Unlike musicians, most DJs don’t need a mic during their sets. This means less banter between songs. It also means they communicate with the audience almost entirely through their music.
Wanting to hear their voice, I asked several local club DJs whether they considered themselves to be musicians. And, lo and behold! I was flooded with thought-provoking answers, which I’ve attempted to mix together. Kind of like a DJ, with 11 turntables...
On the most basic level, the argument in favor of DJs as musicians is best summed up by Underground favorite Dynamite Sol: “Absolutely yes! By definition, a ‘musician’ is one who composes, conducts or performs music, especially instrumental music and especially as a profession.”
As the answers got more specific, many focused on the ambiguity of the title itself.
The term “DJ” no longer just refers to a jockey of discs. In today’s common use, it encompasses everything from the lowly “human iPod” (Joe Ray Sandoval) and “human jukebox” (AudioBuddha), to the more respectable “sonic curator” (DJ Dirt Girl) and “producer” (CP2).
Unlike producers (those who compose beats and songs via sampling and/or electronic devices), CP2 thinks that most DJs today are “just really involved fans.” He explains: “With the rise of really nifty software and hardware, it’s easier than ever to bring a controller to a party, plug in and play.”
Technological advancements have definitely made it simpler for people to break into the world of DJing.
Conversely, Dirt Girl points out that these same “developments in technology have made DJ controllers more and more instrument-like.”
To be more than just a human ’Pod, DJs need to master their instrument-like controllers through practice, just as a pianist masters the keyboard through running scales.
Regarding these technical skills, house and techno mainstay Melanie Moore says, “When I play one track, I mix in a second track and create a third track from the marriage of the two; in my opinion, this combination of turntable skill and creativity makes a DJ a musician.”
Gettysburg agrees. The former Matador regular says DJs are only musicians when “they’re using the turntable to generate new sounds…like the ‘turntablist’ DJs from the ’80s and ’90s who used pitch/speed adjustments, mixer controls (fader, EQ, kill switch) and scratching to make new sounds.”
He is echoed by Limn: “The biggest thing is the idea of a DJ versus a turntablist—one who uses a turntable to play someone else’s music versus using it to make unique sounds and compositions as one would a musical instrument.”
Of course, sometimes there’s no need to distinguish between DJs and musicians. Many are both, including reggae-man Don Martin: “This DJ is a musician,” he says; Twisted Groove’s Spinifex: “I am a musician and play drums in a few bands in town”; and Rouge Cat’s Oona: “Most DJs I know, including myself, play a musical instrument.”
Oona goes on to explain how being an instrumental musician impacts her DJ work: “A lot of musical talent goes into the process of crafting a set…In order to do that well, I am conscious of keys, phrasing and beats per minute.”
This “party-maker” (CP2) aspect of DJing creates a cohesive experience for audience members in the same way a well-thought-out setlist unifies a band’s performance. Joe Ray Sandoval sums it up nicely: “DJs who use turntables as instruments for beat matching, blending, manipulation and song selection to create a musical experience are musicians.”
Not all agree. Spinifex considers “keeping the dance floor full and dancing” to be “an art,” but concludes, “I’m not sure if I would consider myself a musician in that context.”
Whether keeping the dance floor full makes a DJ more musician-like is debatable, but it’s central to AudioBuddha’s definition of “a great DJ.”
In his opinion, this is someone who “will take you on a musical journey, often combining musical elements that at first you may not think will work, but under their capable hands, combine to form a musical unity.”
The idea of the great DJ made me think. Maybe the comparison between musician and DJ was flawed to begin with—why assume that a DJ would aspire to be anything other than a better DJ?
Limn had the same reaction: “What you should consider is whether or not the people claiming to be DJs actually deserve that title. And whether DJs actually want to be considered musicians.”
For DJ bios click here.