RECORDS
VOUCH: Blackdown on DJ EZ’s Boiler Room Set
Posted by Oli Marlow on March 25, 2013

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Anyone who’s followed the 3 years + of writing on this site knows that we like to find people to invest in. After diving headlong into the internet for so long sent our collective attention deficit into overdrive, we placed a massive onus on certain record labels, tastemaker DJs, characters and learned journalists to help us find our own way through the constant bombardment of news and openly lacklustre music. Martin Clark’s long been one of those people for us for several reasons. As a journalist, his work for Pitchfork and that he published on his own Blackdown blog directly inspired this website and as a label owner and producer his music helped define the limitlessness of what dubstep could be, with his and his production partner Dusk’s grime laden, ethnic take on bass heavy music on Margins Music pre-empting a scene that has since exploded like a Jackson Pollock paiting, across a hundred different colours and directions. Following up that work last year with their second album, Dasaflex, Clark outlined a little of what was inspiring him with a record that honed in on a certain swung 130bpm pulse.

Today, as a sort of continuation of the outlook they defined on Dasaflex, he and Dusk release This Is How We Roll: a compilation that further outlines their current obsession with 14 tracks of lithe and stark dancefloor music from their label and Rinse FM show’s new wave of producers; people like Visionist, Epoch, Wen, Beneath, Moleskin, Logos & Mumdance and more. For me, that’s always what the duo’s Keysound Recordings label has been able to do incredibly well: unite a certain sound and give it a singular voice even though the core parts of what they are putting out are in fact incredibly varied (see Starkey’s ‘Gutter Music’ with Durrrty Goodz being released alongside early releases from DVA, Geeneus and Kowton and them making it sound like the most normal and natural thing ever).

To celebrate the release of This Is How We Roll and to get something that had been brewing in his head for months out into the ether, Blackdown put together this Vouch piece and used it both to pay homage to one of his favourite DJs and to make a wider comment about the culture of DJing in general.

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An introductory note from Blackdown:

For SR’s Vouch feature, as I understand it, people pick tracks they love and as is often the way with these things, look back. So I could spend time telling you how much I care for Carl Craig’s ‘Desire’, John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Brand New Day’, Horsepower’s ‘Classic Delux’ or Krust’s ‘Soul in Motion’, but not only have I probably wittered on about them elsewhere, in this RBMA piece I kinda nailed my colours to the mast. So here’s a different take…

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DJ EZ in the Boiler Room AKA Why DJing Becoming Easier Makes It Harder To Excel

Let’s start with a bold statement: DJing is now easy. That is to say, in 2013, compared to the decades that preceded it, it takes less ability than ever to mix two tracks together. It’s now so automated any average Joe who can read, count to 8 and press a button can mix. The counting to 8 is optional. So this juncture is a good time to celebrate someone who rises above the average to make his DJing exceptional.

To understand why EZ is exceptional, it helps to understand the foundations he’s building on. Since the dawn of DJing (which is well before you probably think it is. Allow me to recommend this book), there have been two fundamental components to the art: selection and mixing. Or, the music you choose and how you choose to present that music.

Most DJs, as they approach the booth, have a broad sense of what they’re going to play (select). The focus then is the presentation, which in most cases (especially outside of turntablism) is beat mixing – how you transition from the music you are playing to the music you want to play next.

To break this down that one step further, beat mixing is the art of getting two records, ideally of the same time signature, to be at the same speed and blended “in phase” so each bar starts and ends at the same time, so it is coherent to dance to. And you do this iteratively, solving one problem with the other: if you start them together in phase, if they stay there, they’re at the same tempo. If not, you correct the phase and tempo until they are. Why is this something even worth doing? Because, as anyone who’s ever danced to a wedding “DJ” will know, if you stop between tracks, people take the chance to leave the dance floor, wander off, go to the bar etc. But if you build one continuous, flowing groove, it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts, ever building and drawing more people in.

So traditionally – you know with like, vinyl ‘n’ stuff – mixing involved decks that could change tempo and being able to keep it there with the DJ trying to get the next record in phase and at the same tempo before the record playing ran out, leaving an awkward silence. And this was the art, because as easy as it is to describe, there was a deceptively difficult craft to doing this quickly, accurately and/or creatively. Really good DJs developed an amazing sense of rhythm, such they were acutely aligned to minute fluctuations in the differences between two sets of mixed percussion, living and breathing this organic mix as it expanded from their vinyl collections to fill the room.

It all sounds a bit airy fairy, but it’s literally true: great DJs can just keep two records “in the groove” in a way that you or I honestly can’t. Theo Parrish, in interview with Benji B a few years back, described his DJ upbringing in Chicago where no one would respect you as a DJ unless you could mix “the classics,” by which he meant 1970s soul and disco records that were recorded by live musicians and changed tempo throughout. Now that commands respect!

But in time came new technology and hence change. Selection, in a new world of near limitless access to music, remained a subjective art but increasingly the mixing part was being made more mechanized i.e. less and less risky, less and less to do with the DJ and hence less creative. First vinyl decks got pretty good at keeping tempo, then CDJs came along which could tell you the tempo both of your tracks to 0.01 bpm: no longer was mixing relative – the incoming track only either faster or slower than the outgoing one – it was absolute. Soon there was software that would start tracks in phase and before you knew it there’d be “DJs” “mixing” without headphones because there was no risk that the next track was out of phase or time. Where would it all end? Paris Hilton fannying about like a plastic diva, that’s where. Or pneumatic Hungarian slappers. Or JLS-as-DJs

It’s an interesting point to think through though: why does it matter if mixing is easier? Why do we value something being harder to do? Surely easier is better, right? Maybe even more fair, more inclusive: the easier it is to mix, the more people can do it. Win-win, no? And conversely, if it were impossibly hard, no one would do it, hence no DJ culture.

Well the way I see it is this: selection aside, if I can do what the DJ I’m watching is doing, why have I invested time and money to see them? Why is it entertaining to see something that is essentially mundane, after all, we can all now do it. Yer Mum, Nan and Nan’s NBF could mix, if they wanted to.

Instead people want to be entertained, they want to be amazed, they want to experience things they can’t quite believe is happening, live before their eyes: that’s entertainment, or at least, one form of it.

This returns us to EZ’s performance in the Boiler Room. Fundamentally, EZ has two decks and a mixer, same as any DJ in the last 30 years have had. And he’s got the same CDJs that most clubs in 2013 have: you can play music off CD, CDR or USB; mix from deck A to B and back into A again. So why is this set “exceptional?”

Now the challenge of beat mixing is at best neutered by the technology, it opens the door, through confidence in technology, to performance. The hip hop turntablists focused on this years ago, hell even Paris Hilton worked this out, if you call jumping up and down and waving your hands in the air a “performance.” Traditionally mixing was part of the performance (“Will he make the mix OK? What’s this coming in? Does it make some crazy new sonic blend? OMG the bass just dropped, DJ reload dat bumba!!!! etc”), but now it’s assured, EZ finds a new way to rethink it.

Gone is “will he make the mix” it’s “OMG did you see **how** he did that mix?” And this set is full of such jaw dropping moments. I could break each mix down – indeed I have below – but to avoid taking the magic away, you should watch EZ’s set first for yourself in real time before reading someone deconstructing it. (If you’re a bit “tl;dr” about things, just go and watch from 14m:00s). And each mix is staggering.

So I want to vouch for this set, because in a time where mixing has never been easier and hence more mundane, EZ took the same mixer and CDJs that thousands of DJs do every weekend, and remixes the very mix itself. And he makes it look… EZ.

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DJ EZ’s Boiler Room set – A Blow By Blow Guide

1m:42: Early warning shots from EZ’s use of FX and fader chops: he ain’t here on a seamless minimal tech trip.

2m:47: He’s cutting the vocal ident of “DJ EZ” from his own Zinc ‘Go DJ’ special, chopping it in just as the vocal hits then out again. This is real time improv, a performance is unfolding.

4m:36: He cues up a snare on a second CD and begins to use it a live drum, jamming over ‘Go DJ’ breakdown, adding FX over the snare. It’s such a paradigm shift, because fundamentally when you mix one track fluidly into another, the primary rhythmic interaction is how the second track overlays with the first, but EZ isn’t letting that limit what rhythms he’s using – he’s jamming with his own.

6m:06: Not content with playing one set of percussion, he gets two on the go, back and forth, teasing out the steel drums of beaten-to-death-by-UKG-Johnny-come-latelys-but-sounding-fresh-again-in-EZ’s-hands, Wookie’s ‘Little Man’ remix.

7m:36: A rare blend, gently bringing in a mashup of Reach & Spin “Hype the Funk” and Lethal B’s “Pow…”

7m:47: Uses the cue points to turn Sia’s voice into a chipmunk, which he cuts up over the ‘Reach & Spin’/Lethal B mashup. Again, like his use of his own rhythmic patterns, here he’s not letting the original pitch or melodies dictate to him, he’s improvising and creating with them himself.

10m:12: It looks like he’s cutting beat-by-beat from a Sticky vocal before switching to 1/8ths for effect!

11m:40: Brings in a new tune with a tiny loop point, so it’s nothing but a high buzz over the Sticky tune. Filters the outgoing Sticky tune so only the low frequencies remain. Pitches it down before unleashing the track from the micro loop to reveal Masterstepz’ ‘Melody’.

12m:06: “We don’t even understand what just happened” says the MC. Nor do I mate…

14m:06: Perhaps the pinnacle of this set. After a few 16s, Wookie ft Lain gets locked – on the fly – into a one beat loop… he filters it down and then begins to punch in the “baby” vocal sample of ‘All I Do’, pitching it up and down to make both its own melody and its own rhythmic variants. Finally he lets it go; right on the drop and the crowd explode. He lets it roll for a bit before using the cue point again to jam with the new track coming in… LEVELS.

16m:06: EZ can chop a track in time while looking completely the other way browsing his CD cases for new tunes. Just sayin’…

17:00: Gets out of another UKG classic by locking it into a tiny loop… in comes Ms Dynamite… All in a days work if you’re EZ.

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Keysound Recordings present… This Is How We Roll is out now on CD and digital. Keysound return to fabric’s Room 3, as a unit, on Friday 19th April.

Title Photo: Ashes57