House music rises from massive speakers and fills the dark, crowded club with its pulsing, trance-like beat. Beams of colored light wash across the throngs on the dance floor, tinting the dancers’ ecstatic, sweaty bodies blue, red, green. A strobe light distorts their fluid movements so that they resemble characters in a cartoon flip book.
The swirling, sliding music—at once spacey and soulful—spreads out across the crowd like a sonic picnic blanket. The music crescendos and the dancers lose themselves in the expanding beats. They flow in perfect synch with every warp and twist in the track.
Overseeing all of this music and movement, controlling it like the great and mighty Oz, is not a jet-set superstar DJ from London or Ibiza with an ego the size of his MP3 collection. Increasingly, it’s a mild-mannered software developer who’s in the DJ booth, manning two turntables and a MacBook.
[To learn more about the developer DJs interviewed for this story and the equipment they use, see the slide show, Two Turntables and a MacBook: Geeks Get Their Groove On.]
Laptop- or digital DJ’ing, as the practice of playing and mixing MP3s using a computer and special software is known, has emerged over the last decade, as music went digital and laptops shrunk in cost and grew in power. The use of technology in DJ’ing attracted young men with geeky tendencies—the guys who were members of their high schools’ HAM radio and AV clubs, who played in the school band, and who tinkered with robots and electronic devices in their spare time. A decade later, these dudes are still tinkering, only now as software developers and hardware engineers by day and as professional or bedroom DJs by night. They see both traditional turntable and laptop DJ’ing as a way to channel their technical skills toward a creative pursuit that’s universally regarded as cool.
“I talk to a lot of DJs, and when I ask what they do during the day, it’s some kind of technical job,” says Nicholas Maddix, 33, a club DJ and the creator of Anagram software.
Alan Cannistraro, 31, a software developer who works for a computer manufacturer in Silicon Valley, says he was dumbfounded by the number of IT professionals in the San Francisco-bay area who claimed to be DJs when he moved there from Toronto.
“The Bay-area is dominated by people in technology, and the number of DJs here is ridiculously high,” he says. “We sit in front of computers all day. We love it, but we all need creative outlets. DJing is a geekier creative outlet.”
The Developer DJ’s Edge
Although technology has made DJ’ing more accessible to people outside of recording studios, laptop DJ’ing still requires a fair amount of technical skill.
“You have to know how to wire up a rig with five different pieces of equipment, and you need to know how to operate those pieces of equipment,” says Cannistraro.
In that sense, laptop DJ’ing is not unlike outfitting a small data center.
And while software, such as Scratch Live and Traktor, has made cueing music, beat-matching and making remixes much easier for DJs, they still need to know how to use the applications.
David Gallant, a former AV club member who now works in IT and DJs weddings and dances on weekends (he used to DJ in bars and clubs), can attest to the technical skills required for DJ’ing. He says he often serves as a helpdesk for non-technical DJs who spin at nightclubs in Boston. When they need help with the sound system or using the Scratch Live software, Gallant’s phone rings.
“They know how to plug things in, but they don’t know how to work it,” says Gallant. “Twice in recent months, I had to fix DJ Skribble‘s sound system over the phone.”
In some cases, IT professionals’ technical skills improve their performances and help them stand out from more well known, but less dynamic, acts. (Electronic musicians such as Underworld and The Crystal Method aren’t known for their electrifying theatrics or on-stage dynamism.)
For example, Cannistraro and DJ’ing partner Gautam Banerjee (a hardware engineer) incorporate gaming accessories, such as Nintendo Wii controllers, joy sticks and P5 gloves, into their shows to make them more interesting for audiences. They program the devices to mix and change music in response to their hand and arm movements. Cannistraro and Banerjee say the custom “instruments” allow them to “throw music” and generally appear more theatrical on stage (think Pete Townsend pinwheels, minus the Stratocaster). Without the instruments, the duo would just be staring at their laptops the whole time.
“When you watch someone playing drums or guitar on stage, you understand what they’re doing,” says Cannistraro. “But you can’t really see what the DJ is doing. The point of the glove is to put physical movement into a performance.”
It’s not just shiny electronic equipment that attracts IT professionals to DJ’ing. The connection is deeper than that.
Dance Dance Revolution
With few exceptions, IT professionals operate in work environments over which they have little control and where they’re often treated with little respect. On any given day, they can show up at work to find out their jobs are being outsourced or otherwise eliminated—never mind the work ethic that drives them to clock 50 to 60 hours a week. Never mind their specialized skills. Never mind the fact that they’re always on call.
When they’re on the 1s and 2s (turntables), however, IT professionals are in complete control—of the music, the crowd, the mood, the scene—and they thrive off of it.
“Being able to control the mood or energy of a venue is really fun for me,” says Gautam Banerjee, 31, a hardware engineer for a Calif.-based electronic components manufacturer.
It’s not so much an authoritarian sense of control that the developer DJs enjoy, but rather the high that comes from exciting a crowd and making people happy. It’s the DJ’s music that inspires people to move and allows club-goers to forget about their problems for a few hours. That desire to improve people’s lives—whether through music or technology—drives developer DJs in both their professional and personal pursuits.
“What motivated me was that I was moving the crowd,” says Cannistraro, reflecting on what attracted him to DJ’ing as a teen-ager. “The night would start with people just sitting around, and depending on what I played, I could alter the mood of the night. All these things were happening around me: Teenagers were getting together, and people were dancing.”
But more powerful than the sense of control DJ’ing gives technology professionals is the instant cool it bestows on them.
Le Geek, So Chic
Like Clark Kent entering a telephone booth to become Super Man, when a developer hits the DJ booth at a club, he becomes a rock star. DJ’ing allows technology professionals—often ignobly dismissed as geeks—to don a different, undeniably cool persona.
Gallant, 23, the event DJ, says he’s normally shy. But on stage, he assumes the role of entertainer with ease, and he feeds off of being the center of attention.
“It’s cool to see a sea of people ooohing and ahhing,” he says. “It’s a cool feeling to see that, hundreds of people coming to see you play.”
When people find out that Dan Abdinoor, 25, a senior software developer, DJs at Rise, an after-hours club in Boston on weekends, their perception of him quickly changes, he says. “When I tell people, their jaws drop a little bit. They see there’s more depth to this person than just being a computer nerd.”
For technology professionals who may be more socially awkward, another benefit of DJ’ing is that it gives them the opportunity “to be at a party without having to be at the party,” says Jonathan Howard, 24, a senior applications architect and bedroom DJ. In other words, they can spin the music without having to socialize.
But mingling—especially with the legions of hot women who worship DJs like demi-gods—is a huge part of the fun.
Maddix, who travels all over the U.S. and Europe spinning house music when he’s not developing software for his company, Textual, says one of the best experiences of his life happened last year, when he opened for Mark Farina, a popular house DJ originally from Chicago. Maddix says the club was packed with about 800 people, and he played an absolutely sick set. (Sick is good, in case you’re wondering.)
“People were going beserk,” says Maddix, of the crowd at his show. “Five women came up to me after my set and told me how sexy I was. That’s never happened to me before.”
The jubilant crowds and attention from women are forms of positive reinforcement IT professionals don’t typically get in their day jobs.
“What was powerful for me was not about the women, but that I had inspired people,” adds Maddix. “The next week on club event message boards, people were contacting me about what I played, trying to get mixes from me. When I get to play a gig that fits my style well, I get some version of that response, and that’s why I do it.”