Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Where do you get your music from?

“Where do you get your music from?” is a question I am often asked. Of course the answer is that it comes from a wide variety of sources: hearing other DJ’s play stuff, being sent it by friendly labels, recommendations from mates and of course DJ music websites. My favoured three DJ websites are the omnipresent Beatport, distinguished Traxsource and delightfully underground Juno Download.

I tend to bounce between these three as to my mind, they seem to have slightly different priorities. Beatport is fairly Eurocentric which gives greater access to some of the most inventive techno out there. Traxsource is more US-centric which means they host such genres as Sweet Soul, Latin Afro and the more recently emerged Afro House. Juno champions the truly underground and also hosts a comprehensive Balearic section.

I have DJ’d digitally for many years using Traktor Pro as my means of delivery. More recently a number of DJ’s have tried to convince me to convert to Pioneer’s Record Box software so I could travel from gig to gig with little more than a memory stick and a set of cans. Yet I continue to lug around my Traktor controllers and a computer!

Maybe in part my preference is because I’m pretty familiar with computers but more importantly, I’m familiar with the concept of databases. What excites me about Traktor Pro are not the brightly illuminated buttons, its wealth of special effects or ergonomic design but rather that, at its core, it is a very flexible database.

Back in the days of Vinyl, DJ’s didn’t need a database as the weight of the vinyl provided a limit as to how much music could be carried to a gig. Records were identified not just by the name on the central label but often by the colour of the sleeve and, as most self respecting DJ would carry with them a selection of almost identical white labels, record identification sometimes rested on such subtleties as a mark, rip or wrinkle on the cardboard sleeve that would set it apart from the rest.

I have known many a Dj who could rifle through a couple of hundred records in their boxes or bags and immediately recognise a track from the sliver of cardboard that was visible.

As soon as DJ’s started moving over to CD’s the identification process became more tricky as many of the CD’s were their own rips so had no label other than some often indecipherable scribblings to go by. Because the physical weight was no longer a restraining factor many DJ’s soon adapted to carrying larger quantities of music with them.

The more “librarian” amongst them took to hand writing track listings to place in the pouch beside the CD while others continued to rely on their personal data base of memory — such as, “I remember playing that particular track at the party I played two years ago in a forest in Germany”. Sure enough a quick scrabble through the slightly tatty folder of CD’s would no doubt reveal one with a handwritten scribble readings something like, “Sunrise Forest Set”

I embraced digital DJing with enthusiasm because it enabled me to carry an ever expanding library of tunes with me (currently around 7,000) which meant that theoretically I could, if I wanted to, begin playing Reggae or Funk and stay there for a number of hours. In practice I never do this as I think I have a short attention span. Or more probably it’s because I was raised on a diet of Frank Zappa who, with his band of virtuoso musicians, would switch from one genre to another in the blink of an eye.

Traktor Pro thoughtfully offers the possibility of uploading album artwork to assist with the search but there is a big difference between tiny thumbnail images and the visual familiarity one can develop with a track by regularly handling its cover as you pull it out of the bag and carefully remove the vinyl from it.

Of course just like iTunes (which is also a database) Traktor Pro provides a wealth of categories that can be used to describe a track which is only limited by how many you can fit to the width of your screen. Title and artist get filled straight away but then there is the tricky bit of genre classification.

I must have collected well over a thousand tracks which I had designated ‘House’ when I realised that this wasn’t going to cut it and so began adding words to the genres such as ‘Jazz’, ‘Tribal’, ‘Deep’ etc. But it  wasn’t too long before I realised that this also had its limitations in describing the detailed nuances of a track so I began inventing my own genres such as “Mad Latin”, “Wonky Keys” and ‘Clockwork Electro’.

I also started half-heartedly adding descriptions in the Comments column. Here too I found that again the limits of vocabulary in trying to describe Dance music fell short. It’s surprising how quickly one can build up a collection in which many tracks fit the description of “Deep and kicking with great break”.

So my next step was to listen very carefully to a track and try to think what emotion it evoked in me. Did it have a sense of potential or gradual awakening or was it blissful and phased or chilled with vibrant tones? I realised that with a single search window the whole of the Traktor Pro database is completely searchable so it is no longer important for me to memorise the name of the track or artist but rather search for the words which it evoked in me. This also means that you can move away from the constraints of beat matching and start to mix using emotions and moods.

DJ music websites are also, at their heart, just databases. Of course when you visit these sites you might not arrive with any criteria to search for other than “recently released” or “best-selling tracks of the moment”. In most cases you will probably just select a genre and dive in.

They all feature a general search bar which will take you through the whole database if you are looking for something specific. Sometimes I have found it fun to type titles based on a feeling I am hunting for, such as ‘tribal Latin’ or ‘deep piano’ and such random searches can often take you off on an excursion with no map.

I do hope the lovely people at Juno won’t mind me saying that while their site is probably the least slick of the three I mentioned above it is my personal favourite because it offers much more flexible search criteria. For example, all three sites provide their current best-selling Top 100 but Juno allows one to not simply rely on what is selling most but to make your own mind up what is of interest by searching new releases over a period of one to eight weeks. It also allows you to search the best-selling tracks over the same definable period.

When I used to buy a lot of vinyl my main outlet was the wonderful Piccadilly Records in Manchester. They helpfully provide a weekly staff selection with helpful reviews. was also one of my favoured sources of vinyl before I moved on to their sister site Both of the Juno sites also provide helpful reviews and comments to some but not all of their tracks.

I suspect that some of these reviews might well be heavily flavoured by press material but in my mind I would like to think that amidst the bustle of Juno and Piccadilly Records offices there is a huddle of eloquent music fans who attempt the impossible: describing what music sounds like in words. Some of these are both eloquent and entertaining so I thought I would share some of the gems I have come across recently.

"Dope High is an itchy, Kenny Dope kinda tune boasting a totally swung-out percussion and a militant groove for the DJ's.” Not quite sure what “itchy” means in musical terms but it attracted my attention.

“Constructed from clipped drums, a shuffling rhythm and features the kind of wide-eyed, jazz-tinged keys that you'd associate with classic Prescription releases”. I had to check this track just because I loved the term “wide-eyed, jazz-tinged keys”.

“From the surging machine disco of Oklo Gabon's "City Gym" and the undulating alien funk of Comeme man Sano's "Duraco", to the Ket-addled wonkiness of Golden Teacher's trippy "What Time Is It?" I certainly know what they mean by “Ket-addled wonkiness” not because I am an experienced user of ketamine but because I have witnessed its detrimental effect of its “wonkiness” on the dance floor.

"Don't Want The Regular" is a hazy twist on slo-mo broken beat, all dreamy and just the right amount of abstract”. I bought this track largely because I agreed with the review that it had “just the right amount of abstract”. God forbid there should be too much abstract.

Of course all this eloquence in describing music is a bit like trying to describe the taste of chocolate; no matter how good the description there is no substitute for eating the chocolate. However, I applaud music journalists and reviewers at making such valiant attempts and will continue to try to develop my own eloquence otherwise I am destined to lose some of my gems in the dusty corners of my Traktor Pro database.

Periodically a musical phrase or style enters the musical vocabulary that launches or influence a whole genre of music. One such element was something that came to be termed the Amen Break. If you aren’t already familiar with this as a concept you definitely will be as a sound and I strongly recommend this short documentary to enlighten you.