DJs used to be rare, exotic. But their numbers have swelled to alarming I-think-I-can-do-that-too proportions. Everyone wants to be the cool kid, and technology's making it easier all the time.
Deejaying used to take skills: scratching, beat-matching, primo song selection, bringing a crowd to orgasmic 130-bpm crescendos just before dropping it out and leaving them wilted and waxy like putty. Trouble is, today jockeying the disc doesn't take much expertise -- hell, in some cases it doesn't even require a disc. Any schlub with a hard drive and the will to burn, baby, burn can join the ranks.
The DJs that built this thing must want to take this anybody-can-be-a-DJ technology out to the shed and go Unabomber on its ass. How do they feel about the new crew, the kids with Soul Seek-lifted mash-ups?
To answer this question, I play the part of John McLaughlin at a roundtable of some Houston DJs of note. Seasoned vets sit down with relative newbies. Mixers meet with non-mixers. EMTs stand by, ready to pump life into the limp, blood-soaked bodies that will be left after the DJs finish accusing one another of being the cook that overseasoned the soup.
Or so you'd think.
Instead what we get is a supportive peer group, rich with compliments about one another's abilities at the decks. New technology is welcomed with "you've got to move on" arms spread wide open -- cocked and ready to hand out buckets full of soothing embraces.
On the patio of Catbirds (1336 Westheimer), Fred DJ (Boys and Girls Club), Eban Doss (Rockit! Disco), Gracie Chavez (den mother to female up-and-comers), her husband -- OG drum and bass DJ G. Whizz -- and I gather for a chipper chat that's short on shit talk and long on love. DJs Ceeplus (House of Brown Ale, tons of other shit) and the master of the mix, DJ Jester the Filipino Fist, call in later to throw more flowers into the hippie-stained hat.
First on the docket: What happened to turntables? DJs using CDs -- is it fine or a foul?
Chavez says that while the slow suffocation of the vinyl DJ is a sad thing, many clubs don't have turntables. "A vinyl-exclusive DJ couldn't work in a lot of Houston clubs. [They're] set up with CD-only decks," she says. "You have to be able to adapt."
Fred DJ adds that DJs use the CD for much the same reason society does: It's convenient. "Vinyl is very cumbersome. It makes you a lot less mobile."
Oddly enough, DJ Jester -- who uses vinyl exclusively -- agrees, saying, "I just got back from Australia and New Zealand -- I paid a shitload in overages because my flight cases of vinyl weighed so much. My audience expects me to spin vinyl, but if they didn't..."
Eban Doss, a self-proclaimed vinyl purist, never thought CDs would be a part of his set, but now he uses them a fair amount. "I used to romanticize vinyl a lot -- still do. When you use it, you feel like you're really touching the music. CDs feel so disposable, but they're here to stay -- you've got to move on."
"I look at it a little different," exudes Ceeplus. "I want cats to spin CDs, because it makes my stock go up. It's less people digging in record stores for that rare Italian 12-inch that makes my set different from others. The fewer people searching out great, obscure records, the more chance I have at finding something great."
On to topic two: playing tracks back to back, like a broke-ass, talentless wedding DJ, versus mixing like the pros.
Fred DJ (who is now learning to mix) and his Boys and Girls Club crew are at the forefront of the no-mix movement in Houston, and they pack clubs anytime they play. Other cliques like Dum Dum Crüe and Spinnin' Kitties also can be found around town throwing down without mixing around. How does the rest of the table feel about their success?
"I've known Fred for years, and you can't argue with what Boys and Girls Club has been able to do. Packing Union with 400 people on a weeknight is incredible," Chavez proclaims.
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Her hubby, G. Whizz, once turned up his 16-years-in-the-biz nose at the thought of such DJ nights becoming popular. That is, until he went to one. "You know what? After a few drinks, if the music selection is good, and everyone is having fun, you can look past it. What are they playing? What are they going to play next? What's the interaction between the DJ and the crowd like?"
Ceeplus has long been a proponent of turning over the wheels of steel to folks he knew could barely tweak a fader, much less be the next Cut Chemist. His Dynamite Lounge sees Houston music industry do-gooders like Andrew Morgan and Anna Garza share their killer record collections with crowds.
As the drinks keep flowing and the talk keeps going, the focus strays. The DJs start in on trade talk, and discussion of subwoofers, rotating faders and FinalScratch fills the air. There's no ill will toward the tech-savvy whippersnappers. Everyone seems to have their place, so long as feet are tapping and moneymakers are ferociously shaken.
And in the end, it comes to me: DJs are simply entertainers. Their motion picture is the booth. Vinyl is action. CDs and MP3s are, in a sense, Spider-Man-like computer-generated animation. And we, the paying public, don't care if the stars do their own stunts so long as we feel the tingle of adventure.