The button-pushing debate

DJs and producers line up to chime in on the authenticity of their craft.

Photograph: Drew Resslerdeadmau5

You know what they say about DJs with opinions; sometimes they come off sounding like assholes. At least that’s how many working in the nightlife trade felt about loudmouthed club rat deadmau5 after reading the cover story on him in the July 5 issue of Rolling Stone. In it, mau5-man Joel Zimmerman rails on dance-music stars like David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex, calling out what he feels is a rudimentary performance technique that amounts to little more than pressing play on songs.

“People are, thank God, smartening up to who does what—but there’s still button-pushers getting paid half a million,” Zimmerman states. “And not to say I’m not a button-pusher, I’m just pushing a lot more buttons.” Such high-profile shit talking was bound to set people off. If you happen to friend or follow even a couple of DJs or producers, you’ve likely been unable to avoid the torrent of responses from amateurs and professionals alike, both in favor of and against Zimmerman’s argument.

Thankfully, amid all this rapid-fire commentary, a few cooler heads have spoken up to better frame the issue. Last week, in our own pages, Lollapalooza artists Bassnectar and Kaskade chimed in, pointing out that the larger the performance, the more the music, lights and visuals need to be in sync. In that situation, there’s little room for the spontaneity, improvisation or possible error usually afforded to a DJ in a typical club setting. Some artists, the guys point out, choose to pre-record and then mime performance. Others practice meticulously to assure that once onstage in front of thousands, they don’t miss their cues. Kaskade and Bassnectar, it’s worth pointing out, fall in with the latter half.

So does A-Trak, the five-time world-champion DJ and party rocker who took to the Huffington Post on July 23 to speak at length about the debate. “As the lines blur between a DJ who mixes and a producer who presses play, questions of authenticity have been raised,” he explains. DJs, who have traditionally dominated the club market, are the guys and gals you see behind record or CD players, blending other people’s songs together and cringing at your requests for “Call Me Maybe.”

Producers, like deadmau5, work in a studio. Unlike bands, these artists use computers and equipment to make their music. Not the coolest thing to watch live. It basically amounts to—and here’s the rub—pushing a lot of buttons.

Some producers, like Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta, also DJ to make up for the lack of showmanship inherent in electronic music production. But given the heights their stage produtions aspire to, it’s harder than it used to be. “When so much emphasis is put on hit records and mise-en-scène, is there still room for DJ skills?” A-Trak asks. Watching one of his performances proves the answer to be an emphatic yes. But many others err on the side of laziness.

And yet, for all this critiquing, no matter how accurate, the one voice that isn’t being taken into account is that of the fans. Deadmau5 knows how to put his foot in his mouth, but he also knows how to put on a spectacle. His mise-en-scène is worth the price of admission. Who cares if he’s just pushing buttons? It’s still cool to watch. No doubt, many feel the same way about Guetta or the boys from Sweden. At the same time, if you want to call yourself a fan of this culture, support the actual DJs too—the ones who are working hard with no more than two turntables, a mixer and an arsenal of great songs. As Kaskade put it, “when you go see a good DJ, you’ll know it, man, you’ll know it in your bones.”

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