Monday, 12 March 2012

Four club DJs - Sam Redmore, Marc Reck, DJ Switch and Karl Jones - talk. Off-mic, of course.

Hang the DJ! Oops, wrong century. Then, DJs were radio beasts, sometimes supporting music they believed in. Now, with a few exceptions, that role sits with club DJs.  

Photo courtesy
What does the term DJ actually mean? I asked that in a radio workshop last week. Nobody thought it had much to do with radio; it was all about clubbing. 

The term DJ – originally, short for ‘Disk Jockey’ – has been around for nearly 80 years. It was never meant to be flattering, allegedly coined by a US Network News giant to describe a continuity announcer who happened to have an on-air records show.  My first mentor, the great Jim Santella, still on air at WBFO in Buffalo, New York after 40 years, described Radio DJing as ‘pimping on other people’s reflected glory’, and there’s a lot of truth in that. 

Now,  DJs with actual discs are pretty rare. And you could say there are few, if any, pure DJs in radio now. They’re presenters or talent. Or... pre-recorded voice links. 

Some things don't change. DJs are still overwhelmingly male, and there's a LOT of unjustified ego flying around. But today’s DJ is far more likely to work in studios or clubs, interacting directly and immediately with live audiences. Critically, Club DJs can also produce their own music and increasingly, they collaborate creatively with musicians.  I talked with four of Birmingham’s finest for this post. 

Sam Redmore has made a name for himself at Leftfoot and his Moseley Freestyle nights, and bangs out both inventive short treatments of songs, and some sterling extended mixes. Expanding Freestyle into a live music event has given the event a massive boost. He recently remixed Chris Tye's 'New York City Rain' single, which you can find below, along with links to some extraordinary other work, rooted in his respect for his original sources of inspiration.

Photo: Pit Photography
Karl Jones, aka Malicious DJ, played a critical role in bridging live music and dj work when he embarked on the discussions that led to the forming of Alternative Dubstep Orchestra. Karl remains a part of ADO, as well as the Brotherhood of Filth. Karl also does a lot of brand new work. There's several links to some of Karl's work down the post.

Phto courtesy DJ Switch website
DJ Switch is three time DMC World DJ Champion, the first DJ to play at the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall last year. He's also part of the Brotherhood of Filth, and an early member of the ADO collective. Again, there's clips and links further down the post. 
Photo: Rob Nicholas
And Marc Reck (DJ Narrative) has waaay too many projects on to describe fully… but they’re all interesting. 

This post has partly came about though lengthy chats Marc and I had about how the worlds of Radio and Club could work together, when we both worked in our different ways on Project X Presents. I'm still not sure they can, but Marc has some enterprising approaches, discussed below, as do all the DJs featured here. Check his website….  and see the links below

So give me a definition of a DJ….? 
Sam Redmore: He’s the guy who plays the music in a club! But it’s not the time you spend with the people on front of you, it’s finding the music in the first place.
Marc Reck: There's different kinds… someone who plays & manipulates recorded material to create something else - an atmosphere or collective experience - or a radio show, a mixtape, an audio journey… 
DJ Switch: It’s interesting that people resist calling DJs 'musicians', and this extends to DJs themselves. The exception is turntablism. 
Karl Jones: A DJ is there to musically educate and bridge the gap between the recording artists and the general public, whilst maintaining the desired atmosphere and feeling required for the event or show with the correct track selection and mixing techniques.
What’s more important: the creativity of the mix or the live audience? How responsible do you feel to your audience?
KJ: If the crowd is right I feel like I should be paying to see them. I feel a responsibility to share good music, to share the reaction and see what reaction it brings out. Good music is like a good joke. I build my sets up from one liners to knock knocks before dropping in some classic gems. It’s vital the DJ remembers he’s there to entertain the crowd and not just himself.
MR: I think the mix and the audience are equally important. Ultimately the audience's experience comes first. I've seen people talk about how cutting edge or uncompromising their musical taste is, and then see them clear a diverse party crowd dance floor. The great DJs are ones that can, in front of any audience, keep the whole place up and do something creative or unique.
MR: The reason I started DJing was to share music. Probably the biggest thing for me is to play a song that I love, and see people enjoying it. 
DJS: Audience, definitely. There's no sense in doing something mind-boggingly creative if the people you're doing it for can't appreciate it on some level. But don't take that to mean ruling out creativity by any stretch.
There’s some interesting developments going on with all of you: longer mixes, which ‘feel’ like conventional radio shows, except that you’re not talking… it’s interesting to follow the flow of ideas 
SR: I guess you could say that. They tend to have a beginning, a middle and end, and the different styles of music represent plot twists. I like them to feel like they're always going somewhere.
KJ: People love to hear tracks they know and love, but when they don’t see them coming they seem to love them a whole lot more. With the software now available you can now put out any sound you have, instantly. That makes for speed and flexibility of expression – it’s much easier than ever before.
MR: I love the creativity that samples, binaural recordings, fx, and technology offer; how you can juxtapose these with music. It’s what made me learn turntablism and get into midi controllers. My first creative attempts at Narrative (DJ Narrative) were probably with the Fear & Love mix cd in 2006. Adapting the idea to performances made me find new ways to organise and play my music and sample library for maximum live DJ flexibility.
DJS: I often work with Bass6, who heads up the beatbox community and is one of the most energetic hosts you'll see. And, wonderfully, when he's not there, I have his intros & outros recorded from one of our joint live sets. If I don't use his voice, it's someone else's intro which I nabbed. I make sure I can intro myself if there's an MC there or not. 
A Radio DJ hopes that his or her show is listened to, but he or she can never really know. Radio listeners may let you into their lives, but you’re gone in a flash when it’s time to feed the cat or answer the phone. A live audience, on the other hand, tells you straight if it likes you or not. So if, at its peak, the essence of DJing these days is about working with an audience, and seeing where the collective mood takes you (and everyone else), it’s no wonder that for so many DJs, the club DJ experience completely eclipses the radio DJ experience. Smaller audiences, certainly… but they’re right there, in the flesh, and they talk back.

Best Live moment?   
MR: So many for different reasons... the first Project X, playing with 3 music stages, and an unforgettable vibe… the 2nd one for the string quartet & really exploring narrative via the Heroes Journey. All the Mr Elephant events for the diversity and interactivity. Birmingham Opera for the what it opened up for me musically. Shambala in the rammed out Kamikaze tent was incredible. Oh and the custom made events! - Especially the 2nd one which led to the Night times collaborations, and their very kind awards and gig of the year review. 
KJ: Performing alongside DJ Switch at a secret venue in London. 6hrs of non stop madness! I don’t think any record played for more than 1min.
SR:Tough to choose, but one that stands out was at the Garden Festival in Croatia a couple of years ago. Just as the sun was setting I played one of my all-time favourite songs, Sebastien Tellier's "La Ritournelle". The crowd was really into it, and at the end of the track there was a round of applause - something I've never witnessed during a DJ set before (apart from at the end of a set / night).
DJS: The first year I was at Glastonbury I closed the Shangri-La stage, which was epic. It was 4-5 am and pure ram-a-jam, the sun rose over the course of the hour and the crowd heaved like a single organism. That will stay with me forever. My 3rd DMC world title is definitely up there. It was the year I was most happy with performance-wise.
Just as with last week’s post, tech has completely transformed the tools a DJ has to play with. On the rare occasions I DJ these days, I take a laptop loaded with mp3s and play them out through the freebie version of  Virtual DJ, something most pro DJs might regard as little more than a toy. But any kit can let you down…

Worst moment?   
MR: Probably when the equipment fails just before the gig. A great example of where tech crew are legendary, sorting out the issue where there seems to be no solution. I’ve had a few times with promoters saying there’s enough space to setup… then finding there's none until your set, which can make smooth changeovers pretty tricky.  
SR: My laptop gave up on me one night at the Bull's Head. I managed to get one track going, but had to dash upstairs into the office where most of my records are kept and frantically try to pick out a few others that would work before the track that was playing ran out. The records are kind of scattered all over the place, so it's impossible to know where to look. I dread to think what I ended up returning with...
DJS: I got talked into trying out black cider one night, and ended up finishing off 4 bottles just before I started playing. I remember getting onto the decks and thinking "wow, my hands are a lot further away from my head than they usually are!" I don't think the set was that bad, but it's a moment that's kept me in check ever since. The promoter told me in the morning "oh I recorded your set last night" and I replied "never EVER play it back to me!"
KJ: Honestly......I’ve loved every single minute so far!
Personally, I’m particularly interested in how the intensity of the DJ’s performance with a live crowd could ever be ported into a radio show. It's like squaring a circle - you can get closer and closer, but you'll never get perfection.  I don’t really think you can achieve that perfection, any more than a live music show can completely transfer onto an audio file. 

So: do you think club mixing can work on radio (I don't, myself... but I’m open to persuasion)
SR: Well if by club mixing you mean extended DJ mixes, then definitely yes. It all depends on the DJ in question, but I've heard some great sets on things like the Radio 1 Essential Mix. It's no longer about interacting with the crowd in the same way that playing in a club to an audience is, more of a chance to showcase some great music and put it together in an interesting and creative way.
DJS: I don't see why not. I've always enjoyed going down to London and tuning in to Rinse down there. No idea who's playing but just vibing along to the tracks. I'm normally like that when I go into clubs anyways.
In terms of explanation, seeing the poster for the gig you go to gives you the context - it attracts your audience & tells you who's on. Radio has to give that context in some form - if it's not by listings, why not by announcer? Fills the same role as the MC at the gig.  Moderation...I was stunned by a recent act of censorship. I did a mix for 1Xtra last year and put in a track called "The Hip Hop War", which basically had a chorus going 'bredrin' and 'blud'. I think the mix went out at 9, the track came on and first they censored 'bredrin' - which was a bit stupefying - and then they cut out the rest of the track which had 'blud' in it. Considering the station carries quite a strong urban ethic in it’s' image, and they still took that rather bizarre step when the mix went out after the watershed, it felt very backward.
KJ: There is a place for continuous mixes to be played on air but on the whole I would rather learn something from what I’m hearing - not just learning if I like it or not. I want to know who it’s by? what’s their story? Radio taught me that music goes much further than just what you’re hearing. As a producer it’s great having your tracks played on air but it’s always better when somebody tells the listeners who it’s by and when it’s out etc. Radio without any dialogue is kinda like looking at the pictures of a comic but not reading the story, you miss out on half the enjoyment.  
MR:  I found that hosting the Mr Elephant Radio show (on Rhubarb Radio and elsewhere) as a whole mix with hosting presented different limitations. The goals were to share and promote the best new music while trying to represent where I was as a DJ. I found that the two don’t always mix. Hosting new records and connecting with the audience can take away from the mix itself. 
So my idea is to create a Dj Narrative Podcast. It launched last week. Among other things like tutorials and free tracks, it aims to share a well crafted mix but with narrative and no hosting, but labelled as either down tempo (or "Coming Home") and up-tempo / dance floor (or "Going Out"). I think  hosting isn’t something that people would really want to hear more than once. It's not really suitable for listening with friends, say. So I’m hoping the narrative side and the labels will help address the different times that people listen. I like the idea of putting it out as a newsletter & podcast so there can be more related content… but I’ve only just started. 
And that’s one of the critical areas. How do you, as a host, explain an emotion, a gut feeling, a burst of energy and inspiration, without ripping the guts out of it? My thanks to Marc Reck, Karl Jones, Sam Redmore and DJ Switch for their considered and patient answers to my questioning. There’s a lot more we all talked about, and some of it may emerge in a future post.

Now, here’s some more work from each DJ…

DJ Switch

"Generally when I put together routines, they start with an idea which a) excites me and b) I feel I can get a lot out of it. Here’s an example: 
The idea was to scratch the original sample on top of the final track. The audience are grooving when the beat drops, and I'm grooving by making a new chorus riff on top of it. It's melodic, and even if you're not sure what I'm doing, you still recognise the remix element."
There's a lot more at the DJ Switch website, including gig details.

Sam Redmore
Here’s Chris Tye's recent single 'New York City Rain' as remixed by Sam:
And here's a link to Sam's breathtaking SoundCloud pages.
And here's the Freestyle blog which carries gig details and more.

Karl Jones
Here's the Brotherhood of Filth SoundCloud pages

Marc Reck
Marc's  website  is here, including gig details and a great blog section


No comments: