The distance between a rock musician and a disc jockey isn’t a gulf; it’s a chasm. Consider the following scenarios: As a rock musician, you practice and perform with a host of other musicians—people every bit as touchy, petty and ego-driven as yourself. You must endure the long, hard process of writing songs. Even with songs in hand, positive audience response is never guaranteed. And, unless you hitch your train to a disco cover band, money is a mere afterthought.
Now, contrast that with the life a disc jockey. You practice and perform on your own, whenever and however you please. Even though you must learn the nuances of mixing, the music is pre-made. You won’t find any audience guarantees here, either, but it’s a known fact that most people like to dance. Then there’s the money. If you’re a good DJ, really good, you can easily quit your day job. British DJ Carl Cox, who mixed music for three separate New Year’s Eve millennial parties, made $100,000 in less than 24 hours time.
It was in 1996 that the music press heralded the onslaught of “electronica,” popular music made through computer programs, drum machines and turntables that would replace the outdated medium of the rock band. Four years after the fact, that hasn’t happened. At the same time, it’s hard to name one current rock band that’s set the public’s imagination on fire. Then there’s the phenomenal sales figures racked up by Moby’s Play, a juggernaut dance record that’s put the music industry on notice. Perhaps DJ really means “dollar jockey,” young men and women who squeeze fantastic returns out of vast record collections and Technics 1200 turntables.
But, as with conventional musicians, it all starts with the love of music. “That’s a skill in itself. You have to love the music, and you have to understand it,” says Brandon Fullmer, a.k.a. DJ “Loki,” a 19-year-old warehouse manager who’s been spinning vinyl for three years. He estimates he makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $8,000 per year mixing vinyl for underground events. But then he also gives himself a $150 monthly allowance for records. There’s no shortage of tunes in the dance/DJ world, where new 12-inch singles drop like rain.
Late hours are essential. Ravers rarely sleep between midnight and 5 a.m. And your social skills must be peerless. Even the best, most skilled DJ lives and dies based on self-promotion, and no misanthrope can mix music for a crowd of people.
“But it takes a lot to learn what the crowd wants,” Fullmer says, noting another essential skill. “It’s kind of like having a girlfriend; you have to practice.”
For the uninitiated, the genre is also surprisingly varied. Hardcore “techno” showcases stiff, amphetamine-paced beats and blares. “House,” a style straight out of Chicago, is just as robust, but with a more urban, elegant feel. “Garage” does house one better by adding soul diva, R&B vocals. “Drum ’n’ bass” almost sounds like a drum machine falling down a flight of stairs, even if there’s a wicked method to its madness. “Trance” is synth-heavy, while “ambient,” usually played toward the end of an all-night rave party, is blissful and beatless. Perfect for the big comedown at sunrise.
Everyone’s heard the hip-hop “scratching” of DJs from passing car stereo systems. The art of the warehouse rave DJ is weaving a seamless whole from a vast menu of beats and genres. Call it “flow.” Matt McDuffy—a 28-year-old mortgage broker by day, DJ “Hypa” by night—uses as many as three turntables to create tracks from other tunes. “A lot of times people will come up to me and ask what song I was playing. I have to explain to them that what they heard was three records playing at the same time,” McDuffy says.
Most recently, DJ art reached the level of a musical score. Utah’s neighbor to the south, Arizona—or more precisely, Phoenix—is home to DJ Radar, a 19-year-old who produced the world’s first “turntable score.” He even calls the phenomenon of DJ culture “turntablism.” But if it all looks so easy, couldn’t anyone do it?
“Anyone who questions how hard it is should try it themselves,” Fullmer says. “You’ll know right away whether you can do it or not. If you can’t, the crowd will stop dancing and go home.”
For him, there’s only one human activity that compares with mixing records. “It would have to be sex,” Fullmer says. “The best thing in life is having an orgasm with two perfectly matched beats.”
If he’s any evidence, DJs already carry the same sexy aura as rock musicians. “I’ve been flashed. I’ve been grabbed. I’ve been groped,” Fullmer says with a playful smirk that speaks of pride.
If Fullmer bills himself as the most frequently booked DJ at underground events, McDuffy can certainly count himself as one of the most traveled of local mixers. It’s like a business itinerary. But instead of staid board meetings, McDuffy attends large-scale parties. One weekend it’s Atlanta, the next it’s Chicago. The man has even been booked as far away as Britain, where dance and DJ culture play a far larger role in popular culture than they do in the United States.
There’ve even been a few James Bond-like cloak-and-dagger moments. Booked for a job near Lake Tahoe, McDuffy was driven across town to a dense, pine-filled forest. But before the rave could start, a horde of government agents shut it down. “To this day I don’t know what that was all about, but I do know the promoter went to prison for a long time,” McDuffy recalls.
It’s not as if Salt Lake City has always been an easy rave market, either. City regulations still prohibit dancing after 2 a.m., and there’s a feeling that if police can’t find a meth lab to shut down, warehouse raves are their next available target. A couple years back, it was hard to find a rave that wasn’t about to be shut down. Now, the frequency of busts comes and goes in waves, often depending on the current level of media hype surrounding popular rave drugs like ecstasy. Nothing gets attention quite like controlled substances, but McDuffy downplays their sensationalist role.
“Personally, I’ve seen people do far worse things after a couple of drinks than after swallowing a pill of ecstasy,” he says. “Besides, it’s dying down. You can always tell when there are too many drugs around at a party because people are usually just sitting around. Now more people are on the dance floor. As a DJ, that’s definitely something you want to have happen.”
And yes, the life of a DJ is definitely an art.