A "Real DJ" Doesn't Have to Play Vinyl
On Memorial Day, I got a message from a promoter asking if I could guest DJ at his party that Thursday night. It sounded fun, but there was a catch: Save for the mixer, I would have to bring my own gear.
A year earlier, I would have said no. I swore off bringing my turntables to clubs ages ago; it was too much of a pain (literally) to get the gear from Point A to Point B, especially when you live in a walk-up and play at venues where parking is scarce. I had tried DJing with my laptop — twice, in fact — and it just felt wrong. I didn't know what I was doing, so inevitably I did little of anything. Recently, though, I got a Pioneer DDJ-RB controller, basically a small contraption that allows you to play music from your laptop in a way similar to how you might use Pioneer's high-priced CDJ systems. I got it mostly for practice at home but figured this was a good enough time as any to bring it to a club.
In my day-to-day life, I'm a fairly tech-savvy person. When it comes to DJing, though, I was a bit of a Luddite. A fear of the future of club music — specifically, a fear that I couldn't keep up with that future — turned into a strange sort of vinyl snobbery. Last year, though, all that began to erode. When it did, my relationship to music changed. It reverted to a way that I hadn't felt since my 20s. I would hear songs, maybe new ones or perhaps old ones that I hadn't heard in a long time (or maybe ever), and become instantly smitten. When I couldn't fit songs together, frustration would take hold of my body and turn into intense determination. When they meshed, it resulted in a euphoria so intense that I would lose track of time. I was falling in love with the music again.
My own vinyl obsession had more to do with circumstances than trends. I learned how to DJ at a time when turntables were standard in nightclubs. CD players existed, but the ones for DJs weren't very user-friendly, so I focused on vinyl and used CDs only when absolutely necessary. Since this was also a time when used vinyl was often fairly cheap and new dance music usually came out on the format too, I was able to build up a good collection for use at all sorts of gigs. Then I stopped DJing. My retirement wasn't long — about two years — but in that time DJ tech had changed. The laptops that people were starting to use when I stopped were now commonly in use.
I couldn't decide what I should use. Do I move on to Serato or Traktor? I chose neither and stuck with the record collection I already had, plus a new pair of needles. Since I played out infrequently, and typically at clubs that had turntables, it wouldn't be a problem. In fact, it became an asset. When I started DJing, vinyl was what people played. Now, it was a novelty. Playing vinyl sets became a marketing tool aimed toward the record collectors and the crowds that still love to hear 20th-century jams.
It's really easy to fall into the vinyl snob trap. People are impressed with your collection, so you want to make it better. They act like you're a "real DJ" and you believe it. You want to keep up the badass front as much as you can, so you keep buying records even when it's hurting your wallet. You keep lugging too-heavy crates of vinyl to clubs despite that pain in your shoulders. You put up with every little nuisance of the format — and there are a lot of them — even though you know there's an easier way to do this.
Finally, I'd had enough. There was too much music that I wanted to play that I either couldn't find on vinyl or doesn't exist on the format. Even stuff I could find was now selling for more than I could afford to pay. Vinyl didn't make me feel legit anymore. It made me feel old and stuck in a century that was now more than 15 years behind us. Last year, a friend/club promoter suggested that I try Rekordbox. After some procrastination, I did.
Rekordbox is Pioneer's DJ software that allows you to format flash drives to be read by the newer models of CDJs. You can also use it to DJ off your laptop with a controller. It's an incredibly popular DJ tool, and once I got started with it I could see why. My first reaction was one of awe. I could now hold days' worth of music on a little flash drive that I could bring to any venue that has CDJs. I was now always prepared for any crowd that hits the dance floor. Plus, CDJs had improved drastically since the early 2000s. I could play them in a way that's not too different from how I used turntables.
The Luddite view is that the only proper way to DJ is with turntables, a mixer and stacks of vinyl. However, that view falls victim to the biggest misconception about DJing: that there's one way to do it. This is as ridiculous as saying that there's one way to be a band. Everything from your technique to the gear you use can change depending on the kind of music you play, the space where you're playing and the audience that's in front of you. A turntablist competing in the DMC World Championship isn't playing the same way that a techno superstar would during a night-long set. Every gig, from playing private parties to providing the music in between bands at a concert to lounges to dance clubs, has different needs. So why should every DJ be expected to play the same type of gear to be considered legit?
In some ways, DJing with vinyl is like learning Latin. It's a difficult format to learn to play well, but it provides a great foundation. If you do learn how to play vinyl, picking up on something like CDJs is much easier. While vinyl isn't dead, it also isn't the most practical format to play in 2017. You'll likely get more use out of CDJs, which are more commonly found at clubs these days, or from your own laptop and controller. But just as you don't have to know Latin to be able to speak French or Spanish, you don't have to play turntables to be able to DJ on other formats. Moreover, whether you're using turntables, CDJs or a laptop, you're still DJing. One format isn't more valid than another.
People often gripe that the digital formats make things too easy. That's not necessarily the case. Sure, you can sync tracks so that they automatically beat-match, but you don't have to use that function. You can still mix manually. Some might argue that the BPM counters (which have actually been around for quite a long time) make it easy to mix without knowing your music. That's definitely not true. Just because two tracks are running at the same beats per minute doesn't mean that they'll sound right together.
For me, modernizing my DJ setup helped me listen to music in different ways. Just by nature of having much more than a crate of records on my flash drive, I've tried out combinations of songs that I wouldn't have tried before. Sometimes they don't work as well as I thought they would. Other times, they sound great together. Plus, any newly acquired skill can be a confidence booster. Now, I'm comfortable playing with vinyl, CDs, flashdrives and my laptop.
In the end, gear is there to transmit the music — and it's the music, as well as the emotions that those songs elicit, that make the DJ set shine.
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