CDJs may have made mixing easier, but they’ve also ushered in an exciting new era of DJing. Michelle Lhooq reflects on the possibilities they’ve unlocked.
What exactly a DJ does behind the decks is a persistent subject of scrutiny and debate, both in the media and the smoky confines of nightclubs. Recently, it’s become hard to escape the notion that digital music players like laptops and CDJs are behind a new generation of lazy DJs who “just press play.” Haters cite the notorious sync button, which instantly beat-matches two tracks together, as a prime example of how technology has automated skills that DJs once spent years refining. The stigma endures among seasoned heads, who mutter “real DJs play vinyl” while dusting off their record collections.
The widespread idea that digital culture is watering down the art of DJing is a damaging, regressive misconception. Of course, certain technical aspects have gotten easier, but that’s not the point. Rather than using new technologies like beat-matching to cut corners, today’s forward-thinking DJs, often working outside the strict 4/4 confines of house and techno, are treating CDJs as musical instruments, exploring their artistic possibilities in exciting, uncharted ways. Here, we take a closer look at this latest evolution in DJ culture, how it is a response to the old turntable canon, and the crucial socio-political conditions that it sprang from.
The first CDJs, Pioneer’s CDJ-500, went on the market in October 1994. (As Jordan Rothlein noted in a history of the deck, some say the CDJ-300 came first in 1992, but Pioneer considers the 500 to be the official debut.) From the start, CDJs were distinguished by their marriage of the physical and digital, combining the tactile qualities of a turntable via a circular jog dial with a slew of digital tools, such as a “master tempo” button for changing a song’s speed without altering its key.
Subsequent models of CDJs added new digital tricks like hot cues, updated its jog dial into a touch-sensitive wheel, and shrunk in size to become more portable and stable, with the arrival of CDJ-1000 in 2001 marking its current form. Improved functionality—along with the rise of mp3 culture, which freed DJs from the physical and financial constraints of records—helped fuel the growing popularity of CDJs over the next two decades. “‘I can take a snippet of some news or a popular record and throw it in the mix in a completely different way,” Richie Hawtin told The New York Times in a 2001 piece celebrating the freedom and spontaneity of the digital DJ realm. “It opens these floodgates to a whole new potential.”
By the early 2000s, CDJs were fast becoming the standard set-ups at clubs and festivals. But their ubiquity coincided with the growing public perception that, well, DJs don’t really do much.
The golden age of EDM in the early 2010s only furthered this damaging stereotype. In a 2013 interview with GQ, Avicii admitted his sets were entirely pre-planned. Thanks to computers, he said, reading a crowd’s responses to determine what songs to play—a skill DJs historically took pride in cultivating—”feels like something a lot of older DJs are saying to kind of desperately cling on staying relevant.”
In 2014, dance music’s reputation in the American mainstream was served a death blow via an SNL skit called “When Will the Bass Drop?,” in which a DJ named “Davvinci,” played by Andy Samberg, clowns around in a DJ booth next to a giant red button labeled “BASS.” A deluge of headlines praising the viral video for “nailing” EDM culture followed, with a Gizmodo reporter sniffing, “It’s a hilarious parody, but it also tells the stark truth about DJs: Once they’ve put in the hard work of producing a track in the studio, their live shows aren’t really a performance so much as a glorified exercise in pressing play.”
There’s no doubt that CDJs have lowered the barrier to entry for many aspiring DJs by allowing them to hop on the decks with little more than a USB stick and a rudimentary knowledge of how to mix tracks. It’s also fair to argue that they’ve resulted in a formulaic DJing style, as RA’s Ryan Keeling pointed out in a 2016 op-ed called “DJing Shouldn’t Be Easy:” DJ selects track, hits the auto-sync, and brings the volume up, adjusting EQs to taste and using the loop function to buy more time in the mix.
Still, there are exceptions to this glut of mediocrity—DJs who are using CDJs to push their sets in novel and experimental ways—and they’re the ones that count.
One of the most unforgettable DJ sets I caught this year was a late-night back-to-back between Joey LaBeija and Rabit in a half-empty bar in Brooklyn, and hinged upon the unique capabilities of CDJs. Chuckling to each other as if it were a demented game, the two friends deployed some of the craziest techniques I’ve ever seen, effectively treating the CDJs like a DIY sampler and drumkit, and pushing functions like the pitch slider to their extremes. They’d slam the cue button to play a few seconds of a song over and over again, or flick the pitch slider so the tempo careened from 80 to 400 BPM within seconds, while using the loop button to stack layers of sounds over each other. The result was an adrenaline-soaked ride across a myriad of deconstructed club sounds—challenging, yet immensely enjoyable.
Sets like these are tough to imagine with a different setup. “What we do is specifically tied to this set of technology… You can only do what I do on CDJs,” Lotic told 032c in 2014. “There’s only so much you can do with a turntable,” agreed Janus founder Dan Denorch in the same interview. “The whole point of [DJing with turntables] used to be to not make the music stop,” he said. “Now the range is much larger.” Noting that digital technology has afforded a range of possibilities to manipulate music that were “unfathomable” ten years ago, DeNorch said CDJs have engendered “a different form of DJing—it’s a completely new art form.”
One of the most distinctive characteristics of this style is its discontinuity. Tracks of wildly different genres and tempos are stitched together with abrupt stops and starts or cacophonous sound effects. With a more fragmented approach to space and time, it’s not a coincidence that many of the DJs playing this way are operating outside the strict confines of 4/4 house and techno. In the same interview, Lotic called his “rude and disruptive” DJ style “a complete rejection of smoothness.” M.E.S.H, another Janus affiliate, put it this way: “They’re often looking for smoothness in other scenes, which we don’t really pay that much attention to.”
M.E.S.H. said over email that CDJs act like “a little window into the studio” by allowing you to access a large archive of sounds he’s made. In the past, he explained, he’s experimented with time signatures by mixing different loop lengths and approximated a granular synth pad by exploiting the pitch algorithm. Lately, he’s been feeding audio from CDJs back into a software mixing setup he designed himself.
At the same time, M.E.S.H. argued that CDJs allow for more flexibility and spontaneity because you can keep sounds in sync imperfectly through touch, rather than being stuck to a master MIDI clock as you would with a laptop or sequencer setup. “When you can be instinctive and have a tactile feeling of the sound, you can really open up,” he said. “It feels like an instrument.”
Venus X, another forerunner of this style, said that CDJs give her a greater sense of immediacy. “CDJs force you to be present at every moment of your set,” she said over email, citing the ability to sample moments from any track via hot cues, play with speed and loops in a tactile way, and mix in an aggressive manner that lets the audience hear everything you’re doing. “Other DJ programs lack that sense of immediacy and feel rehearsed.”
You could argue that these techniques are not a departure from vinyl DJing so much as an evolution of it. Using turntables, pioneers like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan would play two of the same records at the same time to edit out or extend certain sections, or use drum machines to beef up the beat. M.E.S.H also pointed out that Copenhagen-based DJ HVAD uses turntables to play in the abrasive style associated with CDJs, “skipping the needle around on a vinyl as if he had the whole thing hot-cued in his memory.”
Still, commonly used metaphors like “journey” and “storytelling” speak to how continuity is an inherent value in the traditional mode of DJing, where DJs were judged by their ability to weave tracks together into a coherent, overarching narrative. By pushing the paradigm from smoothness to rupture, the shift from analog to digital DJing mirrors the transition from modernism to postmodernism—a wave of critical thinking that developed in the mid to late-20th century and was described by Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson as the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” Whether in fields of art, music, or writing, postmodernists were concerned with themes of rupture, rebellion and the anxiety-ridden technological condition. The movement was also about amplifying historically excluded voices, with postmodern thinkers like Foucault examining the social systems that enable cultural hegemony, violence and exclusion from power.
Postmodernism came out of post-WWII disillusionment, with the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 marking the start of the “postmodern age.” Social context is also key to understanding how the disjointed style of DJing under CDJs came to be. In her Art of DJing interview, Venus X noted that GHE20G0TH1K, a New York-based queer/POC party widely credited as an incubator for this style, came up between 2009 and 2012, when young people were struggling with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and rising student debt. “You couldn’t actually visualize your future and what does that sound like?” she said. “Pure fucking chaos.”
In the same interview, Venus also connected the disruptive DJ style associated with GHE20G0TH1K with a rebellion against the status quo, saying, “continuity is white power. Continuity is patriarchy.” Over email, she further explained this connection: “To my knowledge, most DJs qualify as good or bad depending on their ability to mix seamlessly and in ways that are non-confrontational. The philosophy of GHE20G0TH1K… is meant to disrupt those traditional male perspectives and conservative ideas of what nightlife and music are supposed to be.”
On a similar tip, the Indianapolis DJ Noncompliant pointed out to THUMP that by lowering social and financial barriers to entry, digital technology has allowed for new groups of women, queers, trans, non-Western and POC to join the fray. “Purists complain that ‘anybody’ can make music or DJ now, but that’s entirely the point,” she said. “‘Anybody’ means ‘the people who could never access it before.'”
Count me as one of those people who, because I lacked a record collection, never considered DJing until I was exposed to CDJs. When I first started learning how to play, a coworker who typically plays vinyl gave me a piece of advice I’ll never forget: the key to mixing, he said, was to take the vibe from one song and move it into the next, like a ball being passed from one hand to another around a basketball court. The players can zig or zag, but the ball can never be dropped. This colorful analogy is better suited to the smooth DJing style associated with turntables, but it can be also be applied to CDJs. Except instead of passing one ball around, DJs have all kinds of balls in the air at the same time, or are breaking them apart entirely, throwing the shards into your face while flipping the bird with a grin.