The arrival of affordable software and controllers has slashed the entry barrier to DJing, but getting hung up on gear is missing the point, thinks Andrew Friedman – it’s bad selectors who are the real problem.
The owner of a club in Los Angeles made waves last week by announcing he would no longer allow DJs to use laptops. In an interview with Magnetic Magazine, Cure and the Cause owner Kenny Summit explained his decision, railing against newjacks with DJ controllers who disrupt the vibe by swapping out gear before their sets. “The kids just don’t seem to give a fuck today,” said Summit, presumably while shaking his fist at a cloud.
Summit, who name-checks New York OGs like Nicky Siano and Red Alert in the interview, isn’t the first person to voice these complaints. And, admittedly, he does have half a point, as it’s never been easier to pursue an interest in DJing. That decision used to require a four-figure investment in turntables and a mixer, and the commitment to hunting down new and rare tracks on vinyl just to stay current. Even as CDJs became standard and made it easier for DJs to keep their crates on point, they still cost an aspiring DJ a couple thousand dollars. Today, a wide range of controllers and software allows anyone to get into the game at a variety of price points. The barrier to entry for DJing has dropped significantly, and the number of DJs has gone up accordingly. On the math alone, a lot of these DJs are shit.
“People who waste their mental energy policing how DJs play music are either shallow, self-righteous, or both”
But the problem with Summit’s laptop fatwa is that shit DJs are shit DJs because they are shit DJs, not because of their choice of equipment. A DJ who can’t read a crowd, build a vibe, pace a set, or do any of the other subtle but important things good DJs do is going to have the same problems on a Traktor rig that they would on a pair of Technics. Failure on better gear is still failure. Conversely, success on lesser gear is still success: Why would Summit want a DJ playing off CDJs if they are more comfortable with a controller, especially when so many controllers are, like the Pioneer DDJ-SX, functionally identical to CDJs? (And every DJ should be a good enough selector to hold down a party off of iTunes anyway.)
DJing is a means to an end, and the end — a successful party — justifies whatever means are necessary. Those who waste their mental energy policing how DJs play music are either shallow, self-righteous, or both; very rarely are their concerns related to whether anyone is having fun. It’s hard to believe patrons of Cure and the Cause would be able to distinguish between a a replacement-level house DJ mixing on CDJs from one using a controller. The same goes for vinyl-only purists, who rarely have the opportunity to play on the type of systems where a difference in sound quality would be apparent, or for crowds who will appreciate their rare cuts or exclusive dubplates. And while this is less of an issue than it used to be, most of those “what is a DJ if he can’t scratch?” DJs don’t know how to balance their need to show off with their attention to the damn crowd.
The great irony of Summit’s complaint is that I, as a kind of old rap DJ, remember when CDJs were not exactly welcome additions to the repertoire. They were expensive as hell and didn’t feel like turntables. The only advantage of CDJs was the ability to play songs that weren’t accessible or available on vinyl, which said as much about their user’s crates as anything else. Serato was an easier sell — after all, records are legitimately expensive and crates are really heavy — but even then the conversion to digital felt unnatural. I still use vinyl and Serato and I still hate using CDJs or controllers, but that is entirely a question of taste and comfort.
I would also be lying if I didn’t cop to occasionally being that cranky dude complaining about the DJ while everyone else is having fun. But I don’t own a club. Kenny Summit does, and he’s welcome to make whatever rules he wants at Cure and the Cause. But I don’t understand what he is expecting to accomplish by banning laptops. If he’s having problems, he should ban trash-ass DJs instead.