Should DJs stay off the mic?

In How to DJ (Properly): The Art and Science of Playing Records, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton offer some practical advice for DJs hoping to master the microphone. “For certain gigs, including mobile DJing and playing in commercial clubs, talking on the mic is important,” they write. “Some places won’t hire you unless you can do it. Just be yourself and be as relaxed as you can. Try to avoid putting on some kind of fake style.” While beginners would do well to take note of that counsel, what about the biggest DJs in the game? Should the microphone stay switched off, except in the case of dancefloor emergency?

Bill Brewster is in Australia for a couple of DJ dates this weekend, and yesterday I picked his brains about the past, present and future of dance music. With an encyclopaedic knowledge to go along with his expansive record collection, Brewster also wrote Last Night A DJ Saved My Life and more recently The Record Players – DJ Revolutionaries alongside Broughton. If there’s something you want to know about DJ culture, he’s a good man to quiz (apparently he occasionally goes by the nickname ‘The Oracle’).

“It is a real art,” he told me of the microphone question. “I think usually you just come across as an egotistical tosser when you use it. All of the early DJs I saw really made me anti anyone using the microphone. Growing up as a kid, I just had wall-to-wall shit DJs talking banalities on the mic.”

There are, however, exceptions according to Brewster. “The first person I heard who really played a great mix of music and really knew how to get on the mic and use it well is Norman Jay. I don’t think there’s anybody better than Norman at that; he’s just a real master at it. I never get bored of listening to Norman on the mic, he’s really good at doing it without sounding too cheesy.”

As music lore would have it, the first proponent of ‘two turntables and a microphone’ in a live setting was the late Jimmy Savile. A larger-than-life English eccentric – his meeting with Louis Theroux for BBC is recommended viewing – Savile’s version of events goes like this: in 1946, he paid a metal worker in Leeds to weld two domestic record decks together for him to use as a rudimentary travelling ‘sound system’.

“His other innovation – not so enduring – was to talk between records,” Brewster and Broughton write in Last Night…. “Back then, he said, ‘It was the latest gimmick’.” As Savile put it in another BBC interview towards the end of his life: “History has it that I was the very first in the whole world to run a dance to records. There was no such thing as electric turntables then; it was just wind-up gramophones.” And that, he seems to say, is the final word on the topic. But now that DJs are talking over the mix, rather than between records, is it an art or an annoyance?

Fast forward to Ultra Music Festival in March 2012. The gargantuan paean to ‘EDM’ stretches across Bayfront Park in downtown Miami, with 200,000 punters rolling through over three days. Ultra is a staunchly made-in-the-USA festival: bombastic and oversized in every way. In 2012, the Main Stage is decked out with a vast LED roof designed by live show gurus V Squared Labs, but the festival’s favourite toy is somewhat smaller in scale: a microphone resting innocently beside the CDJs. Over the three nights, a procession of dance music’s most bankable names – David Guetta, Skrillex, Steve Aoki and Afrojack to name a select few – can’t resist reaching for it. A lot.

With DJs thrust onto ever-larger stages, and crowds primed for a festival ‘show’ rather than a heads-down journey, it seems the microphone’s become the appendage of the moment. Never mind that, on the whole, the all-too-regular shout-outs are garbled, generic and grating. (That being said, the moment you hand the mic to Lil Jon is the darkest moment imaginable.)

Arguably dance music’s biggest fan of getting on the mic is Carl Cox. The DJ’s “oh yes, oh yes” catch-cry is bandied about amongst fans, and even scrawled onto signs at festivals. For every person who loves to hear him booming out over the mix, however, there’s another who argues it breaks the spell. Cox, at least, has personality on his side. As the man told Resident Advisor back in 2005, it’s just what he does. “People have always seen me move and jump around and interact with the crowd. I’m on the mic, I’m talking to people, doing gestures, hands in the air.” The Cox method, though, might not be transferrable to DJs whose skills don’t extend to the spoken (or mangled) word – i.e. lots of them.

Is peppering your set with “how’s it feeling out there?” and “Wow, you look amazing” one of those ‘cheap tricks’ London veteran Mr C was raging about last month, when he complained, “Why not let the music and the delivery of it speak for itself?” Let us know where you stand on the question in the comments below. Oh yes, oh yes, let’s ‘ave it.