I saw something the other day that really made me reconsider my perspective on musical performance. All the answers I once thought I had have suddenly become questions all over again. What makes a musician “good?” Or rather, what exactly is it that makes for a positive experience at a show? Having been brought up in a society that encourages us to pursue our dreams because “with enough practice anything is possible,” most of us would likely assume that it’s a musician’s musical talent more than anything that decides the outcome of his performance, and trust me, it is most definitely an arguable point. But now let me share with you my experience from a few nights ago.
The lineup (excluding the awful celebrity DJ’s) was A-Trak, followed by Steve Aoki. Now, I respect both of these men to infinity and beyond (I’m a nerd, I know), but let’s be honest, as DJ’s, one of them is just a little bit more talented than the other. That is, one of them won the DMC world championship in turntableism at age 15, and the other…. erm… knows how to beat match with Serato? That being the case, I fully expected A-Trak to steal the show–but I was wrong. Despite his incredible skill, and his massively superior set (which included the ridiculous Robot Rock jam he’s become so well known for), A-Trak‘s show as a whole paled in comparison. He played his entire set to a crowd that seemed to have forgotten how to do anything more than a reluctant shuffle to the beat. And even then, it seemed like the little dancing that was going on was more out of respect for him as an artist than an actual desire to dance. For some reason, the energy just wasn’t there, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. That is until Aoki took over.
Here’s the magic of it all: What did Steve do when he took control of the turntables? Did he put on some kind of miraculous display of musical prowess? Did he have a gnarly intro and a set full of never before heard tracks? Nope. He played Warp. He played Warp, and then proceeded to climb atop the DJ booth with his arms spread wide like Christ himself, whilst screaming “I just want!I just want!” at the top of his lungs, and the crowd lost it. It didn’t matter that we were all dancing to a tune we had heard a thousand times over, and it didn’t matter that the DJ wasn’t even standing behind the decks while we all went nuts. The energy was there, and that was everything.
Game over. Everything I thought I knew about music went into the trash can. If it’s not talent that makes a good show, then what is it? Am I even there for the music? Do I even like music? What is music? What is a musician? And for god’s sake, why is watching someone play records fun?
Have you ever had to explain to someone who’s new to the scene what a DJ’s roll actually is? People ask me all the time, and it never fails, after I finish my five minute breakdown on “keeping the energy high” and “reading the crowd” and all that junk us DJ’s use to justify our trade, the person I’m explaining it to says something along the lines of, “So wait, why wouldn’t you just put on an iTunes playlist?” I used to just shrug it off as ignorance, but having had this near religious experience, that question seems to carry a lot more weight than it used to. I’ve seen crowds go crazy for DJ sets that were literally worse than iTunes playlists. Does that imply that we could all have just a great of a time dancing to a computer? Probably not. But where’s the line? Why does watching a DJ play a track on turntables get us off so much more effectively than if he were to double click it in iTunes? After all, it is the same mp3 file, is it not?
Now, I’m not pretending to be the guy with answers, but one cannot be subject to such profound realization without being forced to draw a couple conclusions. So here’s my theory: All those people that take it upon themselves to convince the world that DJ’s aren’t rockstars? They’re flat out wrong. DJ’s couldn’t be any closer to rockstars. Think about it. Rock has never been about the musicians’ talent. Shit, take a look at ACDC’s frontman. There isn’t a chance in a million that a guy like that could even make it through American Idol’s tryouts, and yet he’s the pillar supporting one of the world’s most successful bands of all time. Their fame came not from harmonies perfectly complimenting melodies, but from random acts of insanity, colorful light shows, fireworks, and that strut thing that the guitarist always liked to do across the stage. That was it. They were gods, and the people who saw their shows were paying not to hear their music, but to experience what it’s like to be in the presence of a bunch of out-of-control deities who represent everything that a human being really wants in life: sex and carefree mayhem, and these are things that any musician, rockstar or DJ, can provide.
So what was it that made Steve Aoki’s party so much better than A-Traks? The same thing that keeps artists like The Bloody Beetroots and Rusko, and countless other charismatic DJ’s at the top of festival bills: they’re symbols that exist in an almost fictional world. They’re like that character in a book that everyone wants to be, and they carry with the the same weight that celebrities like Paris Hilton do. What are they famous for? It doesn’t matter. If they look right (long haired Japanese guy, italian punks with venom masks, mowhawked british bloke) and act right (front flipping into a crowd, pouring Greygoose down the tiniest little asian girls throat, wearing neon green glow glasses and shooting laser beams to the sound of the bass), worship is bound to ensue.
Anyway, that’s my little bit of existential bullshit. Take it or leave it. But even if you choose to leave it, make sure you don’t pass up this bit of UK Funky (which is in no way related to any of the above). It’s a groovy little jam, to say the least.