1: Confessions of a DJ
The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting. As so many of our ways of communicating with each other and experiencing the world translate to the digital and dematerialize, much is lost, and many new possibilities emerge. When people look back a hundred years from now, this time will be seen as a crucial turning point, when we went from analog to digital. Much of what is special about this transition gets articulated by music, those waves of magic that happen when the human spirit joins with technology to create vibrations that enchant us regardless of language or age, afloat between novelty and tradition and always asking to be shared. Zeitgeist heartbeats. A three-minute pop song can stop time, as sure as a three- second sample can conjure up decades of history. Music clocks the speed of our age—then runs it down or winds it up or makes it funky as the moment requires.
In the last twenty years digital technology has without question changed all aspects of music: inspiration, production, distribution, performance, reception—everything. Some of this has been for the bad, but plenty has been for the good. And these profound electronic transformations are only part of the picture. When I reflect on my life since I started DJing internationally in 2000, my head starts to spin. Who knows how many cities and time zones I’ve passed through. My wife sometimes calls me “the jet-lag king.” I’ve taken easily a thousand flights, and in each destination I’ve been surprised by on-the-ground details that complicate or outright contradict the standard media narratives about how music is changing. The more I traveled the more I saw how the ways in which we make, access, and value music have shifted, creating new social meanings that get at the heart of what it means to be alive in our wired and unpredictable time.
I’ve DJed in more than three dozen countries. What I do isn’t precisely popular in any of them, but enough people knew me and my music, and were happy to show me what mattered in their scene and why.
It’s hard to reach North Cyprus—the top slice of a tiny island in the Mediterranean 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. T he 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, including our saxophonist leader, a bassist, a drummer, a Haitian sampler-player, and a singer, Norah Jones, before she was known for anything besides being Ravi Shankar’s daughter.
When the cab dropped us off at the hotel, it was practically vacant: four liveried attendants were in the hotel casino, bored behind the empty gaming tables, and a grand total of two other paying guests—elderly British pensioners, holdovers from remembered pre-1974 days when Cyprus was undivided. I unloaded my gear and sat beside the pool, making small talk with our host, trying to figure out exactly why our band had been imported all the way from New York to play an opulent deserted island. 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 illegally 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 played the show, bought a laptop with my earnings, quit the band, and moved from New York to Madrid.
A few years earlier, I had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attending college while trying to teach myself how to be a DJ. Friends and I began throwing events in nontraditional club spaces—an architect’s studio, a cafeteria, the Boston Children’s Museum. We were actively mixing things up against the segregationist logic of Boston’s dance scene, doing such things as inviting dancehall reggae DJs to perform alongside experimental guitar bands and stocking a room with “noise toys” for audience members to participate in lo-fi electronics jam sessions. It was a fun, heady time. We were starting to draw regular crowds, and gradually I was getting competent on the decks (though I shudder to recall the spectacular mistakes I subjected everyone to in those first few years when my ideas outpaced my technical abilities by a long shot). I was able to develop my style precisely because our little scene was born from frustrations with the standard club experience: we wanted an exploratory, open space.
As I look back on those Boston days, I’m proud of our unspoken belief that if a supportive network came first, exciting musical moments would follow. Journalists love to crown royalty; magazine covers and website banners practically demand it. Yet as I’ve traveled, time and time again I’ve found myself in places where musical innovation and excitement emerge from a community experience, wherein the most groundbreaking or influential artists are rarely the most lauded.
In 2001 I recorded a three-turntable, sixty-minute mix called Gold Teeth Thief . It was deliberately all over the place: I opened with R&B futurist Missy Elliott and ended with Muslimgauze, an obscure one-man band from Manchester who layered field recordings from the Middle East over trancelike electronic beats. I uploaded the mix to 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 had moved to Madrid, happily going about my days without regular Internet access. I didn’t know what was up. A few months after the mix 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 Gold Teeth Thief mix and give it a proper release, assuming they could pay the various labels a fee of $1,000 per track. “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 get cracking. Result: “Impossible. Our lawyers laughed at us.”
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. 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, well- connected 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; live shows provide the cash. A few months after Gold Teeth Thief was posted online, I received my first real gig offer. A choreographer in Berlin wanted to fly me there, house me for a night or two, and pay me €500 to DJ. Good that he didn’t haggle over the fee—I would have done it for free. Being paid the equivalent of a month’s rent back in Madrid to mix my favorite re cords! My head spun. Little did I know that this was to be the first of many such offers; Gold Teeth Thief ended up being a great calling card.
In the years to come I would start performing in far- flung locales and cosmopolitan megacities: a sprawling, multitiered nightclub in Zagreb, a tiny gallery in Osaka, a former brothel in São Paulo, the American Museum of Natural History. All the while I was crossing paths (and in many cases collaborating) with a huge range of musicians, producers, fans, visual artists, technological visionaries, and fellow DJs from all over the world. Some of these were industry veterans who had toured the globe many times; others were teenagers leaving the confines of their sub-Saharan villages for the first time in their lives. The bottom line? I saw and learned a lot more than I would have had I stayed put in Massachusetts. Without realizing it, just as the music world was making its fitful, uncertain transition from analog to digital, I was getting a frontline education in the creative upheavals of art production in the twenty-first-century globalized world.
In 2009, almost a decade later, I appeared on a New Yorker Festival panel about the state of the music industry. The magazine had assembled delegates from every cross section of the music biz to weigh in. The panelists included a major- label bigwig, the owner of a prestigious downtown New York independent label, a veteran studio session musician (he’d played bass for everyone from Caetano Veloso to Henry Rollins), and a marketing guru who’d discovered Nirvana—and then me, I suppose as the representative of burgeoning digital culture.
I was the last to speak that afternoon, and I was a bit surprised by all that was said before I had my turn. One by one, everyone else onstage told his or her personalized version of the same story: that in the last decade the sky had fallen—the rise of digital culture had pretty much killed off every aspect of the music business, and we were left to react, defensively, to these harsh changes. Granted, I knew things were bad in a lot of ways. Around 2003 I started to see all my favorite record shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn shutting their doors. CD sales fell dramatically, and distributors and record labels were taking fewer artistic risks. Visionary musicians who for the last decade or two had been able to survive—barely—on a trickle of record-sale royalties were forced into silence and bad day jobs. As the money hunkered down around concerts and merchandise, corporations such as Live Nation started buying up independent venues across the States, replacing fan-built booking networks with a more streamlined, profit- maximizing approach. Ticket prices went up, and while live gigs continued to flourish, those profits didn’t necessarily reach the musicians sweating onstage each night. Everyone was a bit worried.
But, at the same time, my experiences have shown me that for each of the avenues closed down by the proliferation of digital technology, unexpected new pathways have opened up.