June 26, 2012
Press Play? Hit Start

There’s been a lot of noise over the past few weeks, from various people and places, about the quality of the current electronic dance music experience.

On June 23 – enjoying the afterburn of a Rolling Stone cover story in which he called out everyone from Skrillex to David Guetta for dialing in their sets – Deadmau5 used a Tumblr post to piss on the importance of technical DJ-ing skills, saying that with the advent of Ableton and its automatic beat-matching capabilities, “we all hit play.” An editorial on super-blog Dancing Astronaut declared that “EDM” had officially “mainstreamed,” and decried the lack of new music in most superstar DJ’s sets: “What worries me is not that DJs are simply ‘pressing play,’ but that they’re pressing play on the same tracks in the same order night after night after night,” said writer Jacob Schulman. Meanwhile, Paris Hilton played her first official DJ gig – and apparently wasn’t even able to press play (a tech came onstage to do it).

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal (of all places!) even chimed in, bemoaning the “dumbing down of electronic music,” and labeling crossover artists like David Guetta and Calvin Harris “cliché-riddled, white-bread house that don’t represent the best of the genre.” Then there’s the much-talked-about feud between veteran DJ Sneak and Swedish House Mafia (sample: “I do not respect DJ actors”); and icons like Mark Farina and Dennis Ferrer being asked to vacate superclub DJ booths for not playing recognizable music. 

The bottomline: Artists are getting comfortable, some fans are starting to notice, and the ancients are rhapsodizing about the way we used to do it (for you younglings, that’s a track reference).

As a dance music lifer who had her conversion experience on a New York dance floor in 1999, and who has since made it her (literal) job to cover the genre’s evolution and development (as dance music reporter at Billboard) – of course I had feelings about all of that. But the only reason I’m writing this now is because someone else – someone who is experiencing this music for the first time – finally said it himself. For an old fan like me, Schulman’s final paragraph, a direct plea to DJs, is practically a tearjerker: “Don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to play a song that you released in 2011, 2010, or 1995 for that matter. Don’t be afraid to play a new song from an up-and-comer that has the potential to make people ‘go bananas.’ Don’t be afraid to omit your latest single for once. Don’t be afraid to leave us wanting more.” 

Full disclosure: I’m 32. That’s older than most of the people at Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival, but younger than the majority of those who have committed their lives to the genre of electronic music – or house, or EDM, or IDM, or electronica, or whatever you want to call it. 

I was welcomed into the community – and that’s what it was, a community – at New York nightclub Vinyl, on Danny Tenaglia’s dance floor. Now, don’t all roll your eyes at once. If I were your age, I’d get sick of listening to old(er) people talk about the same stuff too; people and places that have little (perceived) relation to the music you love now. But if you want to talk about DJs taking risks, supporting new talent, skipping the big track, teasing crowds of thousands with little to no regard for their reaction, and making people not only go bananas, but weep, yell, and question the nature of their existences – then gather round the fire, children.

In that Wall Street Journal article, Avicii literally said this: “I can’t play house for two hours.” Then what in God’s name would you do for 26? When Tenaglia finally closed Vinyl, which was then called Arc, in 2004, he played a 26-hour set. I know; I was there for every one. By then, I had been a regular for five years, dedication that had won me the auspicious position of cashier – which in a cash-only club with no liquor license is a pretty important person.

Because of this role, I heard Danny’s entire set, from the midnight open to the 8 a.m. close, for nearly three years. When I would work the door for his other events – like his Winter Music Conference marathon, quite literally the international dance music party of the year for nearly a decade – people in my queue would look at me like I was the anointed one. “I’ve seen him three times,” one guy from London said. “You’ve seen him hundreds. WOW. Now can I get in?”

The WMC parties were so big because they represented what at the time was the ultimate experience in dance music: Hours and hours (and hours and hours) in the presence of a master. Tenaglia didn’t press play. He hit start – and that’s not a Technics reference (sorry purists). Every set was an experience, a journey, a play starring you but not meant for you at all. In five years and well over 200 sets, I never heard him mix the same two records together twice. That’s for real.

I remember everything about the dance floor at Vinyl. I remember Murk’s dub of Karen Ramirez’s “Looking For Love”: It sounds thin compared to the hyper-compressed bombs of today, but back then it set the room on fire. When DT dropped it – sometimes over three hours into his set – it meant the night was about to take off. What would come next was always different; we’d say it depended on his mood, or the weather (“It’s raining, Danny’s going to play really dark tonight!”). Sometimes it was honking adrenaline rushes like X-Press 2’s “AC/DC”; smirking references to the normal world like Superchumbo’s mix of Missy Eliot’s “Get Your Freak On”; mind-blitzing techno like Underworld’s “Kittens.” Sometimes it was something from DJ Pierre’s canon of Wild Pitch masterpieces; soulful confessions with modern grooves like Cuba Computers’ “Haunting Me” (the Chus & Ceballos mix); old shit like Henry Mancini’s “African Symphony” (originally released in 1976) that amazingly fit right in.

[Note: Tenaglia got tons of flack from the “old-school” house DJ community for playing current, not-necessarily-house music, including trance (Tilt’s “Angry Skies” was a Vinyl anthem) and minimal tech-dub (Maurizio’s “M-Series” inspired a lot of his own productions). So while he’s grouped with these guys now, he was something of an outcast and revolutionary at the time.]

I know these IDs only because I was there and I hunted them down like a beast – at the local record store, mostly, or by befriending DJs and other punters, and eventually DT himself (one of the most important relationships of my musical life). No one recorded sets – that was punishable by expulsion, not only from the club but from the community. At a certain point, you realized you weren’t even supposed to ask people for track IDs. Either you knew, or you didn’t.

But more often than not – and this is a critical point – WE DID NOT KNOW WHAT THE F*CK WE WERE LISTENING TO. We did not know where one track ended and another began. We did not care to know. We were losing our minds out there. We were in the depths of minimal synthetic despair one hour, brought up by the palpable joy of gospel house the next, then mind-blown by a postcard from the world outside. DT once dropped Truth Hurts’ “Addictive” (it’s hip-hop) and Portishead’s “Numb.” He knew what was going on in music. He made it his business to know, so he could run it through his filter and feed it back to us. That was our deal, our bargain with each other.

(It’s important to tell you that some nights were bad. Some nights we waited and waited and the magic never came. That was part of what it meant to be there. And can you imagine the anticipation – and eventual blissful relief – of a drop that took literally weeks to build?)

I look back on this now and realize that ID-coveting was overly insular, and probably hindered the wider development of dance music. But that was kind of the point. Vinyl was a subversive mix of black, white, gay, straight, tranny, poor, rich, American, Euro, young, old – it was allowed to exist because it was a small group. More people meant dilution, potential misunderstanding, and maybe even danger. “DON’T tell your friends,” DT used to say into the mic at the end of the night. Cell phones and cameras were not allowed on the dance floor; security guards actually enforced this. To have the experience, you had to be there. And you had to participate. 

Danny was my guy: He had a mix of darkness and soul that resonated for a kid who came of age to Nine Inch Nails and Lauryn Hill. But there were others, so many others; some with similar weekly residencies, some who breezed through town once or twice a year. Junior Vasquez would get to the epic snare-roll build in a record – his circa-2000 Twilo-era stuff sounds so much like these “Atom” bombs today, it’s almost comical – loop it a few times, and then not let it drop, just cut the music and start another track. That’s what you got for expecting him to do ANYTHING – he was in control, you silly dancer. The Body & Soul DJs (Francois K, Danny Krivit, Joe Clausell) could blend tribal drum tracks, with disco, with stuff like Beenie Man’s “Dude.” Carl Cox – OMG, CARL COX! – used to brag that he could keep three turntables going in a mix that was “tight as a cat’s ass” (in a British accent, the hardest phrase I’ve ever had to transcribe). But that didn’t even matter: He was a master at energy. Even last year at Electric Zoo, hearing him go from Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name” into a set of pure acid techno was a reminder of his terrifying prowess.

What does this have to do with today? Not much, really. You can’t ask artists who are essentially pop stars to do things like this. And that’s not a judgment. Dancing Astronaut said that “EDM” just mainstreamed now: I would say that it happened two years ago, when guys like Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia got popular more for their brands than for their music or their performances. SHM has five (maybe six, if you count “Leave the World Behind”) tracks to its name: That music made an impression, for sure, but it’s not why they were able to sell out MSG in nine minutes. That was more about what they represented: Jetsetting, hyper-cool international playboys, fist-pumping in the spotlight. Without that mousehead, Deadmau5 would just be a kind of punk-rock bedroom producer with incredibly rich, dominantly instrumental tracks that never cracked the radio. And that is – say it with me now – OK. 

The Swedes and others like them are masters at making music that a lot of people like; they know texture, and dynamics, and how to make a drop really hit home. The only way to perform this studio-created music is to play it back. You cannot fault them for that. Festival crowds want to hear this music; it is probably, for most of them, their one chance of the year to experience the given artist. In an hour, there are only so many tracks they can play. The artists have to use this massive platform to promote their own music (and that on their labels), and to keep these modestly (musically) educated, casual fans happy. They have to give them the music that best defines them. It just makes sense.

Tenaglia released a great album, 1998’s “Tourism.” But he, Cox, Vasquez (despite his giant remix library), and others like them were not producers who DJ-ed mostly as an outlet for music in which they had a direct stake. They were curators of other people’s music. There was no shame in not being able to DJ: If you were a talented producer and wanted to tour, you might try to learn. But the DJs were your patrons and your champions. You can’t think of Tenaglia without thinking of Cevin Fisher and Oscar G (both fantastic DJs, but also the creators of many of his pivotal records). Vasquez made names out of local guys like Razor & Guido and Tim Rex, who produced records with the express goal of having the maestro play them. Being able to DJ to a level worthy of a 5,000-capacity crowd was thought of a rare thing, a talent. I still think it’s probably one of the hardest things in the world to do well – and no, Deadmau5, not because of beat-matching (which I even taught myself on belt-driven Gemini turntables from Sam Ash). Because of programming; fitting a universe of music into 26 measly hours.

So, you can’t hate on a dog for not being a cat, or a car for not being able to fly, or any other non-judgmental metaphors you can think of. And you can’t expect a growing mass of EDM fans to want a rarified, occasionally difficult, protracted dance floor experience: They probably just want to buy the ticket, ride the LED-lit ride, and go home. But if you want more, you can definitely take your business elsewhere – or to an additional place.

Being a DJ – or a curator, a filterer, an MTG (musical tour guide – I just made that up), whatever you want to call it – can still be an elevated, difficult, aspirational thing, like an Olympic athlete or an opera singer. You can seek out old masters of the craft: Frankie Knuckles and David Morales had Cielo on its knees a few weeks back. Or you can challenge the current DJ crop to show their chops, like when a movie star does a Broadway play, or a pop artist goes unplugged: Can you play a six-hour club set? Do you even want to?

But most importantly, you can start to set new standards for upstarts, demanding that in order to be called a DJ-curator-MTG-whatever, they have to dig deep. They have to show you something. They have to change it up. They have to play with their heads AND their hearts. They have to be able to tell you the studio musicians on their favorite R&B records, and how that guy’s bass sounded different from any other (Tenaglia can do this). They have to force tracks on you, maybe that you really don’t like at first, but-OK-geez-after-200-times-I-give-up-Coca-Da-Silva’s-“Saudade”-is-bloody-genius. Their platform will not be the festival stage or the concert venue, unless those models seriously evolve; it will probably be the nightclub. You will have to be of age. You will have to spend hours there. You will have to listen, dance, learn. You will have to tell your friends, if you ever want them to understand. You may have to endure long stretches without seeing a particular jock, because weekly residencies don’t currently make economic sense, for DJs or venues.

But one more thing: This will continue to happen even if you don’t seek it out. DJs like this have been around since before one snagged me for life in ’99, before the Brits lost their minds to ecstasy and beats at Shoom in ’88. Most people will tell you it started with Larry Levan at New York’s Paradise Garage in 1977. He had predecessors and contemporaries, absolutely – Frankie Knuckles, Francis Grasso, David Mancuso (just go Netflix “Maestro” and thank me later). But the Garage was where it all came together, where the modern underground nightclub was born. This was too important of a cultural development to fall away. It will ebb and flow like it always did before 2010, but true believers will not let it die. You, young Jedi, can be a part of that special crew.

I think Deadmau5 is a real talent and a visionary. The Swedes are epic showmen with incredible studio savvy. Skrillex makes music that sounds like my inner 16-year-old; visceral, out of control, but from the heart. I love him. I think Flux Pavilion, Porter Robinson, Knife Party, Steve Aoki, etc. etc. are awesome. But, after all these years, I still think Danny Tenaglia is a god.

I hope you get to have the dancefloor experience I had hundreds of times even once, with a DJ who speaks to you, your personality, your musical history – and who helps to show you your musical future. That’s what a DJ can do. Go find yours. S/he’s out there.

  1. d00reen reblogged this from hotwaterinc and added:
    This is awesome. A great, non-judgmental understanding of the past and present states of dance music.
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  12. heavyburtation reblogged this from hotwaterinc and added:
    I enjoyed this. Cool stories. I grew up on metal and hardcore. I got into DJing in my late twenties through hip-hop. I’m...