How the tables turn: are DJs real musicians?

Noel Gallagher and Deadmau5 reckon anyone can do it. But surely a good disc jockey is more than a human iPod?

Modern Toss on the wheels of steel

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all

You can be sure that, if something exists, Noel Gallagher has an opinion on it. There’s been how jazz is “rubbish”, the infamous “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong” and even a tirade against anybody who has ever had anything to do with a book: “Book sellers, book readers, book writers, book owners – fuck all of them.” So when he claimed in 2011 that “dance music sounds like a walk in the park now. Any fucker can do it”, it felt like more of the “Old Man Yells at Cloud” type of opinion we were used to, with Gallagher joining the “real music” made with “real instruments” brigade by pompously dismissing DJs because they happen to program a drum beat instead of strum a guitar.

In 2012, the Canadian DJ and dance producer Deadmau5 seemed to agree, explaining that anyone “given about one hour of instruction” can be a DJ, before exposing the craft as little more than “pressing play” on stage. So when a DJ also makes the same claim, should we take notice?

In a word: no. Both Gallagher and Mr Mau5 were referring to a specific brand of “superstar DJ”. The rise of EDM in the late 00s propelled the likes of Swedish House Mafia, David Guetta et al to levels of dance music stardom last enjoyed by Pete Tong and Sasha in the 90s, but it also distorted the concept of what a DJ is and does. We are not talking about a wedding DJ playing YMCA here, but the vast concept and craft of “DJing” that encompasses everything from turntablism and scratch DJs through to those banging out 10-hour techno sets in a dank, sweaty basement (remember those?).

Of course, some DJs are basically human iPods, using a premixed set for their performances (the equivalent of a singer miming to a backing track). But the best DJs have always also been musicians, live remixers and live producers – skilfully layering and manipulating sounds and bringing different elements together in a new form of creative expression. They have to know about drum beats and basslines. About filters and effects. And they have to keep people on the dancefloor: that means thinking about beatmatching, cuts, drops and tempo changes. The truth is that a lot of DJing contains more sophistication than a man in a raincoat playing D, G, A on an acoustic guitar.

German lawmakers agree. Last year a court ruled that techno is indeed a genre of music (so that clubs would receive tax breaks like traditional music venues do). DJs don’t just play other people’s tracks, the court stated, “they perform their own new pieces of music using instruments in the broader sense, to create new sound sequences that have their own character”.

And that’s the point. The very best DJs reimagine the music they play, using the songs like instruments in an orchestra to create something unique and transcendental. They can take OK records and make them sound brilliant; take great records and make them sound life-affirming. Last year we lost Andrew Weatherall, a man you could justifiably argue was the best DJ of all time. A master of his craft, he showed what a transformative, enthralling and creative force a DJ could be. Even Noel would agree with that.


Danny Wright

The GuardianTramp

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