For the last couple of months, we’ve given legendary Australian selector Kid Kenobi the floor to talk about what made the early 2000s so great for dance music.
First up, Kenobi – real name Jesse Desenberg – wrote about the role vinyl played in keeping the club scene special. Next, he tackled audience attention spans and the problem with superstar DJs. Now, Desenberg’s back with a part three that hones in on the artform of DJing, ghost producers, and the problem with social media.
And if you want to revisit the good old days with him? Kid Kenobi will be paying tribute to the decade past this May and June, when he heads around the country on Ministry of Sound’s noughties throwback tour. But for now, here’s his take on what the ’00s have over 2017.
One of the things that helped make dance music great in the early 2000s was that DJing was still a respected art form in and of itself.
In the early 2000s DJs were still revered for their skill set. They were admired for their ability to find fresh tunes, for knowing those tunes inside out, for their ability to read a crowd, for knowing how to build a set so that it had peaks and troughs, for their ability to mix tracks together seamlessly in order to take the crowd on a journey, and for knowing how to straddle that fine line between education and entertainment with what they played.
“In Australia being a good DJ was pretty much the only way to get gigs, so you actually had to be good at what you did”
Naturally, that meant the chances of hearing a good DJ set in the early 2000s were pretty high.
Whilst a lot of visiting internationals at the time were both DJs and producers, in Australia being a good DJ was pretty much the only way to get gigs, so you actually had to be good at what you did. It was impossible to fake it and if you did, you probably wouldn’t last.
In 2017, you don’t need to be a good DJ to get gigs. If you can write a big tune or get radio play from the music you write, you’ll probably get booked for sets at clubs and festivals whether you can DJ well or not. Having a gimmick – like being a model or some kind of minor celebrity – can also help you get your foot in the door.
And the consequence? Well, if I had a dollar for every time I’d heard a good producer or famous person was a disappointing DJ, I’d probably have retired to small island by now.
Part of the reason for this is that DJing is a lot easier than it used to be. For one thing, DJing on vinyl, like most of us did in the early 2000s, is hard. It’s a lot more raw, with no sync buttons or emergency loops to save you if you stuffed up. If you messed up, everyone would know.
Technological innovations such as the sync button on CDJs, coupled with the easy availability of electronic music, means that many people today think DJing is something that anyone can do (looking at you, Paris Hilton). But as I’ve said many times before, just because you can drive a car doesn’t automatically make you a Formula 1 driver.
“We now live in the producer age, not the DJ age”
But it’s more than that. This shift is also due to the changing perception of what a DJ is, and what draws people to see DJs perform in the first place. In the early 2000s people went out to see a DJ perform because they played a good DJ set.
These days kids are drawn to DJs for different reasons. Some are drawn to DJs because of their gimmicks – their masks, their cake throwing abilities, their celebrity – some are drawn to DJs because of their production abilities, and some to a combination of the two.
By and large, however, it’s the music released by a DJ these days that draws crowds to see them play. Dance music has become less and less about the art of DJing, and more and more about the art of production. We now live in the producer age, not the DJ age. DJing is no longer the point and ‘real DJing’ is, I’m afraid to say, an endangered species.
So how and why did this shift occur? One of the main reasons was the broadening of electronic music out of clubs and into the mainstream. The culmination of this movement, as we all know, was the EDM explosion that occurred in the United States around 2010.
This, along with the cheapening of the software used to produce music (for instance Logic cost me over $2000 in the early 2000s, whereas today it retails for around $300) meant that more and more people were starting to write electronic music, especially in the US. And when they wanted to perform their music “live”? Well, they turned to DJing of course.
The unfortunate thing is that a lot of these producers didn’t set out to be good DJs, they were simply looking for a way to get gigs and perform “live”. They were already big through their music anyway, so what did it matter how they mixed?
“These days most DJs can only get gigs if they release music, and most touring DJs can only build tours if they have a release to promote”
But it’s not all about the producer-come-DJ changing the face of dance music culture.
On the flip side, DJs have also had to become producers in order to get gigs. Why? The simple reality is that these days most DJs can only get gigs if they release music, and most touring DJs can only build tours if they have a release to promote.
There are two downsides to this. The first is that it has forced everyone into becoming a producer and thus created a glut of very average music.
One consequence of this is the rise of ghost production. For many dance acts these days, the music they release is no longer a symbol of their true ability or talent, but simply a tool used to promote themselves and get gigs. And if you’re writing music to get gigs, the most obvious thing to do is to try and write a hit, and the most obvious way to do that is to copy popular tunes. This has lead to an unfortunate amount of unoriginal music that all sounds the same.
But it makes sense. Who wants to take a risk if you’re trying to be popular and get gigs?
The need to promote yourself above the requirement to actually be good at what you do brings me to my second point: one of great things about dance music in the early 2000s was that social media didn’t exist.
Even though social media sites like MySpace was founded in 2003 and Facebook in 2004, they were still few years off from catching on in most places around the world. I probably sound crazy for even suggesting we were better without social media, but there are a lot of reasons why the experience of dance music was better off without the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.
Firstly, it meant that there was less immediate distraction. Smart phones – which enable us to take social media with us everywhere we go – didn’t exist. Back in the early 2000s mobile phones at best took crappy photos, while internet surfing was still a bit of a novelty. Thus there were no selfies to take, no Insta stories to record, no Facebook Live sessions to stream, and no Twitter updates to send. In fact there was pretty much nothing to do on your phone in the early 2000s other than make a call or send the occasional text, and nothing to do in a club other than, well, dance!
“There was pretty much nothing to do on your phone in the early 2000s other than make a call or send the occasional text, and nothing to do in a club other than, well, dance!”
Unlike the early 2000s, it’s pretty common these days to look up and see people engaged in their phones while on the dancefloor. Call me old fashioned, but why are you in a club right now?
This addiction, coupled with the shrinking attention span of people in general, means its harder than ever these days to keep crowds focused on the music and that unified vibe which was once so integral to clubs and dance music.
These days it seems that if it didn’t happen on social media, it really didn’t happen at all. In many ways we’ve become a society as focused on documenting our experiences as we are about actually having them, and as concerned with presenting our lives to others as we are in actually living them ourselves.
The problem is that constantly worrying about how other people perceive us whilst going out and having “fun” not only makes us more self conscious and image focused, it actually contradicts what dance music taught us to believe in the fist place: that clubbing was about letting go and letting the music take control.
If you are constantly documenting your experiences, how are you ever supposed to get lost in them?
Perhaps crowds in the early 2000s were lucky that they couldn’t document their experiences the way people can these days. It certainly allowed them to be free and escape into the music far more easily.
“Gurning was still acceptable and sweating was the sign of a good night, not a bad image”
Sure, there was the odd photographer here and there, but crowds in the early 2000s didn’t always have to look their best anyway. Gurning was still acceptable and sweating was the sign of a good night, not a bad image.
The lack of social media in the early 2000’s also meant that it was a lot easier to tell what was real and authentic when it came to talent and popularity. These days, “popularity” is more open to manipulation than ever before – Facebook likes can be acquired via click farms, Instagram followers can be boosted inauthentically via mobile apps, and SoundCloud plays can be bought for a few bucks in Russia.
Boosting social media numbers has actually become an accepted norm both in terms of what an artist “has to do” these days in order to get gigs, as well as what promoters look at in order to book artists in the first place.
I, for one, found it extremely hard to make the transition from a value system based primarily on talent to one that used social media numbers as a way to determine an artists worth.
I’ll never forget the time I was told by a former agent that I had to get my Facebook likes up to ensure I kept getting gigs. Really? Having spent my whole career trying to be good at what I did, the notion that I was now being judged by my social media tally – not my actual ability – was a little confronting to say the least.
One of the main problems with this is that it works. People actually get gigs because they can create the right hype, not because they are good at what they do. Social media strategies can help break artists both talented and talentless.
I’m not saying all popular artists are fakes, nor am I saying that true talent doesn’t shine through.
“I’ll never forget the time I was told by a former agent that I had to get my Facebook likes up to ensure I kept getting gigs. Really?”
What I will say is this: today’s system is open to a certain type of manipulation that simply didn’t exist in the early 2000s. And for me this type of faking it has taken some of the heart out of dance music, and in many ways lead to a general sense of disillusionment about what is real anymore. And if so much of it is no longer real anymore, how are kids supposed to believe in dance music the way I did in the early 2000s?
Yes, in the early 2000s I believed in dance music. To me it represented what was real. To me dance music was a retreat into what was authentic. It wasn’t about image, it wasn’t about statistics, it was about the music, true talent, and having a good time.
People went to clubs because they wanted to be part of a vibe, and DJs were popular because they were actually good at what they did and not what they looked like (lucky, because most of them needed to get out into the sun a little bit more).
These simple facts were impossible to buy, and impossible to manufacture, and that’s why I chose dance music – and not pop music – as my art.