Saturday, 14 March 2009

I'm an addict

I have an addiction. A proper addiction. It’s untreatable. There is no cure. I am a junkie. I hang around in darkened alleys, change jingling in my pocket, waiting for the dealer’s shop to open. I rush in and start filtering through the shelves. I am a vinyl junkie and record stores are where I score my fix. It’s a strange addiction, I know. People laugh and don’t recognise the condition. But it exists, I swear. Black plastic gives me a buzz. Has done since I was ten years old. All of my spare money goes on this disgusting habit. But it’s beautiful. I love needles in the groove and the sound of dustmites crackling in the speakers. Vinyl is not just a habit, it is a passion. People think that DJing is all about glamour. They read in their glossy clubbing magazines about Paul Oakenfold, Sasha and John Digweed, touring the world, hanging out in swanky nightclubs and getting paid a small fortune for doing so. I tell you – they suffer the same craving as any other proper DJ. They like nothing more than getting their hands dirty, flicking through record racks, in search of that ultimate rarity. The picture disc, the deleted album, the white label.

DJing isn’t just a technical ability. As a technical skill it’s actually quite easy. If you can count you can beatmatch. Simple as. Anyone can flick a crossfader. The art of DJing is to inject passion into your skill. Selecting tunes for the audience, to educate and entertain is the artform. Danny Tengalia wrote quite a few years ago about ‘finding the groove’. He performed marathon ten hour DJ sets and therefore should truly understand a dancefloor. It’s all about seaming tunes together in a constant groove. To do that, you need to know your music inside out. A DJ I once worked with, Anthony Pappa, impressed me a lot. He had risen to stardom by winning the DMC Mix championship. I warmed up for him and was pleased to do the honour. He arrived, same as any other professional DJ, courteous, nice greeting, appreciative nod to the sounds you were spinning. He then cast open his box, to prepare his set. DJs are nosy animals and I couldn’t help looking at his tunes. They were all marked up with stickers. I’d seen BPM labelling previously, but Pappa’s was different. They were all colour coded and Key marked. At an advanced level of DJing, to help stitch the groove, you not only beat match, but also key mix. It was a new concept to me. It seemed a bit anal but on chatting to Pappa he explained to me the reasons. You generally have a feel for what tunes sound similar and how they mix together. Most DJs rely on chance for this, but not Pappa. Certain keys mix with certain other keys musically whereas other keys clash. However, as I soon learnt there is slightly more to it than just that. I had gone home and banged out the keys on my sister’s piano and marked up my vinyl with letters. However – you get on the mixer and try blending, say a ‘D’ with another ‘D’ and it doesn’t quite sound right. Beats are Ok and you’d presume the keys too, but what happens is that as the pitch of the record shifts for beat matching, the key also migrates. To truly understand the theory of key mixing you have to be able to calculate the effect of BPM on a record’s pitch and then match up the vinyl. Listen to Pappa. He’s a DJ’s DJ and is musically superb.

The message I’m trying to send out is that DJs are obsessive. They love their work. In order to be a good DJ you have to respect your tools. These tools, the ones that separate you from the next jock, are your records. It takes years to build a vinyl collection. Years of dedicated shopping. Of searching high and low for the unique sounds that distinguish you and enable you to deliver to the dancefloor.

You may wonder why I emphasize vinyl. Surely these days we have moved on. Technology has improved. We have digital formats. We are in the ipod revolution. MP3s, computer music , Pioneer CD decks. Oh no! I cringe when I hear the ignorance blasted out by pretend DJs about how vinyl is outdated. For technology to improve, the old format must be surpassed in every way. Digital formats were announced to be superior quality to vinyl. This is an urban myth which the music companies have now admitted to being a marketing ploy. CDs were introduced and vinyl was supposedly obsolete. For years DJing kept the vinyl factories in business but then pioneer released their replica technics model CD decks and CD DJing became all the rage. Download sites like Beatport pushed out mp3s, and DJs burned up their CDs and suddenly an entire collection could be built overnight. There is a fundamental flaw in this, well several in fact. There is an art in itself to building a collection. You appreciate vinyl a lot more when you have starved a week to get the latest import. That part of your collection has a certain significance. I browse through my records and each sleeve tells a story. The record has a soul, a character that emits itself when I place the tune on the decks during a set. Each tune has memories, lovingly attached to it. How can you develop such a bond with something that has taken 10seconds to download and exists in a single-sentence data file on your hard drive. It isn’t as romantic. Yes, vinyl is more expensive, and perhaps more difficult to track down, but at least you get something solid for your money. it is an investment. The weight, the sleeve artwork, the labelling, the peculiarities (is it warped? Is there a misprinted label? is it a picture disc?) The generation of CD and MP3 DJs are missing a vital part of the essence of DJing. The rush of shopping for vinyl. I cannot see how a ‘new’ DJ can become knowledgeable about DJing, missing out on such an important part of the lifestyle. As well as the purchasing there is a whole social aspect to record shopping. You meet other DJs, other ‘trainspotters’, pick up tips on hot remixes, rarities, quality gigs, available work and so forth. Until you can purchase mp3s in the dimly lit streets of SoHo I cannot agree that MP3 DJs will ever emulate the emotion of a vinyl DJs work.

The biggest myth buster of all has to be that the actual quality of digital music is poorer than its analogue counterpart. Try it for yourself. Get the same track on vinyl, cd and mp3 and play them one after the other, preferably on a loud sound system. The digital formats eliminate the high and low frequencies of a tune. The sub bass lines and ultra high vox disappear in digital. The sound is condensed. Music producers nowadays are unaware of the intricacies of true sound production as they are working without a true sound spectrum. Not only are DJs being cheated by this, but also the listeners. I have been reliably informed that DJs aware of this who use cds and mp3s for mixing, are buying vinyl, then recording it themselves onto digital format, rather than buy purchasing it in digital format, just so they can replicate the true sounds of a record. There is a backlash and last year saw the first rise in vinyl production since the dip induced by the introduction of the CD. Bands are releasing on vinyl again, realising that it sounds better. It is still an industry in dire straits, however. We need to turn back to vinyl. To keep it alive. Record shops are closing down in their droves. It brings tears to my eyes to see maybe 75% of my favourite stores now shut. Tag in Soho, Woosh in Cardiff and Bang Bang in Bristol. They no longer exist. My most regular haunt, Plastic Fantastic of Covent Garden, are now an online only service ( I wish to preserve the art of DJing, to teach a new generation of the wonders of this exotic and mysterious world. I want to see a new generation of junkies, lurking about dark alleys, seeking their fix. Vinyl is sexy.


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