Alan Gilbert In your essay “Confessions of a DJ,” which was originally published in the journal n+1 and then included in the Best Music Writing 2009, you point to some of the conflicts and contradictions inherent to being a globetrotting DJ. You write, “Our music seems to sound the way global capital is—liquid, international, porous, and sped-up.” Later you point out, “DJ music is now the common art form of squatters and the nouveau riche; it is the soundtrack both for capital and for its opposition.” Can you expand on this contradiction?
Jace Clayton This taps into a lot of the ways in which emerging styles—music, clothes, slang, whatever—become commodified and capitalized on really quickly. Living and performing in Europe really drives it home, because so many places get government-sponsored arts funding. The figure of the DJ has become a “cool” one, someone who is tied into technology. You’ve got the computer, you’ve got the turntable, you can do video projections. At a lot of places—in the article I discussed, the more high-end places—it feels almost like a technological showcase, as if the venues consider themselves progressive by sponsoring DJ nights, plus there’s this notion of the DJ as a kind of edgy embodiment of street culture or zeitgeist surfer; you can attract both corporate sponsors and arts funding with that. Here’s a good example of the ways in which high, funded culture and low, DIY activity collide: in 2005 I was invited to do a turntable piece with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra as part of the Sonar Festival. Real high art, you know? I’m pretty sure it was the same summer—maybe the summer after—there was a neighborhood right next to the Auditori Nacional de Catalunya where we were playing called Poble Nou. It used to be old industry, then it was artists’ lofts, and now it’s going through a gentrification process. There’s this huge squat called La Makabra, which I also mention in the essay. We did a party with a one-Euro entrance fee and 1,000 people came. Extremes met and rubbed shoulders.
When I was living in Spain I remember hearing some mobile telephone commercial and thinking, That’s a specific drum and bass breakbeat—I can’t remember the name. But the first person I’d heard use this break was Hrvatski, Keith Fullerton Whitman, a totally underground, committed, avant-gardist in his breakcore/splattercore days. And here was the same break five years later trying to move a cell phone.
AG Does it seem harder than it did, say, ten years ago to elude global capital now that you’re more internationally recognized? In other words, has the capitalist appropriation process sped up over the past ten years?
JC It has. And the middle ground between the extremes is things like festivals sponsored by huge beer companies. They’ll have their DJ stage—“The Red Bull Stage”—or whatever. Places are becoming much more savvy at using DJ culture as an “in” to youth culture. The guys in suits realize the role that DJs have come to represent to youth culture. It’s almost like a zeitgeist position; these people try to filter what’s new, what’s now, what’s cool, and re-present it to their audience.
AG Conversely, as you travel around the world are you encountering a larger number of what you describe as squatter spaces or has that remained consistent over the past decade?
JC Interesting question. European spaces like this are probably in slow decline, actually. Historically, European laws and regulations have allowed for these squats to happen and receive a modicum of legal protection, although there are more and more crackdowns on them. But I think the amount of people trying to make events happen is always fairly stable. I’m talking about DIY, ground-level events, people throwing parties here in Brooklyn or wherever it happens to be. Those things are harder to generalize also, because things are always changing, spreading, slipping around.
AG You’re known as someone who brilliantly combined hip-hop and dancehall with music from the Middle East along with breakbeat and noise, beginning with Gold Teeth Thief and culminating in Low Income Tomorrowland from 2005. More recently, with Uproot, you’ve gotten a bit less noisy, maybe a bit more atmospheric, while developing an intense interest in cumbia from South America. This is excluding your collaborative work and one-off mixes. Can you describe the trajectory of your solo work from its early interest in noise, such as post-jungle breakbeat or more extreme breakcore, like the DJ Scud excerpt that shatters the opening section of Gold Teeth Thief? Before we turned on the recorder we talked about a conversation between you and Kelefa Sanneh recently published in an issue of the journal Bidoun dedicated to the theme of “noise.” In it, you discuss your respective discoveries of Japanese noise during your adolescence. Can you talk about where you’ve gone over the past decade?
JC It’s easier to talk about where I’ve gone than why_, perhaps. (_laughter) The other day a Google Alert showed me this Argentine chat room with a big thing on DJ /rupture. The K-K-Kumbia mix was up there and Uproot was up there and so was Special Gunpowder. It said Special Gunpowder was the first thing I did, when in fact Gold Teeth Thief was. These people have no idea what came before. Every now and then I’ll hear fans say, “I liked Rupture before he started liking cumbia, when he was breakcore.” The opposition, that way of talking about my trajectory is ridiculous, but I get what they’re saying. I do keep moving, that’s for sure.
I began in the late ’90s in Boston as a club DJ. I started off DJing jungle, basically. I was very excited by that. But as that music became standardized into drum and bass and joyless tech-step, it lost its chaos of influences—the thing I found appealing about it in the first place. As I got better technically as a DJ, I started pulling in dancehall and hip-hop. When I became more or less confident in that, I thought, Why not keep pulling things in? A Turkish darbuka beat is around 90 BPMs, so if done carefully, I could bring a hip-hop beat on top, get people moving to the blend of well-produced, club sound-system-friendly hip-hop production laced with the nimble darbuka pattern. Breakcore emerged out of the exuberance of early jungle—its rhythmic complexity and joyfulness. The breakcore people were trying to revisit it not through nostalgia but through foregrounding texture, noise, and industrial music. That connecting of dots excited me. For a couple of years that was an element of my set. But I’m always listening and trying to bring in different sounds; the presence of Arabic music has been pretty steady. It started in high school; I heard some gnawa music on a Bill Laswell compilation and it blew my mind. I just started digging and trying to hear and learn as much as I could about North African and Arabic music. I haven’t stopped since, and when I was living in Spain between 2001 and 2006, I started working with Moroccan musicians to incorporate the influence in a more present way.
AG How does your more recent obsession with cumbia fit into this?
JC My old mixes are noisier. More abrasive. Less feminine. Three-and-a-half years ago I moved back to New York City. While I was in Spain I was mostly interested in North African music and some flamenco, collaborating with local musicians. But when I got back to New York I started hearing lyrics of some of the duranguense and Norteño—Mexican music which is hugely popular now, much more popular than cumbia, at least in New York. I was in a car service going to the airport and I heard Los Tigres del Norte’s “Somos Más Americanos” and immediately got into the lyric “Yo no crucé la frontera, la frontera me cruzó,” which is “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.” Then at some point I discovered cumbia—again, in a car service, an Ecuadorian guy was playing Polibio Mayorga, and I was floored. I offered to buy the CD from him. I was going to Europe for two weeks, and I needed to hear this music. He was like, “No, take it and give it back to me when you return.” That was my gateway drug into cumbia. I just started digging and digging and digging. It’s akin to discovering reggae for the first time. Reggae has been interesting since the late ’60s. It continues to be interesting without sounding anything like it did back then. It’s even deeper for cumbia because it’s pan-American and spread throughout countless communities. There’s just so much activity both old and new, and it was rewarding to hit all the sweet spots. There are a lot of accordions; it’s in a minor key. There’s an emphasis on bass. It’s groove-based music. It’s got a slow shuffle to it. In a lot of songs there’s this common, folk-poetry aspect to the lyrics that I got really into. Then you’ll find kids mixing it with like English-language hip-hop in Texas or people slowing it down in Monterrey; all these different takes on it.
I think the majority of people who are interested in what I do stay with me because I go through these transitions. There’s an element of trust. The late ’90s and early 2000s were great times for 90, 180, or 80/160 BPMs. Interesting things were happening in hip-hop and reggae and in the drum and bass world, which made it great to combine the two. Nowadays, some of the most interesting club music is coming in around 120 to 140 BPMs, like dubstep. This lends itself less to double-time or half-time mixes and more to things at that same BPM. There are always exceptions; crunk and slow US rap go great with dubstep. I’ve done mixes like that, three years ago.
AG You mentioned reggae, but I feel as if dub—whether earlier in your work with reggae and dancehall or more recently with dubstep—is the one constant I see in your music over ten years or more. Is that because you’re a DJ and that deep bass sound gets people moving?
JC It’s definitely the constant and probably the music that has impacted me most. Why is a good question. When I’m doing a live DJ set, dubbing is a way to be impressionistic with sound. You can take some Armenian flutes, pitch them so they match the main track, put them through a bit of delay, and suddenly have them rhythmically related to the beat. It’s almost like a means of painting in sound.
AG It’s sculptural.
JC Exactly. I’m always trying to avoid dub clichés. Dub isn’t a heavy-handed bass line or some person pounding drums like a rock musician or anything that sounds like “reggae,” but more of a way of thinking, of cracking songs open and having the edges bleed together.
AG I want to touch on the noise question again for a second. In the essay “Confessions of a DJ,” you write, “The DJ’s job is to make disparate records sound like a whole. DJs have to work to avoid silence and make things appear seamless.” One of the things I’ve always liked about your work is how you also have an opposing tendency to make a mix sound abrasive, how you avoid the easy groove for any extended amount of time. How does the DJ’s requisite seamlessness interact with dissonance and noise in your work? You’ve written about how important it is for you to sense what the crowd is responding to, but, at the same time, I feel as if you’re consciously looking for dissonance within the overall experience as a kind of conceptual decision.
JC Definitely. I chose the name DJ /rupture because Boston DJ sets at the time were very horizontal and dynamically flat. They’d be playing the same music and not even interrupting it! (laughter_) To me, playing varied music and not allowing for an easy smoothness has always been important. I’m very interested in moments of blowout, moments of rupture—jumping from music to pure sound and texture or moving from melody and rhythm into sheer volume and dynamics. In live situations, there are often moments where I’m trying to get the sound system to feed back or totally saturate the mixer. My friend Kevin Martin, aka The Bug, played at one of Barcelona’s biggest clubs a few weeks after I did. They told him that I’d blown out the speakers; they never said anything to me, but I never got invited back. (_laughter) The logic of DJ music is that the beat must go on. But no, the beat doesn’t have to go on. We can shoot the beat and let it die.
In terms of the audience, I’m encouraging people to react differently. Those noise moments don’t have to be extended, they don’t have to be frequent; it’s not about being abusive. It’s about other possibilities, stepping into them and going elsewhere.
AG It’s a way of addressing questions of cultural appropriation. It would be very easy to describe the work you do as a kind of cultural hybridity: “He’s bringing in sounds from different cultures and mixing them together.” I think your moments of dissonance are a way of saying, “Let’s step back from this. This is not seamless world music that I’m working with here.” The act of sampling is deflected, refracted, mediated by a certain conceptual and sonic discordance.
JC I think you’re spot on with that. Fusion is one of the main metaphors or modes of operation for traditional world music, and a lot of people will talk about hybridity. I’m much more interested in friction as a process: moments where things are rubbing up against each other. Moments of tension, things that can’t translate. On a performative level I guess you could call it a punk attitude. DJing doesn’t have to be seamless. There’s an element of perfectionism in certain DJs. I’ll use a lot of technique when I play, but it’s always improvised, and I certainly don’t mind when people can hear me mixing because things slip out of time momentarily or whatever. Performers embrace either risk or spectacle. I go for risk. As someone who performs live music, I need to be in a position where things can go really wrong in order for things to go really right.
AG You’ve DJed in dozens of countries, but I think of your music as more a reflection on geopolitical regions. You’re not really a world-music kind of guy. Gold Teeth Thief has an East Coast feel with its emphasis on hip-hop, dancehall, and noise. You then spent five or six years in Barcelona and your sound became deeply immersed in music from the Mediterranean region, especially North Africa. Now that you’re back in New York City and living in Sunset Park, you’ve started to incorporate a lot of music from South America. Do you think in terms of larger geopolitical regions? How much of what you use is a choice as opposed to an organic process? While you were in Spain you could have used music from the Balkans, but you didn’t really.
JC I pay a lot of attention to musical regions that I’m interested in. When I feel like I have enough material, I’ll pull that into my sets and my work. A lot of it is being sensitive to where I’m performing. I’m going to play a different show in New York City versus Mexico City, where the majority of the audience speaks Spanish and is familiar with cumbia. But it’s never been about eclecticism. I only sample something if I have an awareness of its context.
AG In an article for the Middle Eastern publication The National you point out that corporate marketers coined the phrase “world music” in 1987 as a way to promote non-Western music. I thought the phrase had been around for decades. Globalization and the rapid changes in technology since 1987 have fundamentally changed the way in which “world music” is disseminated and appropriated. Can you talk about that in terms of the work you do online and the way you draw from online sources and your blog to direct people to music from around the world in a way that’s different from corporate-music marketing?
JC That’s why I started blogging: about five years ago, I had heard about them but hadn’t paid much attention. One day while I was living in Madrid, I thought I’d take a look, and discovered Benn loxo du taccu, an African-music blog run by this Canadian guy living in France or Africa. Free information, free mp3s. When I was first getting into non-Western music, it was about getting second-hand LPs or, more likely, $20 import CDs. I remember an HMV in Harvard Square where you could return stuff, so I was constantly buying things. This was the result of that 1987 world-music-marketing moment: labels with great distribution or major labels doing either ethnographic or very polished Peter Gabriel-style, pre-packaged world music.
AG The success of Paul Simon’s Graceland album (which you actually sample from on Gold Teeth Thief!) seemed to have something to do with an explosion of interest in world music. Like, “How do we capitalize on this?”
JC Yeah, they’re saying, “Look at the economic heat it’s generating!” Of course, the story with capital “W,” capital “M,” “World Music” is the story of the record industry itself. It made a lot of money in the ’90s that it’s now hemorrhaging, leaving it soul searching. What’s come out of it as a result are blogs, MySpace, and the connection of individuals in the same country, in the same city. People can easily hop online now and see what a rap crew in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, is doing. In that piece you mention from The National, I was calling it “World Music 2.0,” which is radically different from the previous world music insofar as it’s more of a from-the-ground-up, edge-to-edge type of distribution, dissemination, and dialogue. So there are people in the US who are obsessed with Colombian chat rooms. You’ll get Iranian rappers rhyming in Farsi on reggaeton beats. The change is enormous. The money, of course, remains for superstars who can play Carnegie Hall and command $35 ticket prices. Well, the superstar’s managers and lawyers and label bosses probably get the best deal. But the computer is essentially the common instrument nowadays, the instrument of folk composition. (laughter) There are a lot of structural commonalities between kids making beats with cheap software all over the world. Like, you can DJ techno music made in Angola on an PC from 2003, which will be compatible with techno music made in a high-end Berlin studio, which will be compatible with this weird remix you’re making in your bedroom.
AG As someone who exists as part of that network, how do you make money? You’re a big fan of online music sharing, and you have a phrase you like to repeat that music fandom should trump profit. But do you see a model developing within this network and linkage that is better than what seems to be a failing corporate music paradigm where a few people make a lot of money and nobody else does?
JC I wish there was a model out there. I don’t see anything. (laughter) I laugh because what else can I do? Yes, I blog, I’ve got a radio show—neither of those pay, it’s all volunteer. I’m a strong advocate of sharing music and discussing music that’s not going to make it to magazines. Money is the very, very tricky thing. Only a handful of privileged DJs—myself included—get invited to go around the world playing music from other people. And we can talk about it. But will that translate into money for the musicians that are being spun? The only really viable business model is live performance. The current generation, with all this talk of the music industry dying, hopefully isn’t looking to make money. The utopian in me wants to think that this will yield greater freedom because people aren’t bending over backward to get signed by the sleazy A&R guy from the major label. Talented, young producers understand that if they can put five good remixes on the Internet, they’ll get some booking interest or remix interest. It’s not going to be huge money. The financial mountains are getting smaller, but the playing field is opening up in an interesting way. In the past two years, a lot of African dance music has come to the blogosphere’s attention and to DJ charts around the world. If 100 people download one of these tracks and most of that money goes to the person who made it, maybe that could be really useful for this person living in Ghana. That’s an economic opportunity that didn’t exist before. I even doubt that a world music 2.0 song played by a lot of DJs would get that amount of paid downloads. It’s just so hard to imagine any profit-making scheme that wouldn’t involve some sort of download tax or some weird cell phone integration or something. Maybe there are ways with micro-transactions, but I’m doubtful, essentially.
AG Did you make any money on people buying Gold Teeth Thief? You seem like a hopeful example; this was something you gave away for free online, and thousands of people downloaded it.
JC Yeah, we did make money selling it, even though it was available first online for free. I sold several hundred copies, CD-R style. Then Violent Turd made a re-edition and they probably sold several thousand copies.
AG And it was picked up on by magazines. Now it would probably be noticed more by the blogosphere. So the model does have potential to work.
JC It does have potential. It’s a cottage industry. Part of our financial viability is because the DJ can be a traveling individual. Compared to bands, DJs have a much lower overheard when touring. If someone offers you 500 Euros and a plane ticket to play in Berlin—which is the first international gig I got—it’s like, Wow! But if I had been in a band and there had been four of us, it would have been impossible. This actually goes back to the very first question: the fact that we can be individual agents facilitates us ending up in strange places and unlikely circumstances.
AG You’ve been trying to bring your band Nettle to the US for years, and I assume that’s part of the reason why you haven’t been able to: because it’s a band.
JC Definitely. It’s too bad. Nettle is a band and everyone else in the band has children and regular day jobs. It’s just the economic reality of immigrant life in Barcelona. It’s not happening without some sort of greater sponsorship or us being hugely popular. (laughter)
AG That’s another thing I want to ask you about—collaborations. Much of your fame rests on your solo work as DJ /rupture, but you’re also a prolific collaborator. Some of the more prominent examples include your work with musicians from Morocco as part of the group Nettle; with Andy Moor, guitarist for the band Ex; with Matt Shadetek on your recent mix Solar Life Raft. How do you reconcile the precise control you have as DJ /rupture with what the collaborative experience offers?
JC The examples are all quite different. The longest running collaboration I have is with Nettle. I’ve worked with Abdelhak Rahal, a Moroccan multi-instrumentalist in Barcelona who mostly plays violin, for six years now. It started with a beat that I invited him to play something on top of. We just kept on growing as Nettle, which used to be a solo project. Now it’s a four-piece band. Speaking broadly about collaboration, I’m really interested in ceding control and being surprised by what happens. Very quickly, Abdelhak and I went from me composing a beat and him working on top of it to developing material together. We’ll find a rhythm we both like and go back and forth on a lot of ideas. With Nettle, it’s me and software and keyboards and samples and dubbing the band a bit. I’m doing sound design and production; all the strings are being processed through the computer. Everyone else in the band is a trained musician and plays an acoustic instrument very well. I’m not that person. (laughter)
Then there’s Matt Shadetek, who calls me “the blind leader” because I’ll ask him to help me program a Moroccan chaabi beat in this weird time signature and he’s laughing like, “You don’t even understand this stuff,” and I don’t at that technical level, but I know I want that beat. Another nice thing is that Abdelhak doesn’t think of music in terms of time signatures and bars; his approach is weirdly in tune with mine—it’s more about phrases and loops. His playing will cite pieces and reference other tunes in a way comparable to a DJ mixing in snippets of pop tunes, too. With Andy Moor, it’s a totally different kind of collaboration because we’re not about composing music in the traditional sense. With Andy it’s all about responding to him in real time using vinyl and a mixer with some effects. It’s amazing collaborating with him because it’s the closest I’m ever going to come to playing an “instrument.” I’ve worked hard to get to the point where if he’s doing a riff with the guitar I can respond to that in a way that’s very particular and appropriate to that one moment. What I do with Andy is less about the records and more about manipulating turntables and sounds.
AG I saw a show you did with him at Tonic on the Lower East Side. Was it your first together?
JC I think that was the third gig we ever did. We’ve done several in Europe since then. Andy’s a great guy to travel with. We’ll talk about playing together, but not so much. Same thing with Nettle: we don’t really discuss what we’re doing. Andy and I never really plan things out. With Matt Shadetek, it’s a studio collaboration. So that’s both of us sitting in front of computers and working on music together, which is also great. One reason I like collaboration so much is that it gets you outside of your own head and returns music-making to more of a social activity. DJing is so immediate. You’re there, the crowd’s there. Whereas being home alone, staring at the screen, all the blood is sucked out of it. With collaboration, trust is key to creating a space where the unexpected things can happen.
AG It’s interesting to hear you describe it that way, because one thing I’ve noticed about the Solar Life Raft mix you did with Matt Shadetek is that the music is by people you know. Your early mixes featured prominent mainstream and underground figures; yet on Uproot and Solar Life Raft it’s a lot of people you’ve worked with, maybe even produced. It’s as if this community has formed over ten years, and this network you’ve been talking about is in fact realized on these CDs. It’s drawing on people from that network as opposed to records bought in stores.
JC That’s very much the case. Uproot was the first mix I ever did that was 100 percent legally licensed, cough, cough. (laughter) But all these things go hand in hand; part of the reason why Uproot happened is because I know so many people making interesting music right now who send it to me. The moment has really changed as well. In 2001, Gold Teeth Thief was super new, it anticipated the bootleg and mashup craze, it inspired a lot of DJs and producers to start thinking about how to pull in Arabic and African and Spanish-language pieces into the mix. I’ll still get fans telling me about how Gold Teeth Thief changed them musically.
AG Were the songs on Uproot all legally licensed partly because you’re a more public figure now?
JC No, it was because for the first time I actually knew enough people whose music I wanted to DJ. I was like, Since this is possible, let’s do it. With everything else, I licensed the independent tracks, but I didn’t try to get in touch with major labels to clear the Missy Elliotts and Nina Simones. With Gold Teeth Thief, I was emailing everybody telling them I liked their music and I did a mix that was free online. For Minesweeper Suite, I emailed everybody in advance to ask permission.
AG Since we’re here in your writer’s studio at LMCC, I want to ask you about that side of your life. Writing seems to be an increasing part of what you do, and I heard a rumor that you were a poet before you were a DJ. Does writing fulfill something for you that music doesn’t? Or do you see them as complementary? For instance, in my own writing as a critic and scholar I try to build things up, whereas in my work as a poet I aim more to tear things down. Some of your writing champions things that you believe in, but there’s much more to what you’re doing than that.
JC I view them as fairly separate entities. When I’m writing a piece, if I spend a week on it it’ll be better than it was originally. Revisions are going to improve it. In music, that’s not necessarily the case. There’s this element of spontaneity and surprise in music, particularly in DJing, but also in the studio. DJing is a communal process, responding to the crowd, the space, the sound system, all the specifics of a particular night in a particular place. It happens in the moment, then it’s gone. And I get really nonverbal when I do it. Writing is really a different experience with time. Writing is solitary, it involves addressing an imaginary audience. Sitting down with a piece is a very slow form of thinking for me. They are complementary insofar as my writing reaches a group of people who would never come out to the club or who wouldn’t bother downloading a mix. And my music reaches ravers in Slovenia who don’t speak a word of English. But there’s no real relation between the two, for me.
AG You’re doubling your global reach.
AG I want to give a shout out to Mudd Up!, your blog, which is one of the few I read on a regular basis. Along with promoting your own work and that of your friends and your labels Soot and Dutty Artz, Mudd Up! includes discussions of obscure and not-so-obscure music, literature, culture, and a bit of politics, usually from outside the US. Are there blogs, music forums, or websites you check in with on a regular basis yourself?
JC No. (laughter) I read very few. In the beginning yes, but I ran out of time a few years ago.
Alan Gilbert is the author of a book of critical writings entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press, 2006), as well as the forthcoming book of poems, Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem, fall 2010). His writings on art and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications, including Artforum, The Believer, Modern Painters, and the Village Voice; his poems have appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, Chicago Review, and The Nation, among other places. He lives in New York City.