DJ and producer Funk Butcher (Kwame Safo) recently suggested on Twitter that you’re “Not really a DJ if you don’t spend your OWN money on other people’s music to play” prompting a lengthy discussion about the role of the contemporary DJ. We asked Kwame, who is also PRS Grants & Programmes Manager as well as an editor, broadcaster and label boss, to flesh out his thoughts on the matter. 

Twitter is one of those universes as a musician sculpting your brand which can become somewhat of a poisoned chalice. The mundane takes can be misinterpreted and distorted to amplify internal frustrations which have nothing explicitly to do with what has been initially suggested. Despite this precarious space, I flirt with day-to-day, I love the opportunity to deliver personal takes succinctly and draw a range of opinions on a given subject. Most recently it was the role of a DJ.

The disc-jockey or DJ prefix has been conflated with producer in the modern context of the role now and with it a war wages between those who have chosen to DJ in its traditional sense and those who have sought to amalgamate the job descriptions (and arguably the industry requirements) of both DJ and record producer.

The initial tweet I sent in June was a tongue-in-cheek dig at those who have strayed from their obligations as DJ’s to educate, entertain and inform their audience on a range of amazing music which would be defined as “new” to the listenership. What quickly came apparent from my post is that the role has somewhat shifted into a space of producers who self-define as DJ and have redefined the role of DJ. There will understandably be a meeting of the two worlds, especially in the modern music climate which forces many of us to wear multiple hats, purely out of survival and necessity.

DJs irrespective of whether they produce their own music or not were always supposed to create a tapestry of sounds that would define them and make their sets marketable and unique

The shift in the identity of the “DJ” has meant a move away from the educational qualities of the discipline into a more commercialised and market-driven guise. DJs who produce are likely compelled to incorporate their productions into their sets to generate buzz, industry interest and subsequently more gigs and more traction on their records. DJs who also produce music have to generate the groundswell in the market which is much more democratic than other popular music genres as the dancefloors generally decide what’s a hit or not. “Gerrymandering” is still commonplace within the universes of electronic music and dance via the more popular and influential journalist platforms but ultimately the prize is there for the taking to impress the crowd by bringing your hottest creations directly to the audience and seeing if it resonates.

This all makes complete and perfect sense as a Producer-that-DJs. I stress the former’s relationship to the latter and that it suggests the sequence in which the roles came into being. The individual was a producer first who later became a DJ.

But the DJ role, as opposed to the Producer-that-DJs, was to break new records, new music and new artists to a willing and unsuspecting community of revellers. DJs (and note that I have in no way incorporated any additional skillset this individual may have) were an outlet for aspiring musicians. There was a time, believe it or not, that DJs sat in the space currently occupied by the huge conglomerates of AppleMusic, Spotify, Tidal etc. The DJ could provide that pivotal moment when their support could catapult a musician from relative obscurity into overnight stardom. But this isn’t just a feature of the more renowned members of the DJ fraternity. DJs of all strata, club, radio, all competed in a healthy sense to outdo one another and be the first to champion a great new record or new artist. The spirit of the role itself is something which defines the energy in the job: the passion to break records in the same way a hungry journo is passionate about breaking news! This ultimately requires financial sacrifices, buying equipment, records, MP3s you name it to be on top of your specialised genre and also on top of the mood of the crowd at any given point in history.

It’s this curation of a sonic palette, the DJs set, which would comprise of so many other producers and elements which is at the heart and soul of the DJ vocation

DJs irrespective of whether they produce their own music or not were always supposed to create a tapestry of sounds that would define them and make their sets marketable and unique. Hell, the easiest way to do this would be to play tracks that only you have because you made them. But in the eventuality that you started DJing before you ventured into music production, that tapestry would be formed largely by the works of other producers and artists who align with your musical taste and vision.

It’s this curation of a sonic palette, the DJs set, which would comprise of so many other producers and elements which is at the heart and soul of the DJ vocation. The fact many would argue is that the right to self-market, via playing your self-produced music on-top of already playing your own taste in music is at times disappointing and does a disservice to the music ecosystem itself. For our music industry to have true autonomy, redressing some of the imbalance of control taken away from smaller independent acts by the DSPs, much of the marketing of music has to be organic and grassroots orientated. It doesn’t hurt an upcoming producer or better yet an established one, to ringfence a segment of his live-DJ set to “third party artists”. Unless, the fear is that one of those tracks not made by the headline DJ later becomes the talking point of the night itself.

Ironically if that occurs, well done… you can now consider yourself a DJ!

Funk Butcher is on Twitter.

23rd June, 2021

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