Two years ago, I witnessed legendary dance producer Giorgio Moroder play a comeback DJ set at a festival in Los Angeles. Onstage, the septuagenarian had a younger, more tech savvy assistant next to him, helping control the session like a driving instructor on a separate set of pedals. Right out the gate, the whole thing was a technical mess—a poorly mixed, wall-to-wall mashup of past glories. It was borderline embarrassing. To be fair, Moroder was never really a DJ to begin with, and the appearance was clearly a victory lap following his spoken word guest turn on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Even so, it reinforced every ugly stereotype imaginable about what can happen when artists age out of a culture obsessed with youth.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. At that same festival, I saw Masters at Work—aka New York stalwarts Little Louie Vega and Kenny Dope Gonzalez, who’ve been active since the early ‘90s—serve the fresh-faced crowd with an effortless set of darker, harder house and garage. They weren’t trying to recover or keep up. There was no flop sweat, no geezer moments. Instead, they seamlessly shuffled through 30 years of dance music history in a way that made it look easy.
In fact, many club DJs that stick to music long enough actually tend to getbetter once they’ve entered the thick of middle-age—a generalization that does not hold up for artists working in the more overtly performative, and perhaps less forgiving, realms of rock, pop, or hip-hop. “Trust no DJ under 45” is an adage coined by an older, wiser DJ friend of mine and, as the years go by, its intrinsic truth has become more and more apparent.
One generational divide separating young DJs from their more experienced counterparts involves set lengths: The older the DJ, the more likely they once had to prove themselves with three-hour-plus gigs. For these veterans, a one-hour set is merely a job; the real joy comes from going long.
Daniele Baldelli, 62, is one of the DJs who helped to make the Adriatic and Balearic coasts the stuff of discotheque legend in the '70s and '80s. He came up playing marathon sets on an almost-daily basis, and his eclectic style of programming was partly a result of having so much time to fill.
Fresh off a solid LP released earlier this year, Baldelli tells me that even though those extended sets have taken their toll—his hearing isn't what it used to be—he still gets the job done. He's married, has a son, and plays about 130 dates per year. He owns about 65,000 vinyl records, though he's switched to playing CDs so he can incorporate his own unreleased tracks and re-edits into his sets. Baldelli says he managed to avoid the worst nightlife indulgences along the way, and at this point he doesn't really party at all, save for the occasional Italian DOC wine.
Drugs and alcohol are unshockingly the number one occupational hazard for DJs, and there is a direct relationship between excessive intake and burnout. But 46-year-old Berlin DJ Daniel Wang knows the other extreme: He has never drank or done drugs, but he says he understands why geniuses like Miles Davis and Nile Rodgers have. “It takes a sensitive soul to dedicate their whole life to the abstract emotions and sensations of making and playing music,” he muses. “Who says that the only correct model of living is abstinence, austerity, and therefore longevity?”
DJ Harvey, an influential 51-year-old underground West Coast artist who has been called the Keith Richards of DJs, has gone from swigging a bottle of Jack over the course of one of his eight-hour sets to keeping it clean as a whistle. “Cirrhosis of the liver isn’t a pretty way to go out,” he has said. “It’s really not big or clever to be projectile bleeding from every orifice.”
Like Harvey, José Padilla, the 59-year-old Spanish DJ, experienced the repercussions of caning it a bit too hard for a bit too long and stopped before it killed his career. Padilla has become synonymous with the old, pre-EDM Ibiza: eclectic, breezy, balearic sundown sets at Café Del Mar. He recently released a very credible LP that found him collaborating with three younger producers. "To keep DJing in this business, you need to keep producing,” he says. “Otherwise you are dead."
Padilla explains that too much partying led to some serious disappointments. “I regret not having a family,” he says. “I was very upset in my 40s—looking for a wife and a couple of kids; I always ended up with the wrong girl, the crazy one. You aren't aware when on drugs. I missed a few gigs a long time ago because of the drugs, too, which damaged my credibility. I was not there for the people who were waiting for me. Time goes so fast with drugs that you don't realize—it feels like I came to Ibiza yesterday, but I've been here for 40 years.” He laughs; Padilla is now mostly clean.
Bobby Viteritti, a 62-year-old disco vet, had an even worse problem with drugs, so much so that it ended his career. Often cited as one of the first beat matchers, Viteritti became famous for his residency at Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco. His DJ days came to an abrupt halt in 1986 after running into problems with the law stemming from drugs, but he's now in the midst of a comeback and has launched a party, Classics Never Die, in New York.
“Drugs and alcohol always come into the picture at some point, and they're exciting and creative at first,” Viteritti tells me. “But if you don't keep a running track of your intake, you might go to jail like me. Cocaine made me do a lot of strange things and made it hard to keep track of what was going on. I got busted too many times. I was the #1 DJ two years in a row according toBillboard, and I went down so fast because of cocaine.”
Now clean, his comeback has been rocky and slow, but promising; he still plays seven-hour sets and is grateful for the second chance. “I can't play like I did when I was 28 because I had vinyl then and now I've got Serato and Traktor, and MP3s are a pain in the ass to work with,” he says. “You don't have the same control like you did over records. In the old days, we used to have rotary knobs. Now everything's a slider.”
Not only have the knobs evolved out, but the ability for a resident DJ to craft a full living without touring is also a thing of the past. Modern working DJs, like traditional bands and artists, have to travel as much as humanly possible. And they also often play late into the evening, anywhere from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on a given night, a schedule that can quickly turn people into zombies.
“I did four shows last week and I didn't really get to sleep a couple of the nights—it’s definitely a little harder on me now compared to when I was 20,” says 40-year-old DJ Colette, a house DJ from Chicago who has been spinning records since she was 16. “I can still do it, it's just a little more painful.”
Producer, DJ, and second wave Detroit techno lifer Brendan Gillen, 44, has the unique misfortune of being severely allergic to all the dust particles that float up while digging for vinyl. "That dust, dirt, and mold makes my immune system go crazy, so I can't play vinyl anymore," he says. But he still adds to his massive collection (while wearing protective gear).
Nowadays, most younger DJs have to produce to get booked, whereas once upon a time, everything operated on more of local mentor system. “In the mid '70s, you came in through the apprenticeship of mobile discos, going out and doing weddings,” explains 55-five-year-old UK veteran Greg Wilson. “And then, if you got good enough, you might get into a club.”
Wilson is something of a Rip Van Winkle of the nightclub world, as he retired for 20 years before coming back to DJing in the early ‘00s. "In more recent history, a lot of people got into DJing through going to clubs and getting off their faces and thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” he says. “Now party people are gravitating to DJing, rather than music people gravitating to parties. The access routes are different." Not only are entryways into dance music simpler these days, the technology allows younger DJs to create seamless mixes with ease, leaving us with smoother but less dynamic selections.
Wilson goes on to pinpoint the key difference between novices and masters: “Whilst the DJs now are more technically gifted, DJs back then had better programming skills. They were more adept at getting the right records at the right moment. They worked more towards the audience, whereas now DJs expect the audience to come to them.”
The idea that DJs are getting booked for their productions regardless of their DJ skills isn’t new. DJ Colette remembers coming into contact with these sorts of inexperienced performers as far back as the ‘90s. “A lot of them would come through Chicago and I'd be like, ‘Wow, you guys need to learn how to mix,’” she says. “If you're not going to learn the art of DJing, you should stick to what you're best at.” Unfortunately, in our current produce-or-perish landscape, DJ skills often take a backseat to production and marketing acumen, especially for the new jacks trying to break through.
On the other hand, after DJing for years, Daniel Wang is now looking to focus more on composing his own music because he says it’s more intellectually stimulating. "If you're a pianist, as you age, you could plunge deeply into the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach, or convince yourself that you are reaching abstract frontiers with recitals of Ligeti or Schoenberg, or retreat into minimalism, electronics, or jazz standards,” he argues, though the bottom line keeps him tied to the decks. “The financial rewards for DJing are huge compared to the little mental effort which you have to invest in it,” he admits, “and that is creepy as hell."
Thirtysomethings Francis Englehardt and Paul Nickerson of Slow to Speak, a Catskills-based DJ duo who also own a painstakingly curated record store called Dope Jams, have made their name on not letting DJs and producers slide on the laurels of past achievements. And for every elder statesman aging gracefully—52-year-old techno originator Derrick May, for instance—they cite examples of the opposite.
“François K got lost when he got really caught up in dubstep and commercial techno,” Englehardt and Paul Nickerson write in an email, referencing the 61-year-old house mainstay. “Unfortunately a lot of the music he plays just doesn't have the depth or emotion he says it does—it's all very superficial and you can feel that when he plays now.
"It happens because calculation takes the place of inspiration,” they continue. “When you first start out, it’s all fresh and that is your driving force, but as time goes on see you see that everything is just someone rehashing something that was done better 15 years earlier. It can make you can become bitter quickly. So people like François K make a calculated decision to try to stay relevant, and that is a big part of why music is so terrible right now. Instead of speaking out against the mediocrity of everything, these ‘legends’ assimilate themselves to the current situation and lie to themselves that these new half finished, do-nothing tracks are what people like these days. Whereas 20 years ago, that same person would have said this shit is wack and pushed themselves to go further.”
While it might come off as grandpa-ish, science backs up the idea that EDM and pop music have become pretty homogenous, namely because today’s technological tools make duplication so easy. José Padilla calls this music “nonsense that intoxicates people's brains,” and none of the older DJs I spoke with for this piece are particularly keen on the EDM style: Half of them seem indifferent, and the others seem offended by its existence. In general, though, these DJs view EDM as something wholly different from what they do.
Brendan Gillen claims that "a lot of younger people won't realize that the generations before them actually had way the fuck more talent than we're developing now,” and he attributes the disparity to dwindling music-education budgets. “We are not giving musicians what they need to advance."
But, fortunately, we still have several hundred, if not thousands, of knowledgeable DJs regularly offering informal masterclasses in clubs around the world. "Every DJ that you think is incredible has been doing it for at least 15 years,” says Gillen. “And when you see someone who's been at it for 25 or 35 years, they can ambidextrously go through in a million different eras and rock you with it. Someone like Derrick Carter, who's influenced by great DJs like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles and Jackmaster Funk, does it like only he can. He makes history fresh again."
Classic DJs are historical storytellers, and they are the ones who will quietly influence a post-EDM world, when the shock of the new finally consumes itself. "I always wanted to be an inspirational schoolteacher at some inner city school,” Daniel Wang says. “But as the old Chic song goes, ‘I'll never have a chance, ‘cause all I do is dance.’”
With all due respect, Wang is wrong. Great club DJs are some of the best music teachers we have right now. They are breathing encyclopedias of cultural knowledge, social engineers who trade in revelation. These DJs live to reanimate pieces of the past that otherwise might be forgotten.