At the height of Occupy Wall Street, a DJ called Samim tweeted, “Did you know that the richest 1% of DJ´s control over 80% of the industry´s wealth and over 70% the media coverage? #occupyDJs.” Perhaps it was meant as an off-hand joke, but the fact that the DJ industry is an unbalanced place in terms of representation and equity is clearly a reality. Nothing materialized this notion more than DJ Mag’s annual Top 100 DJs list, which read like a Forbes’ top 100, but for the world’s wealthiest DJs. Many people noticed the racial, gender, and wealth imbalances of the list, which in today’s music world almost seems preposterous (or maybe not). Especially considering that house and techno music’s roots are in the black and/or queer communities of the Rust Belt urban centers of the American Midwest, it becomes a curious example of cultural appropriation.
Noticeably absent from the list was popular American DJ, Diplo, also a successful producer, record label owner, and style icon. Perhaps the reason why he didn’t show up in the list is because he explicitly prefers to align himself with a global contemporary “underground.” Most recently he has done so in a series of travel journals for Vanity Fair magazine. The first one about this past year’s Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and the latest where he “Discovers the Last True Underground Club Scene in New York.” In these travel journals Diplo makes clear his critical stance to the mainstream. But, with all the structural inequalities inherent in the industry, and qualifying statements like, “I don’t know a lot about being black and gay and cool,” Diplo’s critique mostly ends up sounding a lot like someone looking for redemption in a pure, untouched, uncontaminated, Other.
No matter where you are in the world, if there’s an underground dance scene or marginalized community nearby, Diplo, or someone like him, has or probably will “discover,” re-frame, and sell it to audiences in another part of the world. Critiques of these practices are not hard to come by. In a recent interview in GQ magazine, Diplo defended his practices, arguing that people in various global music scenes, like dancehall in Jamaica, just want their music to reach larger audiences and that he facilitates their success. At the same time, his position as cultural authority has earned him gigs producing for acts like Beyoncé and No Doubt.
I’m not a scholar of Marx, but if I applied some of his basic principles on how capitalism works, it’s not too hard to fit someone like Diplo into the role of Value appropriator and distributor (he admits as much in the GQ interview.) Instead of coming from labor, Value in this instance is “street credibility” that is harvested from these underground sub-cultures. This credibility is what allows Diplo to have a career as an internationally touring DJ, and Hollywood tastemaker. But in order for Diplo to keep his position as mediator, he must reinforce the underground (Other) status of the scene he is revealing. This is especially evident when one realizes that scenes such as dancehall, carnival, and vogue aren’t really that “undiscovered” after all. Yet, exploitation in this manner is essential to the way capitalism functions, so maybe it’s not fair to blame one individual for his role in the greater system.
While I fit into both of the groups that Diplo seems to despise (academia and journalism), I am also a global urban dance scene practitioner. Perhaps it would be useful for me to turn to an example of more progressive trends I see, to illustrate the potential of DJing as a revolutionary cultural artform.
This past March, a Twitter “beef” broke out between Diplo and New York based DJ, Venus X. The basic crux of their back-and-forth centered on the attempt of Diplo to record one of Venus’ sets. After he recorded her set, noticing that he performed a set similar to hers, and keenly aware of Diplo’s reputation for “genre discovery”, she decided to call him out for it. He claimed he was helping her get famous. She insisted that she didn’t want to be discovered.
In the time since that moment of exchange on Twitter, Venus’ popularity has grown, and she’s won the types of consulting gigs that employ Diplo. I’ve also become more familiar with her work, and while not perfect in her practice, after listening closely to two of her recent mixes, I’ve been able to clarify some of my own thoughts on what it means to be a DJ, and what differentiates her work to that of other DJs and tastemakers in similar positions in the industry.
The art of DJing is as postmodern as it gets. Its essence is appropriation. A DJ re-contextualizes pre-existing cultural expressions to resurrect or re-interpret cultural memory for an audience. For me, Diplo and Venus exemplify two different ways of doing this. Diplo has become known for taking an “unknown” culture and exposing it to the world. He mixes dominant American culture cues, with “foreign” ones, and positions himself as an in-the-know intermediary, reinforcing a separation between audience and subject. In contrast, Venus uses culture memory of both underground and mainstream cultures to create spaces for, and communicate messages to groups that are underrepresented in mainstream cultural discourse (groups that she herself is a part of.)
A few weeks ago, I heard Venus appear on DJ/rupture’s Mudd Up radio show. I enjoyed her unorthodox technical style where she slowed down (screwed) her tracks, and drummed the cue buttons on her CD-J’s to emphasize certain sections of the songs she was playing. The syrupy chopped (percussive emphasis through “turntable” tricks) and screwed (slowing down) style isn’t new (it comes from the Houston-Monterey cultural axis of Texas-Mexico border region), but Venus’ framing of it (evident through their conversation) places it in a wider genre of American (Ghetto) Gothic, that mixes elements from a vast sub-section of underrepresented American culture (Latinos, Blacks, LGBTQ folks, NYC immigrants, hood dwellers, unemployed, underemployed, drug users, and the generally economically depressed side of the American Rust Belt, not to mention women DJs!)
The day after her radio appearance, Venus released a mixtape with her partner $hane, who together make up part of the GHE20 G0TH1K crew. Still inspired by the radio appearance, I hurriedly downloaded and listened to the new mix on my A Train commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan. Towards the end of the mix, someone in the crew was sampling and chopping the dialogue that seemed familiar, from a teen movie that I couldn’t quite place. I went home and googled words that I heard from the clip, “Sebastian” and “funeral.” Up popped a clip of the final scene in the movie Cruel Intentions (I should have known better since that was in the name of the mix.)
Many of the comments on the video I saw were made by (what seemed like) teenage girls. I suddenly realized that there was a sub-section of American society that thought what in my opinion was a forgettable movie was one of the best movies of all time (clearly a success of niche marketing). And then I realized, teenage girls NEVER get repped or even really spoken to (beyond consumers of products that sell them as sex objects) in urban dance music. As the soundtrack of the movie started played the song “Bittersweet Symphony,” I made a second realization. Venus and $hane had probably just ripped the track directly off YouTube, and let the soundtrack play out to become part of the mix.
When a DJ chooses a song it’s usually from memory. The best DJs have great musical memories, and can turn the vibe of a party based on this intuition. But musical memory is different from pop-culture memory. Not having a great movie memory myself, I’ve always been amazed at people who can instantly recite movie lines. $hane and Venus’ sampling of a YouTube clip, and incorporating it into a DJ-set in a sort of reciting-movie-lines way, opens up the art of DJing to those with a more pop culture (and socially aware) intuition that exists beyond the realm of music nerds and crate diggers (like myself). By opening up the field of reference, the art of DJing suddenly becomes more inclusive, again. Additionally, by re-framing a Hollywood film, and niche pop-culture moment through their GHE20 G0TH1K lens, the crew subverts the mainstream capitalist marketing paradigm, using one of its cultural products as a way to create an oppositional collective identity in an industry dominated by straight white males.
“Western” club DJs are often too stuck in the race for global genre accumulation, to see that the practice of discovery and exposure of Other’s culture is always inevitably exploitative. In contrast, Venus X, GHE20 G0TH1K, Mike Q, and others that are doing similar work around the world today, are restoring the cultural legitimacy of the DJ by creating space for underrepresented groups to congregate, express themselves, and redistribute some of the rewards within their communities—even allowing space for people from the dominant culture (like Diplo) to participate. This is the same context that almost every mass-popular genre, like house, hip-hop, reggae, disco, and dubstep came out of. Diplo’s right that this whole DJ thing is supposed to be about community, but how does mainstream exposure benefit a community unless they have control, and the means to access the rewards from that exposure? After all, we’re all still living in a system that has oppressed many of these “discovered” communities for centuries.
As both a Western and African DJ (identities are complicated, no?), I believe that recognizing each others’ subjectivity, yet acknowledging our mutual humanity can only lead to the more globally communal future that we all are fighting and hoping for. We should dance in the world we want to live in.