Notes on disc jockeying’s boom and bust

by Marcus K. Dowling

If the year 2009 will be known for any musical development, in the long run, the most important development will not be Drake’s “So Far Gone” mixtape and his lovelorn loverman status, nor the resurgence of longtime hip hop acts to the top of the charts. More important than both these developments are the discovery of disc jockeying skills amongst many denizens of the hipster/alternative party circuit in major urban areas, in the face of economic recession. Articles like “DJ schools get boost from recession” found from New York City’s WABC-TV show ths rampant development to be the case, and to this author, it’s an issue worth discussing.

From Brooklyn to DC to Atlanta to LA and every spot in between, I guarantee you that for every 100 kids in the crowd at the average well attended function, there are at least ten individuals who are DJs, are preparing to be DJs, or have at one point attempted to download Serato or Ableton, or, even more rare, scratched a record to create a breakbeat. The most important part of our newest and most apparent alternative subculture isn’t the lack of fashion rules, ever present keffiyehs or Nike Dunk SBs and skateboards, or the adherence to musical genres as a guide. Even the hippies by the end all fell in line, but, the most important part of the hipster subculture, the celebration of independence, and the importance of self celebrity. We’ve come to demystify celebrity as of late. Between Myspace, Facebook and Twitter, and TMZ, Youtube and CNN, we have access to every single citizen of the universe 24/7/365, if we so deem to want it. My having Twitter account @marcuskdowling, I can be friends with @wyclef, and, if I desire, can send him messages all day, every day, and even get a response, creating a 1 to 1 relationship. There are no six degrees of separation anymore, and that somehow downgrades the ability of someone to truly be worthy of “celebrity” status.

But how does this apply to spinning records, or, in our present generation, clicking the left button on a mouse? Well, with celebrity comes power. Being a DJ is a position of tremendous power. Instead of singing a song, or producing someone singing a song, or, hell, even being a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief, it’s a lot easier to spend a little dough, and download 5,000 songs to start, purchase turntables and needles, and be on your way. But, there’s something lost there. Something in the art, something in the craft, something in the learning, being taught, something in the apprenticeship to development to greatness that is absolutely devoid of presence, and that’s problematic. For every 100 disc jockeys that come up without the proper development of craft, it would stand to reason that maybe five or ten will last, and that means that there are nights where people are being regaled by individuals who are faking the funk, and watering down the art and craft, and ultimately not presenting the music in it’s most optimal of format. The problems with that may not be apparent now, but in 10-20 years, we may have a lack of strong radio, and a lack of strong DJs, and sadly just the internet left to break music and create artistic development, if there isn’t something done to stop said proliferation.

The attainment of excellence at the art of disc jockeying is to this observer to occupy the space in the middle of a venn diagram that diverges between being a full time musicologist, part time sociologist, pop psychologist, and perpetually creating a groove. It’s not so much knowing what good music is. It’s also a knowledge of when, where and why someone wants to hear a record, and what hearing said record will do to said crowd. We are lost hopelessly in a culture of “me.” DJing and partying by extension celebrates a culture of “we.” It’s not so much about just what someone playing music wants to hear that makes the difference, it’s what the collective they NEED to hear that is the intrinsic necessity. It’s not so much about being a teacher, and saying, “hey I think this is cool.” It’s about taking that impulse and mixing it with being a groove finder, break slayer, rhyme purveyor and creating an atmosphere and mood of intensity, excitement and the time of someone’s life, unfortunately, preferably not just yours.

DJing it seems is not a selfish act, but rather intrinsically selfless, working diligently to create the most ultimate of moods for someone else through your knowledge, intellect and ability. Tones create modes in people. Liking together the right combination of sounds can create a combustible combination of testosterone, estrogen, pheromones, spirituality and exaltation, and bring forth powerful emotions. Music is memories, experiences, and powerful moods to people, and should be handled as such. Going into the party atmosphere with a belief in being a celebrity because of your ability to play records seems like a wrong move. Going into DJing to learn the alchemy of it all, and how to maximize said development seems to be a better concept.

In final, to take it back, I can almost guarantee without a shadow of a doubt that when legendary DJs like Timmy Regisford at the Shelter, Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, Afrika Bambaataa at a South Bronx house party, or even Funkmaster Flex spinning at The Tunnel, it wasn’t for a love of self, or a love of celebrity, but it was a love of music. We must get our priorities straight, and do this right, if we look to have a musical future based on talent and credibility instead of a future based around low budget inundation of musical dreck.

ed. note: The author, Marcus Dowling’s other work can be found at his site,, True Genius Requires Insanity. He can also be followed on Twitter at twitter(dot)com/marcuskdowling.