DJs and Turntablism – are hipsters and laptops killing the art form?

Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on…no really. I mean a fucking record. you know, those vinyl thingies that old timey people used to play?

While having dinner with Ian last night, the topic of dj culture came up. The electro, hose, nu-rave scene has burst like a serato pinata here in LA, and in NYC as well. Now, I’m always a champion for new music and creative outlets…but it seems to me there is a glut in the market. It’s like that Jack Black joke in the Tenacious D pilot, about aspiring musicians… (paraphrasing) “if you suck, and we ask you to stop, you must stop!” Lately I can’t walk into a bar without screaming FOR THE LOVE OF KRISHNA, PUT THE I POD DOWN!

It seems that with the nightly dance parties in heavy supply, anyone, and I do mean anyone, with a laptop and i tunes is now a DJ. So where does that leave the DJs who have been doing it for years? What does it mean to be a DJ? Is it style? Are you a DJ if you can scratch? Is it substance? Does being a DJ constitute having a good selection and crate digging your heart out? Or can you get by if you get the crowd to dance by playing Thriller and Justice off your Nano? And is it any great feat to get a bunch of kids cracked out on Sparks to sway and slam to a beat? Ugh.

Does a good music producer make for the best DJ? Or is it shiny stickers spelling out your name on the back of your laptop? I’m an on air radio DJ and I spin at some of the local clubs, in between bands. I spin mostly rock and punk, so I don’t get asked to be on the hipster club bills. Does this make me less of a DJ? OK, don’t answer that last question.

Ian mentioned that some of these club promoters/indie label owners/hipsters in American Apparel DJs, have their own booking agent. And big time bookers too. What makes someone pay thousands of dollars to have a specific DJ flown in for a party? Is it name recognition? Does a lot of website party photo ops constitute recognition? Or do you need to be seen walking the red carpet with the Good Charlotte boys? And why do some of these hipster dj duos think that they’re famous?

One unnamed duo, who have recently gotten a bit of local hype, claim that their fame is wearing on them. Heavy is the head that wears the black leather fedora. Woe is the electro boy in a Members Only jacket. Too much fame! How do they get up everyday and lace their free Puma kicks? Now I’m sure you couldn’t pick them out of a line up. Nor are they gracing the covers of any magazines. In fact, if you took them out of the insular LA/NYC scene, no one would know who they are. But they behave that their lazy re-mixes are an art form so great that they should be given the VIP treatment wherever they go. I smile as I wonder how long these ‘famous’ guys would last in a spin off versus someone like Pete Rock.

Which begs the question: Is DJing an art form? What does it take to make something art? By playing someone else’s music, are you then too a musician? How much do you have to change a piece of music to make it your own? How many seconds of a sample can you use in order to patchwork together a song? Is cutting together a track of samples any less artful than editing sound of instruments being played in a studio?

In my moonlighting as a clothing designer for Rock-N-Role, I take vintage cast offs, de-construct them and make them into something new. I consider that designing, but I’m sure the people at Parsons would consider it cheating or whatnot. One of my favorite artists, Banksy, often takes pre-existing works and adds his own cheeky flair. Is that not real art?

If you’re a DJ with your own album out, ala Junkie XL, or Cut Chemist, does that set you apart from the popular kids who speed up a Justice track and call it a new mix? Where does the line get drawn? I believe that the great Steinski is an artist the way he blends together bits and pieces of old movie quotes, Zapruder film audio and beats…but he can’t legally sell The Lessons. So sales and charting can’t be the only measure of a man (or woman).

Someone like Shadow, who can keep a crowd going and has a flair for ‘spinning plates’, certainly earns the respect and worship of many…but is his art form cheapened by an up and comer serato spinner in a hyphy crunk hoodie and neon wayfarers? Or is there room for both?

A lot of the old school dj/turntablists that I’ve interviewed are very careful not to slam serato. “It means I don’t have to carry 80 pounds worth of records on the airplane with me.” said one. But they do say that you can’t polish a turd; meaning if you kill on the decks with 45s, then you’ll be great with serato. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you will still suck. Technology can sink or swim you.

I personally give more respect to the record collectors, or ‘vinyl trekkies’ as Kid Koala calls them. Spending hours and hours at odd hours, digging through dusty crates connotes a certain commitment to the craft, as well as an obvious love for music and sense of musical history. But is any of that important when faced with 200 electro/emo hispters who ‘just wanna dance’? What do you play to those kids…what you like or what they want to hear? And whatever happened to street cred?

I’m just playing hipster’s advocate here, trying to get a discussion going…

…but it seems to me that a lot of these new DJs are in it for fashion…or perhaps because it pays better than working at Urban Outfitters and the hours and drugs are the perks they’re looking for. How many of the new DJS consider what they’re doing an actual craft or career, and how many are just in it to be pimped by Scion or Nylon. If we could send a camera crew to each of their homes, would we find them listening to music in their off hours? I mean really listening to music. Pushing their boundaries and searching for the next sample that will blow our minds.

Speaking of blowing minds, I couldn’t discuss the tables without including this from Kid Koala…he plays a record like it were a violin. And he spins without headphones! If this is an art form, Koala is masterful:

31 thoughts on “DJs and Turntablism – are hipsters and laptops killing the art form?

  1. looked what happened to graphic art, photography, journalism and film production and anything else that can be touched by a computer.

    Change happens, what was once a closed ‘industry’ due to a significant barrier to entry becomes a professional amateur endeavor. And it changes the practice of the art form for everyone too.

    It opens the field to more people and thus places greater importance on self promotion, marketing, and higher turnover of people and content.

    Of course people who DJ by hand can always play the authenticity and time honored skill angle to those niches that pay attention to it.

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  4. YO I agree with this article for the mos part. Cats are all of sudden coming out of left field with their mac laptops and I-tunes. I was doing a set with this cat last month for the 1st time and he ask me if I bought any vinyl along. I didn’t think that was a completely strange question. Next dude went on to tell me that b4 he picked up serato that he just used his laptop. Now I heard good things about this dj b4 the show however, that statment alone just killed me. In my mind that dude is not a dj in the sense that he did not learn the traditional style and values of spinning vinyl. Myself, I dropped just straight wax for my first four years of djing. It took me along time to accept serato as a dj tool. You need the program if you ever expect to make it anywhere in this industry. I just couldn’t find all the dope new tracks I find through beatport and juno mp3 searches, I mean you can download something that came out 12 hours b4 your set. I also agree that serato does not make you a good dj. Beatmatching is just the tip of the spear.


    DJ Killing Good Beats (K.G.B.)

  5. I use a laptop to do my sets and I am not a hipster trying to get a bunch of wasted emo kids to sway to the music. I’ve been DJ’ing Goa since the mid 90’s. Back then it was the same argument, only applied to cd’s instead of laptops. “If you spin cd’s, you’re not a DJ”.
    I DJ with the primary purpose of getting the crowd to dance and hopefully go on a journey during my set. I am not there to impress anyone with my skills on the decks. I spend hours and hours listening to tracks and then I apply my knowledge of those tracks to reading the crowd and knowing what to play next and how to properly phrase the tracks. I see my job as playing some quality tracks and putting them together in a way that gets people to get lost in the music and dance their arses off. I couldn’t even get good psy / goa on vinyl in this town (Austin, TX) if I wanted to. I also can’t get undergound psy on Itunes.

  6. Is DJing an art form? Absolutly

    Vinyl, cd or serato doesn’t makes you better Dj. The base is what kind of music is on these “tools”. In my point of view, Dj is the same than “Selector”. Of course I like turntablism and scratch, but tricks and technic is not all that u need to know. Listen and select is the work of the dj, djing is the “enjoy” part…

  7. No Domo Arigato mr.serrato! when will the tide of hipster crap fade? what will they leave as their mark? have they created anything new?…….I guess we’ll see later,I myself have more hope in the 18-20 somethings at this point ..Interesting article it hits the nail on the head ,and I dont feel like I’m alone with my bitching Djaying is an artform,or can be,its not a suit you put on overnight…to take pictures and post

  8. This is great. I think exactly like you. And yes, it is totally ruined. But now a daze, people want to be able to dance to the “electro” stuff and pop stuff that is much easier (for a dj) to put into an iPod as opposed to carrying crates. Let’s face it, this generation is LAZY! Another thing, a lot of these hipster kids don’t know what hard work an actual record collector has to go through and how much money is spent on a rare pressing of so and so. So what would they prefer? Going to a night of craziness at a Dim Mak party, or to a mellow night at a hole in the wall bar where the dj is playing some Korean funk and the crowd consist of four people, including the bartender and the dj? (Which is what I prefer, seeing as I’m a record collector myself) But we shouldn’t blame these “kids” for what they don’t know. They should be “old-skooled” (since it is an retro art form) and taught that most of their pop, hip hop would not have existed if it were not for them sampling Curtis Mayfield on a Kanye West hit or Herb Alpert on a B.I.G hit. So with that, the kids are gonna keep playing Serrato until an easier, more lazier form of “appliance” is created, and I, along with the rest of the broke ass record collectors, will continue searching for that Wimple Winch 45, and live happily ever after…..:^)
    -Karla Patricia

  9. I agree. The trouble in the UK is how to sodding find records in good condition that don’t cost a mint. Im in the lucky position of having inherited hundreds of records from my parents. I just went to a swap ‘n roll meeting in London thats trying to encourage DJs/ people not impressed by generation download to recycle old music. . Do you think its easier in America to find pre 60s vinyl?

    1. I think it’s hit or miss in the US. You really need to dig and find collectors for stuff that’s not picked over or incredibly marked up. I know cats like Pete Rock and Cut Chemist do most of their crate digging in Japan – I don’t think I’ll be over there any time soon.

      Thanks for reading!


  10. i do and dont agree with your post. It annoys me as much as the next person seeing a hipster wannabe dj relying on the sync button in their pre-rehearsed sets. Being relatively new to the dj game (at the ripe old age of 22) i can only imagine the frustration of seeing masses of these new dj’s relying on software after being raised on 2 decks and a mixer style skills of the years gone by. However not all fresh faced kids are the tight jeans wearing pricks who only got into the game to play at clubs and get noticed, some do it for the music. I, for example, am one day hoping to get hold of serato for the simple fact that i cant afford to, and dont have the time to re-purchase my music collection in wax. I originally started mixing on a laptop but was soon determined to learn how to mix properly and saved to get a 2nd hand pair of 1210’s. i feel those compelled to learn how to mix by ear will keep the art form alive and those who dont are simply in a fad and will eventually quit. for that reason alone im completely in favour of software and the millions of practical applications it brings. the disadvantages they bring namely the hipster wannabe’s are simply the price of this transition period.

  11. Interesting topic. In my opinion, you are separating two groups: new DJs and veteran DJs.

    Seems the aggravation stems from new DJs using digital format. You praise the veteran DJ for playing vinyl. Veteran DJs use the digital realm to their advantage and will rock and twist out some major issh digitally. Veteran DJs spent the time, diggn, playn vinyl, beat matching, etc…. they go digital, they heard it all, seen it all. You’re cool, we get it.

    The NEW DJs going all digital just don’t know, they haven’t seen it all, they are trend based and don’t know what it’s like to spend all day diggn in crates for 3 records. Some will rise, some will fall……. the un-experienced DJs are fueling the downfall of a genre that will all sound the same and die, flooded market for free MP3s. It’s just a bad time to enjoy, news sounds. Everyone is revisiting, remixing, redoing now or the past. Less people are searching for the next. If you’re digital or analog, who cares.

    “You can’t blame the youth”….Bob Marley? Technology is still good for us all, you just have to spread awareness of history and re-enforce old fashion ideas of checking skills and traditions. Blame the new clubs, the new promoters, the new web sites…. they are part of the problem. Seems a better title for this topic would be, “New DJs: Followers not Leaders.”_A

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  13. Your article brings up a lot of interesting questions pertaining to the kind of space a DJ should/shouldn’t occupy at this time, but as you asked before… what does it REALLY mean to be a DJ? I understand the lineage before me (being 23 years old) has left an incredible history and a sort of unabashed iconography related to Turn-tables, vinyl, the needles, scratching, etc. but I think there is a lot of undiscussed concepts and technologies that have yet to be mentioned in this thread. I don’t think we NEED to rely on a method of utilizing two modules anymore (being turntables or CDJ’s). I think it makes it convenient to show up to a club or a party of any kind with your CD book… but that’s only because EVERYONE ELSE is doing it.

    So what am I talking about in this case? I’m talking about live production. YES. We have so many tools, synths, sequencers, and software… more than ever that allow this opportunity and i’m curious as to why more people aren’t pursuing this. Is OUR generation really that LAZY? I would almost be inclined to saying yes to that as well based on the lack of exploration into these new and exciting methods of creation. I think it’s interesting in most cases for a DJ to play a track that a certain crowd knows about, or a slightly obscure track that has a deep and historical cult following of some kind, but in this day and age, producing should be imperative. I’ve actually never DJ’d quite yet only because I’m skeptical about how I would handle a live performance. Although, I can say that I’ve been producing for years and I understand the mechanics of sound creation and the formation of layers. With Matrix sequencers, 8 channel mixers, Ableton, etc. Why do we continue to base our definition of the DJ on records and tracks produced by other artists?

    As I said before pre-produced material is not a bad thing at all, especially if it’s your own material!! I really do think this practice in some way should be continued….. but if you’re going to stand out.. and if you’re really ABOUT THE MUSIC, I think it’s imperative to look into a live performance mechanism that works for you, and can be conjoined with records/CD’s/etc. It’s going to take A LOT of creativity to come up with just hte SETUP and I’ve often thought about creating my own language that involves the transitions between independent sounds from independent sources (whether it be my KORG EMX, MASCHINE, or my Ableton Live Midi sequencer). There are so many options when you start thinking on these terms and with this said, the Labtop Vs. Vinyl argument is such a waste of time.

  14. im not biased about who uses whatever…as long as they dont suck. I used vinyl, laptops, and cds. Sometimes its just more convenient. But what it HAS done, i believe, is let a bunch of people into the field who ordinarily wouldnt be anywhere NEAR a dj booth because of the commitment to the craft….both financially, and timewise). DJ’s used to have to hunt down records, spend 10 bucks a pop on wax (at least), spend hours pulling a set…so therefore the greater part of the DJ community were people that were devoted to the culture. Laptop “culture” has allowed a lot of fly by nights into the realm who have spent no time amassing a collection, learning the true art of the craft (beatmatching etc),, and have definatley paid NO dues putting in hours of performance time. A lot of these new kids now literally think as soon as the get a laptop, steal some files, and slap some stickers on their computer they are ready to take the world by storm. Lappies have defn8ly made things way too easy for peoplel who dont really have the love and only are in it for the shine

  15. You are definitely asking all of the right questions. I am a real d.j. refuses to use anything but my technics and mixer. I think the main reason most of the guys that truly know his to spin are using computers and cds today is mainly for convene cuz they have lugged all that equipment around for so long. Now as for these new schoolers with all ther devices that’s all good and great but you better learn how to spin a record before the words, “I’m a d.j.” even begin to form on your young virgin lips.

  16. Personally I think this is just another old man ranting about new technology. If you don’t like it tough. Turntables are awesome I first learned to spin on them, but it’s completely unnecessary in today’s time. Digital is here to stay like it or not.

    I also realize this post is about “everyone thinks they’re a DJ.” Who cares? If they are they are if they aren’t mock them, and laugh it off. Spend your time you set aside for ranting about how much you hate new technology and kids stealing gigs from you towards your career as a DJ.

    Good post, and I respect what your opinion, but show some PLUR.

    Brian Smithers
    Cosmic Rift


  17. laptops are killing the art of djing, of course. Besides, computers doesn’t encourage creativity or skill of the dj. ait’s a really shame!

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