Celebrity Spin

Rock Stars Are Not DJs—But DJs Are Rock Stars

 Madonna is not a DJ. But this didn't matter to the few hundred people who crowded into the West Village club Luke and Leroy for the popular weekly party MisShapes a few months ago to watch her "spin." They came to breathe her fabulous, famous air.

Wearing a blue halter dress, she stood in front of the turntables and smiled coyly. Once, she picked up the mic and asked people nicely to stop pushing and shoving. Her producer, Stuart Price, a commendable techno artist better known as Jacques Lu Cont, played the tracks they'd worked on together from her new album Confessions on a Dance Floor. Occasionally, she'd put on her headphones and pose for pictures. Madge jiggled the volume on the mixer one time, but she never touched the turntables. Price did all the work. After her set, I ran into an old friend.

"Dude, she was amazing!" he shouted with absolute sincerity.

Clockwise From Left: Celebrity DJs (Some Beatmatch, Some Don’t): Carlos D., Nick Zinner, JarvisCocker, Andy Bell, Paul Thomson.
photo: Andy Bell: Shiho Fukada; Carlos D., Paul Thomson: Tricia Romano; Jarvis Cocker, Nick Zinner: Nikola Tamindzic
Clockwise From Left: Celebrity DJs (Some Beatmatch, Some Don’t): Carlos D., Nick Zinner, JarvisCocker, Andy Bell, Paul Thomson.

Members of local bands like the Rapture, Calla, Interpol, !!!, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have gotten behind the decks for several years, paving the way for Kelly Osbourne and members of the Killers and Franz Ferdinand. You can currently see Mattie Safer and Gabe Andruzzi of the Rapture at their Friday-night party, HushHush, at Happy Ending and members of Calla play Corner Billiards every week. On February 13, members of TV on the Radio spun at Yo La Tengo's weekly Monday Party at Scenic. Interpol's Paul Banks has a Wednesday weekly scheduled at the Annex, and his bandmate Carlos D. spins every Sunday at Black and White. Perhaps the original rock star DJ, Carlos D. was the first non-dance-music jock to make the cover of genre bible Urb; on March 3, he headlines—with members of VHS or Beta—the prestigious Flavorpill First Friday series at the Guggenheim, which has previously featured "legit" DJs like Diplo and Matthew Dear.

But the trend has extended far beyond local bands. Promoters GBH (who might want to consider changing their name—it stands for Great British House) book new wave icons like Bauhaus's David J. and Depeche Mode's Martin Gore. Weekly favorite Tiswas relaunched last month, hosting the Stone Roses' Mani and New Order's Peter Hook. Erasure's Andy Bell pairs live solo outings with DJ sets. Indeed, famous bygone names have become so common on flyers that it's a miracle local DJs still get booked at all.

In this age of celebrity obsession, a rock star DJ set is the aural equivalent of an autograph—as if a record were somehow different because Jarvis Cocker spun it. "Most of these DJ appearances have nothing to do with music," says veteran rave DJ Tommie Sunshine. "They're PR stops on the calendar."

At the end of the '90s, superstar DJs like Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, and Pete Tong made absurd amounts of money from their art form; DJs had finally overcome the stigma that had plagued their disco and house forebears. Turntables were supposedly outselling guitars at Christmastime. That was before the iPod, which was instrumental in letting people effortlessly calibrate a soundtrack to fit every moment of their lives—which, as local promoter and DJ Alex English points out, translated seamlessly into clubs "basically propelling anybody with 300 CDs into becoming a DJ."

During the electroclash era, clubgoers realized they didn't actually want to hear uninterrupted instrumental beat music at all. They wanted songs; they wanted familiarity. They didn't even want electro clash— a crude approximation of the real thing. They wanted the actual '80s.

James Iha, and Madonna
photo: James Iha: Nikola Tamindzic/ambrel.net; Madonna: Warner Brothers

Detractors of the celeb-DJ trend blame it for the current club scene stagnating into a distant past of New Order's "Blue Monday," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Blondie's "Heart of Glass." Even new club music tends toward copycat bands. But English says that, by booking a member of Erasure, he's linking current '80s-sounding bands like the Killers and the Bravery—"a whole genre of Depeche Mode wannabes"—to their influences.

Yet you have to wonder what link to the past the audience supposedly gleaned when Depeche Mode's Martin Gore showed up last summer and spun minimal German techno to a roomful of people expecting to hear New Order's "Temptation." "They didn't care," says Sunshine. "If he would've played a bunch of '80s hits, the place would've been unhinged. But that isn't what he did. And by the time he was done, half the people were gone."

Many local musicians started moonlighting as DJs for practical reasons. It was the easiest way to have a decent after-party when touring, says Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. "Being on the road can be monotonous, so that gives you something to do with yourself other than indulging in mountains of cocaine and hookers," he jokes. In the interim between touring and recording, musicians could make some extra cash. And spinning provided a way to test their music on an unsuspecting public. "I used to play Yeah Yeah Yeah songs and demos all the time in bars before we were signed, to see if anyone reacted or to get people to come to our shows," says Zinner. "Now I think it's totally gauche for people in bands to DJ their own music. It's worse than wearing your own band T-shirt on the L train."

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