When I was in New York last week someone tried to introduce me to DJ Rekha (that’s her with the headphones on), prefacing the move with, “she’s one of the hottest DJs in the city!”
I politely declined, partly because Rekha was already holding court with a small gaggle of admirers, and partly because the curmudgeon in me was asserting itself. I was busy asking myself, “how and why does a DJ become a celebrity?”
My limited understanding of the history of dance music leads me to conclude that the ascent of the DJ began in Manchester in the early 90s, with the birth of the rave scene, probably in the Hacienda Club, home of several of my favourite musical acts of all time (e.g., New Order). There, for the first time, party goers began applauding the DJ, someone who had previously remained anonymous in the background, simply pushing buttons and changing records in accordance with a predetermined playlist.
(Yes, I know, DJ-ing was a lot more than that prior to the 90s. I saw Wild Style, too. I’m talking about the mainstream here.)
Okay, this is where I’m going to get into trouble. All kinds of people are going to be mad at me for writing this, but here goes… Coupled with the explosion of hip hop sampling culture, the rise of the DJ represents, to me, a very sad general trend in society: “meta-art”, or the celebration not so much of the creation of content, but rather of its presentation and re-organization.
Don’t get me wrong. This is in no way a repudiation of Rekha or of other DJs whose work I enjoy, such as Ottawa’s own Emily Jones. I accept that the mixing of beats is a particular hard-won skill, one that I certainly do not possess. But is it merely a technical skill or something truly akin to an artistic talent, and thus worthy of the adoration typically afforded the creators of content, i.e. actual musicians? I’m skeptical, probably because most DJs I know simply play records then boast about how well they played them.
This is in stark contrast to those who actively remix, blend and cough up entirely new songs based upon fragments of existing ones. I still reserve the lion’s share of my adoration for those who created the content originally, but some respect must be given to someone who can see the potential in an extant work, and who can tease out an element from it that no one suspected was ever there. Trance music, a whole new genre, arose as a result of the diligent work of dedicated DJs.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who simply play records, and maybe match some beats in the process. Nothing wrong with that; but is it art?
There is a similar phenomenon in academia: the editing of books. In lieu of actually creating a published work with one’s own ideas and words, one can instead choose to solicit submissions from other writers and collect them into a single volume, placing one’s name where the tome’s singular author should appear, prefaced in small print with, “edited by.”
It’s no small feat to edit a book. It takes time, effort, passion, an understanding of the material and an organizational acumen. But, in my opinion, it is ultimately a feat of administration –yes, a minor intellectual feat, but in no way an artistic undertaking; whereas the writing of the actual papers or stories that make up the collection is a true act of creation. DJ-ing, in most cases, is editing for the audiophile set…
…Or so I was thinking as I attended a party at The Cobourg, a bar in downtown Toronto. Ironically, the party was the birthday celebration of my friend Gurbir Jolly, who has also edited two books in which my own materials appear. Then my ears were struck by the sound of a grand mash-up, one that I had to interrogate the DJ about. No, he had not created it himself, but had stolen it from the greatest dance DJ in the world, Paul Oakenfold. So I grudgingly had to accept that the world of meta-art can produce some true innovators, Oakenfold and, of course, Emily Jones and Rekha among them.
I have previously written in this space about my favourite mash-ups. The Oakenfold one is among the best. It’s called “Rapture Riders” and is a combination of Blondie’s “Rapture” and The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm.” If you can’t see the video below, click here to visit its YouTube page.
So what does all this mean? Am I convinced that DJ-ing, editing and other forms of “meta art” are indeed acts of creation? I need more data, more examples. I will say this, though: given how much I enjoy listening to mash-ups, I can’t believe book editors haven’t yet attempted to mash-up essays and stories. How would you match beats, though?