The Last Dance: Is the Superstar-DJ Era Over?
At the indie-meets-dance club Echoplex in Echo Park, DJs spin, but just as often these days a floor-friendly sound will emerge in the form of a band, a laptop act or something in between, as was the case with Love Grenades on a recent winter night.
The quartet’s three frontwomen dressed up like pinup girls, opera-length gloves and all, and cooed and sang in a correspondingly sultry haze, complemented by ’80s-inflected musicians on bass, guitar, drums and sequencer. The Grenades’ dance-punk sound has been remixed by friend-of-the-band Sam Sparro, another local artist who has skipped deejaying on the way to dance-floor stardom. Love Grenades don’t deejay, but their recent single, “Tigers in the Fire,” is being peddled on DJ culture’s No. 1 online retailer, Beatport. Clubland is being invaded by artists like these, dance-friendly acts that don’t need turntables to get their point across.
The dance world has been rocked in recent years by laptop-, sequencer- and band-based acts ranging from Justice and the Black Ghosts to Booka Shade. Daft Punk’s Kanye West–led resurrection last year highlighted the duo’s own immersive, turntable-free live act. And the local nu-electro festival HARD Haunted Mansion surpassed the 5,000-ticket mark in the fall with nary a superstar DJ in sight. All this has even some jocks asking if the spin is no longer in.
One of the hottest acts to emerge from the electronic–dance music arena in the past few years is Toronto-based producer Deadmau5, who got his start as a computer programmer before graduating to successful bedroom production. Because he came to deejaying from the tech-geek world, he faced culture shock on the club circuit. We can imagine him meeting all those douche jockeys caught up in drug-filled hazes of their own perceived stardom, egos stroked by groupies, guest lists and MySpace comments — all this stoke for, as Deadmau5 wrote on his own MySpace page, “some dude” who presses “the ‘play/stop’ button and occasionally move[s] a pitch slider.” Late last year, Deadmau5 was interviewed by Irish Daily Star and gave a money quote heard around the DJ world: “I don’t really see the technical merit in playing two songs at the same speed together, and it bores me to fucking tears. I’d like [DJs to] dis-a-fucking-pear. It’s so middleman. They’re like fucking lawyers. You need them, but they’re all fucking cunts.”
Here’s an artist whose music is required spinning for the biggest DJs, and he can’t hold his tongue (but his label can, and they declined to have him speak for this piece).
Deadmau5 admirer and former Angeleno Dave Dresden has worn many hats over the past two decades, including radio host, dance-music journalist, music scout for BBC Radio 1’s Pete Tong, and half of defunct DJ duo Gabriel & Dresden. He says Deadmau5 is right. “The day of the DJ as a guy who plays other people’s records might be done,” he says, pointing to newer acts like Morgan Page, who often play their own music live via laptop.
The superclub Avalon Hollywood has in recent years made more and more room for the post-DJ act while giving a cold shoulder to superstar DJs, especially those spinners who play straight-line hypnotic trance. While it still hosts plenty of big-name jocks — mostly of the minimal-techno variety — the venue has seen more than its share of hybrid live acts, including Booka Shade, Gui Boratto and Martin Buttrich.
“I don’t think it’s over, I think it’s evolving,” Avalon co-owner Steve Adelman says of DJ culture. “I think people are going more into electronic bands, live acts and semilive acts. We strive to have a whole production and visual experience that’s not just focused on watching a guy on two turntables.”
L.A.’s Frank Dominguez, a.k.a. down-tempo electronic act Aime, started deejaying 10 years ago but switched in recent years to incorporating nonturntable elements, such as keyboards, effects pads, a drum machine, a laptop and even an iPod. At 31, he plays for a generation of clubgoers more accustomed to the shuffle-play dynamics of an MP3 player than the ecstasy-fueled Botts’ dots of a superstar DJ. “People now would much rather see an artist performing with more than just changing records back and forth,” he says. “The kids go with what’s more stimulating.”
Adelman, who’s been in the superstar-DJ-booking business since the mid-’90s, says those most affected by the demise of the name DJ are local “midlevel” spinners, not huge trance names like Tiësto and Armin Van Buuren. URB magazine editor Joshua Glazer adds that some of the so-called midlevel DJs who had settled stateside around the DJ boom of the new millennium have gone back to Europe, replaced locally by nu-electro bands. Still, Glazer argues, the DJ isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“I think the reports of the death of the superstar DJ have been greatly exaggerated,” he says. “I was one of the first people to declare that death. But compared to five years ago, I definitely think the DJ is on the rise.”
He notes that cheap laptops and easy-to-use software, such as Serato Scratch Live and Ableton Live, have made it easier than ever to deejay — virtually — for a new generation of point-and-click jocks. “It might not be like 1999,” Glazer says, “but maybe we’re just not noticing.”
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