Global Genre Accumulation

Around the start of Occupy Wall Street, an international DJ called Samim tweeted, “Did you know that the richest 1% of DJ´s control over 80% of the industry´s wealth and over 70% the media coverage?#occupyDJs”. Perhaps it was meant as an off-hand joke, but the fact that the DJ industry is an unbalanced place in terms of representation is clearly a reality. Nothing materialized this notion more than DJ Mag’s annual Top 100 DJs list, which read like a Forbes’ top 100, but for wealthiest DJs. Many people noticed the racial, gender, and wealth imbalances of the list, which in today’s music world almost seems preposterous (or maybe not.) Also, considering that House and Techno music’s roots are in the Black and/or Gay communities of the Rust Belt urban centers in the American Midwest, it becomes a curious example of cultural appropriation.

Noticeably absent from the list was popular American DJ, Diplo, who is also a successful producer, record label owner, and style icon. Perhaps the reason why he didn’t show up in the list is because he explicitly prefers to align himself with a global contemporary “underground”. Most recently he has done so in a series of travel journals for Vanity Fair magazine. The first one about this past year’s Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and the latest where he “Discovers the Last True Underground Club Scene in New York.”  In these travel journals Diplo makes clear his critical stance to the mainstream. But, with all the structural inequalities inherent in the industry, and qualifying statements like, “I don’t know a lot about being black and gay and cool…” Diplo’s critique mostly ends up sounding a lot like someone looking for redemption in a pure, untouched, uncontaminated, Other.

Why should you care about this? Because, no matter where you are in the world, if there’s an underground dance scene or marginalized community, Diplo has probably “discovered,” re-framed, and sold it audiences in another part of the world. If he hasn’t yet, he’s on his way, and your local scene might just end up being the next European House or Techno.

Critiques of Diplo’s practices are not hard to come by. In a recent interview in GQ magazine, Diplo defended his practices, arguing that people in various global music scenes, like Jamaican dancehall, just want their music to reach larger audiences and that he facilitates their success. At the same time, his position as cultural authority has earned him gigs producing for acts like Beyoncé and No Doubt. Like here:

I’m not a scholar of Marx, but if I applied some of his basic principles on how Capitalism works, it’s not too hard to fit someone like Diplo into the role of Value appropriator and distributor (he admits as much in the GQ interview.)  Instead of coming from labor, Value in this instance is “street credibility” that is harvested from these underground sub-cultures. This credibility is what allows Diplo to have a career as an internationally touring DJ, and Hollywood tastemaker. But in order for Diplo to keep his position as mediator, he must reinforce the underground (Other) status of the scene he is revealing. This is especially evident when one realizes that scenes such as Dancehall, Carnival, and Vogue aren’t really that “undiscovered” after all. Yet, exploitation in this manner is essential to the way Capitalism functions, so maybe it’s not fair to blame one individual for his role in the greater system.

While I fit into both of the groups that Diplo seems to despise (academia and journalism), I am also a global urban dance scene practitioner. Perhaps it would be useful for me to turn to an example of more progressive trends I see, to illustrate the potential of DJing as a revolutionary cultural artform.

This past March, a Twitter “beef” broke out between Diplo and New York based DJ, Venus X. The basic crux of their back-and-forth centered on the attempt of Diplo to record one of Venus’ sets. After he recorded her set, noticing that he performed a set similar to hers, and keenly aware of Diplo’s reputation for “genre discovery”, she decided to call him out for it. He claimed he was helping her get famous. She insisted that she didn’t want to be discovered.

In the time since that moment of exchange on Twitter, Venus’ popularity has grown, and she’s won the types of consulting gigs that employ Diplo. I’ve also become more familiar with her work, and through the process of listening closely to two of her recent mixes, I’ve been able to clarify some of my own thoughts on what it means to be a DJ, and what differentiates her work to that of other DJs and tastemakers in similar positions in the industry.

The art of DJing is as postmodern as it gets. Its essence is appropriation. A DJ re-contextualizes pre-existing cultural expressions to resurrect or re-interpret cultural memory for an audience. For me, Diplo and Venus exemplify two different ways of doing this.

Diplo has become known for taking an “unknown” culture and exposing it to the world. He mixes dominant American culture cues, with “foreign” cultures, and positions himself as the “in the know” intermediary, in turn reinforcing a separation between audience and subject. Venus uses culture memory of various both underground and mainstream cultures to create safe spaces for, and communicate messages to groups that are underrepresented in mainstream cultural discourse (groups that she herself is a part of.)

A few weeks ago I heard Venus appear on DJ/rupture’s Mudd Up radio show. I enjoyed her unorthodox technical style where she slowed down (screwed) her tracks, and then “drumming” the cue buttons on her CD-J’s to emphasize certain sections of the songs she was playing. The syrupy chopped (percussive emphasis through “turntable” tricks) and screwed (slowing down) style isn’t new (it comes from the Houston-Monterey cultural axis of Texas-Mexico border region), but Venus’ framing of it (evident through their conversation) places it in a wider genre of American (Ghetto) Gothic, that mixes elements from a vast sub-section of underrepresented American culture (Latinos, Blacks, LGBT folks, NYC immigrants, hood dwellers, unemployed, underemployed, Drug Users, and generally economically depressed side of the American Rust Belt, not to mention women DJs!)

The day after her radio appearance, Venus released a mixtape with her partner $hane, who together make up part of the GHE20 G0TH1K crew. Still inspired by the radio appearance, I hurriedly downloaded and listened to the new mix on my A train commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan. Towards the end of the mix, someone in the crew was sampling and percussively chopping the dialogue that seemed familiar, from a teen movie that I couldn’t quite place. I went home and googled words that I heard from the clip, “Sebastian” and “funeral.” Up popped a clip of the final scene in the movie Cruel Intentions (I should have known better since that was in the name of the mix.)

Many of the comments on the video I saw were made by (what seemed like) teenage girls. I suddenly realized that there was a sub-section of American society that thought that what in my opinion was a forgettable movie, was one of the best movies of all time (which was clearly a product of niche marketing.) And then I realized, beyond being sex objects, teenage girls NEVER get repped or even really spoken to (beyond consumers of products that sell them as sex objects) in urban dance music. As the soundtrack of the movie started played the song “Bittersweet Symphony”, I made a second realization. Venus and $hane had probably just ripped the track directly off youtube, and let the soundtrack play out to become part of the mix.

When a DJ chooses a song it’s usually from memory. The best DJs have great musical memories, and can turn the vibe of a party based on this intuition. But musical memory is different from pop-culture memory. Not having a great movie memory myself, I’ve always been amazed at people who can instantly recite movie lines. $hane and Venus’ sampling of a youtube clip, and DJing in a sort of reciting movie lines way, opens up the realm of DJing to a social and pop cultural intuition, beyond the realm of music nerds (like myself.) The art of DJing suddenly becomes more inclusive. Also, by re-framing this film, and pop-culture moment through their GHE20 G0TH1K lens, the crew subverts the niche marketing paradigm, using Hollywood produced pop-culture as a way to create an oppositional collective identity in an industry dominated by white males.

“Western” club DJs are often too stuck in the race for global genre accumulation, to see that the practice of discovery and exposure of Other’s culture is always inevitably exploitative. In contrast, Venus X, GHE20 G0TH1K, Mike Q, and others that are doing similar work around the world today, are re-storing the cultural legitimacy of the DJ by creating safe spaces for underrepresented groups, and even allowing space for people from the dominant culture (like Diplo) to join in and feel safe. This is the same context that almost every mass-popular genre, like House, Hip-Hop, Reggae, Disco, and Dubstep came out of. Diplo’s right that this whole DJ thing is supposed to be about community, but how does mainstream exposure benefit a community unless they have total control, and the means to collectively capitalize on that exposure? We’re all still living in a system that has oppressed many of these “discovered” communities for centuries. As both a Western and African DJ (identities are complicated, no?), I believe that recognizing each others’ subjectivity, yet acknowledging our mutual humanity can only lead to the more globally communal future that we all are fighting and hoping for. We should dance in the world we want to live in.


45 thoughts on “Global Genre Accumulation

  1. Also Big up anyone on here posting rude comments anonymously u guys r doin great job helping to change the cultural landscape.. And sorry for my spelling errors I’m typing on a cell phone in patagonia.

  2. You did an article about Dj’s and EDM but you are only targeting one.
    What do you want from Diplo? Not to produce famous artists? Not to dj? Not to discover new artists?
    Obviously you don’t know anything about reality, EDM or about this guy’s talent.

  3. I didn’t want to jump in but seen that Diplo himself has commented, I want to point something we “spoke” with chief Boima, there are certain grey areas, the article doesn’t cover, and in my opinion, to focus on Diplo or Mad Decent is not fair when we have a lot of “colonialism” in pretty much every single independent label out there..

    As i said on this post

    It is funny that this post comes out just few days before Jeffree’s sub label is launched..

    The fact the Mad Decent drops a FREE releases sub label can generate all sort of feelings indeed..

    Some people tend to think that not only Mad Decent but also Diplo have become known for taking an “unknown” culture and exposing it to the world. Although we have to point that he is not the only one who has probably “discovered,” re-framed, and sold it audiences in another part of the world.

    We have many examples like cumbia label ZZK is run by an american,
    Baile funk’s Man recordings, by a german,
    Tropical/ Alternative/Rock Nacional Records by an American,
    World Music Putumayo and Cumbancha by Americans, African Awkwaaba by a French
    and African Faluma by a german
    among HUNDREDS of independent labels who mainly are run by a “foreign” who fell in love with a specific culture(s) and the music.. AND to want their music to reach larger audiences and the fact they facilitated the exposure for many genres is something I personally always be thankful.

    The fact Capitalism is a vital part of the music industry makes this sub label and ANY label who releases their undergroun music for free much more outstanding…although at the same time when the releases are not Free it creates a polarized shadow towards the person who lately keeps the profit…vs the culture and/or artists

  4. Well I could go through these comments one by one, but none of them
    seem really squarely aimed so let me just reiterate:
    The purpose of this post was to analyze Othering as practice in DJ
    dance music, and give an example of a countering-the-Other use of
    DJing (an artform that has appropriation as its essence.)

    That said, I never suggested that anyone should stop doing one thing
    or the other.

    In fact I very much expect everyone to keep doing what they’re doing.
    The first part of this was just my observation (“re-hashing”) of the
    way things have worked in this world up til now.
    I’m completely aware that we’re all part of the system, and that our
    positions within it are sometimes contradictory and complicated. It’s
    something I think about a lot in fact. I would hope that in spreading
    awareness of how structural inequality is built into everything we all
    do, I would help to change the way people think about their artistic
    practices, and daily routines. Perhaps that’s too much to hope for.
    But, I do know that there is a growing sentiment all around the world
    that there needs to be a new way of doing things, not just in a small
    corner of it either.

    If there’s any specific, substantive questions about the article, I’d
    love to answer them.

  5. boima i still wonder as a producer and a DJ you think i would gain somethign by recording venus set on my cellphone? thats the most ridiculous assumption of the article .. and i still would like to know why you believe that any of my popularity or money derives form profiling underground music?
    i only do it as a fan

    • hi diplo- Fair questions. Looking at it now, I should have said “alleged attempt.” I was including it to show that you two have argued over similar issues. But the way it appears here, that’s the point where the argument between you two started. I was simply trying to paraphrase. I also don’t think anyone interpreted that as the point of my post. It’s more of a kind of anecdote.

      As far as your first point tho, I agree that recording another person’s set isn’t IN ITSELF a problem. I mean after listening to Venus’ set on Rupture’s show, you could say her style inspired and influenced me to experiment with my own DJing, and even to write this post. And that’s kind of my point as well, we all appropriate as DJs and post-modern media makers. That’s also why I said “maybe it’s not fair to blame one individual for his role in the greater system.”

      But this leads to your second point, can you gain prestige (which ultimately leads to greater access to money) through profiling underground music? Of course, and like I said to Matt Haze, whether or not that’s a bad thing is debatable. But the most crucial point here is what the position the different actors in the equation have as far as structural privilege (which again, you can’t blame someone for having, only for not addressing it) and how that effects how the information is presented, and who the audience is. That all matters. And since I am someone who’s engaged in that practice myself it’s something that I am putting out there as being self-critical of as well.

      Some of the questions I have that illustrate my overall concern are: as DJs, how can we act in a way that dismantles the systems of inequality that exist between us? Maybe be more egalitarian and less competitive? (you don’t see that game where one music community becomes the “hot thing” and every aspiring DJ wants to chase that genre up til the point when it becomes pasé, and everyone in that community just feels used?) Can we present something in a way that’s not re-creating our own position of privilege? What do we do with problems like an artist in not being able to get a US VIsa? (a problem I’m actually facing right now in trying to put together a tour.) Even if we decide to play a role in the system, like both you and I and many other of our peers do, we can still foreground our desire to change it.

      I expanded on these thoughts a little more for cluster mag. I’ll send you the link when it’s up.

    • are you sure you are being completely honest Mr,Dip “any of my popularity or money derives form profiling underground music? i only do it as a fan” it is no secret much of your success (popularity and money) come from your taste in music and ability to incorporate what you hear into your brand of music (your djing, mixes and produced tracks) can you honestly say youre “profiling of underground music” doesn’t add to and insprire the product you make , which has garnered you both popularity and monetary compensation.

  6. Ok, diplo’s work is mostly about putting himself in exotic settings, but so what? If you don’t like it, don’t do it. The problem with this supposedly critical approach to make out “othering” is that it simply reinforces the clichés and identities that people want to leave behind or exploit until breaking point by being creative. Diplo looks for this stuff because he is interested in it and he is indeed like so many interested in “looking for redemption in a pure, untouched, uncontaminated, Other” even though curiosity is enough justification for it and “discovery” shouldn’t be (re-)labelling.
    To think that every cultural expression is an expression of some supposed community is the initial flaw here and the reason why so many postmodernists end up with absurd, reactionary or even racist conclusions.
    But much things ascribed to “the LGBT-folks” are simply about free love or those of “the Blacks” are (understandably) about Freedom, oppression and so on or vice versa and to put those identity-labels onto artworks already debases the art as well as the artist and certainly muddles the message if there is one. No, also those “othered” from those communities due to the labour of “cultural scholars”/pretty much random definitions can relate to them and they should. We are all one humanity after all.

    • So your point is that everyone’s an individual? No doubt. But there are societal structures that we all exist in whether or like it or not… both restraining and enhancing our individuality.

      All this piece is calling for is being able to look at how a specific artistic practice is able to either loosen or tighten those societal edifices. And in this post-Arab spring/occupy world, I’d like to think that “so what” is definitely loosing its appeal.

      • Don’t get me wrong please, I don’t deny that there are societal structures that restrain and enhance our individuality, I however deny that those are definitive. On the contrary, culture is exactly what we change all the time, it’s us who is defining it rather than being defined. Or so it should be, if we’d just be mature enough. I can’t see much wrong in Diplos cultural tourism, other than that he is crediting himself like a typical hipster with supposed inside knowledge and the warm feeling of helping poor musicians that represent marginalized groups while making a big buck. But that’s just vanity and a clever way of doing business, not imperialism – who gets hurt here? If you don’t like to be “discovered” like that you can after all just make a fuss on twitter. You say that he is not “authentic” because he’s a rich white man shopping around for street credibility, I say that is true, but nothing is authentic in this way anyway and never was. Now you are right of course in praising Venus and others in using sampling to create politically and culturally relevant artwork instead of just “discovering” (meaning copying) styles not yet incorporated in the mainstream to sound original. But to frame artworks simply as products of certain groups means to not understand art or culture at all and does our(!) culture a great disservice, imho.

        About the “so what” – I thought that in this post-Arab spring/occupy world it became even more clear that the aspirations of people everywhere are not so different after all.

  7. Ay yo, Diplo, I love your beats but love Boima’s analysis of the power dynamics that um, run the world more. real may recognize real, but privilege clearly does not recognize privilege. speaking of queen bey (why disrespect the hand that feeds you?), is this where you got Run the World (Girls) ? #202

    • Dang… very similar… Run the world and the House Battle clip.
      from reading Diplo’s comments and the fact that he responded the way he did made it sound like dude smudged his Puma… not that serious. People usually get mad when a truth resonates within them and causes them to react against it. If it didn’t matter to him, he wouldn’t have responded (the way he did… all 4th grade like). Props to the author of the article on discussing the “others” because it’s a fact there are few artists/dj’s that put out music truly for us.

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