It’s easy to tell the difference between a guitarist and Guitar Hero. MC’s this side of Ja Rule don’t often use prerecorded vocals, except to overdub and accentuate what’s happening on stage. DJ’s, however, are an entirely different breed.
DJ’s range from musical artists to production artists to radio and club broadcasters playing their iTunes tracklist over a PA or radio waves instead of their personal earbuds. I’m a longtime musician and have been fortunate enough to work with a variety of DJ’s in my life. There’s no right or wrong type of DJ, but it’s important to understand the differences
Take a look at an orchestra – each member focuses on perfecting a single instrument or section (woodwind, brass, string, percussion). I played trumpet and french horn, as the fingerings and mouthpieces were very similar, just tuned to a different key.
Musical artist DJ’s are similar to orchestral players, guitarists, and other band members. These DJ’s use production equipment as a musical instrument itself, creating different notes and rhythms by manipulating the turntables, nobs, and levers the same way I pressed the trumpet keys and adjusted my lip buzzing to produce music.
In the hip-hop world, musical DJ’s are often also known as producers, though there are many who partake in the sport of turntabling. Turntablists make up a subgenre of musical DJ’s, as do music producers and beat-makers. Like a guitar soloist, a turntablist often scratches and skews the notes, making it easy to see them painting their auditory picture.
When performing on stage, musical artist DJ’s still have a crew of production DJ’s working the soundboards. Look for them typically in the back of the venue, though sometimes they’ll be hidden away backstage. Both DJ’s are necessary to make the performance magical for the audience.
While turntablists often perform live, music producers/beat-makers often stay behind the scenes. When they do perform live, as is the case with EDM DJ’s, it’s often more of a performance art than anything else. Because of this, the only way to tell the difference between a production artist and a club DJ is to be familiar with the music.
A production artist is still an artist – they just don’t always create the painting in front of you. Where a musical artist is Bob Ross, a production artist is Vincent Van Gogh. You don’t have to see Starry Night being painted to appreciate the passion in the work.
If a DJ didn’t write, mix, or at the very least remix the majority of songs in their set, they’re not a musical artist. Any DJ who doesn’t meet this criteria and tells you they’re a musical artist is a poser, loser, and should be berated and avoided at all costs, lest they drag you down with them.
Most DJ’s you hear on the radio, in the club, or at desert raves are broadcast DJ’s. These DJ’s are more tastemakers than actual artists, though many of them will attempt to convince you otherwise. There is value in creating the perfect playlist, but curating a museum is a much different design task than creating the individual pieces of art.
Club DJ’s will often put on the same physical on-stage performance as a musical artist or production artist, similar to how an air guitarist puts in the effort to look just like their guitar-playing idols. While this fan service (and the resulting PR) is great and does take work, it isn’t art that can be attributed to the broadcast DJ as a creator.
Broadcast DJ’s stand on the shoulders of giants…
Anyone can make a playlist, and, while it does take skill to switch between songs without skipping a beat, it’s the absolute most minimal effort possible and takes no talent whatsoever. Framing a song is nowhere near writing or recording a song. Painting a house is just as difficult as painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, but only one will be studied in art history.
I can name four artists right off the top of my head – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Can you name anyone in history who framed any of that art? It’s a service offered at retail stores, not an art. That’s the difference between an artist DJ and a broadcast DJ.
All DJ’s are important – creating and broadcasting music is a vital part of so many of our lives. Music is one of the most beautiful forms of art, and everyone from the recording/performance artist to the studio engineers, production assistants, marketing, management, distribution, street team, and even the fans, is important.
Just make sure you know your role and those of others so you can smell and call bullshit when you hear it.
Brian Penny is a former business analyst and operations manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Street, Hardcore Droid, Cannabis Now, and BBC.