DJ stands for “disc jockey,” a term referring to performers who mix recorded music while it’s playing. At one point, the “disc” part referred to gramophone records; but in this digital age, DJs are apt to mix music from CDs or digital audio files on a laptop. They used to be underground cool-guys who spun vinyl in dingy basements, but now many have hit the mainstream and climbed the charts. America’s most popular DJs are household names raking in millions: Calvin Harris, Tiësto, Skrillex, David Guetta, Deadmau5, Steve Aoki, Zedd, Diplo. They collaborate with the meteoric likes of Rihanna, Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, a sure-fire method of attracting an audience outside the club.
Over the past decade, house music has increasingly left the clubs behind and found its way onto our streets and into our living rooms. Consumers are just as engaged by the chorus, rhythms and “beat” of a song as they are by the lyrics – and house music is all about that pulsating, captivating beat (while the lyrics tend to be somewhat repetitive, even flimsy). With the accessibility of technology, anyone can give DJing a whirl; programs with beats and vocals are easily downloadable, and it’s possible to create a name for yourself via social media. But that doesn’t make you a good DJ. It takes a lot more than notoriety and fancy equipment. We spoke to three Durango DJs who told us how they read the crowd, deal with all the modern industry changes and make it work in our little mountain town.
What do DJs actually do? At a bar, dance club or venue, DJs use equipment to play two or more sources of pre-recorded music at once, then mix them together; the best ones do this on the fly, but some bring already-mixed tunes on stage. It’s up to a DJ to create smooth transitions between recordings and create newfangled and original mixes of songs. They’ve got to sync the beats up just right.
Josh Rosenthal (“DJ Posh Josh”) is a Durangoan who has been on the scene for 15 years (and in Durango for 30). Rosenthal considers himself a house music DJ; “house” being a genre combining influences of disco, jazz, funk and R&B. He swills champagne during performances and wears a suit jacket to highlight his “classy” persona (and because he prefers champagne to beer). Rosenthal explains the difference between himself and a “request” or wedding DJ – the sort who plays whatever you want to hear – is that a real DJ is hired for their unique “sound,” and you don’t dare ask to revise their playlist. “Anybody can put a playlist together, but can you tell a story through music?” asked Rosenthal. “I liken it to cooking: you can take the same recipe, but if I use pepper more than garlic, the way I arrange it, I’m creating a different dish. I’m doing that with music. Whether it’s music that’s been played by somebody else, I’m going ahead and repurposing it. Using the individual bass lines, vocals, whatever it happens to be, in different proportions.”
Reading the crowdRosenthal doesn’t use a computer on stage, and keeps his music library and mixes on a flash drive when he spins. He tends not to pick songs before a gig, but rather sticks to improvising and scouring the crowd for a reaction by way of making those decisions. He’s very passionate about connecting with an audience, and if crowd members start chatting on the dance floor instead of dancing, he knows he needs to switch the vibe. Hired to play this year’s Halloween event at the Animas City Theatre hosted by the Four Corners Alliance for Diversity, Rosenthal knew there’d be a drag queen emceeing a costume contest; so he brought disco vocals that were popular with the drag queen scene in the ’70s. When playing at annual musical fest Burning Man in Nevada, he went for “heavier” sounds, less fluffy and light-hearted, for music aficionados he knew would be able to tell the producer of the songs or who wrote the lyrics originally. “They hear all the layers I’m building,” Rosenthal said of his Burning Man crowds. “Because of these people’s music knowledge, I want to stimulate them intellectually.”
DJ scene in Durango Nick Gould (“DJ Niko”) is also a freelance Durango DJ by night, but a professional mountain bike racer by day. He predominantly plays at the Balcony Backstage one evening per month, spinning all things house and electronic (but absolutely no dubstep, trap or trance, he wants to clarify). Niko and Posh Josh will be playing together at the Backstage on Dec. 15. (They haven’t teamed up since 2010!)
Niko has DJ’d in Thailand, Mexico, San Francisco, LA and at Burning Man, too, and admits it’s tough in a small mountain town like Durango. What works at 4 a.m. in Berlin won’t be appropriate for a midnight shindig here. “There was a long time when I would be like, ‘Whatever, this is the music I’m going to play no matter what,’ and I felt strongly about wanting to educate,” Gould said. “But after so many years, you come to find you just want people to have a good time. It’s a great feeling to have a room full of people and you’re just putting them under your spell. I still don’t play anything cheesy, poppy or mainstream – I’m still underground, but I do stuff that is a little more accessible. I’m figuring out what’s going to work here, and how I can play people something they’ve never heard before, where they’ll be like, ‘Wow, this is awesome, what is this?!’” Rosenthal agrees, adding that if he wanted to “blow up” as a DJ, he’d definitely move to a city.
Though Gould laments the comings and goings of past Durango DJs, both Rosenthal and Gould are enthused about an up-and-comer named Stephen Sellers (“DJ Bad Goat Disco”). Sellers has been producing dance and electronic music for 16 years but has spent only two years mixing records. “I’ve heard there was a more underground scene in Durango around 2007, and maybe there was a bust and it splintered,” Sellers said. “There was a time you had three or four DJs playing house music around town, but that’s not happening now. There’s people playing dance music, but it’s pretty thin. Part of my mission is to go study and learn all over the world, then bring that back here. We just need a proper club!” Sellers plans to visit Amsterdam for several months next summer to learn from the top DJs there. His talents will be part of an “awesome monthly party” coming up at El Rancho, the first installment of which is happening Dec. 16 with Denver’s DJ Soul Atomic. He’ll also be opening for Hello, Dollface at their New Year’s Eve “Interstellar” Party at the Strater.
Vinyl to digital Some progressive shifts in the industry have made Durango’s DJs a little melancholy – like the move away from vinyl. They used to order records and wait weeks for a delivery, or else rifle through music store collections until striking gold. But with the help of technology, it’s a speedier process. “Now, you can just buy a piece-of-crap laptop, a software program and hit the auto-sync button and not even have to have a mixer or know how to actually match beats,” Gould said. “Before, you could tell if it was a shit DJ – their beats would be off, it sounded like shoes in a dryer. But now, you don’t need that skill. Kids watch these DJs and think they’re gods, but they’re just standing there hitting a button.” Sellers also finds DJs pressing the sync button uninspiring and uninteresting. “It’s the difference between paint-by-number and making your own colors,” Sellers said.
Back when records were a DJ’s primary medium, the art form was known as “spinning.” The term is still used, but it’s antiquated. “You had to literally sit there and try to remember what the marker (on the vinyl) looked like, whether it was a really deep groove, or you had DJs who actually put tape on their records, so they knew and could find the spots …” Rosenthal remembered. “You’re sitting and back-spinning, trying to find the spot. That’s why you’d see the guy with his head cocked to the earphones, spinning.”
DJs in the mainstream In 2016, DJs sell out stadiums and team up with huge names in pop, hip-hop and R&B. So why the sudden commercial interest? “I think people are starting to realize DJs are musicians, just like anybody else,” Rosenthal said. “A lot of it has to do with technology; people are less averse to technology than they were 10 years ago. Twenty years ago, you ran into a bunch of bluegrass musicians and asked them to listen to this, and it was on a computer and created by synthesized sound? They would’ve snubbed it.” Indeed, society often takes its sweet time adjusting to and embracing new trends.
When Gould first began DJing, the industry was entirely underground, with “mix tapes and raves.” There was no Coachella or all-inclusive music fests. “You had to know somebody who knew somebody, do your research,” Gould said. “It made for this exclusive thing not many people were doing. Just like having tattoos and piercings – 15 or 20 years ago, it would more hardcore. Now, everybody has them.” He thinks it’s weird Steve Aoki and Skrillex can be heard on the radio and might reside in a CD store next to Eric Clapton; but he also knows the transition has an upside because more people are exposed to the music and end up investing further in the medium.
Unfortunately, plenty of DJs find success simply by accruing Instagram fans. “Social media has changed everything,” Gould added. “When I started, Myspace wasn’t around, and it wasn’t a popularity contest. Now, a lot of promoters won’t want to book you unless you have this many Instagram followers.”
Rosenthal is similarly irritated by the lack of effort made by some of the world’s highest-paid DJs. He’s seen shows where they get on stage with a laptop, push a button and start jumping around. “I kind of feel slighted when I’ve gone to a show to hear a DJ and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute – I just heard a bass drop or a vocal come in, and you were five feet away from your equipment,’” Rosenthal said. “You had nothing to do with that. The crowd goes crazy, and he’s taking credit.”
Sellers teaches history and humanities and notes that house and dance music were originally created for “the other,” meaning people in the black, gay and transgender communities. “Now, we’re in this EDM fraternity culture, so people don’t know that,” Sellers said. “As a white, straight, privileged male, that’s something I need to be super aware of. In our little bubble of Durango, everyone kind of treats this as a post-racial paradise, and it’s like, no – this is still out there.” Although dance music has become a rallying point for kids who wish to escape or forget and adults who hope to sink into euphoria, Sellers hopes it’s not just about the party. “Dance music should be a place of refuge, but I don’t think it should be about hedonism and snorting molly,” Sellers said. “That’s missing the point.”