Beat Boys: The Rise of the Superstar DJ

Have we entered a new golden age of electronic dance music — or, as Deadmau5 asserts, are DJs just glorified button-pushers?

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Skrillex performs onstage during Day 3 of Bonnaroo 2012 on June 9, 2012 in Manchester, Tennessee.

Name a DJ from the 1980s. Go ahead, we’ll wait. Fast forward to the 2012 Grammy Awards when electronic music and the men (more on that later) who make it were everywhere. Deadmau5 showed up on the red carpet wearing his trademark mouse head with Skrillex’s phone number scrawled across his t-shirt. Producer and DJ Skrillex won not one, but three Grammys. In a special performance superstar DJ David Guetta brought the beats while Lil Wayne and Chris Brown provided vocals.

Far from being a niche market, electronic dance music (EDM) is making inroads into almost every aspect of American life. It has fully infiltrated Top 40 radio. French DJ extraordinaire David Guetta hit No. 1 with the Black Eyed Peas on “I Gotta Feeling” and Rihanna worked with Scottish DJ Calvin Harris on her hits “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been”. Chart-toppers by Gotye and Adele have been endlessly remixed into dance hits. Deadmau5, both the person and his music, are featured in commercials. Atlantic Records recently relaunched Big Beat, its dance-music imprint, with Skrillex as its cornerstone. The Wall Street Journal estimated that Dutch superstar DJ Tiësto — MixMag’s “Greatest DJ of All Time” — has an annual income of $20 million. Attendance at the Electric Daisy Carnival, one of the premiere electronic music festivals in the U.S., topped 250,000 last year. Forbes considers Skrillex the 92nd most powerful celebrity in the world, making their list right above 30 Rock’s Tina Fey. The rise of the DJ as an artist and the ascension of electronic dance music to the mainstream seems unstoppable.

But just as we are all getting used to having DJs making the music scene, a few acts start to signal what could be the beginning of the end of this generation of electronic dance music mavens. Two days ago, Deadmau5, one of the most famous (and intentionally controversial) DJs of the era, posted an article on Tumblr entitled “We All Hit Play.” In the article, Deadmau5 (born Joel Zimmerman) claimed that anyone “given about 1 hour of instruction” can be a DJ, no talent required. He also alleged that when fans pay to see dance music’s top-billed acts (himself included) play “live” it’s little more than watching them hit play on a mix tape. Then, Swedish House Mafia announced that the tour they are about to go on will be their last. Together the Swedes — Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso — sometimes referred to as the Holy Trinity of Dance, are one of dance music’s most commercially successful brands and the group was at the front of EDM’s American invasion. While the statement was worded vaguely enough for skeptics to wonder if the powerhouse trio would simply change their name, it was a surprising move for one of EDM’s biggest acts that will headline a show in Milton Keynes Bowl in England next month. The venue holds 65,000 people. So why are they leaving the game now?

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Are we at a tipping point for electronic music? Maybe. But let’s start at the beginning. When did the ascension of EDM in America start? When did it become a phenomenon that would allow a DJ (Deadmau5 again) to close out the Lollapalooza festival or pack a coliseum? Electronic music has been around for awhile. William Orbit was making a name for himself on the dance music scene for more than a decade before becoming known to audiences worldwide for his work on Madonna’s 1998 album Ray Of Light. Dutch DJ Tiësto has been performing since the mid 1980s, spinning prerecorded music and creating mixes in clubs before headlining Ultra Music Festival last year and raking in the estimated $20 million income. The “electronica” boom of the late ’90s produced artists like Moby, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. The Prodigy even managed to produce a No. 1 album Fat of the Land in 1997 that became one of the fastest-selling UK albums of all time.

But earlier iterations of electronic music followed the well-laid track of rock music. They were short, fast and to the point — as EDM chronicler Phillip Sherburne says, “a dance-music DJ needs hours, not minutes, to get across his or her ideas.” Luckily, dance music grew from those early days. While the rave and dance party scene had always been present in Europe, in the ’80s and ’90s dance music in America was a relatively underground scene. But slowly attendance at festivals like Miami’s Winter Music Conference, which was founded in 1985; the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, which started in 2000; and Montreal’s MUTEK began to grow by the tens of thousands. Indie electronica took off in the new millennium. Acts like Justice from France, Lali Puna from Germany, and Ratatat and The Postal Service from the US paired the soft niceties of indie rock with an foot-pounding electronic beat and helped ignite a new interest in the genre, kickstarting a nostalgia for bands like the Chemical Brothers and, of course, Daft Punk.

Daft Punk’s groundbreaking set at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival back in 2006 was the defining moment for the new wave of dance music in America. While the duo’s debut album, Homework, came out in 1997, their turn on the Coachella stage was perfectly timed for American interests. You can watch parts of the performance on YouTube, but the videos only capture the tip of the iceberg, or, more aptly, the tip of the giant light-up pyramid that filled the stage. Daft Punk’s futuristic sound and wild set made waves at Coachella by tapping into a zeitgeist of music that combined a nostalgia for 90s acts with a burgeoning American dance music scene fueled by crossover indie dance bands like LCD Soundsystem and !!! . “That was life-changing for me,” said Steve Goodgold, the dance music specialist at the Windish Agency, a booking agency, speaking to the LA Times. Coachella promoter Goldenvoice’s Senior Vice President Skip Paige agreed. “We built that tent for Madonna, and she phoned it in. Daft Punk used it all and blew us away. I talked to them afterwards and they said it was the best set they’d ever played.” The performance by the robot-costumed Frenchmen brought cynical concert-goers to tears and the notoriously compliment-stingy site Pitchfork called the performance “mindblowing.”

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Daft Punk made it cool to dance. While collaborations between dance producers and DJs and rap and R & B artists are common (David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas; Rihanna and Calvin Harris; Pitbull and Afrojack; Guetta and Akon), before Daft Punk’s performance at Coachella, indie rock dance music was a relatively unknown phenomenon. Post-Daft Punk, indie dance collaborations boomed. Tiësto’s 2009 album, Kaleidoscope, featured indie venerated vocalists like Nelly Furtado, Emily Haines, Jónsi of Sigur Rós and Tegan and Sara. Then bands like Cut Copy and Holy Ghost! came along and helped make EDM palatable to the Starbucks set.

As EDM became more popular, it also became more mainstream. In 2004, Tiësto provided the music for the Parade of Nations during the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, which introduced his music to an audience around the world. EDM continued to grow, and at last year’s Grammy Awards, Sonny Moore a.k.a. Skrillex won big. During his acceptance speech, Skrillex marveled, “I think it’s awesome that we’re all getting recognized this year. There’s a lot of people that have been here before us doing what we’re doing. I think Justice’s Cross should have won a Grammy, I think Daft Punk should have won Grammys, but it’s cool that now this year it’s gonna open doors for everyone.” The Grammys also hosted an all-out dance party featuring Guetta and Deadmau5 appearing on stage with Lil Wayne, Chris Brown and the Foo Fighters. You can watch it here, but the A-list confab on a mainstream dime was a clear sign that we are living in dance music times.

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But there are some omens that the good times are teetering on the brink. For starters there is that Deadmau5 blog post, which outs the industry’s top players as mere pantomimers. Deadmau5 says, “Because this whole big ‘edm’ is taking over fad, im not going to let it go thinking that people assume theres a guy on a laptop up there producing new original tracks on the fly. because none of the ‘top dj’s in the world’ to my knowledge have. myself included.” [Sic, obviously.] Now that the DJs have been outed as performance poseurs, will fans continue to be willing to dole out serious cash to watch them act? Probably. As Stereogum notes in their article “In Defense of Skrillex”, “Listening to Skrillex at home is almost like listening to Gwar at home. The live experience is the thing.” While Deadmau5 may claim that his skills are in the production studio, a dance party in the living room, simply isn’t the same as a throwdown in a packed stadium with a laser light show.

The scene (as with most scenes) is filled with tedious in-fighting, mostly started at the hands of Deadmau5, whose interview with Rolling Stone was filled with gems like: “David Guetta has two iPods and a mixer and he just plays tracks — like, ‘Here’s one with Akon, check it out!’”; or dismissing most dance music as formulaic, “Just 120 bpm with a… kick drum on every quarter note”; or trying to get Dave Grohl to remix his record,”because f— dance music, you know?” Deadmau5 even publicly feuded with Madonna, who has not only been very supportive of the electronic music scene throughout her career working with French DJ/producer Martin Solveig on MDNA, but it was her Maverick Records that put out The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land. Despite Madonna’s contributions to the scene, the real issue facing dance music is a serious lack of women. While sketch comedy show Portlandia jokes that everyone is a DJ, the industry seems to think “everyone” doesn’t include women. DJ Mag recently published its annual reader-voted Top 100 DJ list and there were no women featured. Not a single one. In fact, according to the Guardian, between 2007 and 2011 only one woman, Claudia Cazacu, made it on to the list at all. The annual list is considered the “black book” for DJs, producers and promoters in the industry and it’s almost mindboggling that in this day and age not a single woman would be included in the list. Peaches, the Berlin DJ/producer turned to her Facebook page in frustration after the list was published: “DJ MAG! Your Top 100 DJ boy club list can eat a dick! Where the ladies at???” Where the ladies at indeed. If DJ Mag is looking for some inspiration for next year, Flavorwire put together a list of ten women to include in the future.

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