From the point of view of musicianship, there are a few things that are unique to DJing. One is the opportunity to craft really long-form sets. DJs who play club nights “open-to-close” are kicking out tracks for six to eight hours. That’s like a solid day at the office for most people. About a year ago I heard SF deep house legend Kerri Chandler do this at Williamsburg’s Output club — it’s kind of a mind-blowing thing to witness. Narrative gets sculpted at a scale that’s occupied by few others: Wagner’s operas, Warhol’s movies and Marina Abramović’s performance art come to mind here (I know this sounds grandiose, but it’s true. Trust me).
This post isn’t about that, though, but about another unique aspect of DJing, which is mixing. Before I get eye-rolled for stating the blindingly obvious, though, let me be more specific: I’m talking about how mixing, or the fact that a DJ is always “in the mix”, changes the way a DJ approaches music.
Recall the famous Duke Ellington quote, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” (Most people remember the quote as “good music and bad music” but the Duke was a gentleman.) Mixing makes available to the DJ a third category: that of useful music. The discovery of useful music to me was equivalent to the discovery of a new phase of matter to a physicist. Why? And what makes something useful in this sense?
Even if you’re not a DJ, it’s pretty likely you’ve put together a playlist, or made a mixtape for a friend. You chose each song because you like that song a lot. Each song is is a small polished gem, sufficient unto itself for delivering whatever emotional payload its creators had in mind. Otherwise you wouldn’t have it in your collection, and you certainly wouldn’t put it on your friend’s mixtape. You arrange the songs carefully — maybe there’s a studied rise and fall in intensity, or a humorous twist at the end. If you’ve done a good job, you’ll have, as Mike D says, “a good mixtape to put you in the right mood”.
DJs do much the same, but with the added dimension that tracks co-habit a moment of time, and sometimes for several minutes. Even if you’re only using two sources, this is like moving from checkers to chess. It opens up a tremendous amount of flexibility for the DJ. As I wrote in my previous post, a DJ works as a real-time editor. But what’s the material that’s being edited?
Here’s an example that occurs at the start of one of my mixes, “Perfectly Natural Adjustment”. I begin with Elysium’s “Free”, which is a nice long number that’s a good example of late-90s downtempo. Here’s the track on its own:
It’s got a lot of space to it, and takes its time to develop, so I had plenty of room to throw in a little something to spice it up. I decided on Koan’s “Meeting At Mercedos”, from his sprawling “The Signs: Entanglement” release.
There are a few things worth noting about this latter selection. “Meeting At Mercedos” is a much shorter track, clocking in at 3'18", so it was easy to let it float on top of the Elysium track. More importantly, as a release, “The Signs: Entanglement” is mixed all the way through, meaning there’s no graceful buildup or breakdown of musical elements to start or end the track — it’s basically two hours of continuous composition broken up by track markers, and even those can seem arbitrary. So a run time of 3'18" is made even shorter by the fact that you have to spend time carefully fading in and out.
Because of this, “Meeting At Mercedos” doesn’t really stand on its own as a track. It just grooves for a bit and then it ends; it’s more of a sketch than a fully formed musical argument. I would never play it on its own, because it doesn’t fulfill what you might call “mixtape criteria”. But this doesn’t mean it’s not useful. The plucked guitar and hammered dulcimer melodies in the Koan track fill out the spaces in Elysium’s “Free” and provide a delightful counterpoint to the simpler groove of the latter. It gives the longer track a little spine and immediately stamps the mix with an idiosyncratic flavor. It also sets up something else that’s perhaps tacit for the listener but nevertheless really important: an expectation of what I like to call the rate of mixing.
In the mix, I start fading in Koan around 2'50", and at 3'51" you can hear a nice interplay between Koan’s hammered dulcimer and Elysium’s portamento synth line. It doesn’t last long, and the whole episode is over by 5'17". At this point I still have a good four minutes left to Elysium, which is more than enough time to set up the next mix. Indeed, I don’t even need that much, since by 7'51" I’m already introducing the bassline of Mythematica’s “Nam Bandara”. It would have been lazy to let the first seven (or even five) minutes of “Free” play until I had a good entrance into “Nam Bandara”, and the listener would have been bored. What makes “Meeting At Mercedos” useful is the opportunity to create a little more diversity at the start of a mix, and it also lets the listener know that every 3–4 minutes they can expect to hear some decisionmaking from the DJ.
Here’s “Perfectly Natural Adjustment”, so you can judge for yourself. Enjoy!