Before we get back to the L.E.V. Festival, a brief roundup of two recent gigs to highlight the curious state of the modern DJ. Indeed, to take the full significance of the discussion one also needs to consider an overview the music of the L.E.V Festival in which all acts played live in some way with nobody DJing and thus nobody playing anybody else’s records.
Of course both DJ Qu, who played at the lovely but cramped “players” bar beneath the 5 star Hotel Omm, and Floating Points who played at the Be Cool club, used both a mixture of their own and other peoples records. Hardly a big surprise. But the philosophical difference between the two artists in terms of their selection and by extension the technique necessary to draw out the music was quite profound.
DJ Qu was perhaps one of the best DJs I have seen for a long time using what I would describe as an almost old fashioned technique, one based on anonymity of the DJ and proficiency rather than a guy trying to inscribe his ego into the music. Indeed, so understated was the arrival of DJ Qu that I missed it having got caught up listening to the Monkey Bar’s Alfonso finish off with Lil' Louis “Lonely People” and not even noticing that DJ Qu had taken over.
Almost all of Qu’s changes were slow and gradual allowing the two tracks to blend together and build, just as the set was allowed to accumulate and break down in waves over time. After a while you could almost understand the tactic: a long repetitive track to create the urgency and expectation of a coming rise. Follow this with a heavier dub track to build the psychedelia, weave in a vocal or a catchy melody next, or maybe both, then try and lift it higher with a special number. If it doesn’t work then tear it down a little with something weird or out of focus, rebuild the tension and go up again. When the peak is over you settle for a repetitive track again and repeat the cycle. This works best with a guy like Qu who sticks to a narrower palette of dark and tense sounds as shifting between vibes can really topple a smooth set if you keep coming up against too many incongruences of mood.
The exceptional Resident Advisor podcast that showcases DJ Qu’s technique is now archived, but his recent set for PodOmatic is still a good one.
On the other hand Floating Points, or Samuel T. Shepherd to his mum, was a much more eccentric DJ, jumping around, raising his fist and working the controls with a certain aggression to chop and change or to hit the bass out. For a young guy he also had a lot of technical skills and he also had a lot of old records, lots of funk and soul as well as obscure and familiar house classics. This is perhaps the catch. What’s a young guy known for his dubstep and deep house styled tracks doing playing a classic funk and house set where most of the music is from before his time? Where is his music? Indeed, it took an age in his set before he finally played one of his signature songs “Myrtle Avenue”.
On one hand I have no problem at all with this approach to electronic music as we need to know our history to understand how and why we got here in the first place. Floating Points set was overall really enjoyable and light hearted proving that you can’t always be so moody and sombre in the shadows with DJ Qu. But at the same time it feels like this revisionist approach to electronic music has gone a bit too far if a smart young guy like Shepherd needs so much mojo from old wax to make his musical point. What happened to the evolution and futurism of electronic music? Is it really all “retromania” as Simon Reynolds would have us believe?
A critical issue then becomes the significance of the DJ as curator as well as music maker, to paraphrase Brian Eno again from Reynolds book. How important is the significance of obscurity versus familiarity in a curated retro house set versus the selection of DJ Qu? How much of the vibe comes from the music itself and how much from the way the DJ transforms it?
As a warning against curation and retromania, upstairs in Be Cool on the way to the toilet and cloak room is another little club playing 80s hits to young people, many of whom come in only to hear this kind of music. Walking to the toilet and watching them dance to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” is a kind of disturbing extremity to retromania, but one wonders, what is the real difference between this and listening to late 80s house?
The obvious paradigm of excellence in retromania is Theo Parrish whose sets are the stuff of modern legend and rightly so, especially if I am to judge by the one I personally saw at this year’s Micro Mutek festival. Again, curation is critical for finding elements that then become unique to the DJ, but the telling of the larger story with these elements is perhaps the most important aspect still. DJ Harvey might be another positive example of this retro-style.
Much has been made of Theo Parrish interview in Slices magazine in which he discusses the art of curation, crate digging and how it relates to DJing as an art.
"I’m not comfortable with convenience replacing artistry. "
The context of the phrase is really about technology and not about selection, but perhaps this is really what Parrish means as why can you not do a DJ set from the same music on MP3 for example? Is it less valid than using vinyl if the music is the same? IBut are too many DJs relying on the convenience of cool that old school house and funk seems to give these days?
If his set’s weren’t so good you could almost accuse him of a little pretension in the interview, especially as he does not quite convince that he has a unique philosophy beneath it all, or a philosophy that is so different to other DJs. Clearly there is something in Parrish that makes his interpretation of the music unique, but perhaps he does not articulate it in words and it is better to let his music do the talking.
But one wonders what all this means, with so many new dance 12”s coming out all the time and yet many DJs still resorting to the past to make their impact.