Strange as it may seem, less than 20 years ago a generation of ardent young men had to play music rather than merely spin vinyl in hopes of scoring with cool-scene chicks. DJ’s then were seen less as hip cats toting slick record bags than as reclusive bedroom nerds with badly permed hair and an extensive record collection. Indeed, to describe oneself as a DJ was to court ridicule, a confession of endless Saturday nights spent in the company of the tearful and drunk, nights bearing witness to the full human comedy, gazing out at newlyweds shuffling across floors polished with cake and ale, the inevitable scratch and hiss of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
DJ cachet has come a long way, baby.
Back then, only the obsessive record collector with a haphazard penchant for gooning might draw within near distance of fame, parlaying his considered “talents” into a radio career. This was the breed Morrissey famously disparaged with “Panic” (‘86). Ironically, that song being the first notable indication of Morrissey as an artist, and indie as a genre, was falling out of step. Within a couple of years the Smiths would be gone, and music culture would usher in a decade in which the DJ, contrary to being hanged, was honored as King.
But that’s another story.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, the cult of DJ peaked several years ago and its demise continues unabated. Over the past couple of years, not a single “Superstar DJ” has emerged within the dance music culture (nor, for that matter, outside of it), and the days when reverent club kids spoke of a skilled vinyl artist shaping and moving a room seem long ago.
The Document II, a new compilation from Andy Smith, epitomizes the no-mans land that the present day record-shuffler finds himself in. Smith originally garnered a reputation supplying samples and opening live sets for Portishead a decade ago, and previously released an album in 1998 titled, oddly enough, The Document. With its release, he emerged as one of the first DJs to champion eclecticism in his sets, moving away from formulaic selections tied stringently to genre. Instead, Smith pulled unexpected choices from his crate, mixing pop, soul and hip-hop, creating sets far removed from the prevalent monochromatic diets of house and trance.
The Document II continues in similar vein, but plays as mood-less mélange rather than inspired eclecticism. Twenty-four tracks are spaced over seventy-three minutes, but frankly, the tracks feel more like fifty in number. There are good selections, some more familiar than others, yet the overall is undermined by a lack of cohesive focus.
The opening track is Kate Bush’s “The Man with the Child in His Eyes”, selected both for its beauty and as an expository introduction: it doesn’t belong here. To drop beats over such delicate beauty for even a moment is to destroy it. Later, with Serge Gainsbourgh’s “Requiem Pour Un C” and Jack Jones’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, the choices are too cute and precious. While it may be true that no one else has considered pitting such unlikely tracks within minutes of a veritable hip-hop classic like Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours”, one has to acknowledge that there may be an entirely logical reason for that.
For the greater part, the album attempts to blend a ‘60s soul sensibility with ‘90s hip-hop, an idea David Holmes pulled off with considerably greater élan last year on Come Get It, I Got It. Holmes mixed-in additional production work, but his album was also much tighter conceptually, and certainly it never had the feel, as this one sometimes does, of a CD sampler fallen from between the pages of a music magazine.
One may admire Smith’s vast expanse of music reference points, and he mixes beats well, but the latter at least is a given; mixing is the most elemental of DJ skills, and there are thirteen year olds across the land quite adept at it by now too. As a simple party soundtrack this fails, it’s attention span too flimsy.
Simply put, there’s too much competition for our ears, so that a pleasant listening experience is not nearly enough anymore. “Pleasant” resides in different country from “compelling”, and no matter how hard I try, I fail to imagine myself listening to this record three years from now. As an artistic statement, it tends to suggest that for DJs, the way ahead is far from clear. The choice of roads may appear endless, but legitimate options seem few.