Monday, 22 July 2013

The Emperor's New Clothes

I suppose what I react to most strongly to is the idea of any sort of mono culture developing. The idea that one element of culture is cool while others must be ignored. This is particular true for me in music. Yes I have a bit of a hard time getting my head around opera and some of the sweeter elements of country music but otherwise I take it all as I find it - good, bad and indifferent. A friend of mine recently recounted how, when playing at a wedding reception, the groom approached him and said, "When are you going to play some proper Ibiza music like David Guetta?" My friend said he would have hit him but it was his wedding after all and while he was entitled to his opinion and besides he actually didn't have any David Guetta with him. The groom probably couldn't understand why my friend thought this to be such an outrageous statement but living on The Island one can will find a marvellous variety of music if you look for it. If you aren't looking then all you will see are the monstrous billboards with David Guetta crassly cupping his wife's breasts in his hands.

It seems to me as though the dance scene is in danger of being side tracked into a sort of fascist view of what is cool and in the main this seems to be focusing on Tech and Deep House. At least this seems to be the main fare in most of the clubs. Both are genres I have a great affection for but its just that hearing them to the exclusion of all other variants bores me rigid. Sometimes I wonder if the people listening to it in the clubs really enjoy it too. I was talking to another broadminded DJ friend of mine the other night who described visiting one of the mega clubs to see one of the mega DJ's at work. He told me that after a couple of hours, if someone had told him that the DJ had been playing a repeating loop tape he would not have been surprised. The only enlivening that seemed to be appearing from the endless knob twiddling of the mega DJ was the rather lame periodic removal of the bottom end. Maybe you have heard this from time to time. It's where the DJ twists one of the EQ buttons so that it takes all the bass out of the track leaving you with a whispering remnant of the melody. Then just as the bass kicks (suprise, surprise) he twists it back to central position again to accentuate the kick. I am constantly amazed how this simple trick seems to entrance some audiences for hours on end. The music goes wispy and the audience prepares themselves to leap into action like pavlovs dogs that have been trained to respond to dance music*. The thing is, I'm not sure if that many clubbers do enjoy this endless bland noodling. The music industry is very adapt at elevating some DJ's to such giddy heights that many club goers think that if they don't like it maybe they are not cool enough and after all, they had to take out a mortgage to enter the club and pay for drinks all night so it must be good.  I have often found myself wondering what drugs one can take that are able to transform such boring bland music into an enjoyable experience.

Maybe this is part of the problem. It hadn't occurred to me till recently just how all pervasive use of Ketamine has become within the dance culture. Of course drugs have always had their place in dance and youth culture but while Ecstacy (which I understand was once referred to as Empathy because it engenders and empathetic state of mind) is ideal for a shared experience on the dance floor, Ketamine is an all together more solitary experience. Recently I read a very good article by Tom Armstrong titled 'Dancefloors Against Ketamine' who described his excitement at attending a rave with a particular group of DJ's. What he found though was that the music seemed to have taken on a much darker tone that he was expecting with much slower beats and a very buzzy bass tone. What he observed were a large number of people obviously out of their heads on Ketamine staggering around the place barely able to keep upright let alone dance. He left the event part way through the evening but what really shocked him was, when reading the reports in various chat rooms over the next few days, how many people describing it as one of the best gigs that they had ever attended. In truth it may have been a great gig but only in each individuals head. It wasn't a shared experience in the sense that I have come to think of successful raves. There have been times when it has seemed to me that some raves have been an almost religious experience with their shared sense of ecstatic jubilation. Having read this article I have now begun to wonder how much influence K is having on the diet of music that is being fed to us in clubs.

It feels to me as though certain elements of club culture might well be finding a parallel with the fairy tale where a shyster persuades the king that he is giving him special invisible clothing. All works well until one noble subject shouts out, "The King has got no clothes on." Maybe it is time for people to stand up in the kingdom of dance and say, "I don't care if everyone is telling me he is a king, his music is dull and boring." 

Just in case anyone should think that this the rambling of a poverty stricken DJ, jealous of his more wealthy fellows I would like to say that I had the pleasure of being the warm up DJ for the warmup for the warm up at Carl Cox's birthday bash the other day. Carl is famed for his love of Techno but for his birthday both he and Pete Tong, who played after him, presented a widely diverse set which expressed something of the breadth of their love for dance music. Of course they are both adept at changing their sets to suit the occassion but I thought it was great that, Carl in particular, who has such a strong following for his hard core Tech sets was not afraid to show his sweeter side. Contrast this with some other DJ's who seem to be revelling in the studious intellect of mono culture. Of course I understand that we all have preferences but surely the whole dance culture was born out of a spirit of cross pollination so to ignore these roots would seem to be a narrowing of vision. It is also contributing to the same homogenising that has taken over our high streets. I for one would like to raise the banner for individuality that makes DJing entertaining not only for those listening but for the DJ as well.

Strangely enough I have found that younger audiences are the most conservative and prone to mono culture. I suppose I shouldn't be that surprised as when we are in our adolescence it is a time when we are still developing our sense of self and for many young people this brings with it a fear of being different. ie "I love techno but I f***** hate house!" The influence of mono culture is all pervasive. Even if we think we are behaving as individuals it is sometimes shocking when looking at photos of ourselves from times gone by to see how much we conformed to to the style of the times. To a certain extent we are limited by what is available and the mass media is a very powerful force in convincing us what is the cool way to exist. However, if we don't in some small ways challenge this tendency the end result is fascism or an intolerance of anyone who doesn't espouse our own views. 

I once attended a one man show with Quentin Crisp. Individuality was a major element of his talk. At one point he noted that if we look out of our window and see that the person to our right has built a path travelling from right to left across their garden and the person on the left has built a path from top to bottom, we should first of all think, "Am a diagonal person?" I have often considered that the loudest noise one can get out of a radio is when it is perfectly tuned into the station. In the same way we are at our most powerful when we are true to ourselves. Opening up to the various facets that comprise our personality brings power. This is true I think whatever area we work in. In DJing I have found that I get no joy out of playing something I don't want to play. Maybe it is a request for a track I actually like and have with me but it feels sadly hollow when I am playing something just to please someone. However it is a great thrill to introduce people to a newly found gem of music. I can't explain why I think it's a gem and in some cases I have to play it several times over a few gigs before others begin to see what I saw too.

So my appeal then is for greater individuality. I understand affiliations - being a dance music DJ is an affiliation and I am aware that there are many who would find such an affiliation very narrow but in our chosen area there is much to be discovered both in terms of heritage and new directions. Please can we hear more of this.

* I am certainly not the best exponent of some of the finer points of mixing but just to give an example of how some DJ's are more inventive than the hackneyed EQ cut, I had the pleasure the other day of witnessing a master at work on a famous beach. At one point he was playing a track which featured a sample of a jolly and familiar French jazz track. After several minutes of break beats and returning riffs the music suddenly and significantly started to slow down. This grabbed everyone attention and I am sure that some people maybe forgot for a moment that he was working digitally as it sounded as though the turn table was running down. Then it became clear what he was up to. He was slowing the whole thing down to the speed of the original French Jazz track so that he could cut it in and play it in its original unedited jubilant style. Magnificent. Risky yes but great fun and very entertaining.