By Dennis Romero
At the world preview of video game DJ Hero during the E3 Expo in Los Angeles last week, DJ Z-Trip was on stage ripping up track after track. Geeks, booth girls and bloggers formed an ever widening wall of crossed arms and open mouths as he dropped long-hair anthems ("Crazy Train," "Tom Sawyer") in perfect sync. There was a collective hush, then a gasp, then applause
But Mr. Trip, a.k.a. Zach Sciacca, wasn't using the game to harness his brilliant mixing alchemy. He was playing 45s on good old Technics 1200s - and holding up the little vinyl discs for the crowd to see, "in case some of you young ones don't know what one looks like." Therein lies the gulf for game maker Activision, which clearly has billion-dollar hopes: How can it turn the tactile magic of DJ culture into a pushbutton colossus for the virtual generation?
None of the stars Activision hired to promote the Oct. 27 release of Hero (DJ AM, DJ Shadow) demoed the game either. Rather, the playing was left to a nameless developer. The action involves a three-button, Tech-12 like turntable controller, about half a real turntable's size and including a 360-degree platter, along with a small mixing box that contains a fader and an effects knob, described by game developer Chris Lee as "similar to a whammy bar, if you're familiar with Guitar Hero." A pair of tracks to mash is chosen to start. Three streams of color (red, blue and green) run up the display. They have cues that signal when it's time to press the color-coded buttons, scratch the platter or twist the effects knob. The demo we saw featured the Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" versus Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction."
Watching the expert play the thing was a real yawner, and we wondered what fun could possibly be had simply by pressing the right buttons at the right times. Activision so far has about 100 tracks licensed for mash-up goodness: A real remix box that could churn out individualized mash-ups for posterity would have been a lot cooler.
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This thing, like Rock Star and Activision's own Guitar Hero, is a mimicry machine - a pose-maker. It's almost as if the mainstream entertainment industry has once and for all tamed its ever-reclusive stepchild, known as DJ culture, with its pushbutton tyranny. Those years of dancing underground and watching ferocious DMC battles are here reduced to something slightly more interesting than Simon Says. Electronic dance music was always better than rock 'n' roll precisely because the means (travelling to illicit party locales, making spine tingling music with the latest technology, resisting the rock-star pose) are the ends. While rock has become a caricature of its rebellious past, DJ culture is still a rebellious present. It's hard to argue anyone is making more cutting-edge music than those inside electronic dance music. Playing with a mini virtual deck would seem somewhat like watching a 1/12 scale Stonehenge prop drop on-stage at a hair-metal concert.
For his part, Z-Trip echoes the hopes of many in the dance industry - that Hero will make DJ fans of a new generation of digital media consumers. "I think it's taking a step in the right direction," he told the Weekly. "This game hopefully is a gateway drug to DJ culture." We're not holding our breath.