Friday, 3 February 2017

No Accounting For Taste?

I’m fascinated by musical taste and its diversity. Why will certain pieces of music move one person to ecstasy while another may be nonplussed or even irritated by it.

Many years ago a girl friend of mine, I think out of her concern over my new-found Buddhist faith, invited me for tea with her local vicar. He was quite young and a very nice non-judgmental person. After briefly questioning me about the nature of my beliefs, he quickly seemed to conclude that there was nothing sinister about my practice and the conversation moved on to more general topics.

At one point I mentioned how sometimes it can be quite frustrating when one is unable to share an enthusiasm with someone else. As an example I described walking through a forest and being struck by the glorious light of the sun cutting through the foliage. “Imagine,” I said, “that you turn to your friend and say, ‘Hey look at that, isn’t it beautiful?’ but all your friend does is shrug and carry on walking. “Yes,” he said solemnly, “that’s because it’s something you can only share with God. More tea?”

Years later, in the early days of the emerging rave scene, I thought about this again but this time revelling in the joy of the shared experience. Swaying to the music in my favourite East End club Labrynth (not a typo, that’s how they spelled it), the DJ would start a new tune – and as an example I can vividly remember this happened with Crystal Waters track “Gypsy Woman”.  As the first few feeble organ notes sounded, a spontaneous ripple of recognition and joy passed through the club, catapulting everyone onto the dance floor.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this shared musical experience felt like a religious one as each individual became linked, hearts and faces open, to the ecstasy of the moment. It was a very powerful experience and kept drawing me and many others back to dance floors around the country for that buzz of shared recognition.

Later on, when I began to DJ myself, I began to search for and question myself how I might be able to discover tunes that would be enjoyed and shared by many others. Although my love for dance music was passionate and all encompassing, believing that it was fulcrum for the creation of new sounds, I was also not able to unlike the many other genres that I had embraced prior to its arrival. On the one hand my adolescence was informed by the complex intricacies of Soft Machine and Frank Zappa, while on the other I could be equally touched and moved by the minimal and sometime banal. One of the first house tracks I heard was by a band called Technotronic. The lyric to one track was:

This beat is Technotronic
This beat is Technotronic
This beat is Technotronic
There’s the dance floor, let’s get on it.

To me it was as elegant as a haiku poem and I loved it.

The diversity of musical genres is now much more able to satisfy the limitless diversity of individual taste, but it wasn’t always so.

It’s hard to imagine now but contemporary music used to be quite rare. In the early 60’s it wasn’t possible to hear much contemporary music on a UK radio in part due to the fact that the Musicians Union deal with the BBC limited the amount of recorded music that could be played. Radio Luxemburg broadcast from outside the UK and was thus able to sidestep such limits and provided the musical backdrop for much of the 50’s/60’s generation. Pirate radios broke this logjam and eventually the BBC responded with the launch of Radio One.

But even so the music available was largely dictated by the major record companies. Very few people could afford to record their own music and, even if they could, there was no way of getting the records out there if you didn’t have a recording contract. Yes there was an explosion of musical creativity during the late Sixties and Seventies, but the production and distribution was still tightly controlled by the record companies so what you heard on the radio one week would doubtless be in the charts the next. At one point it seemed as though the whole youthful populace was locked in a two-way taste division as people would ask, “Who do you follow — The Beatles or Rolling Stones?”

But rarity in the late Sixties wasn’t just confined to output. My parents didn’t purchase a record player till my teens in the late 60’s and even then it wasn’t because they wanted to hear more music but because they had come to regard a stereogram, similar to a cocktail cabinet, as a “must have” item of furniture for any self-respecting middle-class family. As soon as the stereogram entered our lounge there began a battle of attrition between my mother, who saw it as a platform on which to mount a vase of flowers, and me, who wanted to open it up for its intended function of playing music.

Most Saturday evenings I would cling to the back of my friend’s Lambretta scooter as we headed off to village halls across Cheshire that were holding a “disco”. One evening the disco was particularly disappointing and my friend mentioned that the parents of one of our school friends were away for the weekend and their son was having a party. “We could go there if you want,” before adding what proved to be a clincher, “and he’s got a copy of Abbey Road”.

When we arrived the living room was full of school friends, covering every bit of sofa and floor space smoking cigarettes, snogging and deferentially nodding to the latest Beatles album. I suspect that both sides had already been played several times when we arrived and would be played several more times before anyone could build up the courage to challenge the mood of adulation. My friend’s family had a stereogram similar to my parents and throughout the evening there remained a patient line of people queuing up by it, waiting to take their turn to examine the Abbey Road album cover.

Since the 90’s, thanks to advances in technology, we can now enjoy a universe of music and most people have a number of ways that they can listen to it whether at home, their place of work or on the bus. Popular music has transmogrified into a multiplicity of genres often produced in home studio and distributed via websites to niche audiences.

When I started to DJ I quickly discovered that there was no point in trying to second guess other people’s tastes and the best I could do was to keep digging to find things that truly moved me in the hope that others would share some of my passions. 

What amazes me is how precise our taste can be. Sometimes it will be a minor component that will capture my attention. The buzz of a bass that turns me to jelly. Hearing a piece of minimal techno I begin to fantasize that each note has been hand carved to perfection in the same way that a jeweller might cut and polish a diamond. On other occasions it will be the heart-warming tones of a skilfully played marimba that will fill me with awe or maybe a repetitive electro theme building, layer on layer, to a sun-drenched, anthemic crescendo.

As a Buddhist I don’t believe in the idea of an external God but I think more and more about that young vicar’s explanation of being touched by something. Our taste is a unique expression of our unique lives. However, sometimes we can find within music an eloquence that speaks to our shared experience, like the sun cutting through the trees in a forest. I don’t understand it but I know what I like and hopefully others do to.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

DJ’s Getting It Wrong

Being a DJ is much like any other profession in that when a group of them get together the conversation can very easily slide into complaints about “Them and us”. The gigs we played that would have been marvellous if only the management hadn’t provided us with a crap sound system, or the punters had shown at least a basic appreciation of music, etc, etc.

Recently it occurred to me, from some of my own experience, that of course not all failed gigs are down to external circumstances and just as tired drivers make for car crashes, fatigued or bored DJ’s can also result in problems with the flow of an event. Of course few DJ’s are willing to publicly admit to any of these failings, so after talking to a number of fellow DJ’s I agreed to write about some of their experiences anonymously. Not all of these are technical problems and some are just simply embarrassing. The following were transcribed from memory and I offer them with no comment.

1. The place was full and it was a very hot day. I ordered a beer and because I didn’t want it near the decks placed it on one of the bass speakers by my side. I’d been playing for about half an hour when suddenly not only the music cut out but also the lights of the venue. My first words were, “What the fuck!” as I appealed to anyone who could help as my eyes caught sight of the broken glass by my feet. The glass of beer had vibrated off the speaker and onto the power source blowing the amplifier and taking out the power for most of the venue.

2. I generally only use headphone to line up the next track but this was going to be quite a complex mix so I kept them on while I was mixing from one to another. I was bouncing about excited by the mix, which had worked very well, and hadn’t noticed perplexing stares coming from the dance floor. I’d forgotten to push one of the volume sliders up so that the epic mix I had just completed had only been experience by me in the headphones and I had in fact plunged the whole dance floor into silence.

3. I like to dance when I play. Sometimes I dance a lot, very enthusiastically. One night the whole place was rocking and I was so carried away by the music that I hadn’t noticed the multi-plug block by my feet until I jumped on it, turning off the power supply for both the CD decks and amplifier in one move.

4. A couple of years ago I discovered a great deep and dark remix of a very cheesy pop song. Unfortunately I also had the original cheesy pop version on my computer. In the middle of a very deep set I accidentally put the wrong version on. Everyone stared at me but I just smiled and shrugged hoping they would think I was being cool and ironic. It worked as a few people began making silly dance moves while I found something take the mood back to where it had been before.

5. Many of the producers who create dance tunes are pretty anonymous and you would have to be a real nerd to recognise them all. A guy came up to me once to ask about a particular mix I was playing. “Yes it’s great isn’t. I can’t stand the original but I think they have made this into a pretty good track.” “Thanks,” he said, “I made the original.”

6. I was playing in a beach bar. A rather pretty girl came into the booth for a chat. As I was just about to take a break for lunch I asked her if she would mind if I joined here and her group of friends. Seated at the table we were chatting away about music and Ibiza. Then came one of those moments when it seemed as everyone else’s conversations came to an end as I spoke. Turning to her I asked, “So what do you do Kate?” The whole table erupted in laughter. Her second name was Moss.

If anyone has any more DJ tales of 'DJ's Getting it Wrong', please forward them to me and I promise not to use any names.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Tales from the summer in Ibiza

Over the summer season in Ibiza I meet hundreds of visitors to the island. Often, because I’m playing, my conversations are rather limited but sometimes just observing people leaves a lasting impression.

One beachside venue I play seems to be a particular favourite with young and older lovers. Some can’t keep their hands off each other, some haven’t yet learned how to touch with easy affection, some laugh together while others sadly seem to have run out of things to say.

One evening before starting my set I noticed a young couple arrive. She was obviously thrilled to be in such an exotic location and had, I’m sure, spent quite a bit of time preparing herself for what could have been a romantic evening meal by the sea. It could have been had her partner not been such an inconsiderate oaf. Unlike her he seemed to have made minimal effort in dressing and gave scant attention to his delighted partner, frequently turning away to flip through messages on his phone.

At one point I saw her politely ask one of the waiters if they would mind taking a photo of them as a keepsake. She quickly straightened dress and hair in readiness while he kept the waiter waiting as he was forced into the present dragging his attention away from the phone. He grudgingly assumed a slouching position and an expression of disdain while she smiled sweetly and lovingly draped herself around him. And so the evening continued, she taking care of his every move, passing him cushions for comfort, brushing crumbs from his shirt and generally lavishing attention on him while he continued turning his body and attention away from her to immerse himself once more in his phone.

Meal finished, they moved to sit near me in the DJ booth with their backs to me. For a moment she managed to engage him in what looked like an enthusiastic conversation but then he withdrew back into himself and turned once more to his phone. At this point she reached into her handbag and produced her own phone for the first time that evening.

I watched with interest as she very purposefully opened up her photo library, scrolled through to the photo that had been taken of them an hour or so earlier and without stopping, even for a second, to consider its merit, very firmly clicked delete. I’m sure my mouth must have dropped open as I was so shocked with the finality of her action and because I believe it was also symbolic of the future of their relationship.

Smiling to herself she popped the phone back in her bag, turned to him, and in a very firm bright tone announced that she wanted to leave — getting up immediately and leaving him fumbling to register and catch up with her.

Years ago, when I was a student, I did a lot of hitch hiking. I remember noting at the time how sometimes people would use the cloak of anonymity to reveal quite personal information about their life during even a short journey.

One evening, playing my music to a very quiet hotel foyer, a man approached me and quickly began to unburden himself. For many years he had worked as a financial trader in the City. A few months earlier his wife had announced that she wanted a divorce. My heart went out to him and I tentatively enquired if there was anyone else involved.  “I doubt it,” he sneered, “but you’d think she could have thought about it before we had a second bloody child!”

About an hour later when he had consumed a bit more alcohol he returned, I thought to continue his tale of woe but began to regale me with stories about a possible investment that he had come across on the island. He had found a fabulous villa which was going for a snip at only €6million and wondered if I thought it was a good investment. I suggested that it might be an idea for him to wait until the pending divorce was settled before investing such a large sum. “Oh no need to worry about that,” he said, “The bitch doesn’t even know I’ve got this money.” My sympathy was beginning to wain.

Soon afterwards two young holidaying couples from south London appeared in Reception. All looked stylish and toned from hours in the gym. In the spirit of friendship (and also to free my self to concentrate on mixing) I introduced these young couples to Mr Trader, who was by now getting rather drunk.

All seemed to be going very well until about half an hour later when I noticed that Mr Trader had backed one of the young women into a corner and was trying to stroke her face. Her partner was only a couple of paces away and I feared that a fight was about to erupt. Fortunately he simply stepped forward, placed his hands on Mr Trader's shoulder, firmly moved him away and then waved a finger at him saying “No” in the same way one might chastise a naughty pet dog.

In this simple incident I felt as though I had glimpsed the possible cause of the impending divorce. This man had spent way too much time with his fellow traders in lap dancing clubs which had dulled his sensitivity to women and made him open to such totally inappropriate behaviour.

Every DJ gets requests. In most cases I think it’s a way for people to make contact and share their enthusiasm for music. However, if drugs, or more specifically cocaine, is involved, the discussion can sometimes become rather tiresome. I have often been asked how I cope with working in such noisy environments and in truth it is not the noise from the speakers I most fear but rather the client who has taken too much cocaine and insists on screaming in my ear. When I see such people approach I will often try to move my headphones onto one ear for protection.

Another effect of the white powder is that people can sometimes get stuck in cyclical thought. A lady approached me to ask for a specific track, which I didn’t have. She then started to move behind me to look at my computer screen and asked, “So what do you have?” I politely remarked I am not a jukebox and if she could tell me what flavour she would prefer, e.g. funk, techno, pop, etc, I might be able to help.

She looked disturbed by this and then said, “What about that woman that was in a band a few years back? You know who I mean?” I looked at her blankly but then realised she was stuck in a loop. “Or maybe that great track everyone is playing at the moment. You must have it.”

 “Give me a clue,” I suggested, but by then she looked disturbed by the chaos of her mind and simply turned and headed back to the toilets to refuel.

Sometimes people can be incredibly rude. One day a rather drunk American ambled up to me. He was short and muscle-bound with a square head —  a look and mentality that is often referred to in the States as “Meathead”. In a rasping slightly slurred voice he demanded to know if I had Dr Dre’s new album, Outta Compton. I replied that, “No I don’t,” but I was looking forward to seeing the film.

He looked disappointed but fortunately by coincidence I had a particularly good classic rap track lined up. I apologised for not having Dr Dre but said, “As you obviously like rap you will probably enjoy this,” and I moved the mix slider across to introduce the new track. He didn’t bother to register more than the first three notes before declaring, “No, that’s fucking shit!” and staggering away.

Earlier that afternoon round the pool I’d spoken to a delightful Turkish couple comprising a wiry nerdish looking gentleman and his very glamorous partner. As Meathead moved away from me he staggered towards the glamorous Turkish lady who was currently sitting alone by the pool. I didn’t hear what he said but she looked outraged while he simply shrugged and ambled away. A few minutes later I saw her partner rushing through the foyer in pursuit of Meathead screaming, “I don’t care who you are I’ll fucking kill you!” Meathead sheepishly retreated to the other end of the pool.

I quickly pieced together what must have been the gist of Meathead’s comment to the elegant Turkish lady. “Hey are you the fucking hooker I ordered an hour ago?” My idea seemed to be confirmed when only a few minutes later a pneumatically engineered eastern European woman with a pallor that suggested she saw little sunlight and might also have a rather serious drug problem, arrived at the poolside, scanned the people and headed directly to Meathead.

A lot of celebs visit the island during the summer but in most cases I am happy to let them go about their business without being interrupted by me. However, one day a jazz musician who I greatly respect arrived by the pool with his wife and baby daughter. When I felt it was appropriate I wandered over to enquire if he was playing on the island and to tell him how much I respected his work.

As an American gentleman he accepted my compliment with a gracious, “That’s very kind of you to say so, sir.”

Later in the afternoon they returned after a trip round the island and he came over to thank me for my musical selection adding, “I must say that it’s a very hard job you have to do here and I really don’t now how you manage to concentrate,” turning to eye to beauties round the pool with a smile. I noted many of those he saw were somewhat medically enhanced. He smiled again saying, “Yeah but they still looks good.” I noted that some of the more startling sights might also carry a bit of baggage with them and he turned to me with a knowing twinkle saying, “Ah so you’ve learned that lesson have you.”

Particularly in upmarket establishments the staff are obliged to maintain their decorum no matter what occurs  but I have often enjoyed those momentary lapses when a glance betrays their real feelings.

One day an African Princess arrived in the reception area where I was playing. She dazzled with glamour and physique. I noticed an Italian waiter serving her seemed hesitant, apparently lost for words. After she departed I commented to him that he seemed to be having difficulty to which he replied, “My God she was the type of woman that only allowed me to do one thing at a time. I could look but I could not think.”

One couple I met are etched on my memory: an elderly, working class couple from the north of England who seemed unlikely guests in the five star hotel they were staying in. He was of stocky build with hands like shovels that had seen a lot of physical work. She was bright and delicate with a face etched with the deep lines of family struggles.

Chatting to them they quickly explained that they had won the lottery. They didn’t tell me how much but noted with a grin that it was enough to furnish their immediate family with their own houses and take the extended family on a number of lavish holidays.

Sadly for many people the arrival of monetary good fortune can quickly overpower a sense of gratitude, so that each new fine living experience is not so much enjoyed but rather compared with other experiences that have been consumed.

Some years ago I heard a wise man comment that, “If we experience gratitude it will open up a realm of life that previously we didn’t know existed.” I have found this to be true and it seemed so for this elderly couple. While the original euphoria of their new found wealth had subsided they were (and I hope still are) enthusiastically pursuing the dream of visiting the many places they used to view with longing and fascination on TV travel shows. But they were not merely ticking off experiences but living with a sense of gratitude and youthful enthusiasm that I found contagious.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Where do you get your music from?

“Where do you get your music from?” is a question I am often asked. Of course the answer is that it comes from a wide variety of sources: hearing other DJ’s play stuff, being sent it by friendly labels, recommendations from mates and of course DJ music websites. My favoured three DJ websites are the omnipresent Beatport, distinguished Traxsource and delightfully underground Juno Download.

I tend to bounce between these three as to my mind, they seem to have slightly different priorities. Beatport is fairly Eurocentric which gives greater access to some of the most inventive techno out there. Traxsource is more US-centric which means they host such genres as Sweet Soul, Latin Afro and the more recently emerged Afro House. Juno champions the truly underground and also hosts a comprehensive Balearic section.

I have DJ’d digitally for many years using Traktor Pro as my means of delivery. More recently a number of DJ’s have tried to convince me to convert to Pioneer’s Record Box software so I could travel from gig to gig with little more than a memory stick and a set of cans. Yet I continue to lug around my Traktor controllers and a computer!

Maybe in part my preference is because I’m pretty familiar with computers but more importantly, I’m familiar with the concept of databases. What excites me about Traktor Pro are not the brightly illuminated buttons, its wealth of special effects or ergonomic design but rather that, at its core, it is a very flexible database.

Back in the days of Vinyl, DJ’s didn’t need a database as the weight of the vinyl provided a limit as to how much music could be carried to a gig. Records were identified not just by the name on the central label but often by the colour of the sleeve and, as most self respecting DJ would carry with them a selection of almost identical white labels, record identification sometimes rested on such subtleties as a mark, rip or wrinkle on the cardboard sleeve that would set it apart from the rest.

I have known many a Dj who could rifle through a couple of hundred records in their boxes or bags and immediately recognise a track from the sliver of cardboard that was visible.

As soon as DJ’s started moving over to CD’s the identification process became more tricky as many of the CD’s were their own rips so had no label other than some often indecipherable scribblings to go by. Because the physical weight was no longer a restraining factor many DJ’s soon adapted to carrying larger quantities of music with them.

The more “librarian” amongst them took to hand writing track listings to place in the pouch beside the CD while others continued to rely on their personal data base of memory — such as, “I remember playing that particular track at the party I played two years ago in a forest in Germany”. Sure enough a quick scrabble through the slightly tatty folder of CD’s would no doubt reveal one with a handwritten scribble readings something like, “Sunrise Forest Set”

I embraced digital DJing with enthusiasm because it enabled me to carry an ever expanding library of tunes with me (currently around 7,000) which meant that theoretically I could, if I wanted to, begin playing Reggae or Funk and stay there for a number of hours. In practice I never do this as I think I have a short attention span. Or more probably it’s because I was raised on a diet of Frank Zappa who, with his band of virtuoso musicians, would switch from one genre to another in the blink of an eye.

Traktor Pro thoughtfully offers the possibility of uploading album artwork to assist with the search but there is a big difference between tiny thumbnail images and the visual familiarity one can develop with a track by regularly handling its cover as you pull it out of the bag and carefully remove the vinyl from it.

Of course just like iTunes (which is also a database) Traktor Pro provides a wealth of categories that can be used to describe a track which is only limited by how many you can fit to the width of your screen. Title and artist get filled straight away but then there is the tricky bit of genre classification.

I must have collected well over a thousand tracks which I had designated ‘House’ when I realised that this wasn’t going to cut it and so began adding words to the genres such as ‘Jazz’, ‘Tribal’, ‘Deep’ etc. But it  wasn’t too long before I realised that this also had its limitations in describing the detailed nuances of a track so I began inventing my own genres such as “Mad Latin”, “Wonky Keys” and ‘Clockwork Electro’.

I also started half-heartedly adding descriptions in the Comments column. Here too I found that again the limits of vocabulary in trying to describe Dance music fell short. It’s surprising how quickly one can build up a collection in which many tracks fit the description of “Deep and kicking with great break”.

So my next step was to listen very carefully to a track and try to think what emotion it evoked in me. Did it have a sense of potential or gradual awakening or was it blissful and phased or chilled with vibrant tones? I realised that with a single search window the whole of the Traktor Pro database is completely searchable so it is no longer important for me to memorise the name of the track or artist but rather search for the words which it evoked in me. This also means that you can move away from the constraints of beat matching and start to mix using emotions and moods.

DJ music websites are also, at their heart, just databases. Of course when you visit these sites you might not arrive with any criteria to search for other than “recently released” or “best-selling tracks of the moment”. In most cases you will probably just select a genre and dive in.

They all feature a general search bar which will take you through the whole database if you are looking for something specific. Sometimes I have found it fun to type titles based on a feeling I am hunting for, such as ‘tribal Latin’ or ‘deep piano’ and such random searches can often take you off on an excursion with no map.

I do hope the lovely people at Juno won’t mind me saying that while their site is probably the least slick of the three I mentioned above it is my personal favourite because it offers much more flexible search criteria. For example, all three sites provide their current best-selling Top 100 but Juno allows one to not simply rely on what is selling most but to make your own mind up what is of interest by searching new releases over a period of one to eight weeks. It also allows you to search the best-selling tracks over the same definable period.

When I used to buy a lot of vinyl my main outlet was the wonderful Piccadilly Records in Manchester. They helpfully provide a weekly staff selection with helpful reviews. was also one of my favoured sources of vinyl before I moved on to their sister site Both of the Juno sites also provide helpful reviews and comments to some but not all of their tracks.

I suspect that some of these reviews might well be heavily flavoured by press material but in my mind I would like to think that amidst the bustle of Juno and Piccadilly Records offices there is a huddle of eloquent music fans who attempt the impossible: describing what music sounds like in words. Some of these are both eloquent and entertaining so I thought I would share some of the gems I have come across recently.

"Dope High is an itchy, Kenny Dope kinda tune boasting a totally swung-out percussion and a militant groove for the DJ's.” Not quite sure what “itchy” means in musical terms but it attracted my attention.

“Constructed from clipped drums, a shuffling rhythm and features the kind of wide-eyed, jazz-tinged keys that you'd associate with classic Prescription releases”. I had to check this track just because I loved the term “wide-eyed, jazz-tinged keys”.

“From the surging machine disco of Oklo Gabon's "City Gym" and the undulating alien funk of Comeme man Sano's "Duraco", to the Ket-addled wonkiness of Golden Teacher's trippy "What Time Is It?" I certainly know what they mean by “Ket-addled wonkiness” not because I am an experienced user of ketamine but because I have witnessed its detrimental effect of its “wonkiness” on the dance floor.

"Don't Want The Regular" is a hazy twist on slo-mo broken beat, all dreamy and just the right amount of abstract”. I bought this track largely because I agreed with the review that it had “just the right amount of abstract”. God forbid there should be too much abstract.

Of course all this eloquence in describing music is a bit like trying to describe the taste of chocolate; no matter how good the description there is no substitute for eating the chocolate. However, I applaud music journalists and reviewers at making such valiant attempts and will continue to try to develop my own eloquence otherwise I am destined to lose some of my gems in the dusty corners of my Traktor Pro database.

Periodically a musical phrase or style enters the musical vocabulary that launches or influence a whole genre of music. One such element was something that came to be termed the Amen Break. If you aren’t already familiar with this as a concept you definitely will be as a sound and I strongly recommend this short documentary to enlighten you.