Friday, February 23, 2007

DJ Philosophy I: The "Funky Yet Familiar" Debate

Among the various debates I have with my DJ friends probably none is as thorny as the “funky yet familiar” debate, which revolves around the central question faced by every DJ: what am I supposed to play?

If you are a member of a DJ collective focused on a specific genre of music, there’s very little difficulty in answering this question: you play tracks from within the genre that you like, assuming that anyone who comes out to hear you is there to hear that kind of music.

On the other hand, if you’re a DJ who has been asked to play a club night, or a party, the challenge is figuring out what to play to make people happy. If you’re playing a certain time of night you can have some idea of what would be appropriate, mood-wise, but if you’re playing a gay bar or club night, you can have a real challenge on your hands.

Guys who come to gay bars are usually not the most discriminating dancers in the world – they want to drink, flirt, and have a good time. You also have to figure that you’re going to have a range of tastes, from pop diva fans to folks who might put on something a little more sophisticated, some real house or electro, when they get home and wanna make out. Between these two very different tastes you then have to develop a triangulation that works – maybe between Madonna and Ricardo Villalobos you wind up with Mylo.

One DJ acquaintance of mine solves this problem with the formula of “funky yet familiar” – stuff that’s not too challenging but can still get your hips moving. This usually means something like a little Prince, some Rick James, the kind of stuff you might hear at a wedding reception after the old folks have checked out. There’s no denying that this works – I’ve seen the kids get down and dirty to it, and they usually stay on the floor for a while.

This kind of music, however, drives me crazy – it’s the stuff I’ve heard a million times before and, honestly, just can’t stand to dance to. When I go out, I want to hear new stuff, I want to moved by a track I’ve never heard before, and most of all I want the DJ to surprise me. This approach, however, is not one that generally appeals to the masses, and if you’re playing a club, the most important thing is to get people in and keep them there, drinking till their livers burst.

When I'm getting ready to play a party there's always a degree of anxiousness that I have to deal with, since I play mostly trance and techno, genres not known as being particularly "gay," and often I'll adjust my tracks to what I think will have more "gay appeal." But I'm also often surprised at how much the boys enjoy it, and have even gotten comments like "this music is terrific," even though the commentor has never heard progressive trance before in their life.

I’ve had long, drunken, stoned, coked-out discussions about the role of the of the DJ and the music he’s supposed to play on many occasions, and inevitably it comes down to me saying that I think the DJ is there to exercise his discrimination and skill and help create culture, while on the other side is the argument that he’s there to make people happy, serve their taste, and, most importantly, keep them in the bar so that they keep drinking. So I’ll put it out there to anyone who might be reading this blog: what do you think the role of the DJ should be? To lay down the funky yet familiar tunes we’ve all heard a million times before but which never fail to make a dance floor move, or to serve as an arbiter of taste and conductor into new musical realms? What do you want to hear when you go out dancing, and what moves you to get on up on the dancefloor? Do you think that there's such a thing as "gay music," or is it all just a big set of stereotypes that we should move beyond?

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