Controversial title, I know, but I stand by it. Not in a nasty way – geek is the new black, after all – and not universally either, but I maintain that more DJs these days are geeks than ever before. Partly that’s because there are so many more DJs today, for reasons we’ve talked about already here at Crossfadr, but mostly it’s a reflection of the way that DJ tech is changing.
Not so long ago, if you were a DJ, the tools of your trade were a pair of turntables and a mixer. That was it. You learned a bunch of skills with your fingertips, you learned how to read the crowd and how to pick the next tune. And that’s how it was done for the longest time, but now that MP3 has become so widespread – and so malleable – those days are fast falling behind us. Even diehard turntablists use control vinyl and Serato as often as not, and they’re in the minority of a latter-day DJ culture that spans from scary mainstream pop to scary tripped out avant-garde IDM, from reggae to soul to rock and a boiling pot of new musical hybrids.
And there’s something in that, the hybridisation. Forgive me, but today’s western twenty year-olds seem, to this old fart, to have a mindset that revels in its short attention span, in its cross-platform, multimedia savvy, and in its willingness to abandon the forms that, to a kid brought up with iPhones and Andre 3000, must have looked stale, not at all like standing on the shoulder of giants. The loving warmth of analogue is lost on them, for the most part, and instead the creative joy is to be found in massaging those beats into something new. And keep in mind that this same generation has grown up with Fruity Loops and Reason and Lemur. And the Bridge. Hell, this is the first generation for which the CD is obsolete. Sound is just data, man, and it’s there to be played around with.
Which brings us back to the hybridisation. Sure, there are still plenty of DJs today who are ‘just’ DJs, but the performance aspect is changing fast and you’re as likely to see a DJ behind a Gordian knot of cables as you are behind two decks and a mixer. You’ll see laptops – that glowing Apple – and USB MIDI controllers. Effects units and MPCs and loop pedals. There will be decks, but they’ll be CDJs, and the mixer will have a bewildering array of lights and knobs and doohickeys and whatchamacallits.
All of which makes me think of the geeks who used to be into weird geeky shit like soldering and cartography and seeing how long they could go without blinking, back in high school. The DJ’s rig has become as customised as her style. She’s built it from the ground up, programmed her MIDI signal paths to respond just the way she wants them to, mapped all the controls so her favourite functions are right where she wants them. She’s not only capable and organised, she’s obsessive.
Like a geek.
See, it used to be just about the music, but these days the creativity is as much in the rig design. I think that’s exciting. It’s also horribly expensive. And it brings with it a new kind of performance that old school DJs never had to worry about. When it’s just you and your Technics, the crowd weren’t expecting a spectacle, weren’t expecting Daft Punk’s mind-blowing pyramid of superlative awesomeness. And here’s where the geek thing kind of ends. Unlike the awkward, pimply recluse, DJs today, with all their panty-moistening technological goodies, are really one part DJ, one part producer and one part engineer. Something, try as I might, I can’t picture lovable ol’ Seymour Krelborn pulling off.