25 November 2008

Confessions of a DJ

I’ve DJed in more than two dozen countries. What I do isn’t remotely popular in any of them.

It’s hard to reach North Cyprus—the Turkish portion of the island that seceded after a war with Greece in 1974—not least because only one country, Turkey, officially recognizes it. Yet there we were, whizzing through arid country past pastel bunker-mansions, the architectural embodiment of militarized paranoia and extreme wealth, en route to an empty four-star hotel. We were going to rest for a day and then play music in the ruins of a crusader castle. It was the year 2000. I was the turntablist for an acid jazz group from New York City. The band didn’t really need a DJ, but it did need someone to signify “hip-hop,” and that was me. There were six of us—our saxophonist leader, Ilhan Irsahim; a singer, Norah Jones, before she was known for anything besides being Ravi Shankar’s daughter; a bassist, a drummer, and a Haitian sampler-player. There were four attendants in the hotel casino, bored behind the gaming tables, and only two other paying guests—British pensioners, holdovers from remembered pre-1974 days when Cyprus was undivided.

I sat beside the pool talking to our host, trying to figure out why we were there. Down the coast, thirty miles away in the haze, a tall cluster of glass-and-steel buildings hugged the shore. “What’s that city?” I asked. It looked like Miami. “Varosha,” she said. Completely evacuated in the 1974 conflict. A ghost town on the dividing line between North and South Cyprus. The only people there were UN patrol units and kids from either side who entered the prohibited zone to live out a J. G. Ballard fantasy of decadent parties in abandoned seaside resorts.

If North Cyprus represented the forgotten side of a fault line of global conflict, how were we getting paid? Who owned those scattered mansions that we saw on the way from the airport? Was our trip bankrolled with narco-dollars, to please the criminals hiding out in an empty landscape, or with Turkish state funding, to win tourists back? I never found out. I bought a laptop with my earnings, quit the band, and moved from New York to Barcelona.

DJed music develops in the great centers: London, New York, Paris. But the artists make much of their living in forays to the periphery. To state culture bureaus, our music sounds like art and the “avant-garde,” a means of prestige. To kids coming of age in a world of technology and unhinged capitalism, our music seems to sound the way global capital is—liquid, international, porous, and sped-up.

Yet our sounds are also a vocabulary for those who detest the walled-off concentrations of wealth, and steal property back: the collectives that build their own sound systems, stage free parties, and invite DJs to perform. The international DJ becomes emblematic of global capitalism’s complicated cultural dimension. On flights and at the free Continental breakfasts in hotels, often the same soul-destroying hotel chains in each city, we get stuck chatting with our fellow Americans and Western Europeans, the executives eager to find compatriots. We make small talk with these consultants and deal-makers in the descending elevators in the evening—then go out to the city’s dead-end and unowned spaces or its luxury venues to soundtrack the night of the region’s youth, hungry for something new. DJ music is now the common art form of squatters and the nouveau riche; it is the soundtrack both for capital and for its opposition.


As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it’s what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it’s largely illegal.

In 2001 I recorded a three-turntable, sixty-minute mix called Gold Teeth Thief. I put it on the internet so my friends could listen. Who else would? One magazine reviewed it, then another, and soon a lot of magazines, leading to hundreds of thousands of downloads. Meanwhile, I was in Madrid without regular internet access. I didn’t know what was up. A few months after it went online, I got a phone call from a large European independent label. I’d used one of their songs on the mix. They loved it! It was the best DJ session they’d heard in ages! They wanted to license the mix, assuming they could pay the various labels a fee of $1,000 per track. (There were eighteen tracks on the run list.) “That’d be fantastic,” I said, “but pretty expensive. I use forty-four different songs on it. Some of those are major pop tunes, and a bunch are unlicensable bootlegs. It’d be a nightmare to do legally.” They insisted that I send a complete track list so that their legal department could decide. Result: “Impossible. Our lawyers laughed at us.”

If I were a band, and Gold Teeth Thief an album, not a mix, that would have been my big break. A powerful label, big advance fees, wellconnected publicists, a coordinated tour. But it’s more common for even a popular DJ to receive a cease-and-desist order than to get a mix-album deal with a large label.

It’s hard to care. Viral culture doesn’t play well with intellectual property laws. I knew Gold Teeth Thief couldn’t enter the commercial world when I did it. I didn’t need it to. Word-of-mouth buzz and bootleg mixes are the DJ’s symbolic currency; gigs provide the cash. I’ve toured well in countries where my music wasn’t available for purchase—people had heard it. On his first visit to Moscow, a rapper friend named Sole found his own music bootlegged in a black-market mall. In fact, the place is called the Black Market Mall. He was thrilled, and with good reason—that night’s audience sang along word for word. He was able to tour. Metaphors of the “underground” and codifications of the “commercial” mean less and less with MySpace.

Economics favor the DJ. A club can make an event out of one bigname DJ plus local support, and pay just the headliner. (And DJing can make for a long night of drinks-buying: in a rare example, eight hours of nonstop entertainment from a particularly famous Chilean-German drugged-up minimal techno superstar.) A popular indie band would have to be paid vastly more for each member to walk away with similar earnings. Plus it’s only one plane ticket for the DJ; the band needs to drive, needs roadies, et cetera. Even in cheapskate America—a country notoriously apathetic toward DJ culture (which it created!)—upper-echelon techno DJs have received, say, $18,000 for a three-hour club performance in Manhattan. That’s $100 a minute. But only a few dozen DJs worldwide can command those fees. The much more common scenario is that of the DJ who plays for free drinks and cab fare, never earning more than he spends on records.

Continued in Issue 7.

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