The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

In Writing

The Wire 300: Alan Licht on the emergence of experimental DJ culture

February 2013

A previously unpublished essay by NYC's own Alan Licht, specially commissioned to mark the magazine's 300th issue.

Ah, 1982: the year that Christian Marclay, who would soon be known for bringing turntables to the world of free improvisation, using fast cuts, layering and loops for a live translation of tape music, first performed with his decks at the Kitchen; the year that Brian Eno released On Land, his second ambient album - largely ignored back then, its deep bass sound and glacial movement would become a major influence on the Ambient club movement a decade later; and lastly, as Steve Barrow says in Simon Reynolds’s Generation Ecstasy, “By 1982, dub had run its course in Jamaica, it had become a formula.” Reynolds himself then notes, “But this was just the moment at which dub techniques were being used by New York electro-funk and disco producers in remixes, and vocal-free B-side instrumental versions.”

These unrelated occurrences in The Wire’s year zero all helped set in motion the idea of DJ culture, which reached its pinnacle in the mid- to late 90s. The DJ, not the guitarist, was the instrumental pop hero of the decade. In the disco era, DJs like Larry Levan and Nicky Siano attracted a cult following for their weekly all-night flights, crafting an endless groove from different extended-mix 12” singles, but never took center stage. Only the late Arthur Russell seems to have made the connection at the time between these marathon disco DJ sets and the rhythmic trance element of the minimalist Riley/Reich/Glass axis. Russell was a cellist, not a DJ, but a consideration of his output of disco singles, classical compositions, and pop songs and instrumentals invites comparison to the connect-the-dots aesthetic of a good DJ, and his activities are in some ways a harbinger of the rapport between the avant and electronica worlds to come not long after his death in 1992.

It wouldn’t be until Ambient found an audience with Aphex Twin/Richard James’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 that experimental music fans and performers really took interest in what was going on at dance clubs (he was also a wicked DJ - I’ll never forget him playing pieces of sandpaper on the turntables at the Knitting Factory at a Blast First night in 1995). In James’s wake, the correspondences between Techno and experimental music became more pronounced. Autechre injected large doses of metallic noise in and on top of their beats; The Orb sampled Steve Reich; and the underground responded, with parties like London’s Electronic Lounge or New York’s Soundlab, that were somewhere between a night at the Kitchen and a night at the Hacienda, arty raves without the drugs. DJ Olive coined the term Illbient to distinguish the scene’s rougher soundscapes from the more New Age-y Techno chill-out room associations of Ambient. The DJs were the stars, even in egalitarian setups with no stage, or DJ booth. The Wire put DJ Spooky on its cover in 1995 (issue 138), before he even had an album out; in the article he mentioned doing “all backwards jazz sets, or blues Ambient sets using John Lee Hooker’s instrumentals”, which seemed to confirm that the floating dance party was another arena where experimental music could be found.
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What was new was the widespread identification of the DJ as performative virtuoso (despite the claims some made that the appeal of DJing was a variant on the punk/No Wave tradition/myth of making music while bypassing the strain of learning an instrument). The likes of Ben Neill drifted into Soundlab’s orbit from the avant classical world; Arto Lindsay, Bill Laswell and David Linton from the downtown experimental scene. DJ culture also affected indie rock, with Tortoise doing an album of remixes of their first album (the remix soon became de rigueur for indie rock, and even Heavy Metal groups) and To Roccoco Rot teaming up with DJ I-Sound. Then Derek Bailey did a record with DJ Ninj, and DJ Olive began performing with Uri Caine and Dave Douglas. The art world took notice too, seeing comparisons between underground parties and 60s intermedia happenings, and DJs performed at galleries and museums and participated in sound art exhibitions in Europe and the US. It’s not hard to make a connection between the DJ phenomenon and sound art; when Soundlab’s Beth Coleman spoke of a friend who heard a power plant differently after hearing some of the party’s noisier soundscapes, it was reminiscent of Max Neuhaus’s listening trips to Con Edison sites in the 60s. It’s also not hard to see why indie rock might embrace it (still smarting from the co-opting of grunge, the underground wanted to mess with song structure, and thus potential commerciality, as much as possible), or why the experimental music world would take notice (the DJ’s two poles of long trance-out mixes and the more frazzled cut-up beats mirrored the strains of minimalism and the earlier avant garde’s affinity for rupture).

The idea of a DJ plucking disparate sounds and styles and mixing or suturing them together resonated well with the reevaluation of labels’ back catalogues via the invention of the CD format, and soon after, file sharing. The archaic became contemporary, and now that everything ever recorded was becoming available again, the recombinant possibilities were staggering. At the same time, by reverting to vinyl in an era where CDs had taken over the market and people were making music with laptops, DJ culture was the opening salvo in the war between analogue and digital - perhaps displaced by the freak folk movement earlier in this decade.

William Burroughs, whose cut-up technique is often cited in cross-cultural studies of DJ culture, was fond of quoting Hassan I Sabbah: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” In 2009, unlike 1982, almost anything is permissible - ie credible - as far as listening and making music outside the mainstream. New Wave, disco, hardcore punk, heavily orchestrated singer-songwriter, Prog rock, lone psych-folk, or jam band, which were discrete categories and opposing forces in 1982, have all converged in artists like Animal Collective (who revere Arthur Russell), record stores like Other Music, and magazines like The Wire. DJ culture in the 90s, by replacing eclecticism with the art of the mix, helped make the current pluralistic musical climate possible.

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