Greg Bruce makes an unwelcome offering on a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of DJing.
The last club I tried to get into was The Roxy in Auckland's Fort Lane, two years ago. I was turned away by a couple of doormen who looked at my conservative middle age appearance feat. chinos and told me it was a private party - even though it wasn't.
I thought of those doormen at 10.18pm on a Saturday night last month in New York City, when I entered a club called Le Bain, which was hosting the coolest party I had ever been to by a factor of seven and that made the scene at The Roxy look like a junior social at a provincial rugby club with DJ Max Key.
Don't get me wrong, the doorman at Le Bain had wanted to turn me away as well and that was upsetting because my clothes were objectively cool: brown brogue boots, a button-down chambray shirt over a white T-shirt and black skinny jeans with rips over the left front pocket from where I'd fallen over running for a train four months earlier. Didn't matter. Even when I told the doorman I was on the guest list, that I'd been put there by the man whose party it was and that I had a text from the man confirming my place on the guest list, the doorman still asked if I knew the name of the party. This is all to say, he wanted to make clear he begrudged my presence, which I guess was fair enough, exclusivity being his stock-in-trade.
Once in, I rode the womb-like elevator to the 18th floor where the doors opened on a short canal-like hallway, from which I was delivered into an enormous and entirely new world, completely unlike the one from whence I came and for which I felt entirely unprepared and overawed. What I'm trying to say is not just that I felt born again but that this was by design.
Floor-to-ceiling glass windows offered a view clean across lower Manhattan, over the Hudson River to Jersey, over the East River to Brooklyn, the whole vista dominated by the country's largest building, One World Trade Center. Down one end of the room was a life-size sculpture of a white horse. Down the other end was a giant hot tub, in which multiple sources told me spontaneous public sex acts had taken place. Also down that way was the DJ booth, the centre of this universe and there, behind the decks, as I presume nobody calls them anymore, were DJs OP Miller and Chris Annibell.
I ordered an Aperol spritz, because the barperson told me it was Le Bain's signature drink, and on discovering it cost US$17 [$27] I took it upstairs to the rooftop bar and sat by the glass balcony, determined to nurse it long enough to not have to buy another. I drank it until all the ice was gone and it was just a warm, bitter syrup. Around midnight, I went back downstairs and stood at the back of the dancefloor next to a couple who were dancing against the wall in a way that suggested if they weren't already having sex they soon would be. I walked past the hot tub, containing three people in what appeared to be their undies. I visited the unisex bathroom, with its extensive glass looking out over uptown Manhattan and its view dominated by the Empire State Building. A woman at the front of the queue turned and called out, "Does anyone have a tampon?" Nobody did.
Four months ago, I wrote an article in which I described New York City as my favourite place in the world. Five days later, I received an email from the representatives of a New Zealand company I'd never heard of, which makes software for the DJ and music production industries, suggesting I travel to New York to write a story tied to the company's 20th anniversary.
The email didn't mention whether the offer was related to my earlier article and I neither asked nor cared. I had no particular interest in DJing or music production but had I been asked to go to New York for a three-day conference on hydraulic lift trucks at a Motel Six I would also have said yes.
We made plans for the story. I proposed using the company's new beat-making software to produce my own piece of music for critique in New York but this was quickly and correctly identified as a bad idea. It was decided instead that I would learn to DJ and perform my first-ever set on the decks at the company's legendary Brooklyn studio.
The last album of music I bought and will presumably ever buy was Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the opening track of which is now considered a classic of the genre - and rightly so. In it, Kanye - "Yeezy" as he likes to be known - tells a fantastical lyrical fairy tale of grand sweep and unstinting narcissism. In the summer of 2010/2011, I must have sung along to that track, Dark Fantasy, 10,000 times but it was only shortly before my visit to New York last month that I realised the line, "You ain't got no f***in Yeezy in Cerado?" which I had assumed referred to a boring Midwestern town, was actually, "You ain't got no f***in Yeezy in your Serato?" and referred to a New Zealand company I had only just heard of but which - it's not an exaggeration to say - changed DJing forever.
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Serato's Brooklyn studio is on the sixth floor of what used to be a massive industrial complex but which is now filled with hot start-ups, creative businesses, specialty grocers, food vendors and a place selling craft sake. From the moment you open the oversized double doors you are struck by the intimidatory presence of the performance space featuring multiple DJ controllers, turntables, speakers and associated electronic paraphernalia, all perched above a long translucent bench, lit from below, bracketed by a commercial overhead lighting rig and fronted by high-end professional camera equipment for producing videos to be shared with millions on the company's social media channels. It is a temple to DJdom, reserved for performances from some of the world's top DJs and - today - one of the world's worst.
I walked into that studio at 10am, having arrived in Brooklyn approximately nine hours earlier, 24 hours after leaving home. I was tired and frightened. I had touched a DJ controller for the first time 10 days before. I'd had two lessons with Serato's marketing manager, watched many, many YouTube DJ tutorials and spent every spare hour - of which I have few - practising my mix, working out my setlist, figuring out how and when to get in and out of a track, learning about beat-matching, scratching, mixing in key, effects track selection, narrative DJ theory and other stuff I had no chance of mastering in 10 days or - realistically - ever.
I had come up with the stage name Oldilocks and the Two Pairs, which was a play on me having red hair, being 42 and wearing two pairs of glasses. This last was a gimmick I'd tried at home a few nights earlier and which my wife said looked "cool" - a claim I never questioned until, in the DJ booth at Serato, I took a selfie and saw I looked absurd. After my set I sent the selfie to a friend who showed it to his girlfriend then sent me her reply: "Just no. All the noes."
In the studio, immediately prior to my performance I interviewed prominent New York DJ Chris Annibell. I asked what he thought of an effect I had planned, which I called a "hard mix", where I would slam the volume down on one track while simultaneously slamming it up on the other.
He shrugged and said, "If you think it's going to sound good."
I said that didn't sound like much of an endorsement.
He said, "I've heard lots of DJs do things I thought sounded terrible and then they've gone on to be wildly successful doing exactly that thing, so what do I know?"
I didn't ask what he thought of my glasses.
From the 18th floor windows of Le Bain, had it not been for the very tall buildings and extreme opulence in the way, I could've seen all the way to the streets of the Bronx where, in the early 1970s, DJ Kool Herc's innovative stringing together of the percussion-heavy, dance-inducing parts of records - "the break" - helped give birth not just to modern DJing, but to hip-hop culture.
If not for the tall buildings and extreme opulence, I could have seen also to the more adjacent Hell's Kitchen, where Francis Grasso was, in the late 1960s, reportedly the first to try what's now known as "beat-matching" - synchronising the beats of two simultaneously playing records - a foundational DJ technique that was, with the technology available at the time, essentially magic.
If not for the buildings and opulence, I could have seen to the locations of former clubs across the city in which these techniques and others took root and spread to the world, evolving, obviously but always maintaining the same essential qualities - a godlike figure playing records on two turntables linked by a mixer - until Serato came along.
The New Zealand company's breakthrough was a piece of software which, following its release in 2004 meant DJs no longer had to lug crates of records to clubs; no longer had to spend days organising records by genre, BPM and key; no longer had to find the right record in the heat of a performance; no longer had to worry about records being damaged or stolen; no longer had to pay crate boys to follow them around. What I'm trying to say is: DJs no longer needed records.
The software was called Scratch Live but became known simply as "Serato" and the company rapidly became so important that soon Kanye was rapping about it, Eminem was rapping about it, Erykah Badu and Chuck D had become advocates, Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys, Questlove of The Roots and Jazzy Jeff were using its products and, 15 years after its launch, so was I - a middle-aged man who had never before touched a DJ controller and who had been too easily convinced he looked good in two pairs of glasses.
In a short film shot in legendary New York record shop Beat Street on the day it closed in 2006, a DJ interviewed in-store said, "Right now everything else is CD turntables or Serato."
He said: "Vinyl cats will eventually have to go to Serato."
The interviewer asked "Do you use Serato?"
He said: "Of course, my brother!"
The interviewer asked: "You got anything else to say?"
"About records? It's just crazy! How many years records been here, man?"
That was 13 years ago but records are still here and I know that because I saw them in Brooklyn late on a Saturday afternoon at a shop called Rough Trade Records. They were being perused by a surprisingly large number of people, who were also perusing CDs, cassettes and other things everyone knows died years ago.
I felt so comfortable and content at Rough Trade on that warm Brooklyn Saturday and part of that was probably nostalgia but the bigger part was the satisfaction - nay, the relief - I felt at the place's finitude.
What Rough Trade says is: "Here are some things we think are worthwhile - but not too many." Spotify, the world's default record store, tries to do something similar, with its curated and algorithmic playlists and suggestions but it feels disingenuous because its very business model is predicated on infinity. "We've got everything!" they tell us. "Find something you like and we'll give you a million more like it! More songs! More playlists! More of everything!" Its dream is that you'll never leave.
This boundlessness sounds nice in theory, in the same way eternal life sounds nice in theory but then it catches on the fabric of human nature and unravels, because nothing is more existentially terrifying to us than the infinite. I listen to music less now than ever - and of course part of that is I am a 42-year-old father of three but mostly it's the paralysis brought on by staring into the Spotifydian void. Offered everything, I find it increasingly difficult to appreciate anything. There's a reason the person promising the world is always the devil.
In the extended cut of the video of my performance at Serato's Brooklyn studio, which I have still been unable to watch right through, you can best see my paralysis during the final track, which I intended to play for 30 seconds but ended up playing for two and a half minutes.
For the 12 minutes prior, I had bumbled through my set, nodding gormlessly, breathing through my mouth, often looking haplessly at the cockpit's-worth of buttons and knobs before me.
Now I was battling with whether to pull the trigger on my planned grand finale, which I was starting to believe might be badly conceived and for which I was not yet adequately technically proficient. The camera was rolling, several leading New York DJs were in the room and - from behind my befuddled face and two pairs of glasses - I didn't want to come across as a joke.
The more I tried to think my way to a decision, the further it receded. I was under pressure, the camera wouldn't quit and there would be no second take. This was the latest in a lifelong series of self-initiated referenda about the type of person I am, all of which have returned the same result: coward.
Repeatedly, as if it was going to help, I looked at the instruction I had written on my phone: "Finish with what we gopnna [sic] do right here is go back". Watching the video now, several weeks later, is like watching a stupid stranger. I no longer have intimate access to the impulses that drove my frequently meaningless movements. What was I doing, aside from looking foolish? Through the screen, over the distance of weeks, I can feel the metaphorical dancefloor dying.
I watch myself using headphones to cue up my finish - the lyric "What we gonna do right here is go back" - while the current track continues to play. My plan is to perform the "hard mix" so diplomatically disparaged by Annibel. I'll slam the volume down on the current track and simultaneously slam the volume up on "What we gonna do right here is go back" then shut it down and drop the metaphorical mic. BIG FINISH!
I liked the narrative neatness of that ending from three angles. First, "What we gonna do right here is go back" was a lyric from the opening track of my set and thereby paid tribute to looping, a central DJ art I had failed to master. Second, it was a reverential nod to the New York hip-hop and club geniuses of the past who had paved the way for me to perform this sacrilegious offering. Finally, it suggested that, once my set was over, I should "go back" home and never DJ again.
All those meanings had been carefully considered ahead of time and the decision made, so why was I still there listening over and over to that final line in my headphones and trying to reason my way to some sort of certainty about its rightness? As a lapsed existentialist, I'm fairly sure there is no certainty in this world, only faith.
Fourteen minutes and 15 seconds into the recording, I finally move to the controller, put one finger on the volume mixer, another on the cue button and I look at my laptop, watching the waveforms on Serato DJ Pro, looking for the first beat of a bar or a phrase or something of that ilk, on which to execute my mix.
Eventually, suddenly, I cease my arrhythmic nodding, yank down the volume on the existing track and yank up the volume on the lyric, "Baby please don't go."
It sounds better on the video than I remember from real life and that feels good but I also know what's about to happen - I hit stop too early, cut off the end and suddenly I'm standing there in silence, the set over, unsure where to look. There's no applause. I look up, uncertainly. Because I know the performative value of confidence, I raise my arms and say, "Out." I'm not mic'd, so the word is inaudible. I look around for approval. There is none. The dancefloor is empty. Only now, as I write this anecdote, have I realised I played the wrong lyric. The video is still yet to appear on Serato's social media channels.
A little after 1am the following night at Le Bain, I stood next to OP Miller in the DJ booth and watched him build the dancefloor to a frenzy. This was 11 days after my first DJ lesson, so I understood basically how Serato's software and DJ controllers worked but, as I stood there with the Manhattan skyline at my back, with the crowd heaving in front of me, with at least seven people in the hot tub to my left, I could not for the life of me figure out what OP was doing. He appeared to have multiple loops going, he was scratching and hitting things and turning things and mixing things but I was unable to comprehend the link between him, the music and the scene he was creating. There was no point trying. My lack of understanding was not just technical, but emotional, social and ultimately spiritual. I had been playing God. He was God.