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From Human Jukebox to DJ Artist

Everything evolves or dies. Some art forms, such as painting, are minimally influenced by the advance of technology. Others, such as the production of home theater experiences, are dependent on technological advances. Some technological advances allow art forms to acquire entirely new dimensions, which are independent variables.

DJ mixing is a relatively new field, but has quickly matured with advances in mixer and player technology, and with music tempo stability resulting from electronic drums. Some DJs are content to remain human jukeboxes or personality jocks, who entertain with their wit, instead of becoming performance artists who can entertain without saying a word. While there will always be a market for personality jocks, the future holds the greatest opportunities for the DJ Artist who can spin new musical tapestries through harmonic mixing.

DJs will not be considered "artists" until they start performing artistically. As long as we continue to mix tunes together randomly, with no concern for the sour overlays and dissonance created by random mixing, we have no more claim to "artistry" than would a blind painter.

Art is about form, texture, movement and composition. A DJ mixing harmonically controls these elements to produce a cohesive whole, much as a composer may write a duet: both parts must be harmonically related as well as rhythmically synchronized. To do otherwise, to be concerned only with rhythm, is pseudo-artistry at best.

The world's top DJs recognize the importance of mixing in key:

• Shep Pettibone, in his January 1993 interview in DJ Times (page 28), states "Well there's more than just BPMs. There's the way you put songs together musically. The music should fit. Some people call themselves good club DJs and I listen to them and hear clashing music or an A-Flat going into a C. I don't get it. It doesn't go musically."

• Junior Vasquez, in his January 1997 interview in DJ Times (page 62), states "Another important thing about becoming a good DJ is knowing the keys of songs. I learned that over a period of time."

Since harmonic mixing is as easy as telling time, the only thing preventing most technically competent jocks from becoming mix artists is their desire for excellence.


ancient DJ

Before there was mixing, there was the human jukebox. Working with perhaps only one turntable, this DJ was primarily an entertainer who happened to play music. His (or rarely, her) skill was in entertaining an audience with amusing patter. Even with two turntables there was no attempt to blend songs together. As recently as the late 1970's, this was the dominant DJ lifeform.

There was zero-dimensional mixing, because it rarely occurred (except by accident). Mixing was much more difficult because:

• Turntables rarely had speed stability until the arrival of the original Technics 1200's.

• Music rarely had speed stability until electronic drums became affordable in the mid-1980's.

• Affordable mixers, with phono pre-amps and suitable faders, were rare until GLI entered this market.

HOME THEATER ANALOGY: Before the arrival of B&W commercial TV, a "home theater" consisted of only a radio. It too was zero-dimensional because a theater requires visual input.


medieval DJAs DJ's displaced bands as the primary form of club entertainment, two turntables and a mixer became necessary. The flow between songs became important as DJ's strived to maintain musical continuity. The jock would fade a new song in over the trailing edge of the old song, often with catastrophic results. Since neither beats nor keys were synchronized, the brief overlays could sound like train wrecks. This technique is still common today with radio stations.

This style of mixing created a new variable (dimension) when it connected two different songs for a short interval. This brief overlay created the first dimension of mixing: a new sound created by the interaction of two separate sources. This new sound was rarely musical (except by chance), because it lacked the basic components of Western music: rhythm, harmony and melody.

To avoid the "train wreck effect," some DJ's developed spot mixing techniques which provided continuity between songs. Although spot mixing did not permit any overlays, the rhythmic flow between songs could be maintained. Spot mixing is still used today when uneven tempos or drastic speed changes do not permit overlays.

HOME THEATER ANALOGY: Black and white TV created the first home theater dimension: movement of gray forms on a screen.


renaissance.jpgThe evolution of turntable and mixer technology coincided with the appearance of rap as a distinct vocal form. High torque turntables now permitted DJ's to backspin a record while the turntable platter maintained speed. Source faders permitted DJ's to cut (insert short musical segments from a second source) and scratch (rapidly and rhythmically repeat single beats from a second source) with confidence. This style allowed the creation of new rhythms, and became especially popular with teenagers.

Adults were usually less enthused with scratching and cutting, because it often destroyed the musical integrity (melody, harmony and rhythm) of favorite songs. Since teenagers usually formed fewer attachments with specific songs, they were often more receptive to the mutation of music.

Cutting and scratching became part of record production with "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" in 1981, and now was firmly established in hip-hop culture. The use of drum machines became widespread in the mid-1980's. Soon thereafter, sampling technology became cheap enough to permit electronic "cutting" and the insertion of atonal segments into electronic drum patterns.

One might say that technological advances actually hurt the evolution of R&B because it soon allowed rap record production without the involvement of any musicians. While early rap track s were usually original or derivative studio band productions, musical integrity became optional. Rhythm was paramount; melody and harmony were dispensable. Rap achieved crossover success. To music lovers' surprise, rapper Biz Markie hit #9 on Billboard magazine's pop chart (#37 on the R&B chart) in 1989 with his seminal recording of "Just A Friend," in which his singing was unpretentious, to say the least. The hip-hop market permitted anything to mix with anything else, as long as it was on beat.

Mixing now had a second dimension: synchronization of sources. Two songs could be connected indefinitely by rhythmically overlaying small bits and pieces of one song on another song. Each overlay had to be very short, however, to avoid conflicting beats.

HOME THEATER ANALOGY: Adding color to B&W scenes created the second dimension: Not only did home theater forms move, but now they moved in color.


seventies.jpgWhile technological advances may have detracted from musical integrity in the post-disco era, it undoubtedly helped the evolution of mixing. Most dance music used electronic drums, which locked in a consistent tempo indefinitely. Quartz lock and variable pitch turntables (and ultimately CD players) now allowed DJ's to overlay long segments of different records, as long as they could be synchronized.

Once his beat mixing technique was developed, the DJ could overlay complete phrases (8+ counts) and even verses (32 counts). He soon found, however, that synchronization was not enough. If the desired segments of both songs contained melodies, the result was usually unpleasant because of clashing keys. The determined DJ solved this dilemma by trial and error: He tried different combinations until he found compatible songs. He did not know that only 25 percent of all songs are harmonically compatible.

He soon learned the value of neutral "free beat" segments where only percussion played. Free beats could be mixed over melodies without clashing. The absence of these segments made songs more difficult to mix. Remix services, such as Hot Tracks and Ultimix, appeared to solve the problem. Each remixed song would usually have a key-neutral intro, break(s), and outro, which now allowed eight bars (32 counts) of beat mixing without clashing.

The primary limitation of basic beat-mixing is dependence on free-beat segments. It's sort of like traveling around the United States - but only by railroad. Free-beat segments are like railroad tracks: You can go any place you want as long as it is serviced by tracks. Harmonic mixing is like traveling by helicopter: You can go any place you want, period.

Basic beat mixing created the third dimension of mixing, rhythm, because full synchronization permitted complete overlays - as long as melodies did not clash.

HOME THEATER ANALOGY: Stereo TV brought the third dimension, width, to home theater, when it created a horizontal stage along which sound could be pinpointed.


future.jpgIn 1986 a visionary named Stuart Soroka introduced the DJ world to the concept of harmonic mixing. He published Harmonic Keys magazine in Key West, Florida, and rapidly expanded a subscriber base through advertising in DJ magazines such as Dance Music Report. The most advanced DJs of that period soon learned the value of mixing in key: It allowed them to complete the sonic tapestries they sought to create, but in which they had been thwarted by the realities of incompatible keys.

Harmonic programming was difficult, however. It required DJs to either memorize the relationship of 24 different keys, or to constantly refer to a table of compatible keys.
For their $180.00 annual subscription, DJs received a magazine every six to eight weeks, and jacket labels for their records. Each issue of the magazine contained key/speed information for hundreds of current and older songs. The dance music universe was increasingly covered, until Harmonic Keys claimed to have more than 3,000 keys in its anthology database in October 1987.

Subscribers were severely disappointed in early 1988 with news that Harmonic Keys had stopped publication. Office phones were disconnected, and rumors were rampant that Stuart Soroka had died. Dance Music Report, as the primary advertising vehicle for Harmonic Keys, was barraged with outrage from hundreds of DJs who had each paid $180.00 to Stuart and were left with nothing. Harmonic mixing quickly acquired a bad name.

A California DJ, named Mark Davis, subscribed to Harmonic Keys soon after it emerged. Since his primary musical area was R&B, he noticed that the magazine was somewhat deficient in this area. Working with local musicians, he took the initiative to key recent R&B songs, program a number of sets, and submit the information to Harmonic Keys. His efforts were rewarded in July 1987 when Harmonic Keys printed a "R&B Classic Issue" featuring his work.

With the demise of Harmonic Keys, he continued keying music and offered this information to the DJ community under the name of Camelot Sound. The database now contains over 32,000 songs, and is updated monthly. He devised an extremely simple harmonic programming system based on the Circle of Fifths. Using this system, a DJ no longer had to memorize or refer to the difficult key charts used by Harmonic Keys. This "Easymix System" gave every key a number (keycode) between 1 and 12, like numbers on a clock. To find a compatible song from any keycode, a DJ needed only to select another song within one keycode of the current song. Now anyone who could tell time could program harmonically.

Harmonic mixing brings the fourth dimension, harmony, to DJ mixing technique, when it allows different melodies to be played simultaneously without clashing.

HOME THEATER ANALOGY: Surround sound brought a fourth dimension, depth, to home theater audio presentations. A source could be localized at any point within the acoustic plane created by properly adjusted Dolby Digital (or DTS) equipment.