This past weekend I spent more time behind the decks than I have in a very long while, and aside from being fun, it was also cause for some reflection on music, style, and skill.
I first took up DJing in 2001 when I moved back to Virginia and realized that I would have lots of time on my hands. DJIng was something that I could amuse myself with in the evenings when my schoolwork was done, and it helped me keep in touch with things going on in the wider world, at least in relation to music. At that time my main musical interest was in psytrance and I played CDs exclusively. My musical orientation changed slightly based on the music that was available to me (whatever I could pick up in the Used Electronica bin at the local Plan Nine Records), and after about a year I picked up a second-hand set of 1200s because I felt that I should learn to play records. When I came back to San Francisco in 2003 I played both CDs and records, and my style was pretty eclectic, though mostly based in trance.
Stylistically I have always been an admirer of the school of the long mix; I like the dream-like way in which DJs like Sasha, Richie Hawtin, and Luciano, for example, move from track to track. I've also always preferred depth and progression; I like to feel that the music envelops and moves me on the dancefloor at the same time. I lost interest in psytrance because I felt it lacked these elements, and got into minimal techno because I could hear trance-like elements in it - interesting sounds, a sense of depth and space that opens up vistas of the mind, and a strong sense of dynamics. Techno, for me, became far more psychedelic than trance.
Though I love going out to dance, it would be fair to say, as my boyfriend often does, that my approach to music, and the music that I appreciate, is pretty cerebral. Some of this also has to do with the circumstances under which I've DJed; while I've had some occasions to rock a room, or an open-air party, for the most part I've often been either late or early on a line-up, or in a chill room. These material conditions, along with my own taste, have directed me toward certain artists, labels, and sounds, and way from others. Six years after starting to teach myself how to DJ, I think I've finally arrived at something that I can call my own sound, and though I'm pretty happy with it, I'm not sure where it will take me as a performer. On the one hand, after having played a pretty mellow set at Afterglow, then having the Honey Sound System kids come on and absolutey re-invigorate the dancefloor with some super bangers, I felt a little lame, as though my set was an ennervating influence on the party energy. On the other, the next day at Faerie Freedom Village I had a good group of dancers who actually gave out an occasional whoop. I had tailored both sets at the time to what I felt was the energy of the situation, and while different tracks were played, I think the vibe of both sets was fairly close. It seems that there are definitely certain situations, and audiences, where my sound works better than others.
Of course, my skills, or lack thereof, have played as much of a role in determining what I sound like as my aesthetic taste. I'm not that coordinated, nor do I have a superb sense of rhythm. I have had some musical training that was even a bit on the avant-garde side, but it was just enough to convince me that I don't have the physical talent necessary for picking up an instrument. This bugged me because I really wanted to make music, and even come from a line of musically talented people (my recently deceased grandfather had perfect pitch and once had a budding career with his brother as a country-western artist). DJing was a way for me to be able to perform music without having to learn an instrument - or, at least, so I once thought. Learning to manipulate records on a turntable at the same time that you're running a mixer requires some physical abilities that I'm still learning to master. But the long mix DJ is a different beast from the guy who does quick crossfades and EQ kills - I once worked as an intern in a recording studio, and I think my DJ style is more akin to what you do in a production suite than a live performance; in the long mix it's much more about slow, gradual, and being a careful listener. As a result, I sometimes think that my mixes are perhaps more well-suited for something you listen to in headphones rather than something that makes you jump on the dancefloor.
Six years on I think I can say that I'm a pretty good DJ, with a sense of what it is I want to do with the music I play and a where my strengths and weaknesses are. My skills still aren't what I would like them to be - it's very difficult for me to record a mix without some flaw in it - and there are times when I wish I had the musical sense and physical skill of other DJs I know. But recognizing my own deficiencies has helped me appreciate other DJs, and to also develop a better critical sense of DJing as an art. I've pretty much given up on the idea of being a superstar DJ - which has as much to do with your social situation as it does your musical taste or ability - but DJing is something that continues to open up the world for me by exposing me to great music, interesting scenes, and fun people. Even if I never play out ever again it is still something that has enriched my existence; I hope that it will continue to do so, and that I will continue to develop skills for myself and an appreciation for others.