“Put your fucking hands in the air!” At a raging block party in the Bronx, one man stands out amidst smoke and flashing lights. That man is the notorious DJ Grandmaster Flash. Donning a large pair of headphones, he jumps from one vinyl record to another, scratching, cutting, manipulating and mixing never-before-heard beats, causing the crowd to go wild. Every so often, he reaches behind him to an overbearing stack of vinyl, frantically searching for the next record to throw on his turntable.
If only he had an iPod.
Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any DJ lugging around a crate full of records. As music technology has become increasingly digital, the analog turntable has been replaced by laptops, iPods, and pre-made playlists. In today’s world, music is readily accessible to anyone via music download programs such as iTunes and BitTorrent. Personal music libraries have exploded to the point that almost anyone can be their own DJ by simply plugging an iPod into a speaker system. Or can they?
“It’s easier for people today because they have such a wide collection of music,” Thomas “DJ Action” Jackson of Toad’s Place remarked. “But often times I find people who have maybe fifty thousand songs in their collection who go, ‘I can be a DJ. I am a DJ,’” Shaking his head vigorously, DJ Action continued, “But I say, you’re not. [Technology] has given us greater access to music, but it’s never going to make the art form easier.”
Joshua Davis ’10, an on-campus DJ, agreed, “Honestly anyone can [deejay], but it takes some skill to mix, to mash, to know what’s permitted. It’s a skill, it’s an art.” Even though the laptop gives the DJ easy access to all of his songs, he still needs to meticulously manipulate all of the beats and hooks himself using computer software, mixers and digital turntables.
But what truly differentiates a DJ from the typical music fanatic with a million songs on his computer is that a DJ has the ability to seamlessly create music that vibes with the crowd.
“You have to be able to get into the audience’s head even without knowing them, and know exactly what to do to give them a great time.” DJ Action said. “[The DJ] creates a story, a journey, when they’re behind the turntable. He or she has to know where they want to take [the crowd], and how to take them there. There’s a formula, and it takes practice. Even the best DJs are still working at it.”
This ability to feed off the crowd is at the heart of Avinash Gandhi ’10 and Matthew Eisen’s ’10 DJing philosophy (Eisen was the Executive Editor for the Board of 2009 News).
“We have some sense of how we want an event to go, but it really depends on the ebb and flow of the dance,” Eisen said. “We never go in with a pre-determined playlist, but we always try to catch people by surprise and get them excited.”
Similarly, DJ Action looks down upon the use of pre-made playlists. “I never formulate [playlists],” he said. “It’s the worst thing you could ever do. It’s like saying to yourself, ‘I’m going to say what the crowd’s gonna do and I haven’t even seen them yet.’”
Yet even though the DJs recognize that they may be at the heart of the party, DJ Action still believes that the crowd is at the head.
“I don’t approach DJing as a pompous individual,” DJ Action said. “Sometimes, someone will request a song and I’ll think, ‘that’s the worst request in the world,’ but I try, I really truly do try to get their song in.” Tell that to the stumbling drunk girl who “needs” to hear Nelly’s “Hot in Here.”
“It’s like any other job,” DJ Action stated matter-of-factly. “It’s a privilege, not a right. To come to a nightclub to play to a few thousand, and give them a good time. You can never take that away.”