Real Talk: Ambivalent

The man behind the Delft and Valence labels asks: What does a real DJ do?
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Photo: Lars Borges

Photo: Lars Borges

'Real Talk' is a series of artist-penned essays that appears on XLR8R from time to time.

This installment's scribe is producer Kevin McHugh, the man better known as Ambivalent. McHugh's production career began in 2006, when his 'Roomies' EP came out on Camea's Clink label—but it was the following year that changed his life, with the release of "R U OK" on Richie Hawtin's Minus. The skeletal, late-night tweaker of a track was massive, and established McHugh as one of Minus's mainstays. In 2012, after feeling a bit constricted by the techno label's sonic template, McHugh amicably parted ways with the label; since then, he's unleashed his inner househead via his Amber persona, served up some tasty techno in his LA-4A guise, and put out an nice array of fierce electronics (from Matrixxman, Alden Tyrell, himself and others) via the Clone-distributed Delft label. And he's not done yet: his even newer label, Valence, just sprang into existence with the release of an excellent Ambivalent three-tracker. This essay sees the Berlin-dwelling artist posing the age-old question: Just what the hell is a DJ?

If you ask sports fans, they can tell you in solid detail about the rules of the game they love. Most of the time a squad of players move something from one end of a rectangle to a small portal on the opposing side of that rectangle, similarities abound. The differences are what define the games. Move the ball with your feet: That’s football. Pick it up and toss it: That’s rugby. Put it on a wood court: basketball. Put it on ice and it becomes some brutal thing where white people with sticks forfeit blood and teeth.

A slightly more vague set of boundaries define styles of music. I don’t want to wade into examples of what puts a track in or outside the box of what’s techno or house. But suffice to say, most fans can agree on how to classify whatever they’re currently hearing. The more subdivided the classifications, the differences become more nuanced. Still, most can agree on basic stylistic differences.

But what a lot of electronic music fans can’t seem to agree upon is a really simple, albeit fundamental question: What is DJing? More crucial: What is not DJing? The term wasn’t exactly simple at its inception, but it’s only gotten harder. The bounds are being tested all the time, and they seem to shift—not just moment-to-moment, but in how they're applied to any individual DJ. Lots of tech riders include laptops or CDJs. As far as I know, only one includes cakes.

To wade in slowly, I’m going to say we have to cut a higher standard than “DJing is anything done by one who calls themselves a DJ.” The diplomatic definition might say that it’s any time a person presents a sequence of recordings to create a collective effect within the listener...yeah? Sounds pretentious, like an art-school homework assignment.

But you’ll also have to excuse any of us who hesitate at the notion that DJing is exclusively achieved by layering vinyl discs in the same tempo. Yes, that’s my personal introduction to DJing, one of my favorite ways to play, and it’s the origin of dance-music culture. But it would exclude Theo Parrish, who can sometimes forego beat-matching in order to play the best selection, or Function, who has played blistering sets of angular techno from a laptop. No fan of the art would begrudge either man his due as a Real DJ.

So what does Paris Hilton do? (Note to self-—bumper-sticker idea: WDPHD?) I’ll anticipate your response and follow up. If she’s not a real DJ, what does a real DJ do?

Full disclosure: I’ve faced the question myself. Lately I choose to play with Pioneer CDJs in clubs, and vinyl at home (if you’re asking: There’s not a chance I’m trusting one of 200 extant copies of a prized record to the geniuses at Easyjet. Current Discogs prices mean replacing my collection would require selling all of my organs—yes all of them). Previously, I spent time lugging multiple computing platforms and lengths of cables through clubs, airports and hotels. Before that I played what I called “live” but was far less “live” than my DJ sets. For a while I used the multilayered approach with lots of interlocking loops and tracks, but ultimately realized that my job was more about letting the music do its job.

Seeing KiNK play live—using vinyl, computers, machines and a lot of adrenaline—will frustrate any definition of the boundaries of DJing (or live music in general). Great artists can often do that. Is he a DJ? Certainly. Is he simultaneously many other things? Absolutely.

Maybe the technical questions are too murky. Let’s skip the question of how a DJ does what they do. I still have to ask, what does a DJ do?

Let’s talk about the music a DJ decides to play. I’ve heard a lot of fans and colleagues talk in awe of DJs who play “their sound.” I have to admit it’s something I hadn’t encountered as much when I started, but lately it’s a marker of a massively successful DJ to play several hours of records with a single constant groove, sonic signature, timbre and energy level. Many of the artists I once followed for their ability to manipulate a crowd through twisted, bouncing hours that resembled a motocross track have recently switched to bringing listeners over a flat autobahn through a cornfield. (No judgements,—some cornfields are transcendently beautiful). Others still carry the banner for the polyglots and omnivores—those who want music of many colors placed in elegant order, with a sommelier's touch for vintage, provenance and taste. Is one of these a better model for DJing?

A word I keep hearing lately is “uncompromising.” It flatters anyone it’s applied to, as I think most of us in the modern era believe art is made in a hermetic womb indifferent to the outside world. But nightclubs aren’t museums. Is a DJ meant to present his or her vision of music regardless of who’s listening? Is the DJ expected to have a single, unbending vision, ruthlessly applied in any context? Conversely, how far should a DJ adapt to make an uninterested room start dancing? Maybe this is all theoretical bullshit, but I’ve faced it personally when looking out at a room of dancers and wondering about the limits of their expectations or patience. I’ll just say I’ve been both pleasantly surprised at times, and sorely disappointed at others.

I recently played at Berghain, a room famous for a very specific brand of techno, under my LA-4A alias. I had to think a lot about how the expectations of that room fit with what I wanted to present under that alias. I ended up digging out records I’d owned for 20 years, rare gems I’d forgotten to play, and some classics every DJ loves. The balancing act went both ways—some moments leaned into expectations, some went completely against the grain, and I felt the crowd was with me the whole time. At the end, I felt like I’d rediscovered my roots as a DJ. Finding the intersection of my ideas and the audience's desires made me a better DJ, but it ruined my chances of being called “uncompromising.”

Another variable thrown into this mix of questions is: how has the definition of the art form changed over time? Last year, the venerable legend Derrick May lamented on Twitter about the way the scene has changed.

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No one would ever doubt the art of DJing embodied by Mr. May, nor would many DJs, young or old, withstand a comparison to him. I’d contend that he’s one of “today’s DJs”—he’s certainly not yesterday’s—and he’s still got the gift. I was lucky enough to play before him earlier this year; it’s clear he’s not resting on his laurels. Whatever time or planet he came from, he can smoke 99 percent of DJs. But how could we compare a young DJ to those who started before he or she was born? If two DJs play the same party, one who’s 23, the other is 50, which one is “today’s DJ?” Experience counts for a lot in this culture, but it’s not everything. For every young hack with 100,000 Facebook fans and laptop full of stolen mp3s, there’s a feckless senior living off what he did during the Reagan administration. Young and old DJs can suck, regardless of age. More importantly, every year a bumper crop of fresh DJs arrives, dedicated masters of their craft, and every year we hear stories of once-bright stars who burned out. Let’s agree that of all the confusing criteria for who is a DJ, age is not a factor.

So far I’ve asked a lot of questions, and maybe the guy who calls himself “Ambivalent” can’t be expected to take a single position in a debate. But why don’t I take a stab at answering them from my own subjective viewpoint. It’ll make for better sensational context-free pull-quotes.

First up: if you’re worried about Paris Hilton, Guetta, or any other mainstream Gollum corrupting your art form, then you’re probably already swimming too close to their boat. Yes, what they do is DJing. No, their version of DJing will never affect what happens in record shops or on Sunday mornings at Berghain. When punk went mainstream, no one confused Blink 182 for Fugazi; the latter cast a longer shadow and far outlived the former. Of course, the money went the opposite direction, so choose wisely.

Next question: what does a DJ use? The only people who should know which gear is used in the booth are the DJ, and the club’s sound technician. I guarantee that the most important information about a DJ set can be ascertained with your eyes closed and your body moving. I’ve always said that DJing is like sex—if you like it, you’re open to every available technique. Some techniques are awkward, others are easy; some are reliable classics, others require devices and tech support…and all are sufficiently documented on the internet. Do your own research, practice at home.

Photo: Lars Borges

Photo: Lars Borges

The next one is stickier, and I’m probably on the edge of getting in trouble here, but fuck it. I think there are two kinds of listeners: those who want what they expect, and those who want what they don’t expect. I am a nerd, and when it comes to entertainment, I’m a masochist. I want a band to play the obscure album cuts, I want a DJ who will make me twist my face like I smelled something awful. I won’t argue with the notion that playing to 10,000 people, threee times a week, 150 nights per year might require a certain streamlining, some smoothing of the edges. Andy Warhol said he loved Coca-Cola because “it tastes the same everywhere you go.” Things worked out well for Coca-Cola, and for Andy. There seems to be a heated contest for becoming the Coca-Cola of techno—everyone’s working on their “brand.” I wish them all success, they understand business in a way I never could, and to the victor go the spoils. I just prefer more surprises.

So to answer the big question—what does a DJ do? While there’s no definitive answer, and everyone’s answer is different, here’s mine:

I want to hear a DJ who loves the music I love and loves the music they play; who plays records I know and records I’ve never heard; who will play an mp3 or a dusty 45 if the moment is right; who cares less about having a “sound” and more about what they hear; who chases records to collect them as much as to use them; who listens to their audience as much as the audience listens to them; who never stops trying to achieve something and never rests on what they’ve achieved; who puts less focus on where they’re from, and more on where they are.

My answer to the question is this: a DJ is someone who plays music beautifully.

And I am pretty sure that can function independently of Coca-Cola.