Soundtrack: Deee-Lite, “Groove Is In The Heart”
Recently, there has been debate over whether DJ’s can, in fact be considered legitimate musicians or musical artists. I would like to offer a defense of the art of DJ’ing. Since I’ve begun to do a little DJ’ing recently, and have also played musical instruments and taken music lessons, I feel that I can speak to this issue. I do very much believe that DJ’s can legitimately be called musicians.
I took piano lessons for about five years when I was a child. I studied music theory and learned how to read music. And so, when I learned a piece, I usually learned it by reading the music and get to know it intimately enough so that I could play it from memory. Learning music in this way is certainly a useful spiritual training—it requires you to walk in the shoes of the piece’s author.
But I didn’t always learn music this way. I was lucky enough to have been able to develop perfect pitch (where I could identify a note just by hearing it) and so I was often able to play what I heard without having to see it on sheet music. It wasn’t ever a perfect imitation, and it often would lack some of the details that the original piece had, but I learned it well enough so that people would recognize it. I would learn later that this is precisely how musicians around the world have learned music, and that in fact many jazz musicians can’t read music. I found this hard to believe until college when I took jazz piano lessons taught by a local jazz musician in Urbana, IL.
The way he taught me was most interesting. He had me spend weeks practicing seventh chords in different keys. Now, I’d known what seventh chords were since the age of seven, and this seemed almost too easy, but he kept on insisting that I focus on it. He also gave me a cassette tape of jazz music, which included selections from famous jazz keyboardists like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith, and McCoy Tyner. Then one day, he sat me down at the piano, sat on the piano bench next to me, started playing a bass line on the lower ranges of the keyboard, and said, “Okay now, play.” I responded, “Play what?” He replied, “Just play.” Confused, I asked again, “Play what?” He said, “Play what fits. Play what sounds right.” And before I knew it, I was taking what was now rather intimate knowledge of the seventh chords that he had me practice and using it to take my first baby steps at jazz improvisation.
I didn’t make jazz piano a high priority for myself, but I did find myself appreciating jazz much more. In seeing live jazz, it has been fascinating to watch the interplay between the musicians as they try to get a sense of what each other is doing. You can often read their faces, and know when they are reaching, trying to find something that fits, and you can also see the moments when they are on a roll, when the music is almost playing them. For the longest time, people who didn’t read music were not considered real musicians, but that has changed as people have grown to appreciate the art. They may not be reading music, but they are required to think on their feet to a higher degree than people who read music and learn a piece—jazz musicians have to observe what is going on, and respond in a way that works.
By the same token, DJ’ing is a very interactive form of performing music—but this time I’m interacting with the dancers on the dance floor. The instrument in this case—a mixer employing two turntables, CD players or MP3 players or even a mixture of the above—does not require quite as much technique to play, though a sense of rhythm and timing is still required that is every bit as acute as that of a person who plays an instrument. But of greater importance is understanding the dancers. I had not realized this before I started DJ training, but the goal is to keep the dance floor as full as possible. There will always be people who choose to sit out this or that song, but a good song brings people back onto the dance floor and so the number of people on the floor will tell you to a large extent how well you’re doing.
Song selection is very important—knowing what song is a good song to follow the one you are currently playing is important. Flow is important. I’ve been on dance floors where the DJ radically changes the song and it disrupts the dance floor. Follow a high-energy Deee-Lite track with Spandau Ballet and you are guaranteed to empty the dance floor.
Each audience is different, and sometimes you have to figure out by trial and error what it is they want to dance to. You have to really abandon your ego here. If you think your music is so awesome that you think everyone will like it, you won’t last long as a DJ. It doesn’t matter too much what you like—if people aren’t dancing to it, you aren’t doing your job as a DJ.
But it’s more than just following what the audience wants. Many DJ’s have their own distinctive style. How they reconcile what the audience wants with what they play is a real art. They will sense what the audience wants, but then put their own unique spin on it, perhaps leading the audience on a journey or introducing something new while still keeping the dancers engaged. Some great DJ’s have been described as having the ability to crawl into a person’s head. Those people have really mastered the art. I haven’t yet.
When my housemate asked me to consider DJ’ing, it sounded like it would be a lot of fun. It is, but it takes considerable practice to make it work. I am a long way from being proficient at this art. I had to ask myself whether it was worth my while to continue to work developing my DJ skills, taking into consideration the other goals I have in life. But after thinking about it, I realized that being able to cultivate the ability to “blend my mind” with that of other people, and at the same time putting my soul into the music I play, and by extension, the dancers I play for—I could see this being a valuable skill that would extend well beyond the dance floor and into other aspects of my life. I think it has everything to do with developing the ability to connect with people. So for now, I’m going to continue at this…