by Tricia Romano
Madonna is not a DJ. But this didn't matter to the few hundred people who crowded into the West Village club Luke and Leroy for the popular weekly party MisShapes a few months ago to watch her "spin." They came to breathe her fabulous, famous air.
Wearing a blue halter dress, she stood in front of the turntables and smiled coyly. Once, she picked up the mic and asked people nicely to stop pushing and shoving. Her producer, Stuart Price, a commendable techno artist better known as Jacques Lu Cont, played the tracks they'd worked on together from her new album Confessions on a Dance Floor. Occasionally, she'd put on her headphones and pose for pictures. Madge jiggled the volume on the mixer one time, but she never touched the turntables. Price did all the work. After her set, I ran into an old friend.
"Dude, she was amazing!" he shouted with absolute sincerity.
Members of local bands like the Rapture, Calla, Interpol, !!!, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have gotten behind the decks for several years, paving the way for Kelly Osbourne and members of the Killers and Franz Ferdinand. You can currently see Mattie Safer and Gabe Andruzzi of the Rapture at their Friday-night party, HushHush, at Happy Ending and members of Calla play Corner Billiards every week. On February 13, members of TV on the Radio spun at Yo La Tengo's weekly Monday Party at Scenic. Interpol's Paul Banks has a Wednesday weekly scheduled at the Annex, and his bandmate Carlos D. spins every Sunday at Black and White. Perhaps the original rock star DJ, Carlos D. was the first non-dance-music jock to make the cover of genre bible Urb; on March 3, he headlines—with members of VHS or Beta—the prestigious Flavorpill First Friday series at the Guggenheim, which has previously featured "legit" DJs like Diplo and Matthew Dear.
But the trend has extended far beyond local bands. Promoters GBH (who might want to consider changing their name—it stands for Great British House) book new wave icons like Bauhaus's David J. and Depeche Mode's Martin Gore. Weekly favorite Tiswas relaunched last month, hosting the Stone Roses' Mani and New Order's Peter Hook. Erasure's Andy Bell pairs live solo outings with DJ sets. Indeed, famous bygone names have become so common on flyers that it's a miracle local DJs still get booked at all.
In this age of celebrity obsession, a rock star DJ set is the aural equivalent of an autograph—as if a record were somehow different because Jarvis Cocker spun it. "Most of these DJ appearances have nothing to do with music," says veteran rave DJ Tommie Sunshine. "They're PR stops on the calendar."
At the end of the '90s, superstar DJs like Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, and Pete Tong made absurd amounts of money from their art form; DJs had finally overcome the stigma that had plagued their disco and house forebears. Turntables were supposedly outselling guitars at Christmastime. That was before the iPod, which was instrumental in letting people effortlessly calibrate a soundtrack to fit every moment of their lives—which, as local promoter and DJ Alex English points out, translated seamlessly into clubs "basically propelling anybody with 300 CDs into becoming a DJ."
During the electroclash era, clubgoers realized they didn't actually want to hear uninterrupted instrumental beat music at all. They wanted songs; they wanted familiarity. They didn't even want electro clash— a crude approximation of the real thing. They wanted the actual '80s.
Detractors of the celeb-DJ trend blame it for the current club scene stagnating into a distant past of New Order's "Blue Monday," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Blondie's "Heart of Glass." Even new club music tends toward copycat bands. But English says that, by booking a member of Erasure, he's linking current '80s-sounding bands like the Killers and the Bravery—"a whole genre of Depeche Mode wannabes"—to their influences.
Yet you have to wonder what link to the past the audience supposedly gleaned when Depeche Mode's Martin Gore showed up last summer and spun minimal German techno to a roomful of people expecting to hear New Order's "Temptation." "They didn't care," says Sunshine. "If he would've played a bunch of '80s hits, the place would've been unhinged. But that isn't what he did. And by the time he was done, half the people were gone."
Many local musicians started moonlighting as DJs for practical reasons. It was the easiest way to have a decent after-party when touring, says Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. "Being on the road can be monotonous, so that gives you something to do with yourself other than indulging in mountains of cocaine and hookers," he jokes. In the interim between touring and recording, musicians could make some extra cash. And spinning provided a way to test their music on an unsuspecting public. "I used to play Yeah Yeah Yeah songs and demos all the time in bars before we were signed, to see if anyone reacted or to get people to come to our shows," says Zinner. "Now I think it's totally gauche for people in bands to DJ their own music. It's worse than wearing your own band T-shirt on the L train."
Or they spin simply because they like it. Says Carlos D., who DJ'd at Lit and 85A long before Interpol became big: "Anyone who makes fun of me for being a celebrity DJ or gives me crap for trying to cash in on some persona or something, I swear to God, like, on my mother's future grave, that for me at the time, I just wanted to spin because I missed it so much. I missed the excitement of DJ'ing for people who were dancing."
Four years ago, Princess Superstar—-whose new concept album My Machine is about the cult of celebrity—-was booked at a bar as a fluke, before she could mix. Unlike the rock DJs who play various forms of dance rock, she spins music that lends itself to beatmatching. In a satisfying twist, her DJ career has helped along her recording career—-she makes music with the dance-floor in mind, and as she tours around the world meeting world-class spinners, they ask for her records.
Back when she formed the duo DJs Are Not Rockstars with Alex Technique, the name referred to superstar techno DJs who pulled diva behavior; looking back, it seems particularly prescient. And originally, Princess Superstar took umbrage at the fact that she could get paid more for spinning than for performing live. "As a musician, I was like, This is bullshit. They wanna pay me like three grand to play other people's records?' But I'm not conflicted about that anymore, because I really see the art of DJ'ing and that it is a form of making music."
DJ purists scoff at the rock star DJs. The "real" DJs argue that the rock stars can't mix and don't respect the art of DJ'ing. They're just, as Tommie Sunshine says, an "iPod with legs." And some of the rock star DJs agree. "If I'm a techno DJ, and I don't know how to beatmatch," says Carlos D., "I'm not a techno DJ."
Not beatmatching, says Sunshine, "keeps it a level playing field. If people don't beatmatch, then everyone is untalented playing turntables. As long as you take the skill out of it, then nobody's better than anybody else." Suddenly serious, he says, "I have a question for you—would you want to see me play guitar?" "No." "Then why would I want to see James Iha play records?"
A few months ago, Sunshine was at Happy Ending when he saw Alexander Technique wearing a T-shirt that said "No Beatmatching." Alexander explained that Princess Superstar was asked to play the MisShapes party, but with a caveat: There was to be no beatmatching and no playing of electronic dance music. Both requests seemed pretty incredible given MisShapes' numerous guest DJs who do both quite proficiently.
More than any party in New York, the MisShapes (Greg K., Leigh Lezark, and Geo) have capitalized on the fad of celebrity DJs. They've had ex–Smashing Pumpkin Iha, Hedwig actor-director John Cameron Mitchell, Dior fashion designer Hedi Slimane, the Rapture's Mattie and Vito, members of Les Savy Fav, the Killers, Kelly Osbourne, Hilary Duff, and Carlos D. (Full disclosure: This writer even spun there once herself, for fun.) Greg K. makes no excuses about his party's focus on celeb DJs over skilled mixers. "It's not a DJ-focused party," he says. "Our crowd is not about who is the best DJ. It's more about having their presence than their music."
As for the "no beatmatching and no electronic dance music" dictate, Greg says he and his partners mostly just wanted to keep the night from turning into a rave. He says MisShapes didn't start out intending to be a celebrity DJ event. "It's not calculated!" he insists. The celebs "have fun doing it, especially if they're musicians."
Even if most fans are just happy to be in the same room, some moonlighting musicians take DJ'ing just as seriously as they do making music. Martin Gore, for one, learned to beatmatch and spends hours preparing his sets. "I work out everything to a fine point," he says. "I make a whole list of extensive notes."
Paul Thomson of Franz Ferdinand beatmatches, even though the crowd probably couldn't care less. "There are people who are good at DJ'ing, and people who are bad at it," says Zinner. "But nobody seems to give a fuck except people who are good at it. I always say I'm not really a DJ, I just play records."
"There's an art to just playing records without beatmatching," allows Sunshine. "I always know when someone's saying something and when they're not. You can always tell," he says, tipping his hat to Carlos D., Zinner, and others.
"DJ'ing doesn't have any meaning to me unless I'm taking a piece of plastic out of a paper sleeve and plopping it down on a turntable and manually putting it on," says Carlos D., explaining why he refuses to spin anything but vinyl. "The fact that I have it on vinyl means that I spent a lot of time cultivating it over the years. When you start DJ'ing from an iPod, the only story that you're telling is that you may have gotten this in the past 24 hours from iTunes. When you have vinyl, you're telling a much, much more epic story."
It's a no-brainer for any promoter that Carlos D. would draw more of a crowd than an anonymous local spinner. But just a few years ago, Interpol's instantly recognizable bassist was an anonymous local spinner himself, happy simply to get a gig. "I had a very unpopular night on Tuesday at 85A, ages and ages ago," he says, and he recalls his radio show on WNYU when he was in college—which featured "gothic, dark, ambient" soundscapes. "Dead Can Dance was as light as it got."
Before Interpol blew up, he had a taste for '80s sounds, spinning Adult., Fischerspooner, and Love and Rockets at Lit with Justine D when parties like Shout were still stuck on Britpop and rock 'n' soul. "People didn't look at me as a person that they should go see spin, which I totally understood. I'm that guy. No one was listening to the '80s. And then electroclash exploded."
And so did his band. Suddenly he had the audience he always hoped for, and he could play whatever he wanted. "I was able to throw these after-parties where people would show up no matter what. Even if I was saying, 'I'm only spinning classical music tonight,' they would still come because it was me. It wasn't about the music, it was about who was DJ'ing. It took me a while to realize that."
Spinning at the band's after-parties was a practical way for him to unwind after a show. But it also became for a way for fans to get as close to their idols as possible.
"There have been times when I've hidden behind the DJ booth on purpose just because I can't take the staring anymore," he says. "It's like Children of the Corn. It's like, 'What are you looking at? Seriously, what is so interesting?'"
Still, you have to wonder: How can a promoter top Madonna, the ultimate "get" in celebrity "gets"? It's a downhill slide to Paris Hilton from here. In fact, both Kimberly Stewart and Brittny Gastineau have guest DJ'd recently. "I've pretty much stopped DJ'ing regularly because it's gotten to be too much of a cliché," says Zinner. "Not only is everyone in a band, but everyone's a DJ. I'm just a little sick of the whole phenomenon. I would, however, totally throw down 10 bucks to watch DJ Glenn Danzig any day."
"I don't know when it's gonna end," says Princess Superstar. "I feel like, more and more, everyone's gonna do it. And soon, like, Bono will be the guest DJ. I think it's fun for the celebrities themselves, actually. Who doesn't like to be in charge of the music at the party?" She laughs. "That's essentially what it is, isn't it?"
Additional reporting by Sandy Kofler and Debbie Maron