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A D.J. Could Save Your Life Tonight (nytimes.com)
40 points by CaliforniaKarl 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

Sophomoric essay on the importance of selecting music. Artists make the music. The importance of DJs is overblown. Being a DJ is a trade skill, you work clubs for money, your name shouldn't be on the music. Wub Wub pause build.

This is remembering experiences about 20 years ago. This is before the modern EDM festivals, in fact before the term "EDM" existed, but I find alot of the music not very different now. House music is very much the same. Just, better sounds now. Much better sounds.

There is a skill that the best DJs possess, and its more about the build up and drop that became sooooo common in modern EDM. That used to be saved for a part of the set. Then it became part of every song.

First is taste. You have to have good taste. The best club DJs don't just play the popular tracks. They introduce crowds to tracks - and not just the ones they and their friends produced and are debuting. Especially the obscure tracks that are white hot.

Second is a feel for the crowd. Coming into a club gig we used to hang out for a few hrs before and get a feel for what the crowd seems to be up for. Tech house, hard, trance vocal stuff, more funky deep stuff.. these are very different styles and even a decent track in the wrong style suited to the crowd can clear the floor.

Third, the best DJs would take you on a journey. Over a 60 or 90 or 180 minute set, there's a beginning maybe some interesting tracks, and it builds. Maybe about 1/3 into the set the blazing hot tracks start to drop. Then maybe a deeper journey about 2/3 into the set. Finishing with something very special. This is not the same thing as someone standing there playing music.

The best sets are not just a collection of songs. In fact, in small clubs people would often request popular tracks. Not to be entertained. A DJ is not a jukebox.

There are skills involved not just related to producing tracks.

I think good modern DJing includes production in the mix. A lot of the best DJs I know also produce their own music.

However, I don't think a DJ is un-important. I think of a DJ like a film-editor. Sure, the editor does not do any of the acting, lighting, or cinematography, but they have immense control over how the film is delivered to the audience, and having a good editor is as important as having a good cinematographer or director.

To really control a large crowd in a meaningful way, you can't just throw on a playlist on shuffle, the DJ needs to "edit" the whole set to fit the night.

A dj never saved your life, and that's alright. My life was never saved in a club. It happened in a muddy field. It happened in a dirty warehouse. There was no bottle service, no valet. I suppose the importance of djs is overblown in the age of the celebrity dj, but there is an underground still out there somewhere.

You may be right. The DJs I really like are also artists/producers (Armin van Buuren and Gareth Emery are on my mind as I say this).

That said, I feel bad diminishing the work that went into, for example, Laserface[0]. I didn't attend the NY show, but the set was, for me, amazing[1].

[0]: http://laserface.garethemery.com/ [1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gb2gmmTjx8

It is important work, part of the ensemble of the delivery, but not the bulk. We also shouldn't let the skill of the outliers paint the flock.

I could make the same (fallacious) argument about web development. Real engineers make the systems and languages that sophomoric code monkeys remix into web sites.

React react angular build.

You would be correct

I'm always disappointed when an EDM live show is a letdown after enjoying all the polish put into an album.

Being able to do both excellent live shows while releasing quality albums is not a guarantee in any genre, it makes sense that there are specialists focusing on live shows.

Nice read, nice to see how different music scene is in US.

EU is much more electronic music orientated, and D.J.'s here are quite different, yet same, they do the exactly the same thing this article describes.

Just watch this repetitive, yet awesome 3 minute buildup, leading to total madness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5-b33rhevQ

And that's just first clip that comes to mind.

The DJ isn’t doing anything there, though. That’s just the breakdown of the four tet remix of Eric Prydz — Opus. He’s just playing it straight.

To really understand what an edm DJ does you need to listen for an hour plus. It wasn’t that breakdown that made the crowd explode like that, it was the hours and hours of music building up to it.

I used to be a trance DJ and when I was preparing for a gig, I would build a two-hour set around two or three moments. I’d find a couple of records that I knew would get a big reaction and I’d basically treat them like a jewel that I had to find the perfect setting for. Every other song I played was about building up tension and contrast for those moments. If I had a track with a big vocal in the breakdown, I’d be sure to lead into it with nothing but non stop instrumental tracks with few or no breaks in the beat, playing repetitive songs to build up tension so when it finally opened up into a recognizable melody and lyrics people would have this huge feeling of release and I doubt most of them even knew why.

There was nothing better than getting a crowd to jump up and down and scream when you knew they would do it. It was like casting a spell.

If you’re not obsessive about dance music and haven’t tried djing, it’s really hard to appreciate what a DJ does and how hard it is to really move a large crowd. It’s not just about playing good songs. I used to think it was and cleared dance floors playing nothing but really popular songs when I first started. It took me two years of being a bad DJ before I really started to figure it out.

> The DJ isn’t doing anything there, though. That’s just the breakdown of the four tet remix of Eric Prydz — Opus. He’s just playing it straight.

I think that's the problem with trying to explain this stuff. I don't go to shows like this; to me, a DJ clicking "next" in iTunes is indistinguishable from someone practicing a craft. I just don't know enough, and I think a lot of other commenters in here don't either.

At the very least, a nice transition between tracks is a skill. Part of that is selecting compatible tracks, part of it is getting the timing right, tweaking speeds, picking when to switch. I usually listen to recorded sets and shows, but I imagine people like live sets for the same reason they like live music: you can see the magic happen, there's a shared experience, and there's some amount of crowd interaction with the performer. Sure, most of the magic happened earlier, when the tracks were recorded, but there's still some magic left.

I think there's more to a DJ than an old school film projectionist switching projectors between reels, but maybe the future is premixed sets so nobody has to sit in the booth.

The easiest way to see authenticity is to seek out producers doing shows. They may play a lot of their own music as well as a curated set of other music.

There's an old interview of BT in the 1990s where he thoroughly debunks that he is a DJ even when playing other people's music. He incorporates as much live control and variation as he can handle. BT is a neat guy.. he restored a Fairlight (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairlight_CMI) as well as computers like the IBM PS/2 model 70 to use in his productions so he's a bonafide technologist aside from being a phenomenal classically trained musician.

Matt Darey is another that does a good job, invites the vocalists to perform live whenever he can. His radio show is my favorite thing to listen to when doing software development. He's been working with Dolby to incorporate Atmos into new and old productions so he's pushing the state of the art. https://soundcloud.com/mattdarey

I'm a long time fan of BT but the one time I saw him live, it was 3AM in a prime DJ slot and he just wanted to show off his turntablism. Which was technically great, but it was 3AM and we just wanted some banging tunes.

>I just don't know enough, and I think a lot of other commenters in here don't either.

That's not going to stop people from pretending they do. DJing well is hard, and it's obvious that most people in this thread have never attempted it before.

A good indicator is no visible electronics other than headphones, turntables and a simple mixing board.

The hard part isn't clicking 'next', it's picking the songs.

If the output is good then why does the equipment or technique even matter?

>The DJ isn’t doing anything there, though. That’s just the breakdown of the four tet remix of Eric Prydz — Opus. He’s just playing it straight.

No, no, a thousand times no. What you witnessed in that video is one of the most inspired moments in the modern history of house DJing. For the benefit of all readers, I'll try and explain the context and subtext of what's happening.

Opus by Eric Prydz is a truly absurd piece of music. It takes the build-and-release of tension that defines modern "EDM" and teases it out to the point of self-parody, relentlessly building up over the course of four minutes, exploiting every psychoacoustic trick in the book. It is the ne plus ultra of cynical house music, a track that basks in the vapidity of the commercial "EDM" scene. For all that, it carries real emotional weight, primarily because of the underlying dissonance between the adrenaline-fuelled hype of its structure and its harmonic progression; at the great climactic moment, it modulates from A major to the relative F# minor with a series of descending arpeggios, simultaneously soaring to the heavens and dying away to nothing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRA82xLsb_w https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcpFCit6r5c

The Four Tet remix profoundly subverts the original composition, reverting to the more contemplative structures of traditional house music. It hints at formulaic tension-and-release, but it never delivers, it never reaches that climactic moment of euphoria. Opus is the sound of four thousand people in a superclub going absolutely wild; the Four Tet remix is the echoes of that moment on the taxi ride home, the ringing in your ears as you lie in bed in the early morning, the bitter aftertaste of the MDMA comedown.


The Amnesia closing party is the full stop at the end of the Ibiza season, a non-stop 12 hour bacchanal to say farewell to the summer. Once a semi-private affair mainly attended by DJs and club workers, it's now the hottest ticket of the season, a landmark event for those who consider themselves veteran clubbers.

Maceo's decision to play the Four Tet remix wasn't a track selection, it was a philosophical statement. The sun has risen and the last moment of the last party is looming. The crowd are cheering and whistling, they're raising their arms to the heavens in anticipation of this great moment of euphoria, the drop to end all drops. They know what's coming, their phones are recording in anticipation, but the moment never arrives. Through his choice of track and cue point, Maceo pulls the rug from under the feet of the crowd, turning climax into anti-climax. He turns a moment of euphoria into a moment of contemplation and self-reflection. If you watch closely, you can see the confusion and disorientation of the crowd, you can see a room full of people who don't know what to do with themselves.


That's the artistry of DJing in a nutshell. It all exists on a meta level, it's a conversation that's happening entirely in the audience's heads. The American "EDM" festival scene has tried to turn this conversation into a mere transaction, but there are still DJs with the skill and sophistication to challenge their audiences and confound their expectations, to create moments of profound complexity out of sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.

Four Tet didn’t invent the extended teasing breakdowns that don’t resolve. I can think of several with similar structures. Moonshine by Planisphere comes to mind — https://youtu.be/RvrYOhpByVs

That was in 2001. Trance DJ’s have been closing out sunrise sets with songs like that for going on 20 years now. I appreciate that he’s a good DJ, but let’s not get crazy here :). Lots of DJ’s played that track to close their sets. It was a top seller on beatport and an obvious thing to do.

Like all good DJing, it's 100% context. The Four Tet remix of Opus is interesting not because it's a deep house tune, but because of how it recontextualises the original mix. Maceo Plex's decision to play it isn't particularly inspired in isolation, but is an act of genius at that moment in that set in that club on that night.

Thank you, you managed to perfectly describe what I was too tired to when posting this, few hours after midnight!!

I wish everyone in that crowd would look inwards, at themselves and at the power of their own imaginations, creativity and exploration instead of at that guy on the stage, who, to me, is doing something very predictable and boring. Something about crowds like this is really depressing to me. It must be that I don’t see the beauty in this at all, and see so much beauty and potential elsewhere.

What I see here is the same thing I see in all of these things: a nice melody, a creeping crescendo, the audience really enthused about it for reasons I don’t understand at all, because the result is predictable: the beat drops and everyone goes wild.

People are free to enjoy what they want to enjoy. Perhaps try not imposing your pretentious higher meanings on random people you don't know, and you'll feel less depressed.

People are, indeed, free to speak in tongues and shake and worship Jesus or Mohammad or Satan and I’ll still find all those things depressing.

My perspective changed a lot when I started thinking about how to write a song that has that effect on a large crowd, or assemble a set that has the right elements of calm and intensity to illicit the reaction people are there to have. Suddenly, it seems less inevitable, and more like art.

Thanks. I can imagine that is the case!

Well— they’re really enthused about it because this is many hours into a long set, and they’re all on drugs. It’s a sunrise set at Ibiza.

The thing about dance music is that the art being produced there isn’t the music—it’s the crowd, and if you aren’t out there sweating your ass off, turning strangers into friends and having the best night of your life, of course it makes no sense.

And also, a lot of them are being creative. There’s a lot of creativity in the scene— in how people dress and how people dance, if nothing else.

I’ve tried here and there. Drugs and all. The drugs are fantastic. The groups, not so. I think large groups oriented around a person—who, and this is the key I guess, who’s not doing anything interesting—just hurts me a little.

Haha, I'm with you -- that's why I do drugs alone. I also see nothing special about the music in the clip above, albeit more interesting music would be drowned out by such a big crowd. It bothers me because there is other non dance-oriented electronic music that is much better IMO, but people tend to only associate club / rave stuff with electronic music.

I’ve done drugs at raves and every time I slip outside and just talk and hang out with people. The rave seems fake to me, in the sense that people are trying to get something out of it that’s not there, like church. Sure, you can convince yourself that church is a spiritual experience that gives you meaning and belonging, but it seems fake to me. Emphasis on “to me.”

Doing drugs alone is great, too!

Yeah when I first started going clubbing was before the whole superstar DJ thing really took root. To me it should always be about dancing first, so I get that.

For what it's worth, I agree with you. When I was younger I went to a lot of shows with my friends. Not so much electronic music, but jam bands - which share a lot in common in terms of drugs, extended jams, festivals, etc. I liked the drugs, and I liked the music, but something about the experience of going to shows often left me feeling completely empty.

When I was young and looking to find my way in life, I think that music was sold to me as something that should have been very profound and meaningful. And without a doubt I knew plenty of people who pretty much dedicated themselves to the "scene" - dressing a certain way, talking a certain way, holding certain beliefs, and traveling all over to see a handful of bands play in different cities. But despite putting in no small amount of effort to fit in, it just wasn't for me. At one of the last shows I went to in college, I remember being at some huge sold out stadium for a Phish concert and feeling like I was witnessing mass hysteria.

I think my negative experiences were more a reflection of my own lack of direction and naive beliefs at the time than anything else. I was looking to get something more valuable out of the experience than it could ever possibly provide. Also... I'm sure the drugs also had an effect on my mood. I've been to shows since, with no expectations beyond catching up with friends and having a fun night out, and had a good time. I also have tons of respect for the performers - all of whom are talented, work hard, and have probably made sacrifices in the pursuit of their passions than I have in mine.

But that uncomfortable feeling of sameness in the crowds and that sense of mass hysteria is always still there for me. Kind of like people speaking in tongues, or rioting in the streets when their sports team wins or loses. I guess I'm just more a small gathering kind of person.

> that sense of mass hysteria is always still there for me. Kind of like people speaking in tongues, or rioting in the streets when their sports team wins or loses

Thank you. I was going to mention these things, because they’re how I feel about these gatherings as well. Just replace a charismatic preacher with a charismatic DJ. It feels the same to me. The charismatic preacher has fallen out of fashion these days, so instead of someone shouting quotes from the Bible and telling everyone to repent, here the DJ drops the same old beat and for some reason the crowd goes wild just the same. It’s all about that sense of belonging, it seems, that people get from these experiences, but I can’t get that from an experience that feels like mass delusion.

I posted my comments expecting lots of downvoting but was hoping to find at least one or two people who knew what I was saying. Thank you!

Perhaps there is time for quiet introspection and also having fun on a dance floor.

Here's the thing: many activities that do not interest you are far more complex and interesting than they appear on the surface.

Dancing is great. It’s a magical thing that’s common to just about every culture on the planet. But that’s not this, IMO.

I think you need to be in them

I’ve tried, drugs and all. Drugs are great. The whole inexplicable cult of personality hero worship thing, not so much.

There's a big difference between hero worship and just choosing to be entertained. It doesn't somehow diminish the creative capabilities of the people in the crowd to take part in the shared enjoyment of someone else's.

Hang the blessed DJ. The music that they constantly play It says nothing to me about my life.

Burn down the Disco.

Morrissey is such a magnificent and malignant buzz kill.

very freaky!!!

Was reading this right as the song came on in an episode of Black Mirror

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