I have nothing but respect for DJs who have mastered the art of turntablism or silky smooth mixing on vinyl: These are truly magical skills on a par with real musicianship. But there was a time not so long ago when DJing was all about the music you played rather than your mixing ability. Those times were in many ways far more creative and musically exciting than today.
I remember when acid house and Detroit techno first became popular in London and many of the funk, soul and reggae DJs said it wasn’t real music if it wasn’t made with instruments. They spoke against it as ersatz fakery and said uniform beats created on a drum machine were so easy to work with that it made a mockery out of the craft. Now some of those very same DJs love to talk about how they were there at the birth of modern DJ culture! But it has come full circle, because those they criticised are returning the favour to the current generation of digital DJs.
I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard that if you can’t mix by ear and haven’t ever spun on vinyl you have no right to call yourself a DJ. This is ahistorical nonsense of the highest order. Some fantastic DJs were playing before Francis Grasso put two beats together and there are still many genres of music that quite simply can not be beatmatched. Even in the late 80s up to the early 90s it was quite common to hear quality house DJs using the much derided spinback or just fading out and into the next tune.
Corporate clubbing and the rise of bland
Somewhere in the mid 90s, with the rise of corporate clubbing and the superstar DJ, silky smooth mixing skills became a must for all DJs and much of the musical creativity fled the dancefloor and has struggled to return.
Where once house DJs quite happily played hip hop artists like Chubb Rock and Public Enemy back to back with Kraftwerk and house music laden with James Brown beats, DJs fractured into sub-genre ghettos and their sets started to sound like one long three hour track instead of an exciting mix full of surprises and inspiration.
Everything became very smooth and professional but gone were the enthusiasts who made lists and sought out the tracks they heard, because the DJs weren’t there to surprise their audiences any more. The job of the nightclub DJ became to create a perfectly mixed wall of sound and not to risk clearing the dancefloor by throwing any curveballs that stood out.
Now we have a club scene that is dominated by the flat pack 4:4 beat and the austerity of minimal house.
Digital: The new punk?
But for me, mixing really isn’t the most important thing about DJing, and that’s why I think ultimately, digital is good for DJ culture. If software and digital technology makes mixing more accessible to music lovers of all different kinds – some with natural technical ability, some without – that will breathe new life into the market.
I have personally seen people who could never DJ on vinyl become popular – DJs who play amazing multi-genre sets on a par with the likes of Mr Scruff and Norman Jay – simply because they now have the visual aid of the software. This can only be a good thing.
To those who still insist that to be a DJ one must be able to beatmatch by ear, I have to tell you that many people would rather hear a DJ with absolutely no technical ability who just plays amazing music they have never heard before than listen to the most accomplished silky smooth mixing executed on vinyl, CD or controller.
It’s the music that matters not the technique.
We should have no problem with DJs who never learned how to mix getting professional DJ work if they have passion and dedication for music. If not mixing disqualifies you as a DJ then someone tell David Mancuso and every funk, northern soul and reggae selector on God’s green earth that they should just admit to being frauds and hang up their headphones.
You are a DJ if you have the knowledge and music collection to captivate a crowd for four hours on a regular basis without repeating yourself. In fact if you can do that without mixing it could be argued that you are a better DJ than the person who has the technical ability to fall back on.
Blame the scene, not the kids
So I put it to you my fellow DJs, that the problem is not kids with no passion for music getting gigs because they have Serato and the Beatport top 40. No, the problem is that most nightclubs have become realms where mixing has eclipsed musical content.
That’s why in my humble opinion, digital DJ technology could be the answer. Now people who never got the knack of beatmatching by ear can spin on a level playing field with the silky smooth mixing, sub genre specialists who currently dominate the dance floors with their minimalistic 4:4 beats.
I love 4:4 beats and play them a lot myself but my software has allowed me to introduce so much more to my sets than I ever could by ear. With digital DJ tools we can bring back the musical freedom of earlier days.
We should embrace the future, and accept that digital DJ is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
• Luke James Taylor grew up in London in the 80s on a diet of soul, funk, reggae, hop hop and house. He is currently rocking Bangkok with his unique blend of soulful goodness.
What do you think? Is digital saving DJing and heralding a new age where more music fans than ever can learn to play music to dancefloors? Or are hallowed skills being disrespected and a privileged art being undermined? As alway, your thoughts are more than welcome in the comments.