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The Democracy of a DJ

Diplo, Sonar, Sept. 28

Jefferson Jackson Steele
MAD DECENT: Diplo spins and sweats at Sonar.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 10/3/2007

Some people will never be down with the idea of a DJ headlining a big club. Some may even find it repugnant, like the class stoner schooling everyone on the SATs or the playground bully growing up to be president. These are the same people who find their wedding DJs--perhaps the only time they'll ever really evaluate a DJ--via Google (or the Yellow Pages or whatever). It's classic poor thinking: There aren't any instruments, there's no performance to speak of, he or she isn't even playing their own songs. So, who the fuck do they think they are? This space is reserved for real musicians.

We'll get over this eventually. More and more Fabric Live and DJ Kicks mixes are already sharing shelf (or hard drive) space with Decemberists albums--which, unfortunately, means more Decemberists dance remixes are bound to happen. And more and more Diplos will crowd the indie touring circuit.

Arguing against Diplo reigning over Sonar, the nearly sold-out big club in question, is like arguing against gravity. Diplo, aka Wesley Pentz, is the best mass-appeal DJ on the circuit. Like most party-starters worth their weight, Pentz--the lead man of both Philly's Hollertronix parties and upstart label Mad Decent (Blaqstarr, Bonde de Role)--knows his place, and it's not as a performer. That task goes to the crowd. That's a key difference, one that's lost on the nonfan: A DJ doesn't exist without a crowd, and that crowd doesn't exist without the DJ. It's a trade, a democracy that--save for punk--doesn't really happen in rock, a world that looks authoritarian in comparison. The spotlights aren't trained on the stage; they're tracing red ovals around the dancing/hopping/dripping throngs on the floor. The vaguely Nordic-looking Diplo mans a rack of mixing gear on a table on a dark stage, where--save for occasional shout-outs to "Ballllltiiiimmmmooorrrre"--he stays hunched over, sipping off a drink and turning around to glance, grinning, at the mass of hot young things dancing onstage behind him. Yeah, it's a "girls only" stage per Diplo, but no matter; hipster girls are outnumbering hipster dudes on the floor anyhow.

Diplo is an aggressive DJ and his set is an assault. Everyone gets riled with a Cypress Hill opener, but over the next hour and a half--save for a couple of snips of collaborator M.I.A., a few accented rhymes, and the already classic Blaqstarr "hands up, thumbs down" hook--he sticks to mostly dense, propulsive instrumental mashes of club and its breakbeat techno sister. Save for that damn Elastica song "Connection"--the sharp-edged guitar intro is something of a DJ staple--there isn't a cliché dropped the entire night, and if it does happen, it's buried beneath five other tracks.

It's a dance-or-go-the-fuck-home set. With beats this sharp and hooks this good, there's no way around it. Break-dancing circles erupt like neon dust devils, workadays freak with MICA kids, the thick middle-of-the-room mass gets a foot closer to the ceiling at every break, and the sweat pours down. Toward the end Diplo mutters into the mic, "I love this city." Looking around, it looks like we all do--and Diplo, too, of course.

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