DJ Shadow once addressed the issue of "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" in a compact 46 seconds. The goal of this essay is to address why club and DJ culture sucks in '12. Unfortunately, it will take more than 46 seconds for me to do that, because the reasons involve a lot more than "the money." I will not address "why dance music sucks in 2012" because I don't agree with that statement. Tons of good dance music continues to be produced every yearnot that you would know from going to most clubs.
Many of today's gamefully-employed DJs and satisfied clubbers will not agree with the premise of this essay, since obviously they have already found their happy niches in the club scene. If you are in that group, stop reading now and stay happy! I'm jealous! Things have worked out well for you!
Instead, I'm writing for an audience of people who do not enjoy clubs, or who, when I tell them I am a DJ, regard me sadly. I am writing to the person who, when I describe my love for house music, hoists his guitar in the air and says, "You might not know what this is, DJ. It's called 'a real instrument'!"
If you're in that audience, I apologize for the current state of the club scene. But I assure you, it wasn't always this bad. You punk rock fans will appreciate the fact that in the late 80s and early 90s acid house and hardcore techno fueled a massive socio-political act of cultural rebellion, akin to 1967's summer of love and the punk rock year of '77. There are no obvious lyrics in Eon's "The Spice" to help out your understanding of this, but the rave scene had many political aims, the most significant of which revolved around the concept of "common land" and just whose land that was, really. This dance-driven cultural movement so worried Britain's conservative government that Parliament launched an attack on rave/dance/traveler culture via the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, often known as the "repetitive beats" law due to its picking specifically on raves. Dance music was seen as a greater threat to public order than hippie or punk rock culture ever were.
I wish to take you back to a time when DJ'ing was provocative and entertaining, when I and countless others were inspired by the imaginations of those then-current, now-legendary DJs, who dabbled in daringly creative transitions, genre-bending gymnastics, and real personal expression. Fortunately, such DJs still exist, but they are seldom heard anymore. How did all that late 80s promise turn into such a gloomy present?
1) The decline of the commercial club
It was a different world for music in the years immediately following the 1988 acid house revolution. One critical difference was that music had to be physically manufactured, then distributed to record stores. This limited the number of songs available at the time, making it easier for music enthusiasts to stay on top of multiple music genres. Another difference was that the concept of the pop remix was in its infancy, and many rock and pop songs received either no remixes at all or remixes that extended but otherwise barely transformed the original tunes.
A 1992 student disco in England would play the original versions of Snap!'s "Rhythm is a Dancer," Felix's Italian house hit "Don't You Want Me" (a sample from which was recently snagged by Snoop Dogg and David Guetta), The Shamen's "Ebeneezer Goode," ABBA's "Dancing Queen" (then enjoying a resurgence due to the release of ABBA Gold), James's then-classic indie pop tune "Sit Down," punk band Daisy Chainsaw's "Love Your Money," and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
That's a pretty eclectic set of tunes.
Today, when you go to a typical commercial club, you will not hear this sort of variety. You will hear instead an electro R&B tune followed by another electro R&B tune followed by another electro R&B tune. Then the DJ will drop one or two of those Scandinavian house tracks, which broadly sound a lot like the electro R&B tunes (hell, they even share the same melodies, considering that a lot of today's R&B artists are singing/rapping on top of samples from those hits).
Had Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" come out in 1992, the DJ, likely not having a remix at his or her disposal, would have been forced to figure out a way to slip the original song into the set, perhaps tossing some breakbeat record behind it. It would have required some creativity and imagination, and the results could have been either disastrous or breathtaking. Either way, they would have been unique to that DJ. I used to grin when I heard such genre-bending transformations successfully served up on the fly.
Today, DJs either invent on their laptops (or wait for somebody else to invent) an electro/house remix of today's pop tunes. Why? Because then it will "fit in" with the rest of the set. In other words, the message today is that consistency of sound is good and variety is bad.
I heard a terrible remix of Adele's "Someone Like You" in a club recently, terrible not because the added dance production destroyed the emotional impact of the original (in fact, sometimes such a recontextualization can be interesting, though I don't feel that that was the case here). The main problem was that the remix was handled in the most cliched manner possible. I'd even propose that the mix was cynical. And to think Adele was signed to XL records, that mighty once-underground breakbeat label from the early 1990s. An emotionally-wrenching song becomes just another DJ dancefloor tool, indistinguishable from the stuff around it, now replete with the same sounds and same builds as all the other songs around it, played by a DJ who lacked the imagination to figure out in his or her own way how to drop it.
The primary consequence of the philosophy of maintaining musical consistency in the commercial club is the lack of contrast. Remember my hypothetical 1992 student disco playlist? Eclectic tunes allow different emotional buttons to be pushed. Without contrast, the music becomes emotionless wallpaper. The drunks in the club will disagree, of course. They will sing "emotionally" to Flo Rida's "Good Feeling." But they'll sing to anything after six Vodka Red Bulls. Fact is, the feeling is gone.
But what the commercial scene ruins the underground scene salvages, right?
2) The decline of the underground club
I have been to many good underground clubs in recent years, but I am going to describe the underground club that I find has become the most common sort of underground club.
Underground club DJs generally enjoy no more freedom in terms of song-selection than do commercial club DJs. They are usually locked into a single genre and judged by hipsters who make gagging signs on the dancefloor when something is not perfectly beat-matched. Many of the DJs I've met are just fine with that arrangement. Hey, that's just the way it goes; it's a business!
At one time, one could expect to hear eclectic DJ'ing in the underground scene, with multiple genres being mashed together in creative and imaginative ways (I once heard a bootleg recording of an early Andrew Weatherall DJ set where he threw Pink Floyd's "On the Run" alongside house tracks). Today, it's dubstep to the left, drum 'n' bass to the right, and minimal techno dead ahead. Essentially, a DJ must align with one of these genres or, even better, something more obtuse, like "minimal-dark-housestep." Thank you, hipsters!
In both the underground club and the commercial one, the expectation from the clubber is that regardless of whether one walks into the club at 11 PM, 1 AM, or 3 AM, one will receive an instant injection of one's favorite music then and there. Thus, the DJ can't be holding off on his or her drum and bass mini-set until the end of the night; the clubber expects it now! Or dubstep now! Or, in the commercial club, current electro R&B dance hits now! And all the time! And so the DJs play the same music all night long in order to offer that instant gratification to the clubber whenever he or she might arrive, which necessitates that there be no deviation from that genre.
Which means, once again, that there is no contrast in the night's music. And without contrast there is no room for emotion or real personal expression on the part of the DJ.
3) The rise of the genre-DJ
Boring, genre-focused "underground" music nights are a reflection of the rise of the genre-specialist DJ. One of the biggest ways dance music fans killed their own music scene was by elevating certain genre-specialist DJs to godlike status. Consider trance hero Armin van Buuren, who has roosted at or near the top of the DJ Magazine annual DJ polls for over a decade now.
To understand the rise of the genre-specialist DJ, one has to understand the enormous amount of change dance music underwent during the period of punctuated equilibrium that followed the 1988 acid house revolution. Music journalist Simon Reynolds said it best:
"Ten years ago [Mr. Reynolds was writing this in 2000]...it was still physically possible to monitor the best output of every subgenrea full time job, sure, but do-able if you were dedicated and determined. There weren't that many scenes to check, after alleverything was under the umbrella of house music back then, even techno. Today, it would take all your time and energy to stay on top of drum & bass, or minimal techno, or garage, or any single genresuch is the high turnover of releases, the vast number of independent labels and self-released records. This double whammy of stylistic splintering combined with ever-increasing volume of releases is the reason why people increasingly get on a narrowcast track and become obsessed with just one kind of music." ([link here])Of course, this change in dance music fans was only one part of the feedback cycle between themselves, clubs, and DJs. With the increasing Balkanization of dance music, the genre-specialist DJ rose to prominence to cater to his or her devoted flock of tunnel-visioned obsessives. These DJs were worshipped, literally called "Gods," and it wasn't long before some of the vainer ones were striking Jesus-on-the-cross poses behind the decks.
The genre fans and DJs reinforced one another, and then the "superclubs" profited via their own genre nights. Consider: if a club owner were trying to find a dubstep DJ, and Candidate 1 spun several genres of music, including dubstep ("Hell, I like to throw fuckin' Willie Nelson on top of dubstep!"), while Candidate 2 said he was a founding member of the Deep Dubstep Kollektiv (motto: "Dubstep ForeverOr Go Fuck Yourself"), who would you hire? Deep Dubstep guy, of coursehe LIVES the scene, and even more importantly, due to his devotion to one style of music he probably has a devoted, built-in-audience of dubstep-dedicated followers who will pay the cover to get in. And the other guy is just a hack, right? Even if the idea of Willie Nelson/dubstep sounds pretty interestingand pulling such a thing off would be even more artistically challenging.
In 2003, the legendary Andrew Weatherall, a DJ who resisted being pigeon-holed back in the early 1990s and who continues to be a bit of an enigma today (I hear lately he's been into rockabilly), was asked in an interview in Spannered magazine, "A lot of people see you as a jack-of-all-trades in terms of production and DJing. What do you think of today's trend to align yourself with a certain style or genre?"
To which he replied:
"The thing is, with the phrase 'jack-of-all-trades,' you know what comes next'master of none.' I think it's a polite way of calling them a dilettante, someone who is doing it as a bit of a hobby, flying around doing this that and the other…I wouldn't say I'm a jack-of-all-trades, because that's probably what I was ten years ago. But that wasn't down to wanting to fit in or jumping on bandwagons. It was a genuine love of every form of music, and people gave me the opportunity to play it. So, there would be people who would go 'Oh, he's not a proper "whatever" DJ,' but I never considered myself to be that. I was always someone with a good record collection that spanned all genres, who every now and then people were good enough to say, "Come and play for me," and pay meadmittedly small amounts when I started, £75 wages, £150 on records. I can see the funk in a hip hop record that's 90 beats per minute and in a drum and bass record that's 180 beats per minute, and if someone is good enough to let me play, and play long enough to cover all bases, then I will cover all bases. I actually think I am reasonably good at it now. Yeah, four or five years ago I was a bit of a 'jack-of-all-trades master of none' [Mr. Weatherall is being very modest here], but then I think people saw through that and saw the fact that enthusiasm probably overrode the lack of technical ability."Older DJs remember a time before the acid house revolution when they were into other styles of music (punk rock, indie), unaware that just around the corner was a sound that would change their lives. So they were already accustomed to the concept of listening to a wide variety of music genres. When a few years later they started DJ'ing in clubs, they were not averse to beatmatching, say, Big Country's "In a Big Country" with a house record. The multi-genre concept was just second-nature to many of these DJs due to the relative newness of the house sound.
My philosophy has always been that if you think one style of music can express the full range of your emotions, then you must be one boring mother fucker. Sure, a trance fan will claim that trance is a really broad and versatile style of music, but that is an extremely relative and dubious claim. The people who hate clubs and your favorite DJs know better. When they complain that "the music in this club all sounds the same," they've pretty much nailed it.
When a genre-specialist DJ hits the decks, what do we miss out on once again? Yes, contrast. And what happens when you remove all the contrast in music and make everything consistent? That's right: musical wallpaper. You've stripped away the emotion and room for personal expression.
Damn, everything we've discussed so far is about that. It's like the DJs, club managers, and fans colluded in order to destroy any expressionism in today's dance music scene. Well, via this relentless feedback cycle of genre-specialization, they did.
4) The elevation of technology over music
There was a time when the conversations I had with DJs revolved around music. I remember hanging out with Tommie Sunshine (who later worked with Felix da Housecat, signed to the legendary International DeeJay Gigolos label run by DJ Hell, and composed the soundtrack to Snakes on a PlaneOK, so the last one is kinda weird, but it's a living!). We'd talk about music. Music! He'd pull out records and rave about his tunes of the moment. He introduced me to such varied things as DMX Krew and Atari Teenage Riot. And, demonstrating the breadth of his music tastes (he was not averse to dropping Van Halen's "Runnin' With the Devil" in his sets), he'd also speculate on what the future of indie shoegazers My Bloody Valentine was going to be ("I hear the next album is going to be a drum and bass recordisn't that just insane?"). Hell, we'd even talk about literature (he recommended that I read W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence), because DJ'ing and life to Tommie was art.
It's no exaggeration to say that nowadays at least 9 out of every 10 conversations I hold with other DJs consist almost entirely of the other DJ quizzing me on my DJ equipment, and then telling me what I need to get. "Don't have [mixing program X]? There's your problem." Some talk endlessly about speaker systems, others about touch-screen interfaces, and these chats go on painfully forever because there is just so much equipment out there to discuss.
Tunes almost never come up. No longer are there enthusiastic, fanboy exhaltations like, "Man, Yves Larock's 'Zoo' video is fuckin' brilliant!" or "That Knife Party 'Internet Friends' is such a perfect song for these times!" All I get is pity that I'm DJ'ing on Pioneer CDJ-400s.
For a long time, a pair of Technics turntables were the weapons of choice, and everything was spun on vinyl. I suspect that this is why DJs were able to focus more on the music, which was always what mattered the most anyway (don't let a DJ who talks endlessly about the design of subwoofers convince you otherwise). But once a lucrative technology market was developed around DJ'ing, with the potential for DJs to constantly and continuously upgrade their expensive equipment (to the delight of the monied manufacturers), DJs focused more and more on winning the technology pissing contest with their peers and less on the music.
Only a very monied DJ can afford all the latest tools of the trade all the time. So, just as we fret that politics today is controlled by moneyed-interests, many of us DJs have a fear that DJ'ing will become more and more the domain of people with money instead of talent, and that the rich but talentless will cockblock the more artistically gifted from landing club gigs.
Happily, maybe 1 in 10 conversations I have with other DJs do focus on music. I know you guys and gals are still out there. You are the ones who, like the folks who inspired us "back in the day," were motivated to get into this whole DJ'ing thing because of the music itself. Wow, what a concept!
5) Too much alcohol, not enough drugs
One thing that contributed mightily to the inspiration of our favorite rock artists in the 60s and 70s was drugs. Well, we DJs who don't know what a guitar is are actually very empathetic to that concept, because it was no different with the dance music scene of the 80s and 90s.
The soundtrack of the warehouse rave was acid house and hardcore techno, but inside the heads of many ravers a soundtrack scored by drugsparticularly ecstasy, and (despite the name of the movement, to a lesser extent) acidplayed an accompanying melody. Ecstasy elevated positive thinking and buoyed feelings of good-nature between clubbers. Acid was a different thing; it turned the mind inward, opening profound new avenues of self-awareness for those who took those trips.
Today's club drug of choice is Vodka Red Bull. As comedian Bill Hicks famously pointed out, "You're in a ballgame or a concert and someone's really violent and aggressive and obnoxious. Are they drunk or smoking pot?" Swap "on ecstasy" or "on acid" for "smoking pot" and the point remains the same.
Warehouse raves drew the suspicion of drug-busting authorities who noted, upon raiding them, "Hey, here is a room full of dancing people and no alcohol!" That's how alcohol-free and drug-driven the formative years of modern dance music were. Now, as drug use appears to be on the decline, dance music fans pour into clubs, which in turn pour Vodka or Jack into their glasses.
People hear this argument so many times that they become numb to it, but fuck it, let me say once again: alcohol is a horrible drug. I know from too much personal experience. It often fires up one's worst emotions while simultaneously clouding judgement, which inevitably leads to you furiously deleting those ill-advised Facebook posts the following day. Alcohol is addictive and it physically destroys you. Really, if you drink a fair amount, do not click this link. Stay in denial!
But we remember the horrors of ecstasy deaths in clubs back in the 1990s, right? Well...
"Statistics culled from the United States and the United Kingdom report only 7 ecstasy-related deaths per million users of the drug...when compared to the 625 alcohol-related deaths per million drinkers that occur each year." [link here]Oh.
Fact is, in the last week alone I've heard two different people angrily use the word "cunt" while drunkone to describe Irish Eurovision performers Jedward, and the other to describe me (she's actually a good friend). I have never known a stoned person to use that word. Unless it was in a friendly way, like, "I love ya, ya big fuckin' cunt you! Get over here!"
And so clubs have become less-inviting places than they once were.
So it's neither your imagination nor a case of rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia. Things really were better once. But take all the above into account and you begin to understand how dance music, which opened the decade of the 90s with such promise, became, by association with club and DJ culture, widely-perceived as the village idiot of the music scene.