Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz where little Toto figures out that the wizard wasn’t real and revealed the man behind the curtain? Just prior to that there was a mystique that the ordinary man created by pretending to be the Wizard of Oz. Even though it was all a dream created by an unconscious Dorothy, I keep coming back to that scene in my mind whenever I think of the state of being a DJ back in the day (which covered the 70s and 80s) when DJ’ing was a new culture, and now where that culture is completely gone, replaced by faux-celebrity.
I’m not here to bash on current DJs nor uplift former DJs. Everything evolves, as does everyone. This is the culture we live in now, where nearly everything is performed for the benefit of a camera, as if the child inside us finally got his or her own television show like we’d always dreamed. I am here to reveal the differences of what we’d become DJs for back in the 70s and 80s was like compared to now.
I was forever performing in front of mirrors, singing into hairbrushes, and “putting on airs” as if a camera crew were just out of sight, filming filming filming. It was a common theme among my friends wherein we’d reenact a certain fight scene or car chase, even though we were much too young to actually drive, our bicycles more than made up for those souped up hellacool cars. And we were the primary actors, doing and saying the things they’d do and say.
But then we grew up. We recognized our fantasies for what they were: entertainment. The curtain had been pulled aside and what we found was adulthood.
35 years ago, we became DJs specifically for the music. I knew, the moment I entered my first club at 16 with a fake ID, that I would someday become the person who made that dance floor move, that I would create a mystique and an escape for anyone and everyone who paid the entry fee. On the dancefloor, we became the music. We acted out the stories the music told. We laughed, we cried, and we forgot about the world for awhile. The DJ was our storyteller, and every night the story was fresh. It was something we’d never heard before, but we were ready. Always ready. During the week, we yearned to be on that dancefloor. We didn’t care what the club looked like. If the music was good, we were there.
The DJ, while he portrayed himself as The Great and Wonderful Oz, he was just another actor in our play. The DJ had no ego, no reason for being except for…the music. We ate, lived, breathed music. We were storytellers. We wrapped those sinuous notes around our dancing children like a magic spell, enthralled until the very end. We didn’t want the nights to ever end, it becoming our Never-Never Land where we would remain young forever.
Typically, we wore ratty clothes because we were behind the scenes. We weren’t there to be seen or noticed, nor were we seeking out acceptance.
It was always about the music. If it didn’t serve the music, it didn’t happen.
Back then, there were maybe 500 DJs in the entire country. Perhaps a few more overseas. We were nobodies, scoffed at because we played other people’s music.
Then the scene started getting noticed. More and more people flocked to the fantasies we’d created on the dancefloors. Now, there’s more than 1,000 DJs per state in the U.S., and three times that many in other countries. It began to form a culture. Not necessarily a music culture, but a see-and-be-seen culture. The “beautiful people” began showing up, seeing who could outdress the others. While drugs had always been affiliated with music then, it became the reason for the music and the scene.
I was scrolling through my newsfeed here on Facebook this morning, and there were no less than 25 DJs on live cams being seen. Their equipment looked impressive as they pushed buttons and slid the sliders up and down, across and back. They were performing. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s what the industry has become. (I blame Simon Cowell)
Music seems to have become secondary to the origins of the DJ. No longer are the DJ booths tucked away in some too-small space where no one but staff could find them. Now they’re the stage, and the DJ the entertainer. Look at the Steve Aoki’s, the Keoki’s, anyone who steals the musical thunder and the spotlight. The industry is becoming so automated that the art form is being lost. The DJ appears on a stage and the dancers all face that night’s performer, celebrity, idolizing him or her and what great sets they played. But the focus is off the music. It’s on the Wizard, even though he’s still an ordinary man.
Where once we had no problem living out our fantasies, now we seem to believe the Wizard is real, that they can save you from a humdrum existence. People never used to applaud the DJ. That would be the height of bad form. Now, it’s all about the applause. “Look at me! See me!” seems to have replaced mystique.
As a writer now, middle aged, I no longer do the club scene because that would just be, well, creepy. But writing is exactly like DJ’ing used to be. Everything serves the story no matter what I “want” to happen. I am but a channel through which the story flows, like once upon a time the music did the same thing. A writer writes to an unseen audience. A DJ plays to a visible audience, but each one is telling a story, and the audience is expected to buy into the story, if only for a few hours.
From my perspective, and from the knowledge I earned as a DJ, now it’s all about the glamour and appearance. We are seen. We are being seen. When people say things like, “So-and-so’s set was sick last night.” But they’re no longer talking about the whole experience. They were merely voyeurs while the Wizard dazzled and enchanted, all the while pretending that no one could tell that he was just an ordinary man.
There are still some DJs out there who understand that music is everything. Yes, it’s cool that one can scratch or jump-cut or hell, stand on their CDJs and spin around for the entertainment of the crowd. But all that pushes the music into the background.
Where is the culture headed? Will we continue to evolve into performers, some day performing on an obscenely large stage in Vegas while people sip frou-frou drinks that cost $30?
Already, there are underground factions steering music back to its roots, and those are the ones I applaud. Because if you haven’t experienced a true back-to-our-roots party, then you are nothing but a dilettante in a world full of them.
I love the scene now, the passion and the sweat DJs put into their craft. But yes, like writers, there will always be those who merely scratch the surface of the craft, and see only the adulation to be gained.