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.

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