If DJ’s Aren’t Rockstars, What Are They?

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.

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Donaeo – Party Hard

The Studio and the Stage

Dance Music Live

 

You know that awful feeling you get when you finally score tickets to see your favorite band perform and, after months of listening to their album in hopeful anciticpation, their live show just totally sucks? I’m sure you do; we’ve all been there at some point or another. The guitarists misses the chord, the lead singer can’t hit the right notes. Go to enough concerts and you’re bound to leave a few of them unsatisfied. The letdown of a live show is one of the worst feelings in the world. If you’ve ever stood at a concert thinking “I wish I had stayed home and listened to this in my room,” then the artist has, in some sense, failed.

Live DJing

The cliché “I heard they suck live” translates to “the band isn’t talented, their producer is.” But the expression takes on a new meaning with electronic musicians because most of them are producers. Even the musical acts that aren’t strictly DJs but still have an electronic feel to them, think Animal Collective or LCD Soundsystem, still do a lot of the production work themselves. Every musican leads a double life: the studio where he makes the music, and the stage where he performs it.

Both are important in different ways, and there’s obviously a difference between being a great live performer and a studio wizard. Live shows combine lights and visuals; there’s a lot more to a concert than just the music. The context of a performance can have a huge effect on the experience, too. But great musicians still have to be great performers above all else. And the best musicians are doubly talented at both producing and performing. The line is becoming blurry, thanks to software like Ableton Live that allows both in-house production and live performance. But the old adage is still true: live shows prove who’s really got talent. At a time when record sales are falling, concerts are especially important.

It’s funny to think of the Bloody Beetroots wearing their masks alone in the studio, or Daft Punk working on the new album from inside the Pyramid. But both of those groups are as popular for what they do in front of an audience as for what they do alone in the studio. Sure, they make great stuff behind the scenes. But let’s not forget about the live show.

 

Laidback Luke

Laidback Luke

Here’s a great example of an artist who knows how to work the studio and the stage. It’s hard to “put on a show” as a DJ, unless your name is Steve Aoki and you spend most of your time standing and screaming into a microphone. Laidback Luke stands out as one of the premiere producers and performers working today. The Netherlands native has really taken off in the last couple years. His success is well-earned. He’s ridiculously talented at making original songs and remixes; and he performs with an energy you won’t find many other places. Listen to some of Laidback Luke’s stuff below. Then do yourself a favor and go see him live.

 

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MSTRKRFT – Heartbreaker (Laidback Luke Remix) UhOhDisco.com

 

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Major Lazer – Pon De Floor (Laidback Luke Remix) UhOhDisco.com

The Music Video Strikes Back

 

Neon Outline of People

I was watching the VMA’s the other day and realized something: I absolutely love music videos. I think it has to do with the “visual freedom” of the medium, the way that a music video can capture the feel or energy of music through film. There’s more flexiibilty than with a movie because there isn’t a story to tell; instead, there’s a “feeling” to capture. It also helps that I’m a sucker for interesting animation. And while the old adage is certainly true that “a great video depends on a great song,” there’s something to be said for quality filmmaking. A great video makes a great song better. The best videos in history are something more than just a choreographed dance number set to music (think Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Daft Punk’s “Da Funk“).

 

Paranoid Android Music Video Screenshot

 

I used to think music videos were a dying art form. There were two forces at play. First, several of the most visionary music video directors–Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek and (to a lesser extent) Michel Gondry–had made the transition into directing feature films. Okay, maybe I’m overstating the importance of a handful of famous directors slowing down their output. There were some quality videos made in the last, say, five years or so.

The bigger problem was that great videos that were made didn’t get the exposure they deserved. MTV and VH1 spurned music videos in favor of reality television, so finding new music videos took some effort on the part of the viewer. Sure, you could watch them on the Internet. But broadband connections weren’t as ubiquitous as today, so streaming videos online was unpleasant and annoying, a constant trade-off between quality, frame rate and loading time.

 

Fell In Love With A Girl Music Video Screenshot Capture Gondry

 

Both of those phenomena combined to spell the end of the music video. Of course, it didn’t happen. Streaming video is relatively easy now. Music videos (like music itself) just made the transition onto the Internet. Thanks, YouTube. Music videos aren’t going anywhere.

But it’s easy to make a bad, predictable video. How many rap videos are nothing more than the rapper looking tough and throwing up money in front of expensive cars and bikini-clad women? It’s hard to do something different, something nobody’s ever seen before. That’s why the following two videos are favorites of mine. They challenge the conventions of what a music video can be.

The first video is for Steve Aoki’s new single “I’m in the House” feat [[[Zuper Blahq]]]. Here’s a great example of something that can’t be done in a feature film. It’s a three-minute swirl of color and fun; it captures the energy of the song as well as any video I’ve seen.

 

 

 

This next video is for Miike Snow’s “Burial.” It looks like what would happen if someone found the footage for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie and edited down the most beautiful scenes. The cinematography is abslolutely fantastic. If MTV gave an award for “Video Most Likely to Make You Cry,” this one would win. This music video is, in a word, perfect.

 

 

 

Like I said above, a great video makes a great song better. Here are the MP3s.

 

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Steve Aoki – I’m in the House (feat. [[[zuper blahq]]])

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Miike Snow – Burial

Who Shapes the Artist?


[It brings me great grief to have to mention this, but this article was written prior to the death of Adam Goldstein, aka DJ AM. We at UhOhDisco were all greatly affected by the loss of our good friend. May he rest in peace.]

Bibio

There are thousands of reasons for which a modern musical artist might be praised. These reasons span an enormous range of natures, reaching from those having been derived simply from lifestyle admiration (DJ AM owns clubs and drives Maseratis) to others, for flat out musical genius (artists like DJ Shadow and Royksopp are said to have created unparalleled works of art), and for the better part of my life, I (and likely a rather large number of the rest of us), have allowed myself to believe that these artists were all receiving this praise, or to take it a step further, receiving these labels (DJ AM: Celebrity DJ, etc…), due to the annoying tendency of today’s music industry to need to qualify and quantify everything into a mess of titles and genres. However, if the recent explosion in popularity of the electronic music has taught me anything, it is that I have been grossly misguided, and that from start to finish, an artist has complete control over the labels which he will later bear. And this is not to say I was previously unaware that an artist was free to pick his genre, but rather, that the niche he eventually ends up in is entirely determined by the artist himself.

Luke Vibert
Luke Vibert

I suppose this might prove a rather difficult riddle to decipher at first, but I assure you, there is [usually] a reasonable amount of sense in my speculations. You see, I’d always imagined the most successful musical artists to be the most musically wise. More specifically, I had assumed that a determined musician’s long term goal would generally be to fully comprehend music in and of itself, and not merely the music of the nooks and cranny’s he’d been placed in. Thus, the acquisition of such a “celebrity dj” or “synth master” etc. type title would seem to prove both offensive and counterproductive. I have, however, realized my mistake:

People don’t find their niches by sacrificing all other genres and styles for one that they like best. No sir. Instead (at least in the case of the more respectable musicians I know), the artists is bombarded with a nearly infinite amount of music throughout his life, all of which eventually serves as fuel in the creation of one final product; That is, the music an artist releases, and thus his genre, style, and labels, are all a product that that particular artist considers to be the absolute best combination of everything he or she has ever heard or been influenced by.

At this point, I’m wondering whether I’ve made a point, or if I’ve merely succeeded in uselessly rambling for far too long, but either way, it seems only fair to share with you the reason for my ineffectual pondering:

You see, I’ve fallen in love with happiness.

This morning I discovered a layer to my music collection that I was previously oblivious to, said layer being the one holding the key to the emotional state of the composing author. My eyes were closed, my headphones were on, and I sought to fill my mind with the music that would carry me through the day. My music was playing in no particular order, so each new track was a surprise, however, one of these songs proved to be especially surprising: It was a song I’d heard many times before, and yet this time through, it brought to me a warmth I had not felt before, almost as if I were seeing the world anew through the eyes of its author. And the best part about it was that the author was happy. And not the fleeting, feigned kind. This artist was truly satisfied with the way of the world, and with his or her place amidst it all, and hence, so was I.

I shall forever love the multitude of themes, styles, and emotions expressed in music. The horrifying giddiness of the Bloody Beetroots will always be a brilliantly engineered thrill, Felix Cartal‘s angry build ups and abrasive basslines will always fulfill the need to be an untamable creature of the night. And people like AM and Aoki will always offer a habitual dose of Los Angeles, live-in-the-moment, careless partying. But in the end, it’s happiness that’s rooted itself in my soul.

I hope I don’t need an excuse to let these tracks wander a bit from the usual genre.

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Broken Social Scene – Major Label Debut

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Luke Vibert – We Hear You

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Bibio – Fire Ant

Felix Cartal – Skeleton EP

Felix Cartal

At the risk of forever being labeled as a complete fool, I’m going to be 100% honest and say that prior to the release of Felix Cartal‘s Skeleton EP, my expectations for the Canadian boy could barely be lifted off the ground. I’m not quite sure why, however, I feel it’s safe to say that my insensitive assumption could not have been entirely my fault; Up until quite recently, his tour fliers have depicted him as “opener material” by consistently placing him second to artists like MSTRKFT, Steve Aoki, and LA Riots, a spot that would likely have otherwise been filled by Them Jeans or Dan Oh and the like. Not that I have anything against the guys; It’s just that they’ve all been supporting each other as remix artists for such an extensive amount of time, that it has become unusual to regard any of them as an actual recording artist, capable of releasing a fully fledged and independent album.

Felix Cartal

Needless to say, every one of my assumptions was shattered and surpassed on levels that I didn’t even have a clue existed. Not only has the young wrecka created an EP that embraces and fully displays the sounds of modern dance music, but he’s also made the art of innovation stylish once again. That is, where I expected to hear a collection of four songs that all resembled his (and everyone else’s) past work, I was startled to experience the charitable use of complex rhythms, character of sound ranging from his trademarked banger synth to lighter, poppier noises not dissimilar to that of Simian Mobile Disco, and elegant eight bar chord progressions that work hard to draw every last piece of energy possible out of those 24 bits. Long story short, it took Felix less than a minute to establish himself in my mind as far more than just a Reason remixer. Skeleton EP is wonderful. Felix is wonderful. Dancing is wonderful. Group hug.

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Felix Cartal – Redheads

Considering the poor boy put so much time and energy into this EP, I can’t bring myself to post more than a single song. If you’ve fallen as deeply in love as I have, spend the four dollars to grab a copy, and of course, don’t forget to make your way out to Cinespace tonight for the Dim Mak Tuesdays “Skeleton” Release Party!

Beetroots, Aoki, Oizo, and a Bunch of Other Textual Nonsense

You know what the best park about the music industry is? As counterintuitive as it may seem, the highlight of it all–the selling point that causes it to attract such wonderfully colorful people–is its failure to have become organized in any way at all. Make a comparison to the other (largely lamer) forms of media out there: You’ll notice that film, for example, looks like a prison compared to music, what with its organizations dedicated to delivering “official” ratings and awards and such. What gives a corporation the right to tell me how good my movie is on the one to ten scale. Hasn’t art always been subjective?

music

Now you’re likely itching to point out that I’ve failed to notice the giant corporations that surround the music industry as well, and you’re certainly not wrong in letting your mind wander so, however, you’re failing to factor in one important observation: the music industry is awful. Point and case: iTunes can give my favorite tracks whatever rating they want, and it’s not going to mean a thing to any of us. Danger’s 11h30, undoubtedly a stepping stone on the path to electro as we know it, was given 1.5 of 5 stars upon its iTunes release, and all this says is that Steve Jobs (and the loyal fan base of tone-deaf tools which he’s managed to create by means of the iPod) doesn’t care for electronic music, which (I can only assume) doesn’t play much of a role in choosing whether or not to buy a particular track. Naturally, this lack of agreed upon ratings keeps music, and the creation thereof a dynamic process: People (at least the ones who care enough to realize that songs that are played on the radio are not necessarily required listening) have never been restricted to the cut of tunes deemed “appropriate” by some hypothetical checklist. Needless to say, we’ve been quite lucky.

So He Just… Plays Records?

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you either are, have been interested in, or know someone that has decided to seek enlightenment through the art of dj’ing. That being the case, chance also says that at some point in recent history, one of your friends (likely one with less than half as many cool points as you) has made the foolish mistake of asking you the forbidden question: What exactly does a dj do, and why does he get so much credit for it?

Of course, the intolerant anger starts to well up in your stomach. How could someone even ask that question? Isn’t it obvious just how much of a phenomenon it is that a single man can capture the hearts and minds of musically ignorant crowds on a nightly basis, purely through his use of music? Does this ignorant inquisitor really think his record playe–ahem–iPod can give him that same experience that a DJ can? Unfortunately, the answers are no, and sadly, yes, respectively. And the worst part is, you’ve got nothing to say that’ll make him think any different; Or at least you didn’t, until now.

What does a dj do that makes him so special? How is spinning a record, (or to be more politically correct with these a-changing times, pressing play on a midi keyboard) such a respectable deed, and what exactly is is that keeps the creatures of the technicolored night so faithfully returning? It is the plain and simple fact that no matter how many DJ sets he’s studied, and no matter how many times he’s encountered success in the past, there simply is no correct and guaranteed-to-work method of DJing. In contrast with all other forms of media, a DJ cannot simply make a playlist out of fivestar-ed iTunes songs and rest assured knowing his audience will be satisfied. Rather, DJ’ing is the art of adapting to an audience, and convincing them that though their minds tell them that they aren’t particularly fond of a particular song, that their bodies perceive every minute of it as exactly what they want to hear.

The Bloody Beetroots & Steve Aoki

Steve and Beetroots

So how does all this relate to anything at all? It’s quite simple, really. See, in a scene where musical taste is so incredibly inconsistent, it becomes important to get a grasp on the general reception of each particular release, despite the enormous difficulty associated with doing so. For example, releases like the latest from Simian Mobile Disco are frequently propelled into a massive collection of opposing poles, comprised of those in love with, and those disgusted by the band’s new direction, which makes it difficult to assess a particular individual’s response. There are, however, exceptional cases, one of which happens to be the latest Dim Mak release entitled “Warp”. When a track has been featured in a mix tape by just about every major artist before its actual release, has been remixed by that same lot, as well as by quite a few lesser known producers, has seen the attention of more than one false music video, and (here’s the kicker) has an official music video that grants us the privilege of staring at Steve Aoki‘s screaming face for a solid 20 seconds, it becomes clear that there shall be no controversy over the response; A thousand sweating bodies is all the five star rating I need.

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The Bloody Beetroots – Warp (Feat. Steve Aoki)

I’m wondering just how many regulars I’ve lost due to the drastic increase in the text to music ratio on this site. Perhaps I should step it up in the way of audio contributions…

Oizo‘s Back

oizo

Although, whether he even left in the first place, I’m not quite sure. The guy’s approach on music is certainly a strange one. While most prominent artists (granted most fail to withstand the test of time) make a conscious attempt to produce music similar to that which has already found celebrity within the disco scene, Oizo has chosen to cling to the sound he pioneered nearly a decade ago, and to allow it to drip through its hypothetical IV so as to maintain a constant presence within the club scene.

Brilliance, consistency, and a wicked beard. What more can you ask for?

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Erreurjean feat. Error Smith (Original Mix)

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Mr. Oizo feat. Uffie – Steroids (Mr. Oizo Remix)

One last thing. I feel the need to give my greatest respects to those who have somehow managed to actually read this highly nonsensical post. Seeing as much of my writing makes so little sense upon looking back, having done so seems a most notable accomplishment.