· 8 min read
Klang Mix 001: Against Crate Digging
Written and Mixed by Jake Williams
A DJ mix made from recordings of other DJs’ Instagrams, Shazam’d tracks, the Beatport top 10 chart, and everything else the comments section for Boiler Room and Resident Advisor tells you not to do. Features extensive use of the ‘sync button’ and low quality Youtube rips.
Recently, a video promoting the DJ OK Williams’ (no relation) upcoming show at the London club Phonox appeared in my Facebook feed. The clip was of her playing an energetic Darude-esque edit on a large festival stage. Whilst the crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves, the comments section had a different mood. Williams, a young Black woman, was getting heat from predominantly white, middle-aged men for the types of scene-ruining transgressions that will be familiar to those who have spent time in online spaces for vinyl purists:
- DJs have lost the art of ‘crate digging’ (the obsessive search for rare vinyl records).
- DJs now just rip off other DJs’ sets, use music discovery apps like Shazam (the accusation being that these apps can only identify commercial music), rip music in low quality from Youtube, and only play tracks sourced from the Beatport top ten chart.
- DJs have lost the art of ‘beat matching’ (manually getting 2 records in time with each other). DJs now just use the ever-controversial ‘sync’ button (automatic tempo matching).
- DJs shouldn’t be dancing on social media, shouldn’t be on social media in general, and shouldn’t be dancing at all. Even Detroit OG Kenny Larkin recently posted that, back in his day, DJs didn’t have time to “jump around like a dork” because they were too busy beatmatching.
- DJs shouldn't own a phone, or at least not be so disrespectful as to rest one on a hallowed Technics 1210 turntable.
In these sorts of comments and posts, we see differing readings of ‘digital music’ (production, discovery, performance, promotion) used as metonyms for frustration at a world that is changing in ways the authors don’t like or understand. Many of these claims come under the banner of authenticity: music discovery and performance possibilities offered by digital technologies detract from the true craft of DJing. Popular music scholars have long argued that appeals to authenticity are often deeply tied to assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality, and that the holders of these opinions would probably deny them. However, the commenters are mostly white, straight, middle-aged men, and their claims of inauthenticity and laziness are disproportionately aimed at women of color. This is in the context of a dance music industry where structural racism is a deep reality and its major players have done little to reckon with this fact after their largely performative support for the Black Lives Matter movement. —see the excellent Technomaterialism manifesto for more on this.
However, until seeing a number of similar posts around this time, I had naively thought that this kind of online-misogyny/misogynoir in dance had shrunk back into more hidden corners of internet discussion. In an interview with Narc. Magazine in 2021, turntablist Mariam Rezaei pointed out that this is not the case, and stressed the value she places on addressing these issues regularly and directly with the new generation of DJs she is teaching. In an earlier interview in 2020 with gal-dem, OK Williams herself spoke about the considerable challenges she has faced as a black woman working in techno.
It is important to point out that I am the one who is actually sourcing tracks from other DJs’ Instagrams, the Beatport top 10, Youtube rips etc., not Williams or any of her peers. I should also add that I don’t think it would be bad if they were. A quick scan through Resident Advisors’ Art of DJing, however, reveals wildly diverse approaches to digital music collection and performance, with and without sync button, from serious artists who work very hard at their craft. There are certainly DJs out there that are as talentless, lazy, and narcissistic as the commenters are suggesting, but shockingly they existed before CDJs and social media, and there are still a fair few who play vinyl. Arguments around the relative value of vinyl vs digital are well-worn and intelligent critiques of how platform capitalism is reshaping the musical world are also many and varied, but I do not wish to go over this ground here.
The title Against Crate Digging has two purposes: first, to satirically reverse the terms of the scene-policing that digital DJing is subject to by the commenters; and second, to identify the novel creative possibilities afforded by digital DJ technology.
When exploring the creative possibilities of contemporary DJ gear, an obvious starting point is the freedom to play any audio file. As my interest lies in soundscape composition, my first impulse is to play with field recordings, particularly field-recorded music. So far, this has included recording music heard playing from bluetooth speakers in my area during lockdown, as well as various real world spaces mediated by the internet, such as Twitch streams and sex chat rooms. Sonically, I find this interesting because the music takes on the reverberant qualities of the space where it is playing, is blended with the other sounds in the environment, and is affected by the mediating technologies, like speakers, recorder, and internet compression algorithms.
This is similar to the film sound design technique Walter Murch called ‘worldizing.’ Murch, who is also a musique concrète composer, developed the technique on the film American Graffiti. He would play music from the soundtrack through speakers onto the set and re-record it, lending the resulting audio the sonic equivalent of what cinematographers call depth-of-field. It is an improvisatory practice because it’s a collaboration with unpredictable elements, both in the environment and the technology. This is similar to the studio recording technique ‘re-amping,’ where audio is played through specific amplifiers in a live room and recorded both as solo channels and as room recordings, although ‘worldizing’ picks up a lot more additional environmental sound.
The second part of my process is using Shazam to identify as much of the music playing in the recordings as possible. This has an over 50% hit rate, which is impressive, and refutes the often-commented claim that it is only good for discovering pop/commercial tracks. I find this to be a fascinating way of discovering music, a digital form of crate digging if you will, but it also allows for the blending of the ‘worldized’ versions with the originals. This opens up possibilities for expressive, textural transitions and on-the-fly remixes. For this mix, given the conceptual starting-point, the obvious choice was to use clips of DJs playing at festivals and clubs I’ve found on Instagram. This gives some purpose to my obsessive scrolling of DJs’ profiles (which, since COVID has vicariously replaced going out), and the sonic qualities of the clips are interesting as many of them are lofi phone recordings.
In their much-cited text Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, Broughton and Brewster stress the importance of the crate digger mentality for DJs. You “have to develop an excitement for vinyl that verges on a fetish.” They are often suspicious of DJ academics and would probably raise an eyebrow to my conceptual, anti-digging approach. It is true that some academics who write about dance music and culture seemingly utilize theoretical constructs to justify why the dance music they like is more important than the stuff they don’t. Dubstep or UK Funky are not sufficiently new/joyous/revolutionary/part of a continuum, for example. I am, however, deeply suspicious of the idea that you have to be some kind of musical expert (in the collector sense) to be a good DJ. In this instance, Broughton, Brewster, and the academics they criticize are making the same mistake, for they place too much focus on the music itself, rather than the dancers and the environments that the music is played in. Whilst UK Funky and Dubstep are both sick and important, what is more interesting to me about DJing is the improvisation that happens when, as DJ Spooky puts it, “content meets context.”
One of the amazing things about DJing is how the same piece of recorded music can have radically different meanings depending on where it is played and to whom. In Music in Everyday Life, Tia Denora describes this as the listener and the music reconstituting each other in real time. This is perhaps most apparent in the joyful and emancipatory use of mainstream pop edits on subaltern queer dancefloors. This gives us another angle on the practice of ‘worldizing’ — that the most important part of the improvisatory practice is playing recorded music in a space with people. To be fair, Broughton and Brewster nail this when they say that “the truth about DJing is that it is an emotional improvisational art form.” It is, however, possible for this truth to push hard against what might be considered as ‘good taste.’
This brings me to my inclusion of tracks from the Beatport top 10 chart. It's not just the Jeremy Clarkson-like trolls who view the Beatport chart as basic- many self-respecting underground DJs wouldn’t go anywhere near it either. They view what is to be found there as fodder for mainstream commercial mega-clubs and Las Vegas VIP rooms only. Well, I’m here to tell you there are, in fact, some bangers in the Beatport chart that I would not have discovered unless this project had led me there. Any excessive breakdown/build up elements can be easily circumvented with digital DJ technology if required. I played an IRL version of this mix at Runt of the Litter, a London queer performance art night where I am the resident DJ, and these tracks got some of the best responses. No wonder they are popular.
This mix is a partial recreation of what I played on that night and, as any DJ will tell you, it is very difficult to capture the feeling of a social setting alone in your bedroom. I make no great claims for it other than it’s a fun and interesting way to navigate the endless, sometimes overwhelming, world of digital music and to think through some of the political issues connecting music, people and the environment. As electronic music polymath Elijah recently posted, “more people casually djing is good for music” and I would agree wholeheartedly. The truth is not that we have lost something authentic from DJ culture, it is that the true creative possibilities are as yet under-explored.
Huge respect to the artists whose Instagrams I raided for this mix, all of whom are superb DJs (much better than myself) and you should check them out at any opportunity: TTB, Anuraag, Jubilee, Kerry Chandler, LB, Ben UFO, Objekt, Peach, JLTE, Ahadadream.
Bye Tamika - African-American Sound Recordings
Acid Lines - Artwork
Brighter Days (Marco Lys Remix) - Cajmere & Dajae
Live Your Life with Me (Narcotic Dub) - Corrina Joseph
What Have You Done Lately (1999) - Large Joints
Taboo (MJ Cole Full Vocal Mix) [feat. Shola Ama]- Glamma Kid
Marianela (Extended Mix) -Hugel, Merk & Kremont, Lirico En La Casa
Unknown (from Objekt post)Infinity - Priori
Sidewindah (Extended Mix) - Gorgon City feat. Flirta D
2M3 2U -Joy Orbison
Welcome To Ghana ft. Bryte - Hagan
(feat. Tenor & Dj Amaroula) - DJ P2N
Jake cut his teeth playing live electronics with the Warp-signed avant-jazz band Red Snapper, as well as creating music and sound design for major TV shows and producing the occasional well-received techno record. He now works as a composer, improvisor, researcher, and educator with a particular interest in radical creative applications of digital DJ technology. He has performed extensively in the UK and abroad, both solo and as part of many collaborative music, audio-visual, and live art projects. He is currently the resident DJ at London performance art night Runt of the Litter.
http://www.jfbwilliams.com / @jakeoneuk