“Button pushing” DJs in the spotlight at EMC 2012

At last week’s inaugural Electronic Music Conference in Sydney, one of the first panels to stir up debate was ‘Beyond Button-Pushing: What Makes A DJ?’ The topic has been a consistent talking point in 2012. Firstly, there’s the fracas that followed Deadmau5’s Tumblr post ‘We All Hit Play’ in June, which inspired an impassioned and considered response from Bassnectar and straight-up vitriol from scene veterans Mr C and A Guy Called Gerald. Running concurrent to that debate is the phenomenon of dance music déjà vu. “It’s got to the stage where it’s all about what we call The Playlist,” said Jono Grant of Above & Beyond’s American adventures in a recent Mixmag feature. “There are about 12 records that these DJs are playing.”

That point was raised again when inthemix spoke to Dutch star Laidback Luke ahead of his Stereosonic visit (“A lot of DJs are comfortable with what they play at various festivals and are doing the same sets over and over again,” he said), and written about by Z-Trip in an inthemix Guest Editorial and A-Trak on The Huffington Post. It seemed like worthwhile territory for an EMC discussion.

Leading the panel was Sydney DJ and host of triple j’s House Party show Nina Las Vegas, joined by Laidback Luke himself and two hard-touring Australian DJs, Goodwill and Sam La More. You can watch the full panel below, which touched on the Deadmau5 blow-up, what a residency teaches a DJ and why pre-recorded sets are dinting dance music’s credibility.

On the panel, Laidback Luke spoke about his reaction to the Deadmau5 argument. “I was very blunt with him,” he told the room. “It’s basically like saying that sex is just an up and down motion without actually naming the magic of it. Trying to explain what we do in such a way is just very basic and silly.”

“I can pretty much guarantee that he’s not going out to clubs and hearing good DJs DJ,” Goodwill added. “He’s playing at festivals after DJs that do play pretty plain sets. He probably never spent much time on a dancefloor, high, listening to a DJ take him on a six-hour journey.

“He exists in a world where there is big crowds standing in front of him and mostly what happens there is, artists that have released a couple of big records are forced to become DJs very quickly and they haven’t come through any schooling of dance music, which is basically just going out every night. So I think he provoked a discussion but it’s important to remember that he probably doesn’t know what real DJing is.”

Another recurring talking point was how quickly artists go from their bedrooms to DJing on festival mainstages via a few Beatport blockbusters, and the risks involved with that. “I was DJing after Alesso in Brazil about half a year ago, and he was nervous,” Laidback Luke recalled. “It was a crowd of about 50,000 people in front of him and he’s like, ‘Dude, I can’t do this, I’m so nervous; look at you, you’re so chill, how can you cope?’ And I asked: ‘I’ve been doing this for like 15 years…and you?’ And he’s like: “Ah, I’ve only been DJing for eight months now.” When I was DJing for eight months, I couldn’t even hold the needle straight in front of a crowd. Kids are literally thrown onto a festival stage and it’s actually really scary.”

As Goodwill added: “I think there’s the sort of person, like Madeon, who writes a big record and all of a sudden he’s playing in front of 40,000 people. But then there’s the other side of the spectrum of people who can’t actually produce and are actually genuinely faking DJing. That’s the bit that I get worked up about.”

The value of DJ experience – including, in the words of Nina Las Vegas, the clubs where only five people are on the dancefloor – was a consistent theme for the panellists. “I think learning to be a warm-up DJ, setting up a room for the big DJ without playing all the big records is the best schooling you can have,” Goodwill said. “A lot of the people who come through now don’t aspire to be warm-up DJs or resident DJs, they aspire to be their heroes, which is fair enough. But if you do that, and you pre-plan your sets to the point where you just want to play the big records that everyone else is playing, nothing defines you as a DJ. You have no personality.”

As Laidback Luke put it: “I’ve got Roger Sanchez to thank. I was his opening DJ for a while and I would play three-hour sets. So I feel young DJs should be able to do everything: mix fast, mix slow, blend, do tricks, learn scratching, lock into the crowd. Basically everything.” Watch the full panel video below – and stay tuned for more highlights from EMC 2012.