Magic Behind the Mixer: The Truth About Facing the DJ

Gathering your buds and going out to dance and drink your paycheck away is a hallmark of Earthly youth; there isn’t much variation to that. But as the years go by, little things change here and there. Just enough to alert you to the passage of time but not enough to make going out any less enjoyable. What hasn’t changed about going out is how we do it: get a group of like minded friends (the drinking minded kind), flock to either the cheapest booze or loudest music (sometimes both), and imbibe and vibe for the next three hours dancing endlessly to the pre-recorded sounds of somebody else’s labor. What has changed, rather drastically, is how we respond to the DJ. Whereas in the heyday of the rave scene, the DJs were tucked away from the partygoers like some music slave commanded to command the room, today’s disc jockeys (maybe we can petition for a name change) are the center of attention. So much so, they have to be elevated and cordoned off from the droves of electronic music hungry fans that would otherwise eat them alive.

Today’s set up is a far cry from the days of Yore; you know, back when the rave scene was “lit.” From my research, I have gathered that the DJs were hidden and not the center of attention. The dancers and the music were the center of attention. The party-throwers and party-goers believed that dancing through the night and the sunrise was a testament to the people, the music, and the love, and not to be mistaken for credit by the DJ. Although DJs back then, and a little today, mixed some epic beats, the focus was not on them mixing them but rather the effect it had on the dancers. Their skills were not underappreciated simply because people weren’t facing them or applauding them; it was the converse actually. Their music was so important to people that it kept them going until daylight (well, not counting the drugs, but the music was definitely a key player too).

The music kept people moving and grooving and it’s what they remember to this day. It was a sensory explosion: the sounds of heavy house piano, the sights of the thousands of people dancing, and the smell of thousands of people dancing. The music was even about explosion. Back then the bass didn’t drop; it exploded. Everything was geared toward the anticipation and release, and it had nothing to do with the person behind the curtain. In The Wizard of Oz, it was about Dorothy’s experience along the way; it wasn’t about “the man, the myth, the legend.” Interestingly enough, he turned out to be insignificant to her overall growth because what she learned was that a journey was not a journey without your friends to dance with along the way (okay, maybe that lesson was tailored a bit for ravers). Going to parties was about, and should always be about, being vulnerable, learning from one another, and trusting each other because we all really just want to dance. A Guy Called Gerald once said, “Never trust a DJ who can’t dance,” which further illustrates the importance of movement and the crowd in a DJ set.

The parties of yesteryear are a thing of the past, admittedly much to the sadness of old school ravers. The replacements of today would make the 90s raves roll over in its warehouse grave. It was the music that was supposed to be lauded, not necessarily the person making it. When you signed on to DJ a rave, you were humbled to be asked to ignite the drug fueled nights with your music (well, if you weren’t a producer, other people’s music, but different). When you walked into a darkened warehouse, only lit up by strobes and smiles, it is as if you are walking into a sensory deprivation chamber, and it didn’t matter to you where or who the music is coming from; if you wanted to be entranced with a musician, you would go to a concert. The experience you waited all week for and wore your best Adidas tracksuit, fuzzy hat, and colored Elton John glasses to was to dance your troubles and coherence away to the soundtrack of piano, bass, and vocals coming over the soundsystem above and around you as if the Goddess of Raves orchestrated it herself.

So with all of this rich rave history, how have we ended up here with all eyes on the DJ and the focus shifted from the hoopers and huggers to the special person secluded up and away from the crowd in the coveted booth? The notion of exclusivity and privacy go against everything that raves stood for. Are the DJs today so much better than the ones in years past or have our priorities gone from dancing with strangers to wishing we could dance with the DJ?

It’s such an event for the DJ to take the stage; everybody must be aware of this person’s every move for the next 90 minutes. The closest thing we have nowadays to hidden DJs is the opening act. If you notice, the music is playing and the lights are flashing despite the lack of attention on the opening DJ. You probably don’t even notice that occasionally, the opener won’t even be in the booth as the music is playing. They might have stepped out for a drink or a bathroom break, but you were none the wiser. I cannot recall seeing a headlining act leave the booth even for a second. This reinforces the idea that DJs have become glamorized and built up to be these otherworldly creatures that enable and encourage us to be so free (and so drunk). They understand the position they are in; they have come to this club or venue to put on a performance for the people. That is the key difference between then and now: performance. Then it was a movement. Now, just like most other parts of our lives, their set has become a performance designed to elicit a predetermined response and it has lost most of the spontaneity that ignited the 90s in the first place. People face the DJ because they have been convinced going out is about building DJs up instead of breaking it down with friends and strangers alike.

Although I may disagree with the positioning of DJs, it’s important not to underestimate their talent for their over-indulged status. There is a magic to mixing; watching the sound come alive in a pitch black room is mesmerizing and memorable. We have all seen that Mickey Mouse film Fantasia: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, right? The famous scene when Mickey conducts the orchestra of helping hands to clean up his room has stuck with me for years, mostly because I’ve been enamored with the idea of mops and brooms doing my chores for me. Observing the DJ twirl knobs and push buttons becomes magical when combined with listening to the music. It is akin to Mickey waving his hands around bringing the broom to life; with each gesture the broom follows. If not for Mickey, the tools would be stagnant and lifeless. DJs have that same ability to fill the space with wonder where otherwise nothing would exist, and it is beautiful to witness. With each twirl and push, the bass drops and the track echoes, and coupling those two senses creates this experience that awakens you.

DJs have a particularly difficult job of evoking feeling because they must do so with sounds instead of lyrics. When we listen to our favorite bands, we rate them based on a tier system: lyrics, music, and vocals. It’s a tricky combination to nail because their words need to be relatable, their voices need to be smooth, and their music needs to stand out. For DJs, all they can rely on is the music to get people interested and attached. They have to be deliberate in every action to set in motion a beautiful cause and effect with the audience. DJs are conductors and the mixer and the crowd are the instruments; together they create layered and emotional symphonies.

With where we have been and where we are, it’s only natural to wonder where we are going. Will we be able to find our roots again when crowds are the main act or can we begin to marry the two worlds and create a beast of a whole new nature? Maybe we can harness that rave spirit and start another movement where the music and the people are once again at the center of attention, but this time the DJ is invited to join us on the dance floor. If we shift our focus back on to what is important instead of who is important, we will be able to reclaim the rave, but until then there is still beauty and magic to be found in the club. We may face the DJ today because we’ve lost the rave craze or have changed our priorities when going out, but if we pay close enough attention and listen to the cues, we may once again find the magic behind the mixer.