Last Life A DJ Saved My Night

Last month in the back of a taxi, I heard Funkmaster Flex break a new record. The track in question, Dipset’s comeback anthem, “Have My Money” wasn’t just played, but stretched out and stopped, full of spin-backs, pre-recorded sounds of glaciers smashing into each other, and heavy with Flex’s WWE-style disses of other DJs, creating an atmosphere of tension that made the song feel like an inevitable force once it broke through.

I was enraptured. I quickly jotted the song name down in my notebook — realizing I hadn’t done this with live radio in ages.

Every musical era has a proxy, a footpath that helps us through the maze of musical choice. We talk often of the late John Peel, a BBC rogue who from the late 60's through the early 00's played what he wanted, full stop. He could break a record by a no-name band simply because You knew He believed in the music.

This allure of an omniscient voice, or a persona who can anticipate what you need to hear (and feel) is only earned by having skin in the game. There has to be risk involved: Anna Wintour can’t pick a dud without potential damage to her image. To be a curator, you must be placing yourself on the line.

We’ve been weaned off this culture in recent decades by the emergence of the platform as picker, with the voice stripped back. The DJ, when vocal, must act as a Nick Carraway to our moment — in it but above it — and like Orson Welles, a commanding voice forcing us into the future. The eternal joy of this vox as a knowing guide might account for the rise in podcasts, too. It is an on-demand friend, a lone accompaniment to the freelancer and commuter nation.

I was reminded of this moment when I saw the news that Apple would make Beats 1 a primary component of their streaming service. It’s no surprise the DJ is a fixture of their new music identity because without it you only have a platform, playlists, algorithms. The role is necessary. In a time where technology has been assigned the role of curator, it’s also a very human choice.

This marks a pivotal return of the DJ, or how the campfire of pop culture remains lit.

-Sam Valenti (thanks Reilly Brennan and Om Malik)

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