Celebrity Spin

Rock Stars Are Not DJs—But DJs Are Rock Stars

Or they spin simply because they like it. Says Carlos D., who DJ'd at Lit and 85A long before Interpol became big: "Anyone who makes fun of me for being a celebrity DJ or gives me crap for trying to cash in on some persona or something, I swear to God, like, on my mother's future grave, that for me at the time, I just wanted to spin because I missed it so much. I missed the excitement of DJ'ing for people who were dancing."

Four years ago, Princess Superstar—whose new concept album My Machine is about the cult of celebrity—was booked at a bar as a fluke, before she could mix. Unlike the rock DJs who play various forms of dance rock, she spins music that lends itself to beatmatching. In a satisfying twist, her DJ career has helped along her recording career—she makes music with the dance-floor in mind, and as she tours around the world meeting world-class spinners, they ask for her records.

Back when she formed the duo DJs Are Not Rockstars with Alex Technique, the name referred to superstar techno DJs who pulled diva behavior; looking back, it seems particularly prescient. And originally, Princess Superstar took umbrage at the fact that she could get paid more for spinning than for performing live. "As a musician, I was like, This is bullshit. They wanna pay me like three grand to play other people's records?' But I'm not conflicted about that anymore, because I really see the art of DJ'ing and that it is a form of making music."

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.

DJ purists scoff at the rock star DJs. The "real" DJs argue that the rock stars can't mix and don't respect the art of DJ'ing. They're just, as Tommie Sunshine says, an "iPod with legs." And some of the rock star DJs agree. "If I'm a techno DJ, and I don't know how to beatmatch," says Carlos D., "I'm not a techno DJ."

Not beatmatching, says Sunshine, "keeps it a level playing field. If people don't beatmatch, then everyone is untalented playing turntables. As long as you take the skill out of it, then nobody's better than anybody else." Suddenly serious, he says, "I have a question for you—would you want to see me play guitar?" "No." "Then why would I want to see James Iha play records?"

A few months ago, Sunshine was at Happy Ending when he saw Alexander Technique wearing a T-shirt that said "No Beatmatching." Alexander explained that Princess Superstar was asked to play the MisShapes party, but with a caveat: There was to be no beatmatching and no playing of electronic dance music. Both requests seemed pretty incredible given MisShapes' numerous guest DJs who do both quite proficiently.

More than any party in New York, the MisShapes (Greg K., Leigh Lezark, and Geo) have capitalized on the fad of celebrity DJs. They've had ex–Smashing Pumpkin Iha, Hedwig actor-director John Cameron Mitchell, Dior fashion designer Hedi Slimane, the Rapture's Mattie and Vito, members of Les Savy Fav, the Killers, Kelly Osbourne, Hilary Duff, and Carlos D. (Full disclosure: This writer even spun there once herself, for fun.) Greg K. makes no excuses about his party's focus on celeb DJs over skilled mixers. "It's not a DJ-focused party," he says. "Our crowd is not about who is the best DJ. It's more about having their presence than their music."

As for the "no beatmatching and no electronic dance music" dictate, Greg says he and his partners mostly just wanted to keep the night from turning into a rave. He says MisShapes didn't start out intending to be a celebrity DJ event. "It's not calculated!" he insists. The celebs "have fun doing it, especially if they're musicians."

Even if most fans are just happy to be in the same room, some moonlighting musicians take DJ'ing just as seriously as they do making music. Martin Gore, for one, learned to beatmatch and spends hours preparing his sets. "I work out everything to a fine point," he says. "I make a whole list of extensive notes."

Paul Thomson of Franz Ferdinand beatmatches, even though the crowd probably couldn't care less. "There are people who are good at DJ'ing, and people who are bad at it," says Zinner. "But nobody seems to give a fuck except people who are good at it. I always say I'm not really a DJ, I just play records."

"There's an art to just playing records without beatmatching," allows Sunshine. "I always know when someone's saying something and when they're not. You can always tell," he says, tipping his hat to Carlos D., Zinner, and others.

"DJ'ing doesn't have any meaning to me unless I'm taking a piece of plastic out of a paper sleeve and plopping it down on a turntable and manually putting it on," says Carlos D., explaining why he refuses to spin anything but vinyl. "The fact that I have it on vinyl means that I spent a lot of time cultivating it over the years. When you start DJ'ing from an iPod, the only story that you're telling is that you may have gotten this in the past 24 hours from iTunes. When you have vinyl, you're telling a much, much more epic story."

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