"It's All in the Mix"
Two pop music writers trace the history of the disc jockey.
Review By MIM UDOVITCH - NYT's September 3, 2000
LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE:
In ''Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey,'' Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton make the point that the man (and it usually is a man) who spins the platters has to be something of an obsessive: ''To become a good D.J., you have to develop the hunger,'' they write. ''You have to search for new records with the insane zeal of a gold-rush prospector digging in a blizzard. . . . You shouldn't be able to walk past a thrift store without worrying what classic rarity you might have missed nestling among those Osmonds LP's. Your blood pressure should jump a little at the thought of slitting open a 12-inch square of shrink-wrap.
People will find you boring, your skin will start to suffer, but you will find solace in long, impenetrable conversations with fellow junkies about Metroplex catalog numbers or Prelude white labels.''
Brewster and Broughton, both writers and editors for an array of American and British music magazines, have written a lively and -- to anyone with a more than casual interest in the history of popular music in the latter half of the 20th century -- necessary volume. They're concerned primarily with the club D.J., as opposed to the radio D.J., a figure whose autonomy as a taste maker, such as it ever was, has been on the decline almost since the beginning.
The club D.J., as Brewster and Broughton thoroughly and entertainingly demonstrate, is not only the unsinging but also the unsung hero of popular music. He has championed records that no one else believed in, and developed techniques of presentation that later became standard tools of production and mixing. At the peak of his profession, he is an artist himself.
While making a career out of the almost oxymoronic practice of playing records live, he has had a revolutionary impact on the course of recorded music itself, from sock hop to rave, and from the seaside resorts of northern England in the early 1970's to the block parties of the Bronx in the 1980's to the global techno of the present.
''Last Night a DJ Saved My Life'' takes its title from a dance single by Indeep. (''There's not a problem that I can't fix, cause I can do it in the mix,'' intones a reassuringly velvety voice in one of its recurring hooks.)
The book is a treasure trove of anecdotes, mostly eyewitness accounts, that evoke the lengths to which crowds of drug-fueled people dancing to records -- and the people who play those records for them -- will go to take it higher. The aficionados of England's Northern Soul movement, an almost devotional sect dedicated to amphetamines and obscure soul music, would drive for hours to hear previously unheard R & B tracks from the States that had flopped in their original release.
The fiercely proprietary D.J.'s of Northern Soul, as well as Jamaica's toasters and M.C.'s and the earliest proponents of hip-hop, would steam labels off rare discs to outfox any competing D.J.'s who dropped by to see what that irresistible little track they'd been hearing might be. The D.J.'s who originated hip-hop at neighborhood parties in the 80's practiced their manual dexterity with a turntable until they could reliably hit just the word ''good'' from the chorus of Chic's ''Good Times'' simply by eyeballing the grooves.
One of the book's many incidental values is that in documenting the history of the D.J. it also documents the rise and fall of various underground dance music cultures. This is an especially welcome undertaking in the case of disco, an often maligned genre that in its pre-Studio 54 commercial-blitz phase was a utopian experience for the largely minority, largely gay crowd who patronized places like New York's Paradise Garage.
The authors are more equivocal regarding the effect on the D.J. of techno and its offshoots. The music heard in clubs today -- whether you call it drum-and-bass, house, trip-hop or any other of the subcategorical tags under which it's blowing the roof off a given dump on a given night -- is usually sample-based and electronically composed, and is therefore a D.J.'s product as well as his province.
The popularity of these forms has elevated the D.J. to new heights of renown and income. Brewster and Broughton draw both a pessimistic conclusion and an optimistic one from this development. In the first, corporate capitalism slaps down the hands you've thrown in the air before you've had the chance to wave them like you just didn't care, the music is corrupted by commerce and the revolution is over. In the second, a thriving dance underground continues to diversify and the global D.J. rocks the planet to its ever-quickening beats.
The tenacious vitality of one club scene after another as recounted in these pages seems like a good enough reason to choose the optimistic ending. And the fact that the authors conclude their book with it suggests that for them it is more prediction than wishful thinking that the new millennium will continue to produce people whose peculiar genius it is to unite a crowd in its desire to get up on the downstroke. So come on, everybody. Get up.
Mim Udovitch is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.
Read The Second Chapter: 'Last Night a DJ Saved My Life' --Covers the early years of DJing http://channel.nytimes.com/books/first/b/brewster-dj.html
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