DJ Culture Week: Author Q&A

Happy DJ Culture Week! We’re celebrating the release of DJ Culture in the Mix, a groundbreaking edited collection that takes a critical academic look at international DJ culture. Meet the book’s editors, Bernardo (Ben) Attias, Anna Gavanas, and Hillegonda (Gonnie) Rietveld.

What, in particular, drew you to writing/editing this book?
AG:  After co-editing, with Ben Attias, a special issue on DJ culture for Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, we were inspired to bring some under-explored issues to the forefront and to collect the existing international expertise out there into a “real” book. We had wanted to work with Gonnie Rietveld already while we were editing the Dancecult issue and were extremely happy that she could join our editorial team and bring such friendly spirit, experience, and high standards to our book project.

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Ben and Anna, fresh-faced before the project started.

I also concluded, after co-editing our Dancecult issue and presenting it with Ben at a conference in Norrköping, Sweden, that gender issues were “the elephant in the room” of DJ culture studies. Therefore I wanted to join forces with Rosa Reitsamer in a joint chapter and take on these issues in depth with substantial material gathered from a number of European DJ contexts. Rosa had answered our call for contributions to the Dancecult issue with an excellent article that was very inspirational to my own work.

BA: As Anna said, after collaborating on the Dancecult issue, we decided that our work on DJ culture was not finished, and that there was a need in cultural studies and sound studies for more work focused on DJ culture specifically. There were important critical lacunae such as the role of gender; there was also a need for a sustained focus that didn’t have the same limitations as a journal special issue. It was becoming clear that there was an emerging subfield of “DJ studies” that would benefit from the sustained attention of an edited collection. When Gonnie–who had already been publishing important studies of this topic for quite some time–agreed to participate, the project took on a new life for all of us.

HR: After the Dancecult special issue on DJ cultures, edited by Anna and Ben, it was high time to develop a long-overdue book on the subject, which didn’t seem to exist in academic publishing until now–decades after the first DJ started to use twin turntables to keep the party going. Having published on related topics in my previous work, it’s really exciting to be involved in this project.

How did you choose your contributors? Why?
HR: After an open call for papers, the three editors used a point system, giving some contributors a further opportunity tweak their proposals and address the main themes of the book. In particular, we wanted the authors to focus on DJ cultures, DJ politics, and DJ practices rather than on the admittedly related dance music genres and dance club cultures. In contrast to much DJ and club journalism we also wanted to prevent hero worship, instead looking out for analysis of what happens when DJs get to work.

Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your book. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
AG: The three of us editors met at a cultural studies conference in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2008 and since then it feels like we’ve been DJ roommates, meeting on Skype at odd hours across continents. We worked intensively over several years and discussed every chapter between the three of us. After we had turned in our final manuscript we met at a music conference in Gijon, Spain and presented the book. That was when I met Rosa Reitsamer for the first time, after having worked with her long distance for years. This was a very exciting moment because we turned out to be a great team in real life, too, while looking like complete opposites:

Anna and Rosa - Gijon 2013
Anna and Rosa, co-authors finally united in 2013

BA: It has been quite an experience working across time zones and busy schedules to discuss the chapters and meet deadlines. Honestly my biggest surprise was how smoothly the work went. With the three of us spread out geographically and with very busy lives quite apart from the book, the potential for disaster seemed strong. With so much being done over email and Skype, possibilities for miscommunication abounded. While there were certainly occasional hiccups, most of the work proceeded smoothly because of the bond of friendship and common purpose that we developed through the process.

HR: I met Ben and Anna during the 2008 ACS Cultural Crossroads conference, the seventh international cultural studies conference, at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. The conference theme was ‘Of Sacred Crossroads’ for which Graham St John, the Editor of Dancecult, brought together a special panel on electronic dance cultures, to which Anna and I both contributed. Ben contributed on a related topic to a different panel. Ben and Anna agreed to create a special issue on DJs for Dancecult, before taking the next step of creating an edited book in 2011.

“As I read the book today there is a flow to the chapters, a sort of build-up and breakdown, that is not unlike a good DJ set–filled with surprises but telling a story accessibly and captivatingly.”
– Ben Attias

It is indeed amazing how, as an editorial team, we managed to stick together across time and space, based in London, Stockholm and Los Angeles, using Skype’s blind conference function and email. We have met up in different places since the 2008 conference, but only as a full team, including some of the authors, in Gijon, Spain, during the IASPM 2013 international conference.

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Kai Fikentscher, Anna Gavanas, Hillegonda Rietveld, Rosa Reitsamer, and Bernardo Attias in Gijon, Spain, 2013.

We each have ample experience in academic research and publications work, as well as in DJ practices, and matured through highs and lows of club culture. The secret of our effective teamwork is that we share a sense of respect for our complementary differences in work style and temperament–this is what kept each other going through the different phases of the project during our busy work schedules.

What do you want to explore about this area that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
AG: Gender issues and other power relations in electronic dance music culture are still understudied.

BA: I think there remains a huge gap in current DJ studies on the intersections of race, culture, and musical appropriation.  It’s worth studying who becomes a DJ and who becomes successful as a DJ in various cultural contexts, but it’s also worth investigating the ways in which DJs appropriate sounds that resonate with cultural meaning, redeploying those sounds in new cultural contexts. It’s also worth considering whether the cultural hybridity signified by such practices can help consolidate communities of resistance, or if they simply help commodify such resistances. And speaking of commodification, I would argue that the political economy of DJ culture (and dance music culture more generally) is another area that remains vastly undertheorized. Discussions of issues of power and resistance would benefit greatly from a deeper analysis of the commodity status and function of even the most underground dance music cultures.

HR: Although the DJ is usually presented as a commodity through the industrial outlets of club culture, we hope that this book makes a start in opening the discussion to a wider appreciation of what DJs do, how they are represented and how they experience their work. Several academic monographs have critically addressed DJ cultures, specifically Rebekah Farrugia on gender roles in the context of dance DJs and Mark Katz on the cultures of hip hop DJs, as well as Sophy Smith on collaborative DJ team work in turntablism. With our edited collection in the particular area of dance music DJs, we hope to add further variety to this debate.

Did any of the final pieces submitted by your contributors surprise you? If so, why?
AG: I was just really impressed with the result and the hard work of everyone involved. I am especially happy about the chapters by Fontanari and Paulsson because they illuminate DJ contexts–beyond the US, the UK and Anglo-centric settings–which most readers will probably be unfamiliar with.

BA: I was surprised and impressed by the strength of the entire collection, to be honest.  I did not necessarily begin with high expectations that the thirteen chapters (many on widely disparate topics) we were bringing together would cohere in a manageable way. But as I read the book today there is a flow to the chapters, a sort of build-up and breakdown, that is not unlike a good DJ set–filled with surprises but telling a story accessibly and captivatingly. We were blessed with solid contributions from the authors (as well as their patience with us).

HR: All of the chapters are unique in their own way, ranging from issues of speed and marginalization, to DJ styles and technologies. We spent considerable time with each author to polish their work into individual chapters that would suit the overall coherence of the book’s focus and style, whilst keeping their individual flavours intact. In doing so, I guess we acted like DJ-producers, remixing the submitted work to suit the varied narrative space of our reading “dance floor.” Through  this careful sifting of the materials, the contributions complement each other, offering international comparative insights that reach out beyond the Anglo-centric world.

Was there anything that you wish you had included in the book but didn’t? If so, Why?
BA: Certainly a chapter on the DJ and the commodity process, as I alluded to in my earlier comment, would have been welcomed. An historical overview of DJ culture would also have made the collection much stronger. We did begin working on a sort of chronology of DJ culture but it quickly became unwieldy; an authoritative scholarly treatment of the history of DJ culture remains to be written.

HR: I’d like a chapter that looks into current creative practices that are available to the mobile DJ who uses miniaturized wireless DJ technology: networked via music archives and DJ apps on tablets or smart phones. How is the relationship between the DJ and the dancing crowd affected when the DJ can lead the party from the center of the dance floor? Or: How is the performative musicianship enhanced for DJ-producers through customized (touch tablet) music software?

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Near the end of the project, in Gijon, 2013: Anna, Gonnie, Rosa, Ben.

DJ Culture in the Mix is available via Amazon or wherever academic books are sold. Click here to request an exam copy.

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