DJs today are confronted with an astonishing number of choices, from vinyl to digital media, controllers, mixers, and the unending stream of more music being released for consumption than at any time in history.
It’s all a bit overwhelming. We thought we’d create a new space, called How I Play, in which we talk to DJs about the one thing that isn’t a matter of “choice”: the culture of DJing itself.
This month we feature dance music legend Joey Negro. Joey is currently on a tour of the United States, and for his American fans (many of whom have never seen him play) this is nothing short of a miracle. We all know his productions under a ridiculous number of aliases – Sunburst Band, Mistura, Akabu, Sessomatto, Jakata & Hed Boys to name just a few. But what do we really know about his DJing?
Two years ago we did an interview and spoke quite a bit about the art of DJing… I don’t think I ever asked you if there was someone who inspired you when you were younger?
One of the best things I remember hearing mix-wise that impressed me was a West End Mastermix with Tony Humphries in, like, 1982/1983. I hadn’t heard of most of the records in the mix. And then over the course of the next five years I bought all the individual records, and I always used the best bits of the records in the mix. That was one of the times I’ve been really impressed by mixing.
You know what annoys me is when DJs mess around with the records too much. I don’t want to hear people scratching and doing all these things. I try not to mess around with the records too much but if I do that I’ll do it in the studio before I get to the gig. While playing around with the record can be exciting with the right kind of music, I think there’s a thin line. One man’s over-EQing can be another man’s working it and giving the audience some excitement and creativity. Some people just get so carried away with what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s a Stevie Wonder record. Do you really think you can improve it by dropping out the bass in the middle? I hear some DJs doing that and, God, they’ve just ruined that record for me, but people seem to like the fact that the DJ’s “doing something”.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone and said, “That’s exactly what I want to sound like.” But there were some DJs where I was growing up that I noticed when I was going to some all-nighters. It’s like 4am and everyone’s gone home and there’s only 30 people left on the dancefloor – it was those records which I found sometimes more inspiring than the ones played when the dancefloor was full. When the dancefloor is full people tend to have to play more crowd-pleasing records.
When the DJ is playing what he actually wants to play and it’s just a few people there that are really into the music… To me this is the most important part of the evening.
How do you find new music? Are you constantly digging through your old records? What’s the method to your song selection?
It’s a terrible thing to say, but I get so many promos and I only occasionally look at them. But I’m better off listening to 3 hours of music I might actually like on Traxsource, Juno, Beatport than 3 hours on promos. I also listen to music on Discogs, Ebay and YouTube – I listen to a lot of old music that way. Sometimes I’m just looking for new or old records and sometimes I’ll listen to something like Gilles Peterson, and then maybe I’ll listen to music that friends send me. I mean a lot of it isn’t even stuff I play when I DJ – it’s just new music. 20% of it is stuff I might play and the rest are just new tunes that are slow, jazzy things… Unless I DJ at a bar from 6 o’clock in the evening until 3pm in the afternoon, it’s not stuff you can play at a club.
You can get lost sometimes in getting so much new music. Really when you’re playing, a lot of the time people don’t want new music. People would just be happy to hear classics. It’s not really what I want to play but a lot of the time you find that it’s what a lot of people respond to. It’s not the new track – the new track you’re playing more for yourself. There may be a few people that are responsive to that but it’s not going to be the track that people are going to go home singing.
That must be a little bit tough for you. So when you DJ do you feel the pressure to play these classics or some of your bigger tunes?
The records that a lot of people know are the older records. There’s not many new records coming along now that really establish themselves as big, big tracks that people can sing along to. If you get an old Teddy Pendergrass song, you know that most people will know it and respond to it. There’s not many records that have come out in say the last three or four years in a similar vein. So it depends if you want to please the crowd or please yourself, I guess.
Sometimes I’ll go to the gig and think I’m going to play these new records and I don’t care what the reaction is. Other times I think, well, I wanna rock it and so I’m going to have to be a little more obvious. A lot of people want familiarity.
I’ll tell you a DJ I like, for example, is someone like Theo Parrish. People don’t go to see him to hear well-known records, and he’s built up a reputation as a risk-taking DJ. You might go and see him and not necessarily like every record that he plays but he’s not going to give you the same old, same old.
Are you pretty hard on yourself when it comes to judging your sets?
You know sometimes as a DJ, some nights people will tell you that you were good and you don’t think you were any good. I’m pretty critical of myself and I think about how I should have played this song here and brought that song in then. And some nights to you it looks like it’s going somewhere you know (I hate the term “taking people on a journey”) – but, you know, it kinda works in that you join the dots in a good way and you think it was wicked but then nobody tells you anything.
I hate listening to my live mixes. I like listening to other people’s but I’m just one of those people who prefers not to listen to their live mixes. Maybe I’ll check them before I put them online but I just find it painful listening to myself. I prefer to just be in the moment. Do it live and forget about it!
What about record stores? I know you worked in one for many years. A lot of people lament the lost social and community aspect of record shopping I think.
I agree with that! I agree with the social side of it – you know, maybe the guy in the shop that knows what you like. But I also remember buying a whole load of shit records which sounded much better at the record shop! You know – you come home with 15 records and then with some of them you say, “How did I end up buying this?” But yes, the social side of it that is something we’ve lost.
Another thing to be said about buying vinyl that was better was that it was a better way for the human brain to assimilate music. Nowadays, digitally, we get too much music and with how you store music now… I mean I’ve got stuff on CD wallets, I’ve got stuff on drives, I’ve got boxes of promo CDs, USB, etc. I mean I never think, “Oh, I’ve got a spare minute now! Why don’t I go plug in an old drive and go through some music?” It’s never gonna happen. But I would go to my record room and go through old records. As a way of storing music physically, it was terrible but I think for the human brain it gave us a visual reference point. You can download thousands of tracks but you have no way of remembering what’s what.
So with that, how do you organize your digital music… CDs, USB, laptop?
I’m generally using the laptop, sometimes I use USB, sometimes I DJ using a midi controller, Traktor. I suppose the good thing about DJing that way is for something to make it into your laptop, and then onto the discs or whatever, you’ve got to put it in there, you’ve got to label it clearly. The thing with Traktor or Rekordbox is you’ve got to label things. Labeling it will help you remember. It is difficult to remember all the tracks – not just remember what it is but to remember what it is when you’re actually spinning and thinking of what you’re going to play next. And trying to avoid copping out and playing the same old records which you know work. That’s a conversation I’ve had with lots of DJs – how to work the music into your set in such a way that you’re not just playing it for the sake of it, but actually playing it in the right moments and knowing the tracks well enough that you’re going to bring them in the right way and in the right places.
I think a lot of DJing is preparation. I’ve been using Traktor for about a year. The CD thing is so complicated – you’re making new CDs every week, there’s a mishmash of old and new things and it can be so confusing. Then every three or four months you’ve got to consolidate everything all over again. It just feels so disorganized, especially if I’ve edited a newer version of a song and have to keep updating them. If I want to play David Bendeth’s “Feel the Real”, I can just look for it in the laptop and there it is.
I mean I don’t think a laptop and a club particularly go well together but until they maybe make a Pioneer CDJ with a much bigger screen, it’s better than a CDJ or a USB. That’s one of the things I like about Traktor: with the folders you can make up a crate for the evening, you can sort of refer to other things like what you played a couple of months ago. You can go back to it and that sort of thing. I have a folder for every gig that I do. And if the gig goes badly, I delete the folder! [laughs]
What about your hearing… Do you wear any protection?
Hearing protection ones, yeah, to block myself from the damaging noise. I mean I’ve damaged my hearing anyway, I think a lot of DJs have damaged their hearing just from the monitors! Sometimes, in some places, the monitor is just blaringly loud, it’s very middly, and it’s the harsh sounds. I have the sound protection earplugs which basically block out the damaging frequencies. It’s not so bad on the dancefloor unless you’re right up against the speakers. It’s often in the booth when you have to have the monitor quite loud to overpower the system that it’s bad for you.
Now this is kinda off topic from the whole DJing theme, but I do have to ask you what artists you’re paying attention to now.
You know I like that guy Opolopo who’s from Sweden – he just did a remix of the Stevie Wonder song “Superstition” and has done a really good job of it, it’s quite different from the original. I like that guy Kyodai, I like Sean McCabe, I like that Lovebirds guy. I like that guy Zo! I quite like these compilation albums that Gilles Peterson puts out called Brownswood Bubblers which I guess you might call electronica. I find it interesting modern music – it’s more for the radio than it is for the club. I always look out for these things because sometimes you want music you treasure as opposed to music you’ll only play half a dozen times.