Lately I have been noticing a resurgence of DJs promoting themselves as “all vinyl” DJs. I love vinyl. I have many thousands of records. I used to be an “all vinyl” DJ. If it wasn’t for my love of Indian and Latin music, maybe I still would be. For most of the nineties I believed that if something didn’t come out on vinyl it wasn’t good music, and it wasn’t necessary to hear it. (The Boredoms Pop Tatari being a CD-only release during this time made me doubt my convictions slightly.) However, once I got turned on to contemporary Indian and Latin music I realized that for the most part, Indian and Latin music released after the 1980’s was not available on vinyl, and I quickly accepted the necessity of playing CDs if I was going to be playing what I believed to be the really hot shit.
If a DJ advertises that they play “all vinyl,” they are essentially advertising that they either only play music created more than twenty years ago, or only play contemporary music from a limited number of labels in a few genres produced in the US and some Western European countries specifically created for the vinyl DJ market. They might as well advertise “No Asian music, no African music, no Latin music, no Balkan music, no Brazilian music, no Caribbean music (except for Jamaica!) etc., from the last twenty years.” That hardly seems to me like something to brag about. There are some exceptions. There are a handful of reggaeton releases available on vinyl (although these have dried up in recent years), a handful of bhangra releases from five years ago and earlier (mastered so poorly you would have to be desperate to play them), a very few collections of Funk Carioca tunes, and just recently, a cumbia remix 12″, but these are exceptions to a very hard and fast rule. Kuduro vinyl? Current Bollywood vinyl? Middle-Eastern hip-hop vinyl? Chutney Soca vinyl? Dangdut vinyl? Yeah, right.
Even if you only play older music -nothing wrong with that- for decades cassette tapes were far more available and distributed worldwide than vinyl, so even retro DJs are going to have far fewer international options if they limit themselves to vinyl. Cassette DJs would actually have the most extensive international selection available to them. Throughout the world only the rich and middle class could afford vinyl, and only the music desired by the rich and middle class would be produced on vinyl. So only playing vinyl is a classist stance, rejecting all music loved by the international lower and working classes.
Even if you are not an international music DJ, less and less music is available on vinyl these days. Even five years ago hip-hop artists would either only release the single on vinyl, or not release the full length vinyl until many months after the CD had dropped. This would mean that as an “all-vinyl” hip-hop DJ, people might show up at your gig loving a new CD, but for months after the CD release, you would be limited to playing the single, no matter what tracks people liked off the album. A lot of electronic music genres are mostly CD these days as well, or only available as digital downloads. Even if you only play old soul or funk, so many lost tapes and finds from label vaults are being released as CDs these days, and this music never has been, and never will be available on vinyl.
I can see why, in the face of the growing popularity of laptop DJing, that some DJs would want to take a position, and say, “I stand for the original concept of a DJ with a record collection, who manipulates vinyl in order to entertain the people, who cares enough to collect original vinyl records, and not just coded pieces of plastic to cue the mp3 collection on their hard drive.” The advent of mp3 DJing means that now people with “X” number of gigs on their hard drive think they are DJs. Often people will try to impress Anjali or I by listing off how many gigs of music they have on their hard drive. So? Anyone can rip songs from one hard drive to another. It says nothing about your knowledge, love, passion, or experience relating to music. One day you could be listening to the radio, the next you rip all the songs off your friend’s hard drive and all of a sudden you are a “DJ.” Hmmmmm. I’m not convinced.
As much as I fetishize music, and as much as I am down on people thinking that how many gigs of music they have on their hard drive says anything about their abilities as a DJ, I actually don’t think physically owning music is that important either. I think someone’s knowledge and history with music is most important. If you spent your youth growing up listening and dancing to hip-hop, whether you currently physically own any of those hip-hop 12’s or not, I think that is far more valuable to someone’s ability as a DJ then having X number of gigs of hip-hop music on your hard drive, or thousands of hip-hop 12″s you hardly know. Even if you own a million records, it doesn’t mean you listen to them, or have a good knowledge of their contents. You can’t replace experience. Someone with 100 songs at their disposal who knows their material and what they are doing, is going to blow away someone with 1,000,000 songs who has little experience playing for a crowd, and little knowledge of most of what is on their hard drive.
Vinyl is black is beautiful. Some people claim vinyl sounds better than CDs. Yes, I have heard $26,000 turntable set-ups, and yes, the records sounded gorgeous. I love hi-fi turntables and cartridges. If you have a $5000 record needle, records are no doubt the pinnacle of music appreciation. But DJs use spherical needles, not elliptical needles. Elliptical needles give you more information from the record groove, and are the height of high-fidelity. DJ needles are always spherical, because if you move a record back and forth using an elliptical needle, you will destroy your records. So automatically a DJ is only retrieving part of the sound of a record from the groove when they use a spherical DJ needle. On top of that, DJ needles are not hi-fi. They are designed to stay in a groove and not budge, not provide the most gorgeous sound possible.
There is also the matter of feedback, and rumble. Turntable cartridges pick up vibrations well below human hearing, and are notorious for picking up rumble from the bass speakers, and transmitting that grumbling buzz out through the club speakers. I have had far too many bad experiences playing records at a club where they start up an awful rumble that has me turning down the bass, turning down the volume, and losing all the energy in the room because I tried to play vinyl. In my experience no Portland clubs have a truly isolated DJ set up. They all pick up vibrations from the bass speakers, they all create rumble, and they all sound like mud if the bass is up high where I want it. I have rarely had a club vibrating to such an extent that the CDs began mistracking, although it has happened. A little padding under the CD player will work wonders, but I have DJed records on top of pillows, foam, you name it, and still had problems with feedback and skipping needles. I love playing records, but it is often a severe headache in Portland clubs.
My main beef with “all-vinyl” DJs is that they are severely limiting the music they can present to the people, especially limiting the possibility of playing any recent music produced in countries outside the US, or any music not especially produced for the vinyl DJ market, which is micro-infinitesimal. Because the music produced on vinyl today is such a drop in the ocean of all the music created in the world, promoting yourself as an “all-vinyl” DJ tells the world you are more interested in a format than music. I love vinyl, but music comes first, and the music I love the most these days is absolutely not available on vinyl, so that’s why you will normally see me arriving at a gig with suitcases of CDs, and not crates of records.