The mid 1990s was a turning point in my life. Within a year I discovered the Internet and rave culture. I started spending as much time as possible in Internet Relay Chat rooms, reading listserv emails, listening to techno and house music, and attending raves on as many Saturday nights as possible. It was in this milieu that I discovered the 313 listserv—a virtual space where people came together to talk about Detroit techno, record collecting, and the art of DJing.
A handful of years later, I made my way to graduate school at the University of Iowa where I enrolled in Thom Swiss’s Digital Rhetoric course. It was in this class that I began to formulate the ideas for this essay, which I subsequently presented at the University of Texas’s technology and communication conference, “Transparencies: Technology, Culture, Communication.” To this day, I am extremely grateful to the welcoming graduate students I first met on this trip to Austin, many of whom I now consider colleagues. It was their encouraging feedback that prompted me to continue formulating my thoughts on the topic.
When I wrote “Tracking the DJs” with Thom Swiss’s guidance in 2002 I could not have foreseen that EDM [electronic dance music] would grow into a $7 billion global industry in two decades. These dollar amounts continue to amaze me. EDM’s popularity in the U.S. had most definitely risen during the 1990s, but government and police crackdowns in the early 2000s severely curtailed the underground party scene. While the music and culture I knew so well seemed to be in limbo, record and technology industries were hard at work exploring ways to capitalize on the extreme growth potential of EDM as it fused with club culture.
I am grateful to Oliver Wang for resurrecting the ideas that “Tracking the DJs” explores and for his thoughtful comments and kind remarks. Opportunities for scholarly conversations like the ones this “From the Vaults” series offers happen all too rarely. The joy in writing this piece and revisiting it now resides in looking back on a unique moment in time when digital DJ tools were first being introduced. In hindsight there is much we can glean from these fleeting, ephemeral debates over new and unknown technologies, how we perceive and make sense of them. In his response, Wang builds on our burgeoning ideas with the addition of his own research findings on the topic based on survey testimonials from funk, soul, and hip-hop DJs.
I do not have the space here to articulate all of my ruminations about Wang’s response. But I want to speak to his keen observation on new technologies and how they relate to broader questions that he summarizes as the existential crisis of the DJ.As the past 15 years demonstrate, the introduction of digital DJ tools have had an irrevocable impact on the art of DJing; in fact, these new technologies/practices have initiated a rethinking of the role and significance of the DJ. In 2002, debates over these new DJ tools focused on how they would transform the DJ’s “work.” Digital files and hardware like Final Scratch and Serrato threatened DJs’ unique record collections. If virtually any track is available for download then crate digging along with the rewards the physical labor produces—the accrual of one-of-a-kind tracks and esoteric knowledge—would no longer be a marker for what makes a DJ stand out from their competition. And yet, while crate digging is no longer a necessity, the labor of accruing “good” tracks and constructing stand-out DJ sets that move the dance floor has, dare I say, increased. Yes, DJs can now amass infinite music collections with relative ease, but sifting through what has become a seemingly endless supply of labels, reviews, and tracks to put together a crowd-pleasing set still requires considerable labor. To this end, perhaps the work involved in DJing hasn’t changed as much as it has transformed; the fears that coursed through early debates have faded.
In “Microwave DJs” Wang moves the discussion to a different aspect of work: work as competitive, compensated labor. Although he reminds us that DJs have been experiencing this anxiety for as long as DJs have been getting paid to play, the accessibility of digital tools and music have exacerbated these concerns. Equipment, music, and knowledge are easier to procure now than ever. A misguided mentality exists, driven by the assumption that all one needs to DJ is a hard drive and the anxiety that the economic explosion of the EMD industry makes it more difficult to secure [well-paid] gigs. The new confusion about what DJs actually do, especially when they seem to interact with less and less technology, has made it easier to dismiss skill and focus on fame. Today, models are DJing parties in New York with iPhones and celebrities like Paris Hilton have residencies in Ibiza.
I can’t help but think that on the one hand the value in seeing the manual performance of tactility is in part a response to this new celebrity DJ era, a way for DJs who do more than push play to distinguish themselves. On the other, the age of the turntable is not completely over, and many artists who learned to DJ using turntables and mixers continue to excel at, enjoy, and make a living doing it. Enough younger DJs also find pleasure in what Wang calls the “manual performance of tactility.” One can easily argue that the work of the DJ has become more complex over time. For the most part, DJs are now adept at using a breadth of technology—analog, digital, turntables, laptops—and make specific choices about which technologies to use based on purpose or convenience. Technologies are inextricably connected to dynamic social processes subject to humans’ desires to create and their appetite for change. Moving forward, the role of the physical turntable will continue to diminish, but as technologies like Serato and Phase illustrate, the desire for physical connection will endure, although its form will keep changing, as will the expectations of DJs and audiences.1 Despite all of this, as vinyl-only labels confirm, records and turntables live on, and consumers continue to invest in records. For a host of reasons—their materiality, the social life of their use, album cover art, irreplicable analog sound, limited edition status, or simply because Urban Outfitters markets them, vinyl will continue to shape the consumption practices of audiences as well.2