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By Nick Sousanis

 

Though much maligned and misunderstood, the DJ occupies the epicenter of a new art form whose ideas and methods extend beyond the dance floor to affect other arts and the broader culture. With two turntables and a mixer the DJ creates his art - assembling new music from the fragments of old. As DJ Spooky says: "Assembly is the invisible language of our time, and DJ'ing is (its) forefront art form."1

"Another dimension new galaxy Intergalactic planetary." Beastie Boys. New art forms are often perceived as being alien or monstrous before gaining acceptance. The term Impressionism was originally used as a pejorative to describe the strange new painting of artists like Monet, Cezanne and Renoir. James Joyce's acclaimed novels were originally deemed indecipherable and were burned by a public that found the work obscene. In both cases, what were first considered the work of fringe artists were eventually embraced as reflections of a changing society.


"Ball of confusion, that's what the world is today." The Temptations.
In today's technology-enabled barrage of information, where new ways of thinking are needed to traverse the increasingingly complicated cultural landscape - the DJ stands poised to serve as our trail guide. By translating the language of the "cut" and simultaneously managing multiple streams of information, the DJ is a pioneer exploring new frontiers.

"A hit before your mother was born." The Beatles. The DJ's roots trace back to 1870 and Edison's phonograph - a device for "sound writing". Musicians began recording on them in the 1890s and in 1892 the more familiar flat record disc was introduced. For the first time, mechanical reproduction of a specific musical performance was possible. With the advent of radio, DJs came into being and eventually made their way into dance halls and clubs.

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"There's something happening here." Buffalo Springfield. In the early 1970s, DJs began experimenting with making music. DJ Kool Herc reproduced the "break" (a popular beat within a song) repeatedly with the use of two identical records and mixing equipment. This set the stage for further developments in what came to be known as "Turntablism." Then-teenaged disciple of Grand Master Flash, Grandwizzard Theodore accidentally developed the now ubiquitous "Scratch." Flash produced the first DJ-made record consisting of only other records and scratches, which introduced a new realm of possibilities in the medium. Afrika Bambaataa meanwhile, released "Planet Rock" which featured music made entirely from sampled sounds. Both albums revealed the potential of the DJ as a creator of music.

"This Is How We Do It" Montell Jordan. Turntablists practice variations of the "Beat-Juggle", blending two records together to produce "new combinations of beats or new beats altogether."2 The "scratch" is the sound produced by moving the record back and forth by hand, and can be manipulated in countless variations to create sounds no instrument or voice could have made. DJs use their hands and various other body parts to stop, reverse, accelerate or switch the records to shape the mix. Rather than a recording frozen in time, the turntablist uses recorded sounds to put on a live performance.

"All I want to do is get through to you, we're picking up the pieces and we're making something new." Stereo MCs.
As sampler or turntablist, the DJ creates by incorporating and reviving past works and tools - cutting up and pasting back together existing music and sounds. This parallels the postmodern artists' practice of incorporating borrowed images in their work. By sampling, the DJ both preserves past works and infuses them with new life. DJ Spooky describes himself and other DJs as "memory artists" and "custodians of aural history."3 Voices, sounds and words are woven together and new meaning is forged from their intersection.

 

"No originals; everything's reproduced, even down to my juice." Stereo MCs. DJs are often burdened with the same accusations of theft and unoriginality that have been heaped upon other postmodern artists by those who claim that true art involves the creation of something new - a birth. But what is a birth but the coming together of two to create a unique new being? Creation always proceeds by combining existing elements to arrive at new forms.

"Thanks to the slave trade, I'll dance with you tonight." Blue Nation.
Perhaps the main difference between the traditional musician and the DJ is acknowledgment of the source material. The DJ gives credit where it is due. Through sampling, claim DJ group Brand Nubian, "Heroes are worshipped, ancestors honored." The history of art is full of theft and reincorporation of past ages' work. Often the theft occurs with not so much as a nod to the source material. Who gave birth to rock and roll? Did it emerge out of the blue? Actually out of the blues, combined with country western music. The lineage of referents is constantly expanding, thus providing artists the means for an ever greater range of expression.

"Come together." The Beatles. The DJ brings together disparate pieces from the past to create the future. In the mix and on the dance floor barriers are broken - ideas and people converge. In their book, "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life", authors Brewster and Broughton claim that a, "truly great DJ, just for a moment, can make a whole room fall in love."4 By translating the language of the cut, DJs present a new way to look at our world and our identities. Beat-juggled together from the seeds of our parents, we are both a product of the past and something new.

References

1 Wes Moore, "DJ Spooky: Spatial Engineer of the Invisible City." Disinformation.com.
http://www.disinfo.com/pages/dossier/id1260/pg1/
2 Scratchdj.com. http://www.scratchdj.com/
3 Carole Becker and Romi Crawford, "An interview with Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ
Spooky - that subliminal kid," Art Journal, (New York; Spring 2002).
4 Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, (New York:
Grove Press, 2000), 5.

 

 

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