Wednesday 3 December 2003

From behind the decks

"Play something funky,", she smiled, swaying uncertainly to either the music pulsing from the speakers close to her head or the hammering effect of the cocktail she was sipping "yeah, play something with a bit of funk in it.".

I had to lie, "Sorry, I left my funk records at home.". I don't like funk, never bought any funk records, never owned anything funkier than an Orb dub track, but I couldn't insult her by immediately dissing her taste.

"Oh go on, play something funky.".

Just for a few seconds, I hated being a DJ.

We, that is Ruffles and Spankee (I am Graham Spankee*, Scott is Justin Ruffles**, together we are Ruffles and Spankee***), threw a party this weekend. Although we let my flatmate Barry pretend it was for his birthday, it was really just a chance to get a lot of people we knew, and a fair few we didn't, into a bar and play on our record decks in front of them.

Playing music I like to large groups of people is such a buzz, I have nothing to liken it to in terms of gratifyingly immediate feedback but it must be a similar to performing stand-up or live theatre. I first felt the high ten years ago when I ran The Pav, the cheesy college disco. Every week I'd play the same records - Bulletproof by PWEI, Sympathy for the Devil, What Can You Do For Me? by The Utah Saints - for the same drunken hordes, every week I'd listen to countless irritating requests for Take That or Wham! or Abba and every week I'd get the same joy from looking at a roomful of people dancing and smiling to something I was doing.

People misunderstand the skill of DJing, either dismissing it as just pulling one huge tune after another from the record box or believing it to be about the turntablist arts of beat mixing, scratching and cutting. Whilst a combination of good tunes and technical skills is useful, the art of good DJing is picking records to control and drive the mood of a night. A good DJ won't play the biggest acid party monster of a track at 8:30 whilst you're still ordering your first drink, and they won't play Leonard Cohen when you're in the mood for dancing. No amount of seamless fading or rapid scratching will help people to have a good time, picking the right music is the only way.

The amount of control over a crowd a good DJ has is phenomenal. A few years back, Prime Cuts played at the excellent The Bomb in Nottingham. He's one of the world's greatest turntablists, part of the all conquering Scratch Perverts, so I went along to listen to someone who could create new music from a pair of decks and a hundredweight of black vinyl.

A couple of run of the mill hip-hop DJs and some live MCs were on beforehand, but their uninspiring performances left the audience listless. I was bored and tired and desparately wanted to go home to bed but I hung around hoping to see an impressive if ultimately rather dull display of scratching and cutting skills. Instead I saw a virtuoso performance of top DJing. Ten minutes after Prime Cuts started the whole room was alive again. The crowd were laughing and happy with all signs of boredom gone, I was re-energised and couldn't stop dancing. By the end of the night he had the entire club bouncing up and down and cheering as he created a rhythm from crashing the needle into the side of the empty platter.

With neither the skill nor experience of Prime Cuts, but with plenty of enthusiasm, Ruffles and I soundtracked the whole party on Saturday night. We played party hip-hop and recognisable house, we got people grooving to that Fatboy Slim track they once heard and kept them moving through Audio Bully remixes of Groove Armada tracks. And although there were moments when the eighty records in my box seemed to telescope down to just one poor choice, and moments when we misjudged quite how the crowd would react (in retrospect the Junior Cartier mix of Women Beat Their Men was just a little hard) by the end we even had some dancing on the tables.

We didn't even need any funk.

* just 'cos.

** just 'cos.

*** Just. 'Cos.

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