The New Meaning of DJ
Before we get started, time for a quick introduction. I’m Mark Settle — yes that guy off of DJWORX, the gear focussed media outlet of some 15 years. So what on earth am I doing loitering around the Denon DJ blog? I can metaphorically hear the “why’s he writing for them?” as I quite literally write for them. That’s easy — I’ve always kept DJWORX and skratchworx before it strictly focussed on gear. We have at times strayed and touched in related things, but the spotlight on tech is what makes DJWORX the leader in its field*. And they asked me nicely, a tactic that usually yields positive results.
* Look — I’m allowed to get one shameless bit of self promotion and gratuitous back patting out of the way before never mentioning it again. Probably.
But as a DJ on and off for some three and a half decades, I have other things I’d like to write about, ones that are still DJ related, but fall outside of my strict self imposed tech focus. I want to be able to offer insight into what’s happening today, and give context with experience gleaned from “the good old days”. But we’ll get to that in other ramblings.
And say children — what does DJ mean?
For my first piece, I’d like to talk about the term “DJ” — the etymology of it, and if it still means the same thing in the brave new technology driven world.
Everyone knows that DJ is an initialism for “disc jockey”, and was first used in 1935 by American radio commentator Walter Winchell to describe the disco swapping antics of fellow radio star Martin Block. This information is easily gleaned from Wikipedia, but not so easy to find is when it became shortened to DJ. In fact I can’t find that at all, but at some point (I’m guessing early 60s), using the long winded disc jockey became tiresome and unfashionable. “Jock” was an alternative, and even adorned the masthead of a British magazine for but the briefest moment in time, before becoming DJ Mag in 1991.
Tangentially, “Jockey Slut” was another UK magazine running through the 90s up to 2004. It seems that they got into some legal strife with the underwear brand Jockey, and although settled out of court and continuing to use the name, it’s clear that using “jockey” in any kind of DJ related setting is litigation waiting to happen.
So should someone ask what we are or what we do, I’m confident that everyone says DJ rather than disc jockey, because it does sound incredibly old fashioned now. Maybe it’ll come back as authentic artisanal disc jockery, using the finest locally sourced hand made music.
Let’s get this clear
So that’s the origins. It was all about playing discs, one after another to a crowd. But let’s look at a modern definition of what a DJ does — enter Apple’s built-in dictionary: OK — I’m cool with the first two definitions, but the last is definitely closer to producer than DJ. I’m sure I’ll get into this can of worms at some point in my future scribblings.
Let’s take a look at other sources. Dictionary.com’s definition goes as follows — “a person who conducts a radio broadcast consisting of recorded music, informal talk, commercial announcements, etc” and “a person who selects, plays, and announces records at a discotheque” – Crikey. You can positively hear the sixties BBC announcer’s received pronunciation coming across in that sentence. One can imagine the hepcats jiving to the Beatles on Ready Steady Go on the black and white telly (that’s ‘television or TV’ to our younger audience – Ed) too. Moving on.
The Cambridge dictionary describes a disc jockey as ”someone who plays recorded music on the radio or at a dance, party, or other event”. Not bad — I can live with that.
Merriam Webster has a similar definition — “an announcer of a radio show of popular recorded music; also : one who plays recorded music for dancing at a nightclub or party”.
The Oxford English dictionary (my home town and therefore definitive) says this: “A person who introduces and plays recorded popular music, especially on radio or at a club.”
What really matters?
So leaving the dictionary.com definition in the Antiques Roadshow archives, it’s clear that all these modern descriptions are saying more or less the same thing. But the one thing that screamed at me is the actual definition of what DJs do. And it’s quite different to how many of us perceive our craft. What do you think it is? Anyone? Bueller?
It’s this — there’s no mention of discs, or any medium at all for that matter. The common theme is “plays recorded music”. That’s what the audience sees, but we DJs seem to put the emphasis on the medium. It’s our process vs the crowd’s end result.
Here’s the thing — your audience probably consumes music via streaming. They no longer have vinyl or CD collections, or even own music for that matter. Thus the notion of putting a record on a platter or inserting a CD into a slot is alien and old fashioned, and frankly not going to impress them at all. And they probably have all the music you have too, in their pocket.
So the conclusion is clear — it’s the music and not the medium that matters today. It’s certainly possible to create an experience with the wide plethora of available technology, but the method by which the music is delivered can be more diverse than ever before.
The world has clearly moved on. And like so many things impacted by the incessant rampage of technology, so has the definition of what a DJ is and does. Hell, DJ has become a noun and a verb — you are what you do now. And as a DJ, you play other people’s music to an audience, irrespective of format. In the digital age, DJ is a wider church, and it’s time to accept that DJing doesn’t have to mean the exclusive jockeying of the platters that matter. Think of it more as what the audience sees — the playing of music. And by any means necessary.
Ultimately, it comes down to this simple fact — as a diverse demographic of digital DJs, we can play music using the vast melting pot of technologies. The biggest irony is that when there was only vinyl, it could only be about the music. But human nature dictated that gear tribes were formed when new ways of playing came along. The music however sounded just the same, and the crowds still danced.
So rather than worshipping the literal dogma of the “disc jockey”, wouldn’t it be better to embrace the all-encompassing “DJ” and all the amazing possibilities that come with it? You can still use vinyl, CDs, or digital media players to fill the floor with your particular audience, but equally other DJs are doing the same thing using a laptop and a grid controller, without a single disc of music in sight. And there’s a strong chance that it’s the same music being played too.
Bottom line — regardless of gear and medium, the crowd dances to music. All they see is a DJ, DJing.
* Main feature image credit: BBC Radio 3