Beyond Vinyl vs Digital: Innovation and Rule-Breaking in the Booth

Graham Dunning. Credit: Jonathan Waring

When it comes to the current conversation about mixing, a two-sided debate tends to appear: is vinyl or digital a better medium? For seasoned heads and fresh-faced clubbers alike, the question surfaces again and again in online comment threads and at after parties. Active responses to the subject range from gimmicky extremes to more nuanced observations about technological innovation and what that really means. More often than not, however, these arguments create a climate of stubborn tribalism by pitting analogue and digital against one another instead of focusing on the innovative spaces enabled between them. It’s surprising that more attention hasn’t been granted to the way people mix, rather than the equipment they use.

I started to think about different attitudes to mixing after talking to Lucy Williams, who plays as Luce for Leeds-based night Love Muscle and KMAH radio. After moving to the city and beginning to DJ, she noticed how much of a fixation there was on precise transitions. To her this symptomised a disproportionate focus on “the technical ability to show off to one another” over musical expression. This echoes a basic tenet of the vinyl purist’s argument: that glorifying synchronicity is a reductive way to look at DJing.

“I didn’t feel like I was being myself,” Lucy said of BPM-oriented mixing. “I wanted to go against it all and find my own ways of collating and experimenting with records; to play in a way that I hadn’t really seen before.” She went on to emphasise the relationship between mixing and collecting. “As soon as you abide by the rules it changes the way you think about the music and dampens artistic integrity”. In essence, Lucy believes that beatmatching can be an exciting way to mix, but only when it comes secondary to personal style and experimentation.

This perspective caught my attention because it rejects the idea of beatmatching as a universal benchmark of quality. Moreover, it raises the possibility that this idea might have social implications because it can be needlessly exclusionary. As the DJ sphere becomes increasingly introspective and expressive about representation and diversity, normative attitudes are being eclipsed by open-mindedness and re-evaluation. It seems fair, then, that beatmatching could also be open to scrutiny.

Turntablism is another area of mixing that focuses on values of accuracy as a measure of skill. Perhaps that partially explains its evolution from a groundbreaking, genre-forming technique into a more niche discipline less frequently employed in club sets. In formal competitions, turntablism is almost scientific in performance, demanding mechanical precision over the readiness to adapt and improvise. Yet even in the DMC World Championships, excitement lies in rule-breaking. While some might be familiar with staple scratching techniques like the Crab; they might not recognise a method involving scratching on the physical record label (2:30 onwards). There are those who even advocate scratching with jogwheels, demonstrating a desire to hybridise old and new schools of mixing. Maybe that’s not so unimaginable considering the whole subculture of scratching stems from going against the grain, in style.

DMC Championships 2016.

If there’s anyone who makes going against the grain work in relation to a crowd, it’s Ricardo Villalobos. Renowned for minimal techno and questionable club shots, it’s the way he deconstructs his own hype that arguably sets him apart. Whether it’s using distortion to feign a persistent sound issue, throwing in awkward curve-ball selections to clear a crowded dance floor, or twisting a record out of time just to see what will happen, Villalobos injects the hypnosis of minimal with surprise. More than this – to the chagrin of first-time audiences – he makes a point of defying expectations of seamlessness, in the process maintaining his reputation as an adventurous and original DJ.

And there’s more to be said for playing with records, rather than just playing them. It was through Lucy that I recently learned about a Peruvian artist called Maria Chavez, who is a self-dubbed abstract turntablist. Potentially the only DJ who actually enjoys discovering scratches on her records, Chavez’s unique approach relies on “pulling out chance and accidents” from damaged and snapped vinyl. Her technique evolved from a childhood tendency to break things, which she then fed into the turntablist incentive “to touch a playback technology in a way it wasn’t meant to be used”. The results simmer with eerie, hypnotic sweeps and crackles.

British artist Graham Dunning explores the physical possibilities of vinyl in a similar way. Rather than chopping up sonic ingredients with a mixer, he chops up the physical record (usually a dubplate of his field recordings) or adds small, variously-textured pieces to the vinyl, then builds sounds on one turntable to produce what he calls mechanical techno. There’s something strangely satisfying about the combination of electronic music with a Wallace-and-Gromit-like automaton, which Dunning describes as an “overarching structure” for improvisation: indeed, the project itself grew out of studio experimentation and live performance. It’s worth taking time to watch a break down of his method in one of the most engaging Boiler Room videos in their archive.

Graham Dunning. Credit: Julien Kerduff

I asked Dunning about his experiences in and outside of dance music culture, intrigued to hear his take on musical experimentation and conservatism. Although considering himself peripheral to the scene, he touched on dance music’s experimental history as well as more contemporary evolutions such as Algorave: “most [crowds] enjoy having their expectations challenged or pushed a bit,” he notes. More generally, though, his comments emphasize the importance of organic process, which reminds me of Lucy’s words on staying true to your natural curiosity. Speaking about his experiences teaching Experimental Sound Art in London, he says:

“I try to demystify the sound art world and let people know that anyone can do it. There’s no right or wrong way to do things when you’re experimenting. In education I think there’s too much focus on outcome and not on process. I think it’s really important to let go of the pressure to create something deliberate or planned or slick, and just allow things to come out.”

Dunning’s use of records is similar to live DJ performances in that it relies on pre-prepared, cumulative elements of sound, rather than blending together two or more finished tracks. There’s something to be said for the absence of continuous sound, however. With two-deck mixing being so ubiquitous now, it’s easy to forget that DJing began with one turntable. But DJs like Beatrice Dillon have almost reverted back to that style, playing quantised dance tracks with deliberate lulls in between.

Ben UFO at Giant Steps, Houghton Festival.

This approach is not being adopted exclusively by individuals either. North London basement bar Behind This Wall stands by its one-turntable setup. The underlying aim is “to put everyone in the room in the same space,” says co-founder Alex Harris, minimising chances of a DJ’s ego overwhelming the social listening environment with flashy mixing. As with a dinner party, this encourages the DJ to “pick a nice record and put it on at a nice level to set the vibe and have everyone appreciate it.” In a similar vein, at the first iteration of Houghton festival, the Giant Steps stage (hosted by Brilliant Corners and The Analogue Foundation) had its turntables at the centre of attention, but there were no pitch faders and the mixer was positioned to one side of the DJ. This reconfiguration of setup may have played a significant part in the magnificently elastic selection of sets like Ben UFO’s. Darting from jungle to jazz, it demonstrated that there’s chemistry to be found between radio-style mixing and a dance floor.

Further to the North of England the same might be seen at Leeds’ beloved night Cosmic Slop, an event series raising money for local education charity MAP, which we profiled in the film A Party With A Purpose. Tom Smith’s impressive custom-built sound system combines with a quiet indifference to beatmatching to produce sets full of decadent contrasts; in the aforementioned film he refers to this as “sonic character” underpinning a “template” of freedom. Each track is like a movement in itself, especially when switching from quick salsa to seductively slow R&B. It also means that tracks are no longer limited to certain stages in a set – tracks formerly relegated to warm-up playlists are now fair game anywhere. Hunee says of his experience at Slop: “I felt I could play anything. I could let the record run out, I could play the same record twice…I could probably play a sonata by Bach right now.” As this end-of-year piece from RA notes, added flexibility is not only in keeping with the zeitgeist, but fundamental to dance music’s enduring currency. Furthermore, Hunee continues, the juxtaposition of so many different elements creates a “very inclusive environment.”

Cosmic Slop. Credit: Stamp The Wax

Sometimes, rather than the subversion of technical factors, it’s the tracks themselves that keep homogeneity at bay. One of the DJs to play at esteemed British festival Freerotation in 2017 was DJ Bus Replacement Service, whose tongue-in-cheek name mirrors her mixing (simply categorised on Soundcloud as #Incorrect). While her blends are rhythmically tight, it’s her extraordinary transitions – going from the Psycho Chicken variation of the Talking Heads’ classic into a weather forecast/Snoop Dogg mashup, or from “porn for the blind” into an edit of Frankie Knuckles’ ‘Your Love’ – that have sent people into a frenzy of joyful disbelief. It’s an antidote to chin-stroking that gathers its power from that same “play anything” mindset, except it’s not so much beatmatching that is forfeited as much as the anxiety about whether or not a track is appropriate. Such unapologetic thinking outside the box emphasises the artist’s creative autonomy, and it makes me imagine DJ Bus Replacement Service might share Lucy’s views on the stifling nature of certain expectations.

It’s heartening to witness the presence of these subversive pockets within the dance music community. The spike in enthusiasm for rave culture might pose a threat of oversaturation or commercial influence but these risk takers create further incentives for new ideas and stylistic innovation. With more DJs thinking outside the box, hopefully we can move beyond the digital vs. analogue question and encourage young DJs to make their mixing style their own.

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