Mixed Emotions

DJ Music Builds Its Way Out of the Velvet-Rope Underground

For perhaps a decade, the weedy galaxy of sound called DJ music has fascinated pop musicians. This seemingly wide-open stronghold of freedom and innovation is the club-driven aural utopia that has made Björk jump, Garbage draft and redraft, U2 temporarily ditch rock conventions, Oasis ring up the Chemical Brothers—not to mention leaving Everything but the Girl relevant, Madonna jealous, and Fatboy Slim platinum. Its continuing allure is why, a few years ago, even some hip-hoppers returned to scratching on sturdy Technics tables.

Always an inspiration and now a full-blown offshoot of the overseas techno franchises the U.S. record business marketed as electronica, DJ music offers new composition or remixes, but sometimes just relies on the canny selection and sequencing of pre-existing dance tracks. The field, like the countless styles it dreams up and presents, seems a fairly contented mishmash of sonic procedures. Even for followers of pop music, long familiar with all manner of plugged-in rattle, from rhythm-mad disco to structurally impolite hip-hop to 20 years of remixing itself, DJ music can still come as a shock; you'd never really guess it to have evolved quite so intricately. It's almost as if you looked up and found a thriving universe of guitar-tech music. On David Alvarado (DMC/Razor & Tie), the eponymous L.A. spinner stirs up a sweetly toned set of steaming r&b-ish house tracks; his album is already Volume 15 of the United DJs of America series.

Unbothered Bedrocker John Digweed
photo: Dean Belcher
Unbothered Bedrocker John Digweed

"What galls me is when reviewers say it's a deep-house bassline when really it's ambient. I'd far rather that they just write 'funky bassline.' "

By this point, DJ functions as a fully intact international sensibility. Strobey, complicated, unerring, easy, hushed, loud, DJ of course loves beats, but it's as different from the disco method of repowering obvious tunes with synthetic rhythms as Formula One racing is from NASCAR. Extroverted, furtive, glistening, rough, soulful, mechanical, DJ doesn't flatter genre; however it's often downright batty about classifications. ("What galls me," Everything but the Girl's Ben Watt complained one otherwise pleasant afternoon, gazing out over the landscaped grounds of the Ohio statehouse, "is when reviewers say it's a deep-house bassline when really it's ambient. I'd far rather that they just write 'funky bassline.' ") And as for the '80s tradition of remixing as sonic redecoration—of Arthur Baker making a Bruce Springsteen track, uh, danceable—well, DJ now is more like Puffy, who decided that remixes were the main game, not just exotic accessories.

Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and others have all issued charismatic albums on which they renovate old records, weaving them into uninterrupted dance suites. And as star electronica denizens, they have profited indeed from DJ music's sexy chance factor of conjuring sensation with the unexpected choice, the brilliantly timed drop of a stylus. But what, you may ask, of actual honest-to-goodness DJs? Of the people who jet around to play prestigious sets in metropolitan clubs throughout the world, editing and showcasing mountains of dizzyingly obscure dance tracks? The answer is that, after years of remaining on the velvet ropes of buzz, they're now coming into view. A West Virginia girl I know has stuck it out DJ'ing in London for several years, as dedicated to her career objective as any trembling Mariah Carey aspirant stateside.

For her, the goal might be the status of a Nick Warren or John Digweed, both of whom have new albums in Global Underground's Boxed series. Like ex-Underworlder Darren Emerson's recent Uruguay, which eventually edges into outright funk but always with a stern-minded obliqueness, Warren's and Digweed's favorite mode is trance, not exactly a fun-and-games proposition. Happy with nervous successions of elongated moments, these trance studs think nothing of giving the lead voice on a track to, say, a countermelody buried within a counterrhythm. They aren't looking for regular kicks; they're trying to design extraterrestrial ones.

My own introduction to these odd U.K. releases came a couple of years ago, when I happened across Warren's Brazil. Here was a glossy two-CD set of records spun by the DJ who'd once worked with Massive Attack; photographed in darkest rock-star shades for the package, Warren could scarcely have received more colorfully authoritative and iconic star treatment if he'd been Eric Clapton. "Nick Warren is the kind of DJ whose record box you'd like to own," the back of the package assured me, a quote from the dance music publication Mixmag. Progressing from bassy, hardcore-ish stuff to jizzier, fizzier tracks, the first CD sought to enact "a true reflection of Nick Warren's recent sets in Brazil"; on the second CD, subtitled "Nick Warren's Travelogue," Warren seamlessly and without mercy strung together one spectral and darting record after another as he international-DJ'd around Russia and Florida, Scotland and South Africa.

Warren is not cuddly. "Narrow-eyed nastiness scowling over rib-shaking levels of Jamaican bass . . . Muscle-clad grooves slam into their targets with the kind of surgical accuracy NATO can only dream of": Those descriptions fill the back cover of Warren's new Amsterdam collection. Basically a trance set, in which pop niceties get swept aside in favor of ongoing pulses of militantly subtle sonic differentiation, Amsterdam makes for a less severe set than Brazil did. By the time Warren cues up Soul Driver's "States of Mind"—and then, on Disk 2, plays jangly, jungly stuff like DJ Good's "Ajuna" and Nick Hook's nervous and conversational "Enhanced"—he practically succumbs to funkiness. Still, in Warren's sets the ravishment of individual records seems less important than their cumulative effect. Listening, you don't so much take the pieces to heart as look at them as elements of a larger plan and construction. Of course it's about the build. But it's also about the building.

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