Saturday, May 01, 2004


[Note: I've modified this post a little since originally posting it on Saturday]

DJing is a little like being a professor. You pick the text -- or song --- and then you ask people to respond. They interpret your choice, and communicate with you as well as with people around themselves. If some people respond, even others who may not have got you might take it upon themselves to "learn" the song (or text) at hand. Then you get ready -- before they are -- and prepare the next thing, in your headphones, in your head. Sometimes you use a formula, or have obvious thematic or formal continuities to guide you: one kind of beat leads to another, one kind of poem leads to another. In the end, you have an incredible amount of control over their experience, even if most of what you are doing is in fact simply presenting other people's works. (DJing and teaching are for control freaks)

Ok, so you can only go so far with this analogy. In teaching you want to challenge students as much as possible, whereas in DJing the primary goal is almost always to entertain; you can challenge people a little, but only after you've won them over. (The only exception to this is when you are DJing music that can be harder to dance to, like Drum n Bass, where it seems more important to be able to 'impress' the crowd than to get -- and keep -- everyone in motion)

I found myself DJing a very large dance party at the GPSCy bar at Yale last night. It was definitely the biggest crowd I'd ever played music for; somewhere in the vicinity of 200 people came in over the course of the evening (I would guess). There are three rooms there, and people flow freely through all of them. So our party -- put on by the South Asian Grad Students group -- drew in many people from elsewhere to come in and dance.

About half of the music I played was the traditional Punjabi music called Bhangra or hip hop amplified Bhangra. The latter sounds marginally better coming through club speakers and subwoofers, but really the magic of Bhangra is that it's just really powerful, passionate music that can make you dance even without all the frills. There were a lot of real Bhangra heads in the audience, even though the crowd was very mixed. So if even a fraction of the crowd responded well to Panjabi MC's "Dhol Jageero Da" or "Aish Karo" (both slower, heavier numbers) that energy carried the whole song. I stayed away from the music that has been popular in England for the past five years -- Asian 2-Step, or UK Asian Garage as it's sometimes called. I tend to like this music, and the beats are fast, but it simply doesn't have as much kick as the songs with traditional dhol and tumbi (or even the songs that have been remixed with hip hop). No: all you need are the beat of the dhol and tumbi, and a sense of passion and urgency in the voice of the singer (since most of the crowd doesn't know Punjabi anyways).

The other half of the music was Hindi remix and Indian pop-house. These are either new pop songs that have house beats, or old songs that have been re-mixed or entirely re-versioned to fast house beats (in the range of 135 BPM). With the former I am thinking of pop groups like Stereo Nation (I played a song from their new CD--worked like a charm), as well as songs from Shankar-Ehsan-Loy movies like "Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe" from Dil Chahta Hai and "It's the Time to Disco" from Kal Ho Naa Ho). But the biggest surprise is with the house versions of classic Hindi film songs. It seems that this genre of music has really come of age in the past 2-3 years, as have Indian dance music production values in general. So the vast majority of the songs I played in this style were produced directly in India -- not remixed abroad by remix outfits like DSNY. Some of the songs are a little cheesy ("Musu Musu"), but they have such incredible nostalgia value for people that they are winners. In India most people know, and can sing along to, somewhere in the range of 1000 Hindi songs, so they are often momentarily pleased when they first hear house remixes of Amitabh Bachchan sing-alongs like "Khaike Paan Banaras" or "Rang Barse." Or "Inhi Logon Ne," "Mere Sapnon Ki Rani," etc.

I was DJing for nearly four hours -- another record for me -- and the crowd still wanted more when the house manager told me to shut down at 2am. People seemed so grateful: DJing may be stressful, but it's much easier to hear someone say "thank you" for your work there than it is through teaching or research. I have no intention of giving up teaching, but it's nice occasionally to get a quick gratitude fix...

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: My friend Julian wrote in objecting that my emphasis on the power of the DJ is actually mistaken. As he puts it: "There is a very real way that you (the professor, the DJ) a symptom of the audience's will to party, to dance--a focus point or occasion for THEIR community, for their 'production.'" In this way of thinking, the professor/DJ has much less agency (or dominance) than the partyers (or students?) actually do; the job of the DJ is simply to read the crowd's own desire, and represent it in a timely fashion. This sounds right to me, though it might invalidate the point I make above...]