The Joy of producing

It might seem very strange but I have never put my solo name on a music production.  It's even stranger given the current climate whereby DJs have to produce to get gigs.

I have been part of many different production outfits such as 2020Soundsystem, 2020Vision, Chuggles, Otaku, Wulf n Bear etc but never used my name to produce. Somehow I have managed to survive as a DJ for nearly 25 years without having tracks out under my DJ name. I don't think there is anything wrong in using parts or vocals from other musicians and incorporating them into your own productions but I do feel you need to be the one behind the actual song and final mix to warrant your moniker on the record. After 2020Soundsystem finished this year I have been motivated to go down into my basement studio, which has been used primarily as a DJ room and start pushing my own production skills. It then made sense that the first track I would give my name to was created by an important studio mentor for me and former member of the 202Soundsystem Danny 'Dubble D' Ward, while the bass was played by fellow member Fernando Pulichino. It just felt like a natural progression after the band stopped.

 It has also made me think about the roles of DJ/Producers further. The topic has been in discussion recently in a few articles I have read, most concerning the rise of DJ Ben UFO. Ben is not a producer but the label head of Hessle Audio records.  He is a true selector, finding music from many diverse genres to create a very interesting contemporary mix of music. All features on him have concentrated on the fact that he doesn't produce as a important moment in the modern electronic music scene but what is the history of the DJ entering production and how have we got to the current situation whereby, in general, DJs have to produce to get live work?

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When I first started DJing there was a clear division between being a DJ or Producer. We didn't make the records we played them. The skill of playing the records was already appreciated in my scene, house music, and good technical DJs gained the respect of their peers as well as their audience.  Producing records requires an all-together different skill set.  For a start being able to understand keys and play them certainly helps if you want to write parts in a track. I had played drums for years and picked up making beats on drum machines easily but I couldn't play a note. Mixing two or three records together also uses a different dexterity and knowledge from mixing 32 channels of audio. They are both skills that need to be learnt from many, many hours of practice.  But what is even more important is the personality required to do the work. DJing requires standing in front of large groups of people on stage and performing live while the work of a producer takes place in small studios with no immediate communication or interaction with an audience. The polar opposite personality traits are needed. The social world of clubs meets the seclusion of the studio head on.  Both require practice and it is not only production skills that take time to learn. While Grandmaster Flash was learning to scratch he totally stopped going out as he related to Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster for their book DJ Revolutionaries,

"I just stopped (going out)...basically I didn't have no childhood.  No girlfriends, no basketball, no hanging out, straight to my room...I got to figure this out."
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The amount of work required to learn each skill is huge. So is it a case of people being forced into being the jack of all trades but master of none?  Would dance music be in a healthier state if the DJs played and the producers produced?  Even the day to day lifestyle is different. Producers don't need to collect large quantities of other people's music, they concentrate on making their own or making music for other people. I always greatly respected my production partner Carl Finlow's steadfast refusal to own a single record. He never even attempted to pick up the decks. He is just happy behind the controls of a synth, DAW or mixing board. In much the same way I thought it an imposition to even attempt to learn keyboards. I was never in a million years going to play them as well as Carl so why bother? I had to practice my own chops on the decks. When I became part of a band, 2020Soundsystem, where everyone had their role and performed them well I also stuck to what I did best, which was play the beats. However, everyone has their own taste in music and at some point it is great to see what is inside you. Through all these years of working with other people in studios I found I had picked up much more than I realised. Technical skills can be learnt. They just take time. Somewhat late to the game perhaps but by now I must have racked up close to the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell believes is necessary to become a master of your trade. It would only take me about another 20 years to do the same in a studio!  

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So where and when did Djs start making records and become DJ/producers?  There are three different routes you can take here.  One is responsible for so much more than it is normally credited for - dub reggae music and the soundsystems of Jamaica. While the other two have been dissected with a fine tooth comb - disco and hip hop in New York City.  The route in disco can be clearly traced thanks to the many excellent books on the subject including, Tim Lawrence's ' Love Saves The Day', Brewster & Broughtons 'Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and Vince Aletti's 'The Disco Files'.  At first the gap couldn't have been wider in disco music between the two professions. The songs were being made by virtuoso musicians and highly talented producers such as Gamble & Huff who created the Philly sound. Their records were being played by DJs who were just beginning to write the book on how to put music together and keep dancers dancing all night such as Francis Grasso, Nicky Siano and David Mancuso. All were responsible for pioneering very different ways of mixing music.  Greg Wilson has recently written an interesting piece entitled, 'David Mancuso and the art of Deejaying without Deejaying'. It relates how Mancuso gave up on mixing records at The Loft, preferring to play the entire song exactly as the musicians had played it, letting the dancers breathe and applaud before continuing with the next record. Grasso was the first to segue music together in a continuous flow and Nicky Siano took mixing records by beatmatching to new levels at The Gallery. Although Siano recently tweeted that his skills were later surpassed by Richie Kaczor,

"No one beat matched better than Richie Kaczor (resident at Studio 54)...he was the best at it, even with live drums wavering in beat Richie would ride the mix."

 

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But who produced the records?  The defining moment came not when a DJ produced a record but when a producer used a method inspired by DJs as a production tool on a record. Tom Moulton was first and foremost a producer. However he had already crossed the line between the two when he started to make mix tapes of non stop disco music in 1972, which he gave to the promoter of 'Sunday Tea Party' at the Ice Palace in Fire Island. At first the tapes met with a bad reaction but when a DJ missed his set the promoter played Moulton's tape and rang him at 2am to tell him the crowd were going crazy. The tapes didn't replace Djs but Moulton played another important role in 1974 when Mel Cheren approached him to make an extended disco version of Don Downings 'Dream World' for the clubs. Moulton worked it this way,

"There was no way I could have extended the record by looping it back to the beginning. It would have sounded horrible . So at the end of the record I took out the strings, horn and guitar and I brought up the congas and bass.  I let the groove run and then took it back to the original..."

Moulton had created an edit and extended version. Two of the most fundamentally important production techniques used by DJs today.  His final contribution is well documented as the creator of the first remix. Not a bad legacy to leave.

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In the same year two DJs from very different backgrounds and scenes in New York, Kool DJ Herc and Walter Gibbons, started to extend the breaks in records by using two copies of the same disc.  

As Herc tells it, 

"Well the break thing happened because I was seeing everyone on the sidelines waiting for particular breaks in records...I said let me put a couple of these records together, that got breaks in them.  I did it. boom bom-bom-bom...place went berserk. Loved it."

At roughly the same time, albeit slightly later, unknown to Herc,  Walter Gibbons was also extending the best sections, or breaks, of his records.  As Tim Lawrence explains,

"(Gibbons) technique of taking two records and working them back and forth in order to extend the drum breaks...earned him the reputation of being a highly skilled original."

Kool DJ Herc is now widely credited as the first hip hop DJ and originator of break beat mixing while Gibbons is regarded as a true disco music legend. What they had both independently achieved was creating the use of the loop in dance music-the single most important production tool for making hip hop, house, techno, dubstep, drum and bass etc. George Martin had previously experimented with loops for producing The Beatles in the 60s and Delia Derbyshire must be credited with pioneering the use of tape loops for creating electronic music for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop but Herc and Gibbons arrived at looping sections of dance music to make people dance.

Over in Jamaica the DJ had a very different role in 'nicing up the dance'. The DJ in Jamaica began life as the master of ceremonies or MC.  The selectors or soundsystem owners played the records while the DJ injected energy into the proceedings through chat and chants over instrumental sections.  Although the links between disco and dance music have been widely acknowledged, far less credit has been given to the soundsystems of Jamaica as both the precursors of raves as well as dub being responsible for many of the most important studio techniques used in producing the music. Dance music also started much earlier in Jamaica with the first soundsystems dating back to the 1950s and in full swing by the mid 1960s.

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The story is brilliantly told by Michael E. Veal in his definitive book 'Dub'. The big three were Sir Coxsone's Downbeat (Clement Dodd), Trojan (Duke Reid) and Giant (Vincent Edwards) . The soundsystem's themselves were as important as the selectors.  They were built and maintained by the outfit and used the skills of technicians to deliver tens of thousands of watts of power. The music was delivered closer to Mancuso's philosophy of letting each track do the talking, while the actual talking was done by the DJ. The first Djs were Count Machuki and King Stitt at Coxsone's and most famously the groundbreaking U-Roy at King Tubby's. And it is King Tubby who must now enter the story.  

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King Tubby was an electronics wizard who could build not only the components but also the transformers required to generate his legendary Hometown Hi-Fi soundsystem.  He would play the records at the dances on a system built by himself but brought in U-Roy to DJ, who would do the job of whipping up the crowd. With shouts of 'haul up!' or 'come again selector' the DJ would let Tubby know when the jam needed to be started again to increase the energy for the dancers.

The lines between DJs and producers were once again blurred when a selector stumbled upon a happy accident. In 1968 Ruddy Redwood wanted to cut a dub plate of the Paragon's 'On The Beach' so he took it to Byron Smith (Duke Reid's engineer) to cut but Smith left off the vocal by mistake. He was about to start again but Redwood insisted he continue, "No man, make it run."  Talking to Steve Barrow in his excellent 'Rough Guide to Reggae' Redwood continues the story,

"I start playin' - that time you have two players .  I put on 'On The Beach' (and said) I'm gonna turn this place into a studio...I switch from the singing part to the (instrumental) version...cut the sound down...and everybody was singing."

Bunny Lee and King Tubby happened to be at the studio when the version was cut and Bunny Lee also went to the dance and witnessed the reaction of the crowd.  Redwood continued to create versions for his dances but it was Tubby's rapid take up of the discovery, encouraged by Bunny Lee, that led to his truly prolific and revolutionary output that largely defines dub music.  All in all we have so much of the beginnings of the DJ/Producer crossover right here.  We have a selector or DJ  (Redwood) going to create a version of a production. He then uses the new version for what we now call Deejaying, note that he used two decks. A producer (King Tubby) then takes the idea of versions and adds many of the production techniques we still use today - delay, reverb and pitch shifting to create dub music. Yet he also 'plays' his productions at his dances. He has become a DJ/Producer as far back as 1969.  What was also interesting to me was that Tubby didn't write music during that period.  All his dub mixes worked tracks from some of the top musicians of the day such as Jackie Mittoo, Delroy Wilson, Johnny Clarke and Augustus Pablo. His dubs involved 'playing' the mixing desk live, adding FX and re-structuring the pre-existing 'riddims'.  

So the divide between Deejaying and producing music to DJ has been crossed for many years. They have fed off each other. Djs have discovered production techniques and producers have used DJ skills in their productions. From the 1960s there have been people who have had a hand in both and it continues to the present day.

The disco DJs also started to produce, with arguably Francois Kervorkian being the most successful, but Larry Levan also ventured into the studio as did Frankie Knuckles. Other seminal moments include the Grandmaster D.ST scratch in Herbie Hancocks - Rockit, Afrika Bambaatta using German producers Kraftwerk synths to create Planet RockDJ Shadow bringing his record collection to the table as the most important element in his productions and on and on.  

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But it is house music that must claim to be the beginning of the era of the DJ/Producer as we know it today.  As sampling technology entered the fray and increasingly powerful synths and drum machines became affordable, in the mid 1980s, Djs were able to make tracks in home studios without the expense and fuss of the recording studio. DJ Pierre, defined by his very name as a DJ, created the first ever Acid House record Acid Tracks, using the Roland TB303 Bass Line generator.  Now you didn't have to be Gamble & Huff to make a record or Larry Levan to play them. Marshall Jefferson started as a producer, who produced some of the best house music ever, who then went into Deejaying while Chicago Dj Lil Louis covered both fields with ease.  

Across Lake Michigan in Detroit the new technologies were being used in even more extreme ways by Juan Atkins and Derrick May, both very much saw themselves as DJs venturing into sound production.  As Atkins tells it in DJ Revolutionaries,

"We just wanted to DJ.  Our thing was about the music. Even to this day...we wanted to DJ at as many (parties) as we could."

Yet they are both responsible for some of the most mind blowing and unforgettable moments in techno music ever created. By this stage in the late 80s you really could be a DJ/Producer, both relentlessly toured the world plying their craft as Djs, following their production success. Derrick May even gave up producing records, maybe he felt it was his time and place to produce or maybe he just loves Deejaying too much. Maybe one day I'll ask him.

So the origins of the questionpoint to DJs producing and vice versa but where are we at today? Is the rise of Ben UFO or Gerd Janson ,alongside other notable non producing DJs such as Zip a trend or an anomaly?  From where I'm sitting there is still enormous pressure on artists to produce records to get gigs.  I run a label myself and I can often see the career paths of aspiring Djs etched on to their CD demos. Being on 2020Vision is another calling card they want to have in their wallet.  Would we sign music from non DJs?  Yes we would, we were built on music from Carl Finlow as Random Factor and more recently Debukas has his debut album out but if I look at the catalogue a very large percentage has been produced by DJs.  Do I think that is necessarily a bad thing ? No I don't, it's just an observation that interested me.  I decided to follow it through and this piece is the result.  I aim to add fuel to the fire rather than dictate or predict the future of where the DJ/Producer will go.  The only thing I will say is this - 

Please make records because you love them, not to get yourself a gig...