The best nightclub DJs possess a shamanistic power. They have it within them to control the movements of thousands of people as if they were a single being; to hold the mood of a crowd in their hands; to force it to turn, arms aloft, and await instruction. That need is deep-rooted. In “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life”, a history of the subject, Bill Brewster imagines night falling on prehistoric savannahs, where early man “abandoned the taboos of waking life” and “joined the gods”. To a relentless beat struck by an army of drummers, he would lose himself in dance. The witch doctor who led this carnal parade, writes Mr. Brewster, was the modern DJ’s antecedent.
To gain such lofty status, DJs, particularly back in the days of vinyl records, had to sweat. Before digitization, mixing records in a nightclub was a technical discipline as difficult to master as learning chord progressions on a guitar. Flitting between two records, with different beats-per-minutes, and in different keys, meaning the best managed to create unique music in real time, using nothing but two turntables and a mixing desk. Playing a set that lasted for hours, with no audible joins between tracks, took years of practice. Skills were honed in bedrooms on “ones-and-twos”—the Technics 1200 turntables that were the only choice for an aspiring mixer.
In the 1990s, DJs who rose to the top had generally paid their dues. Alan Banks, one such, says he started on school radio and graduated to local bars before promoting his own nights in big London clubs such as Heaven. Mr. Banks would spend hours preparing for a set, learning the break-points of records, counting bars and arranging the tunes in his box by their musical keys.
The tables, though, were about to turn. At the turn of the century, DJs began to embrace digital technology, swapping their ones-and-twos for zeroes and ones. In 1999, Pioneer released its first “CDJ”, which mixed CDs instead of vinyl. CDJs would eventually allow DJs to loop passages of music at the touch of a button and to interact with computers using MIDI, a digital interface. Many DJs welcomed the change. Notwithstanding the greater functionality, it saved them lugging heavy record-boxes—perhaps holding just 100 tunes—to nightclubs. CD wallets, in contrast, could house a thousand or more.
Even that now seems passé. Today’s DJs saunter into a club carrying nothing more than a USB stick, on which they keep an almost unlimited selection of music. But has digitization meant that the art of DJing has been lost? Using modern programs such as rekordbox, computers will automatically put DJs’ music in sync and save them from beat-matching. They will also show which music is in a complementary key, and mix the two together at command.
Such advances have made it easy for those with limited talent to sound professional. YouTube videos abound that purport to show DJs miming their mixes—their hands a whirl of activity over the controls, but never actually alighting on any of them. For many, this confirms a long-held suspicion that some now simply turn up with a pre-recorded set, press play, and rake in the cash.
Easy-to-use technology has prompted celebrities with little groundings in the art, such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, to declare themselves DJs and secure lucrative gigs around the world. “Youngsters don’t seem to mind if someone is just a front person, without actually doing anything,” says Chad Jackson, a former winner of the World DJ Championship. “Fame is the important thing. Anyone can say that they are a DJ, but if you are just putting records on you are just a jukebox.” Mr. Jackson, who also tutors aspiring DJs, complains that too many people seek him out because they want a shortcut to fame and fortune, not because they love dance music.
It is easy to see the allure. Superstars command mind-boggling fees. In the 1990s, reports that DJs such as Paul Oakenfold were receiving five-figure sums for a night’s work made music headlines. But that looks a pittance now that America has rediscovered the cult of the DJ. The country that invented house music in the 1970s, through pioneers such as Frankie Knuckles, was something of a bystander as the phenomenon took hold in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. No longer. Electronic dance music (EDM) has reconquered its birthplace. Last year, Calvin Harris, a Scottish pop-star-turned-DJ, signed a contract reported to be worth $400,000 a night for a residency at Hakkasan, a Las Vegas club.
Yet DJing has always been about more than simply mixing records. The skill is in reading, and then reacting to a crowd, something a jukebox cannot do. “It doesn’t matter which medium you use,” says Seb Fontaine, one of Britain’s most celebrated house DJs. “It is about how you mold the evening, how you create the story.”
And if it has become technically easier to sound professional, in other aspects the requirements are getting tougher. Nightclub DJs have always distinguished themselves by playing records that no one else owns. For those spinning American R&B in Britain’s “Northern Soul” clubs in the 1960s, for example, that meant importing rarities or crossing the Atlantic to uncover gems themselves. For house DJs in the 1990s, it meant trawling record shops in search of rare cuts. Because most vinyl had small press-runs they could be sure that the other DJs on the bill wouldn’t have the same records.
Today, virtually every dance record is available to download through specialist dance-music sites such as Beatport. That makes things more democratic: “No one, wherever in the world, need be behind the times,” says Mr. Fontaine. But it also means that people have less chance of laying claim to remarkable finds. DJs of the past learned to shield labels on their seven-inches, or even put records into the wrong sleeves, to thwart competitors taking a sneaky peek over their shoulders. Nowadays anyone can use Shazam, a smartphone app that can identify the tracks being played in even the most underground of clubs.
That is one reason why building a reputation now means either producing your own records or remixing others’. Production is both a way for DJs to market themselves, and to lay claim to something unique to play on the dancefloor. The very best technicians will use isolated audio files (drums, say, or vocal or bass) and remix tracks live in a nightclub, setting themselves apart from the arrivistes. But these days Mr. Banks says he will spend most of his day in his studio. Although he makes little money from the music he creates there if he wants to get lucrative gigs he is expected to have a body of work behind him.
Few DJs pine for the days of ones-and-twos; the possibilities of modern technology are too alluring. But Mr. Fontaine says that purists still ask him whether he ever thinks about a return to vinyl. “No,” he tells them. “I also don’t plan to go to work on a penny-farthing.”
Original appeared in “The Economist”