This topic has been floating around for a while but still something I wanted to tackle in an Op-Ed as I'm rather precious about it.
I started going to raves around 1993 at the dawn of the first wave of the American rave scene that has since become this monster we now universally refer to as EDM.
These early parties are where I got some of my first exposure to the electronic dance music DJs who at the time were playing genres like House, Trance, and early techno. This seamless style of DJing was very different than the other major DJ culture of the time, which was Hip Hop.
The idea behind DJing dance music as one long journey was pioneered by guys like Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles. The idea was fairly simple, keep the dancefloor moving by mixing records together to create the illusion of a never-ending track. The essential skill was not the beatmatching but more about picking the right records for the right moments as the night progressed.
It's always a bummer for me to hear people say, "anyone can be a DJ these days", because nothing could be further from the truth. That would be almost the same as saying that everyone that can drive an automobile can be a race car driver, sorry, but NO.
As dance music evolved out of disco, producers started to engineer the 12" singles with intro and outro beats, thus giving DJs room to lay down long smooth mixes. That's why (for you non-DJs) dance music singles can be a little longer than necessary and annoying towards the beginning/end, they were not meant to be listened to as singles but to be blended into a set.
This is where the art of being a DJ comes in, and yes being a DJ is actually a skilled art, not just someone playing music back to back and standing around. It's always a bummer for me to hear people say, "anyone can be a DJ these days" because nothing could be further from the truth. That would be almost the same as saying that everyone that can drive an automobile can be a racecar driver, sorry but NO.
The DJ, no matter what equipment used, is responsible for one thing, and that's to read the room and play the right music in the correct order to make people dance.
Not just dance, that's selling it short, more like make people lose their minds to the rhythm and forget all their problems. That's more like it.
Every crowd is different and so is every vibe, so the same set at every show will never work the same way.
There is a human factor involved in a DJs performance, and that is reading the crowd. A great DJ knows exactly how to move in the right direction if he/she starts to lose the floor. There is almost a gut instinct a DJ learns after enough time in front of the decks, they become one with their audience to a certain degree.
In today's post-rave world of electronic dance music, there is a notion that it's ok for a DJ to play the same set over and over (often already mixed). This practice has begun to kill the spirit of dance music, to some degree creating lazy and uninspired DJs who have forgotten their craft (or never knew it).
The famous "DJs" who do this are now just iPods who want drink tickets and come with a light show... and that takes all of the humanness out of it, doesn't it? I mean, if I can plug an iPod in and it will do essentially the same the thing, what's the point? Where is the art? Where is the performance?
Considering we are going out to electronic music events to feel more "human" in a world where we are increasingly more cut-off, doesn't a preprogrammed set completely defeat the purpose of that?
Don't get me wrong, there are still many working DJs (old and young) that do DJ the way it should be done. These DJs are the glue that is going to hold this scene together when the hype fades; these are the DJs that people will still go see when the other stuff becomes dull and uninspired (it already is to many of you).
So what does it mean to be a DJ these days? I think it means the same thing it meant in 1993, nothing has changed aside from the mass misunderstanding of the actual definition of what it means to "DJ."
Don't agree with me? Do yourself a favor if you haven't already: next time an "old school" or "underground" DJ is in town at your local club, go out and see them. Watch what they do and how they react to the crowd and then you will have your answer, no Op-Ed necessary.