Is Digital DJing Killing The Art?

Digital DJ Equipment

It’s a really exciting time for DJs. The last 10 years have seen computer processors running at blazing speeds, technology getting cheaper and music sequencers (such as Cubase, Ableton Live and Pro Tools) and DJ software (such as Serato and Traktor) getting much more powerful and user-friendly. Music itself is more accessible too, meaning you can hear a track in a club, use Shazam on your iPhone to identify it, buy it through iTunes, take it home and beatjuggle two copies of it on your 1210s using timecode vinyl.

It this necessarily a good thing though? Is the easy availability of music these days devaluing it and making it more disposable? Well, that’s a topic for another article entirely. It’s very easy to get nostalgic about spending whole afternoons in a dusty record shop, digging through the crates and returning home with some new found treasures, but it’s fair to say that the wealth in musical styles available these days and the fact that boundaries are pushed on a seemingly daily basis is testament to the fact that, although media may indeed be more disposable, genres are progressing like never before. The new and widespread ways in which music is now distributed means that the people with the ideas are being exposed to new styles and influences without ever leaving their desk. They’re choosing what they want to hear more of too, not being force-fed it by radio or TV. And this, in turn, means genres and styles are expanding like the Big Bang.

Returning to the subject of technology, the massive range of effects, editors and sequencers (both hardware and software) available these days is just staggering. It often feels like there’s almost too much choice sometimes and it’s easy for creativity to get stifled by getting bogged down in messing with effects.

Take stutter edit effects, for example. Only a few years ago, it wasn’t really possible to create these on-the-fly in a DJ set. They’d be made at the production stage by painstakingly slicing and effecting samples. Now you can set up an FX rack in Ableton and apply real-time beatmashing, pitch stretching and reversing effects within seconds. Or use one of the many VST plugins available, such as Glitch, Artillery or Effectrix and have the software automate the entire process, meaning you press a button and the track you’re playing is instantly ‘glitched’.

And so to the burning question, is this technology killing the art? Is it making DJs lazy?

Perhaps the style of DJing where the use of new technology is met with the most criticism is that of turnbtablism. Genres like dubstep and house seem to take this technology completely in their stride. In fact, one of the most appealing things about dubstep is the way in which technology is constantly being manipulated and re-imagined to create never before heard sounds. The simple LFO basslines of early dubstep have been overtaken by glitching, screaming monsters. It’s almost a competition now for who can create the dirtiest, loudest and most complex wobbles. The genre is constantly being pushed forward as a result.

It’s true too that many turntablists are now embracing this technology and people like last year’s DMC champion, Shiftee and even the old school scratch artists like Q-Bert, DJ Craze and Grandmaster Flash are all making full use of timecode vinyl, laptops and midi controllers.

The cynical could call the incentives of DJs like Shiftee into question. No doubt Native Instruments are paying them a tidy sum to help promote their products. The answer to the question of whether they are doing this just for the money or to help push technology forward seems to be written on their faces though. They’re clearly enjoying what they’re doing. Just look at the smile on DJ Craze’s face when he’s finished this stunning take on a 2 minute routine for the DMC Online championships:

The purists remain staunch in their opinion, however, and there is many a forum debate on whether this, and especially things like cue point juggling and use of the notorious ‘Sync’ button, is ‘cheating’. There’s also the question of record shops being put out of business due to the massive drop in vinyl sales, discussed here on the Serato Forum, but, interesting though this topic is, the question here is not about the record industry. It’s about whether technology is killing the art of turntablism.

Debate has raged since the appearance of CDJs in the late ’90s as to whether using shortcuts like cue points and auto beatmatching is considered cheating or not. There’s also the concern that the more traditional analog style of scratching and beat juggling will die out giving rise to what’s been labelled as ‘controllerism’ and digital manipulation.

Scratching using methods other than vinyl to push the sound back and forth can certainly be achieved and often sound just as good. Just look at the Vestax VCI 100 or Traktor S4 for proof of this. It’s certainly possible that using a traditional Technics 1210 turntable to scratch may well die out, especially when considering that Technics announced they’ll no longer be making them earlier this year). However, the act itself of moving something backwards and forwards while combining it with rapid, rhythmically precise on / off movements of a fader (or button) is much less likely to die because of the unique sound it makes and the skill required to do this effectivley will remain the same for many years to come. The sound of an ‘Ahhh’ or ‘Freshhh’ scratch and the manipulation of them is so ingrained now in hip hop culture that these will always be the staple sounds of a turntablist and ones that, for the time being at least, require a high level of skill to manipulate well.

But what about the things that sound the same but are much easier to perform, such as looping or beatjuggling with a series of buttons as opposed to traditional beatjuggling on two record decks?

Well, it’s certainly easier to do this nowadays, there’s no denying that and the means with which to do so are readily available for reasonable prices. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that DJs will become complacent as a result.

Although not strictly speaking a turntablist himself, Richie Hawtin provides a good argument as to why this shouldn’t be an issue. He explains that having certain things automated (such as a synced loop) free up his time to do other things he wouldn’t normally have the time to do.

Yes, DJs have the potential to become lazy as a result of MIDI controllers and the like, but it should really be up to the DJs to embrace the sounds and techniques of both disciplines with whatever gear they can afford, both analogue and digital, and make them into something new.

Just as the drum & bass and jungle pioneers in the early ’90s used the Amen Break and an Akai sampler (now thought of to be pre-historic and looked upon with nostalgia) to create new and interesting rhythms, the modern digital DJ should be taking what he or she has, be it new technology or older analogue gear, and getting the very most they can out of it.

And isn’t this what hip hop is all about anyway? That’s true hip-hop, by the way. Not the fast food dirge that’s been churned out of studios and branded as hip hop. No, like the stuff that emerged from New York ghettos in the ’70s. Kids used their parents’ soul 45s and whatever kit they could grab hold of to produce longer breaks that people could dance to. Unbeknown to them, this creative style was paving the way, and serving as massive inspiration, for the modern DJ.

Although the disco movement would have probably still brought the use of two record decks into the mainstream at some point, it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for early hip hop, the idea of controllerism would never have been imagined. Hip hop is about taking what you’ve got (usually very little) and doing something new with it. And this is excactly what the early pioneers like DJ Kool Herc and the newer turntablists / controllerists were and are doing with their experimental use equipment.

DJs like Moldover, with his custom made butcherings of Novation equipment, and Ean Golden with the Midi Fighter are keeping the spirit of old school hip hop very much alive. And they’re not just relying on the tool itself. In fact, it’s more the case that the need for the tool was born out of the ideas they had in the first place.

Much like the hip hop pioneers of old, good DJs will bend the rules of this newly available technology and make it their own, injecting their personality into what was once a ‘static’ piece of kit or one that was intended for another purpose.

It’s nice to see things like the DMC Online DJ Championship emerging too. DMC has opened its doors to anyone with a DJ setup and the ability to record themselves performing a set. Any equipment is allowed as long as the set does not exceed 2 minutes.

It’s been written about here before (and no doubt will again) that there seems to be a definite lack of creative controllerism in this championship so far, specifically in Round 1 of the event.

This is a little disappointing really. Given the fact that any equipment can be used, it’s sad to see that DJs are not embracing this and using new and interesting ways to cut things up. At the time of writing, the winner of Round 2 is still in the hands of the official judges. But from the voting public’s top ten, there isn’t a Midi controller to be seen. Well, you get a glimpse of some Novation Dicers at one point, but they’re not used.

Let’s hope that DJ Craze (although unable to enter the competition himself) is going to set the new standard with his recent routine and inspire more controllerists to come out of the woodwork.

In conclusion, although lazy use of controllers may be killing the art, their creative use is pushing it forward. The tool itself doesn’t make you the DJ, it’s your own style, your ideas and creative use of whatever you have got to hand that does.

Article by DJ Maurice Norris for DIgital DJ Tools.