There's a certain kind of conversation in which I find myself every so often, which can roughly be summarized as "What's the big deal about DJing"? As someone who was a quasi-professional DJ in a former life, and is currently what one friend terms a 'monastic DJ', I've sensed a substantial gap in lay understanding of not just what a DJ does while engaged in the act of mixing, but also the place occupied by DJs in the contemporary musical ecosystem. This attitude — not unlike looking at a Jackson Pollock while muttering to yourself that you could do just as well — has received further support from the rise and fall of the spectacularly excessive (and, to my ears, creatively bankrupt) EDM scene; the unholy marriage of superstar DJs, casino-based clubs and overpriced bottle service; and the fact that watching someone DJ is fundamentally uninteresting.
Is there any value in mixing other people's music? When viewed from the most reductive position, the answer is clearly not. As critic David Hepworth noted in a now-deleted blog post, "You must surely realise that you make your living by putting on records, which is only a tiny bit removed in degree of difficulty from switching on the radio." If that's all that DJs are good for, then I suppose it's a relief that streaming services and software-driven playlists have come along to put this particular horse-and-buggy paradigm out of its misery.
Instead, it's more helpful to look at the larger role that DJs play in parsing the ocean of music in which we swim in these post-Napster days. Just as we turn to critics in other fields to understand what we should be reading or watching, we also turn to DJs for clarity on what to listen to. In this sense, the appropriate metaphor is one of the DJ as tastemaker.
In order to talk about how a DJ guides others' taste in music, we have to address the DJ's own, internal process. Over time, a DJ is a collector, a curator and an editor. Of course, being a DJ involves inhabiting all three of these roles at the same time, all the time, but there is also a progression here. I'll go over each of these and then return to what it means to be a tastemaker at the end of this post.