Real Talk: Marquis Hawkes

The UK DJ discusses his motivations for switching from vinyl to digital formats.
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Real Talk' is a series of artist-penned essays that appear on XLR8R from time to time. 

Since his 2012 debut on Glasgow’s Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, the raw, ghetto influenced stylings of Marquis Hawkes have become very distinctive; however, we can’t say the same thing about the character of the man himself. Back in 2013, the Berlin-based producer featured in our Bubblin’ Up series, and made the point that you “almost say more by saying nothing these days.” All these years on, with a number of releases on the likes of Clone, Aus and Creme Organization to his name, he’s managed to maintain that elusive front, and we still can’t be all that clear on the man behind the music.

This year, he dropped his debut full length via Fabric’s in-house label Houndstooth. The album was inspired by his surroundings, when he had to move to an East Berlin social housing estate upon his wife falling pregnant (hence the release’s title). Comprising 12 previously unreleased tracks, it tells a story of the positive impact that period had on his music making and general life, and seeks to highlight that such schemes shouldn’t be viewed in a negative light. Social Housing even comes complete with artwork courtesy of Detroit’s Alan Oldham, an interpretation of their living conditions.

Following the album’s release, Hawkes has kindly weighed in on our Real Talk series, penning an essay on the matter of the ongoing battle between digital and vinyl DJs. Having been active in the music world for roughly two decades now (for many years prior to his debut release), touring the world’s club circuit and experiencing many a DJ booth, he strikes as the right man for the job. In light of his recent switch to digital DJing, perhaps he could even be the man to sway a few of the diehard turntablists out there.

There’s been a lot of debate recently surrounding the effect technological advances have had on the world of DJs and DJing. As a regularly touring DJ, I felt I wanted to share my own experiences, which have led to my own opinions and views on the subject to be formed. By no means do I feel my opinion is definitive; it’s just an opinion, but it is formed from being on the road, and having to DJ in often demanding circumstances.

I was a die-hard vinyl DJ for many many years, resistant to change, particularly as I’ve been a DJ for over 20 years now. We started out with vinyl because there was no way of playing any other format at a party. Back in the day, it was mostly two 1200s/1210, sometimes crappy belt drives if you were unlucky, often combined with a crappy mixer with no EQ on the channels—and you were lucky if the crossfader worked at all.

Later, I was listening closely to the ethos propagated by people like Theo Parrish, which I very much identified with at the time, that vinyl DJs would whoop the digital guys’ asses every time. But after a bit more time and experience as a touring DJ, I’ve come to my own perspective: I've decided that the issue is much deeper and more complex than that.

Within just a few months of my DJ career starting to take off, I began to notice that it was not uncommon for the vinyl turntable setups to be substandard, sometimes even to the point that it was impossible to play records, never mind put in any kind of respectable performance that properly represented my skills. In many of the bigger, more established and more professionally organized event locations, measures were taken to ensure that artists could play vinyl without problems: the equipment was checked regularly, and then repaired and replaced when needed; there would be a competent sound engineer on hand at all times, and there were always some fresh needles available should the ones on the tone arm become too worn for good sound reproduction. This setup would then be maintained to a sufficient degree to ensure that was was no chance that an over enthusiastic audience would cause the needles to jump, and there would be no issues resulting from these vibrations feeding back to the surfaces upon which the turntables positioned, causing massive out-of-key sub bass to emanate from the speakers.

But even the biggest DJs aren’t playing venues with such well maintained setups at every gig, and now even some of the more established locations are tending not to bother so much with maintaining turntables as it becomes increasingly rare that they are requested given that the majority of artists that are asking for two, three or four CDJ 2000s.

"With CD decks, the needle is never going to skip when you are cueing backwards and forwards over the first beat. Vibrations from the PA are never going to cause feedback, and a track is never going to skip just because the crowd got a bit too wild."

For this reason I slowly started to record my records, copying the tracks across to USB sticks—and I also started buying new files here and there, initially just for "emergency situations" where the turntables were in an unworkable state. It was purely a precautionary measure.

But as I became more experienced and comfortable with using CD players—as I’ve never owned a pair, and still don’t to this day—I found the process of playing on them easier in a big, big way. With CD decks, the needle is never going to skip when you are cueing backwards and forwards over the first beat. Vibrations from the PA are never going to cause feedback, and a track is never going to skip just because the crowd gets a bit too wild. A skipping record is going to slow you down in the beat matching process, often meaning that a particular, crucial point where you might want to bring a record in might be missed. The challenge can be exciting sometimes, but downright disastrous in other situations, particularly when the majority of your audience isn’t going to understand the various challenges of playing vinyl.

A vinyl turntable needs to be serviced regularly. Particular attention must be paid to very, very subtle factors, such as a platter slightly losing time or speeding up, or even both. But even when that attention to detail is applied, it’s still a fact that it becomes impossible to maintain synchronisation of two pieces of music as accurately as a digital system of any kind could.

But here comes the rub: more and more often, the bar of beat matching prowess—at least in the ears of the average listener on the dancefloor—is being set by a majority of artists who are now using digital methods for DJing. It's not really possible to compare an artist playing on a pair of Technics with someone playing on CDJs, or with a laptop with a controller because it's not a level playing field.

After considering many of these themes at great length, both alone and with my contemporaries— and primarily for the reason of giving anyone who has shelled out cash to hear me play the best experienced possible—I have started to use CDJs more and more frequently. More recently, after a few sets with which I felt particularly unsatisfied, I took to leap over to using Pioneer’s Rekordbox.

I had been very resistant to it initially, mostly due to my own misunderstanding of what the software actually does. I had assumed that it changes the files in some way, much like Ableton Live’s “Warp” function time-stretches audio automatically to fit a grid. What I came to understand is that it does no such thing; rather it simply lays a grid over the music to where it thinks the main backing beat of the track lies, laying a line on each peak of louder signal, where the software thinks the “boom boom boom” is.

This process can quite often lead to a considerable amount of laborious work as you manually edit the grid to match the beat behind the track; this is especially true when the music is based around live recordings of instrumentation or recorded before digital sequencing was as tight as it is these days. But I found that after that hard work was done, a whole new world was opened because I could easily loop sections of a track, particularly if an intro was short—and it also made it easier to take part of an old funk track, for example, and lay a heavier beat over the top, or even just skip backwards and forward to different points in the track. It simply paved the way to interesting explorations of live remixing that I had never really imagined before. 

And this, for me, is where advances in technology can be a force for good, namely when said advances are being utilised to push beyond boundaries that simply would not be possible with vinyl.

Another, much deeper thing, that I have noted from this change [to digital formats] has been that when I record my records I actually have to listen to each track the whole way through. As a result, I often notice elements that I have never noticed before, meaning that I actually get to know my music better than I ever would have done had I continued playing only vinyl. Through the use of Rekordbox, I notice tempo anomalies that I could never have perceived by ear, which then, in turn, also improves my beat matching when I go back to playing vinyl.

I still play vinyl when I know the setup is going to be good and reliable, or when it’s specifically requested that I play a vinyl set, but it’s refreshing for me to bounce between the two formats from gig to gig, or even at the same event, especially during times where I might be playing two, three or even four gigs over the space of a weekend. It also means I can tailor what I carry with me to the restrictions of my means of travel, and the variety of events I might be playing over the course of a weekend.

"Playing vinyl, from a selection point of view, can definitely be more random and rewarding, but playing with digital formats gives a precision which is hard to match—and like all tools, it’s only right to find the one which fits the situation best."

I think the debate around this whole subject has been polarized far too much, with the expectation that a DJ should only play one format, and then commit all of their loyalty to it. It’s worth remembering also that it’s a very personal choice, and that no music format is necessarily “better” than the other. Playing vinyl, from a selection point of view, can definitely be more random and rewarding, but playing with digital formats gives a precision which is hard to match—and like all tools, it’s up to the artist to decide which best fits any given situation.

Finally, let's leave on this thought: it is possible to draw many parallels between advances in DJing technology and advances in music production technology. Much like the way it’s become easy to produce an apparently “competent” sounding track due to the availability of the tools required, it’s become much easier in recent times for anybody to string a few tracks together in a set. But now, more than ever, this places even more importance on track selection, knowing your music, and having the right ear to know which pieces of music best fit together, and which tracks are best for a certain situation.

Certainly, being a vinyl DJ from the beginning gives you a much broader experience to draw from, but I don’t think it necessarily should be a prerequisite to be a good DJ. And I don’t think it’s fair to simply blame the lack of creativity on the technological advances. In fact, these technological developments should be the platform that allows artists take it to the level; they should enable us to take bigger risks than we would usually take. This, of course, can be as simple as playing music that we wouldn't normally because it's arrangement makes it difficult to mix.

All things considered, I've decided that the important thing is not the tools in operation, but rather what is coming out of the speakers.