DJ Sets: Seeing The Pieces For The Puzzle

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The way we consume popular (recorded) music traditionally has been in a very single-serving type of way. It used to be that labels would look for a band or artist with a ‘hit’. A song that was marketable, had mass appeal and was catchy enough to motivate listeners to purchase an entire album if nothing else, just for that one song. The songs were constructed in the same way for the most part. They stood up on their own as individual entities, usually consisting of a repeating verse and chorus and often a bridge or interlude before repeating the last verse and chorus to end the song.

This however doesn’t make dance music more shallow or less imaginative than the more traditionally structured songs that we grew up hearing on the radio. They’re just… different.

The popularization of DJ and producer culture has brought these same industry practices into the realm of modern electronic music. Dance music tracks are sold on iTunes and Beatport alongside all other music, often being consumed one at a time. A hit in the realm of electronic music these days requires a big payoff to really catch the listeners attention. Big drops, interesting tones, cool bass lines and other attention-grabbing features have become the norm, or expectation even. Many aren’t willing to even sit and listen to an entire track before deciding if they like it or not. This however doesn’t make dance music more shallow or less imaginative than the more traditionally structured songs that we grew up hearing on the radio. They’re just… different.

Some point to the popularization of dance music and the repetitive and formulaic composition that many of its sub-genres share to highlight the shortened attention span of the general listener. One may argue that producers make music based around one idea with a fairly simple compositional structure because dance music fans don’t have the attention span for much more. They are mindless zombies who just want thumping bass and don’t care so much about the musicality behind it. I believe this somewhat disposable treatment of individual tracks is more accurately attributed to various dance music styles being forced through the mold of the music industry, where each song must be its own entity so it can be packaged individually and sold.

The same structures and formulas can be found across countless electronic-based genres, but this certainly is not for any lack of creativity on the artists’ part. Rather, it is often done this way intentionally to serve each tracks traditionally intended purpose; the mix.

Modern dance music culture started in clubs and underground raves; live events where the soundsystem was worshipped, pumping, bass-heavy music was the focus and songs were not played individually but mixed together so as to never interrupt the precious energy of the crowd. Similar in a way to much older genres like jazz and classical, dance music first existed in a live setting before the recording industry attempted to package and commodify each song as its own standalone product.

…any individual track is not expected to move and evolve on its own in the same way that traditional songwriting has trained us to expect. The progression of the set provides the real movement and evolution, with each individual track playing its own part.

Dance music does not require the traditional rock n’ roll structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus to succeed. One idea, groove or drop is all that is required, as any individual track is not expected to move and evolve on its own in the same way that traditional songwriting has trained us to expect. The progression of the set provides the real movement and evolution, with each individual track playing its own part. The simplicity and repetition-with-variation of individual tracks serves the DJ, allowing them to pick and choose which part of the track fits their intended purpose as each is based around the same idea through its build, peak, descent, and variation.

A well composed DJ set, whether it be performed live at a club, or pre-composed such as on many popular podcasts (Resident Advisor, BBC’s 1XTRA or FUXWITHIT Guest Mixes to name a few), takes listeners on a journey. It requires patience to take in the evolution of music that unfolds and to appreciate the DJs taste for music, as well as their technical skill in blending different pieces of music together. A single song cannot inspire this same type of appreciation, and those on the outside of dance music culture can only be blamed so much for “not getting it” after listening to a few tracks online while sitting in their living room. The music is after all marketed to the average consumer in a way that sets an expectation of each track being its own entity that stands up by itself. Some tracks do better than others in this regard, but the point is that the music in general is often being taken out of its element and presented with no context to surround it; The restaurant is selling one bite and calling it a meal. And that’s fine is you really want and like that one bite, but many forget about the experience and variety that sitting down for an entire meal can provide. Especially when the experience is shared with others.

A close friend of mine whose musical opinion I have always respected has been somewhat resistant to any type of dance music for years. After coming back from the inaugural WayHome festival this year, I received the following message from him; “Okay. I get it now. You have to see him live to get it. Bassnectar (one of my all time favourites) was fucking wicked.” This was a message I had long given up on receiving from him. This one live experience did for him what years of me force-feeding him Bassnectar tracks couldn’t; it made him excited about the music. He witnessed it become more than the sum of its parts, constantly evolving but keeping a consistent message throughout. A message is meaningless if not delivered in the right way.

A message is meaningless if not delivered in the right way.

Similar to through-composed classical music, a mix uses less repetition and more an evolution of themes, tones and melodies. Each song in a mix contains repetition within itself but at the same time works towards evolving into something different, being somewhat comparable to one movement in a longer classical piece. A talented DJ has a thorough familiarity with each track in his set, like a jazz musician has a deep understanding of their instrument so as not to be surprised by or unprepared for any direction the music may move. The DJ is live-composing in a way, with equalizers, filters and volume control as their main tools. Many DJs have very signature sounds not only due to the type of music they play, but also because of the techniques they employ to mix the music. The way in which a DJ moves from one track to the next is the medium in which their personal creativity comes through. No two DJ’s are likely to mix the same two songs in the exact same way, as the act of doing so relies on the way in which they perceive the music; what aspects of any given track that they like and want to highlight, the length of time the two (or more) tracks will be playing over each other, and how the spectrum of frequencies are manipulated in each song so that the two can coexist without interfering, instead interacting in a way that is unique to the taste and technique of the DJ.

A good DJ is worth seeing every time you get the chance because each show is a new journey; their taste for music and technical skill are undeniable and the behind-the-scenes work put in to educate and expose themselves to new music and evolve a sound that is unique to them is never-ending.

Of course, I am generalizing. I am well aware of the large amount of electronic music that employs creative songwriting and pushes boundaries for not just the genre, but music in general. I also know that not every person to stand in front of a mixer is worthy of such comparison and praise. But the REALLY good ones certainly are. There is some enviable artistic ability being utilized in a lot of the performances and mix-based podcasts out there. A good DJ is worth seeing every time you get the chance because each show is a new journey; their taste for music and technical skill are undeniable and the behind-the-scenes work put in to educate and expose themselves to new music and evolve a sound that is unique to them is never-ending (which many would consider to be the real ‘work’ involved in DJ’ing).

What is ‘good’ is obviously a very subjective thing, just as musical tastes are. Though no matter what type of dance music you enjoy, I bet there is a DJ that you love that fits this description perfectly.

Among the pre-recorded-set-playing crowd that is focused on marketability and image above all else exists some true talent; composers composing using others (and often their own) compositions. They are not necessarily musicians, but their creative contribution is undeniable. A DJs sense for controlling the energy of a mob of dancing party people is something worthy of praise as this is the setting that dance music was meant to be enjoyed in, and the medium through which it was meant to be enjoyed.

Next time you’re bouncing from track to track on Soundcloud, take your hands off the wheel and go for a long journey into someone else’s musical tastes instead. It’s a much more substantive experience, and you’ll probably have a long list of new tracks to start digging for by the time its all over. Dance music has a better medium for communicating its message than the traditional ‘hit-single’ system the music industry relies on for profit. Of course there’s nothing wrong with buying songs that you like, but don’t lose sight of the higher purpose of these puzzle pieces. They can be a part of a much larger, impressive picture.

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About Author

Writer & musician. Lover of all things bass. Instagram @nick.e.tee

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