On New Year’s Eve, you’ll be dancing, one hopes. If you’re lucky you’ll be dancing to an honest-to-God disc jockey — not to someone’s Spotify playlist or the musings of the latest demi-celebrities to fancy themselves party conductors. A real D.J. is part shaman, part tech-wizard, part crowd psychologist, all artist. Many people claim the title but far fewer embody it.
That’s because, for the art of D.J.ing, technology has been as much of a disrupter as it has been a boon. New software and hardware tools allow the neophyte to deploy a base version of skills that take decades to perfect. We’ve also seen the nurturing of an entire generation for whom music is an à la carte experience. Add to that the skepticism, if not outright hostility, much of our society shows toward the notions of expertise and hard-won knowledge.
What this means is that people treat D.J.s as if they’re disposable. Like the entitled partygoer who demands Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” when the D.J. is on an entirely different musical planet, as if a D.J. were merely a flesh-and-blood iPod to poke and prod. Or the promoters who figure that, if you can get any old robot with an iTunes account to play whatever’s charting on the radio, why pay for specialness?
The D.J. Rich Medina follows a special ritual when his parties reach a certain point in the night. His fingers begin to tap a rhythm on his keyboard’s controls. He’s bringing in a new song. And by the sound of the initial horn fanfare, the people on the dance floor know it’s “Water No Get Enemy” by the Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti.
But Rich doesn’t simply bring the record in. He plays with the horns. Stuttering them, teasing, fashioning an entirely different rhythm from them. It’s something old and new in a spontaneous, innovative moment. He’s working the rhythmic and muscle memory of his dancers because the mind knows what’s coming, as does the body, quivering with anticipatory release. And when he finally lets the tune in, when that horn introduction explodes, so does the dance floor.
The term D.J. has been around forever, long used by radio personalities and by vocalists and toasters of Jamaican dancehall. But in our immediate context a D.J. is the controlling maestro of the dance floor, the person to whom you surrender your soul for several hours of musical release.
And that definition begins in the 1970s with the convergence of two styles. The first was David Mancuso’s, who shook up New York’s night life with his legendary Loft parties each week, and the club D.J.s who followed him, particularly Larry Levan at the equally legendary Paradise Garage. The second was that of the sonic inventors of hip-hop and early turntablism, the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, D.J. Kool Herc, and the inventor of scratching, Grand Wizard Theodore. It’s this intersection of dance music and hip-hop that brought most folk of my generation to the art form
I’ve been haunting the pews of the D.J. temple for most of my life. It began one morning in the late 1980s when I woke up after hearing D.J. Jazzy Jeff introduce his “transformer scratch” on “The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff” and raced to further maul my aunt’s ancient record player in an attempt to imitate genius. In my college years I was a hip-hop mix show and party D.J., and these days I occasionally play sets when my schedule allows.
But my greatest enjoyment has come from being a member of a legendary D.J’.s congregation. Nineteen years old, backpack on my shoulders as I tried not to skid on the baby powder that covered the dance floor at Red Zone in Midtown Manhattan — house dancers used to sprinkle the powder on the ground so our sneakers had more traction — while D.J. Basil brought dancers to tears by playing “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness at dawn.
Nearly snapping my neck off as D.J. Premiere fired one sonic dart after another from his turntables into an adoring crowd. Screaming soca music to the sky as D.J. Private Ryan guided a carnival gathering in Barbados. Willingly drowning in Belinda Becker’s soulful vibes at Joe’s Pub in the early 2000s. And reveling in the sense of community as an entire dance floor sang the lyrics to “All I Do,” the final song of D.J. Spinna’s all-night, all-Stevie Wonder party.
There’s a certain truth in moments like these. And appropriately enough, you can find that truth in a song — “Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life.” That record isn’t hyperbole. It’s real-life reportage. You hold these moments precious when you’ve experienced them. But not every Tom, Dick or Paris can conjure them up for a dance floor.
Good D.J.s are extraordinary artists, and great D.J.s are transcendent magicians. The art requires extensive musical knowledge. It demands technical know-how. It turns one into a psychologist and reader of moods in order to gauge the whims of a dance floor. And it insists that you spend days, weeks and years learning how to mix flawlessly. That is the core of a D.J.’s magic. The ability to blend, to weave two songs together and seamlessly connect them in a way that continues the narrative you’re spinning on this night.
Modern D.J. software might tell you that Song A and Song B are both revolving at 95 beats per minute and will therefore blend together. But it won’t tell you that this particular salsa number, sped up by a factor of plus-six on a Technics turntable, will suddenly match the Afrobeat tune that you’ve slowed down on the other turntable, creating something unexpected. You have to do that with your heart and ears, not your eyes. Ears honed by years of experience. And a creative heart daring enough to take that leap in the first place.
To live in the D.J. temple is to live in the technical, the artistic and the spiritual. A good D.J. will grasp those elements to spin you a tale. A great D.J. will use them to preach a sermon, leaving you spent and exhilarated by night’s end. And maybe, if you’re lucky, one of them will save your life.