We recently published a letter from a reader who was worried about not being able to tell the different musical genres apart, and about how this perceived lack of knowledge would affect his chances of getting club DJ bookings. Among the many responses to that post was one by long-time Digital DJ Tips reader and veteran DJ Dennis Parrott from Detroit, which really caught my eye and which I think contains much wisdom for DJs stuck in what I call the “genre trap”.
Dennis describes himself as “a 50-ish part time DJ who was too young to be a hippie during the Summer of Love and too old to have been a rave kid, but who never doubts the power of a good song to move people and make the world a better place.” And with that introduction, I reproduce Denis’s reply in full below, with his permission and with a few of his additions. Over to you, Denis:
There is good music and there is bad music. Listener/dancer chooses…
“There ain’t but two kinds of music in the entire universe, period. Two. You don’t even have to have all of your fingers to count that high. You could have completely failed primary school for that matter (so long as you can count to 4 for your mixing, of course).
“There is good music and there is bad music. Listener/dancer chooses. Got a full dancefloor? If you play a track and they all sit down (and maybe throw stuff at the DJ booth), you have played bad music. Got a bar full of folks sitting on their tookuses? If you play a track that gets them up and dancing, you have played good music. It varies minute to minute, place to place and crowd to crowd.
“I don’t understand that impulse to cut music that sounds pretty much the same into even tinier little ghettos. It numbs my brain to even try to think about all of the weird little niche variations of house or techno or whatever that exist. I grew up on 60s rock and Motown and old soul, some disco and little hip hop from the very early days. I don’t get house and techno (I know, a heresy since I am from Detroit) and to me a lot of stuff that guys label in one little niche sounds just like the stuff other guys put in a different little niche. Supwiddat?
“What I’ve realised is that if you “feel” the music you can bring different genres together in a set and make it sound just fine. If the music gets the crowd vibing and out there on the floor then it is good music.
“Maybe it is just me but I like those mixes that jump all over the genre map or mix old dance tracks with newer stuff or do the controllerist thing playing hard rock bits over beats and such. Mixes that start at 121 BPM and stay there for two hours just don’t make me want to get up and dance.
“My advice to DJs stuck in the “genre ghetto” is to stop worrying about this genre or that genre, and instead try putting stuff together and see how it works. The people who will diss you for not playing a pure deep purple tech house set are narrow minded – and probably not a lot of fun.
“Music (unless played at a funeral — and sometimes even if it is — witness a Bourbon St funeral in New Orleans) should be about people having fun. I think the highest compliment I could ever hear is somebody saying to me “man, we had so much fun when you were on the decks”.
“People come out to clubs or go to events to forget the crap that goes on in their lives for a little while and just do what humans were really meant to do: be happy. DJs (in my opinion) have an almost sacred duty to channel what Robert Fripp calls the “Muse” and transport those people in the audience as best they can to that happy place.
“Forget the genre labels. Listen to the tracks and play the songs you think people will like. Dancers don’t really care about the labels by and large. Sure there are some out there who only like deep green trance or what have you, but most don’t. They just want to hear music they like so they can dance.”
My take on all of this
I think Dennis is broadly right here. While genres can be useful – to help you quickly hone in on music that may interest you in online stores or on SoundCloud, for instance – they are just that: Guidelines, flags in the sand. To me they were never intended by anyone to define the kind of music this DJ or that DJ should play or does play. It becomes snobbery when people say they’re only into this or that, or snub other DJs for not knowing the genres they’re namedropping.
When I was a club promoter (and resident DJ at my own events), we were wary of putting genres on our flyers to describe our nights, preferring to let the type of DJs we booked give people a sense of what the parties would be like – and their past experiences with us, of course. That gave us the freedom to develop our own sound that crossed commonly accepted genres, but that still held together.
By glueing a bit of “this” genre and “that” genre together, we (hopefully) managed to create an experience for our customers that was predictable but at the same time dynamic. My club ran for over 15 years, so if we’d have pegged ourselves to the genres that were popular way back when we started, we’d have backed ourselves into a hole, make no mistake (look at the rapid death of so-called dubstep, for example)! Instead, we played the songs that felt right for our club and crowd, and just kept doing it, year after year. Surely that’s really what DJs should be doing, not worrying about this genre or that genre?
What do you think? How much should we worry about genres as DJs? Is there any value in thinking beyond good music and bad music as far as the crowd in front of you goes? Please share your thoughts in the comments.