everyone is going to criticise and attack you.

So keep your head high, enjoy the ride – but most importantly of all, relish your underground years. Because this bit won’t last.

Why not? Because controllerism is here to stay, and it’s only a matter of time before button pushing is the new vinyl spinning – and sooner or later, someone will tell you that you’re old fashioned!

What do you think defines an underground scene? Do mash-ups, live sampling, and custom equipment means that controllerism is emerging as a new force in performing dance music? Or do you think it’s all a dead end? Please let us know in the comments.

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