If you know your history you will know that when the first proper club DJs emerged in the '70s — those who played continuous music and didn’t introduce each track on a mic — many of them played from the moment the club opened until the second the lights came on and shocked people back to reality. There were no guests, just one host who was brave enough to take crowds down as well as up, and to journey well outside their comfort zones.
The most famous of these was arguably David Mancuso who, at his fabled New York club/apartment The Loft even had a 500 square foot DJ booth complete with a bed, kitchen and his entire record collection. Mancuso’s even more extroverted prodigy Nicky Siano was much the same when he opened The Gallery, playing for 12 hours or more and running amok through every conceivable style of dance music, teasing and titillating, testing and travelling with every new selection.
What’s more, you have to remember this was a time before the 12” had become widespread, when DJs were playing off 7”s and having to change the record every few minutes. It was a time before Tom Moulton came along and pioneered the extended dance mix, before elongated dub reworks and before mixers came with in-built loop functions and myriad effects. As well as having to be mentally tuned in to the progression of the night, subconsciously thinking records or even hours ahead so as to ensure maximum sonic coherency, they had to be physically engaged, too, working the decks like their lives depended on it.
In the early days, then, DJs were intrinsically linked to — and in fact arguably defined — the clubs they played: Frankie Knuckles was The Warehouse, Larry Levan was The Paradise Garage. Yet in 2013 associations like this are few and far between. Sure, it’s near impossible to mention Fabric without crediting the work of resident Craig Richards, and Berghain has undoubtedly risen to fame off the back of its residents' elongated workouts of concrete techno funk, but they are but two examples out of thousands of clubs worldwide. So what went wrong?
The root cause of the problem is something that blights all aspects of life, not just DJ culture, and that is the ever-shortening attention span of human beings. Everything nowadays is about instant pleasure, smash and grab thrills that burn bright but fade away quickly. The evidence is everywhere, but in DJ terms there is no finer example of this trend toward brevity than Boiler Room. Of course, it’s a wonderful service that allows you to check out myriad acts you never would otherwise, but with sets often lasting no longer than an hour and sometimes being finished within just 30 minutes, the streaming service continues to set a damaging precedent.
Go to most clubs now and there will be two, three, four headliners all given an hour or two each, often with similar acts playing a second room, at the same time. Aren’t second rooms supposed to offer something different, a space to chill out, to get lost in a different sort of beat when the rush of the main room gets too much? Naturally everyone wants to stand out more than the one that went before or will follow after, but it means sets end up being chockfull of big hitters; tunes that smash you over the head and veer towards maximalist obviousness. People, we must assume, are too afraid to do otherwise for fear of being the boring and forgettable weak link of the night. As are myopic and eager beaver residents who, caught in the trappings of their own tiny limelight, want to be the star of the night rather than the cultured opener who perfectly sets the tone for the whole evening. But it shouldn’t be that way.
Playing records is (or can/should be) an art, a performance. A great DJ set is a story; something that requires structure and narrative, a start, middle and end, just like those short stories we all had to write as kids. The only way to achieve this is to trust in your chosen headliner; give him the time and space he needs to go deep into his craft. Ricardo Villalobos is a fine example of what can happen when you unleash someone in their natural habitat, but he shouldn’t be the exception to the rule, and nor should extended-set party concepts like A Night With… This is where club culture came from, and for the sake of the art, it’s where it should stay.