I’ll be quite honest, I’m not a very successful DJ. I’m probably not a very good one either, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. The two may be related, but in my defence it’s not something I’ve ever taken seriously before and it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve put myself out there as a potential platter spinner on a regular basis.
However, the gigs that I have done have given me plenty of time to agonise over what it’s about and, perhaps most conscience-testing, what formats to use. A couple of decades ago, the choice was easy: vinyl or vinyl (can anyone seriously have considered DJ-ing with cassette tapes? I’d like to have seen that). These days, CDs have been added to the physical formats (you can see, I’m all over this technology thing), but then there are the various digital files and the devices to store and access them on. Each has its advantages and disadvantages in purely practical terms, but there’s also the thorny question of authenticity, which makes each step towards a more ‘efficient’ DJ set a greater compromise.
After much deliberation, and based almost entirely on the rock’n’roll scene I know best, I offer Mr MidCentury’s Four DJ Castes. While each has its pros and cons, and many very good and successful DJs switch between them according to the needs of the gig, I’m not about to sit in judgement on what should and shouldn’t be tolerated (and frankly, I’d be arguing myself out of an enjoyable hobby if I did), but I’ve no difficulty in admitting that I stand in awe of:
Type 1 – the All Originals DJ. This is the true purist. Every record he (or she – there are some great female DJs on the rock’n’roll scene) plays is an original 45 – not just on the original format, but on the original label. In some cases, that can make every minute of a set worth a small fortune, and every play a sacrifice as the miniscule wear and tear of each turn of the needle takes a little off the value. There aren’t many DJs who could keep up that level of authenticity for an extended set, and the downside is that the ability to respond to requests is limited (you can hardly be disgrun
tled if he hasn’t got a record that’s just not available on original vinyl), but for listening it’s a privilege to be allowed to share the fruits of years of dedicated collecting. For the DJ, there’s also the advantage that it probably means turning up with a single box of pre-selected singles from the collection – albeit that box might well be worth a few months’ pay!
Type 2 – the Vinyl Only DJ. We’ve made a compromise here, as the available range of music now includes represses, bootlegs and LP compilations of any vintage, but there’s still the satisfaction that everything is on a slice of vinyl and so on the format on which it originally appeared. The upside is that, with a few years’ collecting under the belt, the DJ can cover a pretty wide range of material and, so long as the tastes of his audience aren’t too obscure or off-piste, deal with a good proportion of requests. The downside is the effort required to get it all to and from the gig. DJ-ing with a good selection of vinyl demands transport, even if the deck and sound system is provided, and it’s no fun humping box after box of records up to the DJ booth while keeping prying hands away from your treasures. It’s no wonder I spent so much of my youth turning up early for gigs knowing I’d get in free by acting as temporary roadie for a friendly DJ.
Type 3 – All Physical Formats. We’ve opened up the selection to include CDs now, and suddenly the ability to tote a vast variety of music is on offer. Not only can one flight case contain thousands of tracks, but – certainly in the rock’n’roll field – one’s got access to material that was never available on vinyl (or not at a price most of us could afford). There are double, triple or boxset compilations coming out all the time with contents that would have represented years of avid record buying 30-odd years ago. Of course, slipping a CD into a player just doesn’t have the same physical satisfaction as dropping the needle on a record and carefully cueing up the track. For me, CDs are also that bit more impersonal; while I can still pretty much remember what track appears on what album on vinyl, the CD comps blur into each other, and trying to read the tiny writing on the back in typical venue lighting is a challenge my ageing eyes rebel at. However, it has the essential credibility that one actually has to own all the music one’s playing (or at least have it in your possession – the two might be different!), unlike the next Type which is…
Type 4 – the Digital DJ. Laptops are great things. One bag, and everything loaded into iTunes or one of the proprietary digital DJ set ups – access to thousands of tunes, and all searchable without trying to remember what format it’s on and which box you put it on. If you’ve got it, you can find it, and the ability to respond to requests will endear you forever to the bloke or girl who’s just stuck their heads over the top of the booth. And at the end of the night, just shut down, unplug and nip off home. I admit, I’ve done it, though in my defence it’s been because I’ve been asked to cover the broad church of ‘50s and 60s music’ which means that if I’m not going to inflict my own personal choice on those attending, I’m going to have to go mad buying endless stuff that I don’t really want to own, and rent a van to get it there. Instead I’ve been able to borrow material left, right and centre – though I can honestly maintain that everything I play is either from my own collection, is something that has passed through my own hands, or has been given to me digitally by someone who does own it (I won’t go into Spotify – that’s just a step too far). But it ain’t the same, and it does leave you very vulnerable to the moods of your IT. One little processor hang up, or a dodgy power transformer, and the evening’s in bits. Besides, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like DJ-ing and it’s a real treat to get a gig where I can confidently rely on my own record collection to meet the mood of the audience.
And that’s what it’s about, really, isn’t it? The really good DJ is the one who can play enough stuff that folk are familiar with, but also slip in the tracks they might never have heard but which they’ll love. Whatever your format, it’s a great feeling when you’re up there, drawing them out with a guaranteed floor-filler, then slipping straight into something great that you know deserves a play.
So I’ll carry on living in awe of the likes of Bill Smoker, Tall Mark, Jerry Brill, the Rocketeer and their kin – if I could do what they do, I would; but in my own little way, I’ll be doing my bit to bring a bit of rock’n’roll delight to your ears, and if I can do it on slices of stinky vinyl, so much the better…