Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Spirit of Sharing Music

I have always been missionary spirited about music. It seemed the sole function of cassette recorders was so I could make mix tapes to share. And share I did, recording and duplicating programmes from pirate radio stations, white labels from friends working at the coal face of the music industry, plus my own selections, including everything from Afrika Bambata to The Grateful Dead. It never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong by giving. Music is for me an expression of friendship and shared emotion. Why would I not want to share it.

Such a sharing attitude might be seen as be contributing to the decline of the music industry by promoting music for free. In reality though I, like many music fans, don't stop buying music just because some of it is available for free. So I tend to pay less for the more popular stuff, but the money I do spend tends to get redirected towards the more obscure producers who, to my mind, need it more than the famous acts. 

Also, as a devoted advocate of non-compressed music files, I often have to pay a supplement just to get my music in uncompressed WAV format. I think the music business does pretty well out of me. I know, I've heard all the arguments that there is very little difference between MP3's and WAV's but I'm not convinced. MP3's only carry about a tenth of the musical information of a non-compressed version so something is being lost somewhere. Maybe if you are playing banging stuff the difference won't be noticed over the beat, but in general if you want to keep the subtleties of a piece of music I would advice people to go for the none compressed versions.  I can usually tell when a DJ is playing MP3's as the music seems to lack punch. 

But I digress. I was talking about sharing music....

When I first arrived in Ibiza I mentioned to one DJ friend that I had been heartened by how supportive other DJ's had been towards me. I had half expected a cut throat competitive relationship between many of the DJ's, but what I found in most cases was unity based on shared experience — maybe they connected with that shared spirit of missionary zeal, of spending hours in record shops or on-line emporiums hunting for that elusive track that will be recognised for its greatness when played in public. 

However, one DJ told me that in his early days he had been a Hip Hop DJ and that things had seemed much more competitive then. Most of the records he played were hard to source imports and the scene was so competitive that he used to soak his new vinyl in the bath prior to a gig so he could remove the central label to prevent anyone stealing a glance over his shoulder and spotting a single clue to his unique appeal as a DJ. "Consequently," he moaned, "I now have tons of vinyl that, even to this day, I am not sure who the artist is!"

I suppose what prompted my comments about the supportive nature of other DJ's was an incident last season on the island. I had been doing a bit of Mac maintenance work for a DJ when he casually said, "Take what you want", meaning the music on his computer. I thought for a moment and then told him that as I was only staying somewhere temporary I didn't have a good internet link and had not been able to download any new tunes for the past couple of months. 

"Here," he said, "Take that folder. It has everything I've downloaded over the last two months." 

I happily copied around 300 WAV files onto my hard drive. Now this is a DJ I greatly respect. I enjoy his sets and admire his ability to hunt out new and obscure mixes. So I was looking forward to sifting through them. 

Later that evening though I was reminded of the special nature of our individual taste. Because no matter how much we appreciate another's taste, there is no doubt if we have spent time cultivating our own taste, then our taste will diverge from another person's in many ways. So out of 300 tracks there were only around 20 that took my fancy and probably no more than 10 which I might have bought myself had I the opportunity. And I realised that this would no doubt been the same had I passed on 300 of my tracks to him. 

Sharing music, no matter how rare and treasured, does not compromise or undermine our unique taste as a DJ. It's not just about having a particular tune to play, it's also how we frame that tune, what we mix it from and with. Based on this realisation I started to think the protective attitude which some have towards their collections might be a bit misguided.

I am always pleased when good things happen to friends of mine, when good fortune shines on them and life seems to give them a step up and a wave on their way. Strangely though not everyone shares my viewpoint. It's as though some people think that good fortune is a finite resource so when something good happens to someone else there is less possibility for it to happen to them and resentment and jealousy rear their ugly heads. 

My view is that our lives are all unique and what comes to one person is drawn by the action and energy of their lives so it is pointless to resent goodness that has been bestowed on another. I would rather focus on improving my own good fortune through my own efforts. 

In the same way I don't believe that sharing my own tunes with others will undermine my uniqueness as a DJ. To me it feels as though this spirit to share is an essential element that makes up the spirit of a DJ. The spirit to discover, appreciate, promote, share, that hopefully expresses itself in the unique sets we play.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Beat vs Mood Mixing

One of the main conventions of DJing is beat mixing or beat matching - the method of creating a transition between two tracks with a matching beat. If done well this can create a seamless transition from one track to the next. Perfect for the dance floor. This can be so satisfying for a DJ that it is all too tempting to build a set comprising similar tempo tracks even if the musical demands are not so dance orientated. I tend to play pretty eclectic sets so I find that my challenge is not how to how to create seamless beat matched sets but how, for example, to create a transition between one track at 128 bpm's and another that takes it down to 100 bpm. 

At first I started looking for tracks that had a similar music breakdown and start up. That is to say, if I could find one track that broke down at the end into a solo piano and another track that started with a solo piano, they could be butted up to each other to create a seamless transition. However, this is quite limited as there aren't too many tracks which fit this description. I then realised that the greater challenge is mixing moods not tunes. How can I create a sense of light and shade in a set. Do I really want to keep to the same tempo or has it got a bit intense? Maybe people would appreciate a breather with a lighter tone. 

Once I started playing with the idea that there is much more to DJing than beat matching, a world of possibilities started to open up. I could mix two tracks simply because they contained the same obvious word in the song lyrics, be it love, tears or, in one case, the word 'caravan' (The Doors Spanish Caravan mixed to Caravan by Mojo Rising). Although in this case the second track is an instrumental version so any possibility of people seeing the link would have been dependant on people knowing the original vocal track.

Another element now available to DJ's is mixing in key. That is to say, when playing digitally it is possible to identify the key of a track. I think that this technique is largely employed by club DJ's to create continuous seamless sets. But I don't want seamless sets. With seamless sets you stop noticing the music. Sometimes it is fun to be jolted out of complacency with something unexpected. However, I have started to use mixing in key because some tracks break down at the end to a single tone with the beats minimised. This means that the outgoing tone can be used to bring another track in the same key, which although initially quite subtle will then take off in a completely different direction. 

All of this is only available thanks to my devotion to the digital mixing software, Traktor.  The track listing window of Traktor helpfully provides information on track name, artist and genre etc but also allows for a comments section. For years I limited my comments to such descriptions as, 'Banging house good bass line' or 'Chilled mellow'. Then I started to realise that I have hundreds of tracks which might fit such a description so why not try to use more adjectives. It occurred to me that as the whole data base is instantly searchable I could make it as complex as my brain would allow and so I started to use many more adjectives and keywords. My data base has now been modified to such an extent that I can simply put in a word search for such terms as stimulating, muffled, anticipation, jubilant, heartfelt, crystal or many other emotive or descriptive terms that might be appropriate for the moment. For example, if I type in the word 'detective' it will immediately bring up about 30 tracks from all genres but with each features a sort of film noir theme. 

The problem with such multi layered mixing is that of endless possibilities. It is also means that caprice of my mind has suddenly presented me with two tracks which I have never mixed before. Add to this my personal dynamic that even when I have chosen a track to follow on I do not stop contemplating about the current mood in the bar or club. Frequently I will be hit with the thought that I want to change direction and mood when there are only around 30 seconds left of the outgoing track and I have to work at breakneck speed to find the replacement to mix to otherwise I will envelop the floor in silence. Of course such erratic behaviour means that I drop a mix every now and again but at least it keeps me amused and hopefully the audience too.

I was rather ardently explaining my method of DJing to a very patient and much more experienced chap one day and noted that probably no one had any idea what I was doing when playing a set. He said, 'Yes of course they won't, but that doesn't mean you should stop doing it.' It does however explain why, at the end of a six hour set, I feel brain dead ;-)

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Whispering Voices of Deep Balearic

I have always been a great fan of  vocal tape inserts in music. The Beatles were to a certain extent pioneers in the field and songs like I am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields both feature tantalising extracts of spoken words toward the end. In fact the words in Strawberry Fields were so tantalising that they were used by some fans to give fuel to the rumours of Paul McCartney's death signaled by the misheard line "I buried Paul." Paul McCartney later explained that in fact the words John Lennon had said were "Cranberry Sauce" Even more clearly elucidated pop lyrics are frequently misheard as a rather amusing routine by comedian Paul Kay illustrates. However, for me it is the very ambiguity of spoken word overlays that I find thrilling.
Frank Zappa was also a great exponent of this and his 1968 album, "We're Only In It For The Money" which parodies the Sgt Pepper cover is, thanks in a great part to voice overlays, a very powerful social comment on the times. I have listened to this album so many times that I know just about every whisper including what sounds like the ravings of  an acid head at a party being questioned as to whether she is "hung up."

The Clash and Mick Jones's follow on band Big Audio Dynamite also used tape to great effect and I particularly like what, to me, sounds like Michael Caine and others featured on their hit E=MC2

In the Dance world the use of vocal overlays has been used very successfully to bring power and pathos to a melody. Probably one of the most effective of these was the use of Martin Luther King's, "I have a dream" speech placed behind the haunting melody of Mr Fingers track Can You Feel It

Malcolm X has also been thoroughly sampled but what I really like is something more ambiguous - tracks that feature whispering barely discernible voices that hint of another dimension to the music. Thankfully this summer I have found rich pickings, so much so that I have identified it as a new sub genre and given it a name: welcome to Deep Balearic. 

Don't ask me to explain, instead I'll let the music do it for me with a selection of tracks that feature a beguiling simplicity of melody but with voices that gradually and hypnotically pull you in. I am obviously not the only person to feel this, the first few times I played each of these tracks they brought people rushing over to the DJ booth to demand the title.  

First off is Isaac by Superflu. The rap - from a time when rap meant rapping with the audience during a set, not rhyming rhythmic vocals - is from the master of on-stage rap, Isaac Hayes. To me it sounds as though he is chatting with someone in the front row, but maybe he is also introducing a song with a rambling tale of his own. I don't really know and it doesn't matter, but somehow each of those faintly grasped words is thrilling to me.

Monkey Safari's Hi Life is a very powerful track which in my imagination features the recordings of an elderly black American street junkie, recounting his early experiences of addiction and getting high on cocaine. This is no advert for the drug and at one point in it you can faintly hear his plaintive sigh as he notes, "It ain't always fun to be that high."

Andhim's Hausch This doesn't quite fit my description of taped overlays but the song samples have been degraded and distressed like a well-worn pair of jeans. I nearly drove myself and others mad trying to work out where the line came from that states, "She's not just a plaything, she flesh and blood just like a man." However thanks to the wonders of Google was able to remind myself that I know the line from Aretha Franklin's song Natural Woman. 

Speaking of new genres, did you know that one of the latest is called Night Bus. If I am right in my interpretation, this is a genre of fairly gentle tripped-out music that would be ideal for listening to after a night clubbing and journeying home, still rather high, on the night bus. The genre features music which is just psychedelic enough to feed your mood but not too raucous to blind you to any possible conflicts arising around you from other less chilled night bus travellers. 

I like the music but I also love the obscure concept of the genre almost as much as the sub genre of Nu Disco, which is described as Disco Not Disco, ie it features some of the motifs of disco such as the wacka wacka guitars, hand claps and orchestral stabs but combined in such a way that they bear no resemblance to disco, Nu or otherwise. And they said Dance music would never last....