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The "pirate" DJ.

In this article, I attempt to understand the enigmatic and decidedly urban/e figure of the Disc Jockey or the Deejay (DJ) as he is more popularly known. He appears to rise to prominence in India around the middle of the 1990s, along with the increasing popularity of the Hindi film song remix. The figure of the DJ in the context of the remix takes on greater significance when one remembers that DJ-ing as a profession and discotheques as spaces existed far before the 1990s. Also, one must recollect that the inheritances of hip-hop, rap, MC-ing, dancehall and disco, so necessary for the DJ in other contexts (particularly in the Afro-American and the Caribbean music traditions), are not dominant in the context of India.

The DJ in the Indian Music Industry

The DJ as a figure is often derided in public discourse, the profession being viewed as one that does not require much skill, training or knowledge (as against singers or musicians) and does not produce anything "original"--a profession of "piracy". This tirade against DJs was launched by those who traditionally functioned as musical stars--including singers, music directors/composers and occasionally lyricists--most of these, if not all, well-known because of their work in film music. In 1994, with the rise of Bally Sagoo, one witnesses a change as these categories of performers become secondary to the "music arranger", with the increased presence of the remix. For instance, consider (as one example of many) the cover of a cassette reviewed in the April 28, 1995 issue of Screen Channel, of an album called Bollywood v/s Hollywood (Venus, 1994). The album cover features the name of the music arranger, the person responsible for the remixing--Tabun. The category of music arranger is a traditional category and job within the music industry, and we have yet to encounter the acronym DJ which seems to have different connotations, even if the task is similar to that of the music arranger. Again, Bally Sagoo's name figures on album covers in the place of the artiste, though he is not the singer. What we may infer then is the gradual decline in the importance of the singer and the rise of the figure of the DJ with the remix as a form. After the mid-1990s, individual DJs become star-figures, with names like DJ Aqeel and DJ Suketu, among others, being widely recognized. We may recall certain album covers such as DJ Suketu's 440 Volts (Times Music, 2002) or DJ Aqeel's The Return of Daddy Mix (Universal, 2003). The artiste in each case is the DJ, not the singers or the dancers or others associated with the albums. The appearance of the DJ becomes integral to a new economy that emerges in the context of globalization, and those who are able to command prices of over Rs 50,000 a night for DJ-ing are often referred to as "celebrity DJs" in newspaper and magazine reportage. (1)

For the moment, we may observe that with the singer ceasing to be paramount, voice also seemingly took a backseat, as music, rhythms, and electronic sounds took over. Along with the disappearance of the singer, there was another absence that was gradually becoming noticeable with the greater presence of technologically--driven sounds and beats--the absence of the musician. Of course, this was part of a larger transformation in the industry, which Gregory Booth notes in his book on the musicians of the Bombay film industry. He discusses the case of oboeist Shankar Indorkar who played only once for A.R. Rahman. Rahman recorded all his sounds digitally, and Booth goes on to quote Shankar as saying, "Because he had all my sounds. So you could say he had me." (2) Thus, with electronic technology and sound cards taking over, with the DJ and the remix, instruments and voice were both often left behind. This created a drastic reduction in the work available to musicians, as Booth indicates. It is particularly important to note the value that the DJ's job received toward the end of the 1990s because it coincides with a devaluing of the work of the musician in the industry. With the ability to record music, sounds and samples using computer technology, most studios did not work with the orchestra anymore. The effects and sounds associated with orchestration were rapidly disappearing during this period.

The Mohalla DJ

Another factor to be considered when thinking of the DJ as a figure is the rapid proliferation of sound systems and technologies, especially the non-branded, local varieties of sound systems that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. (3) Let us consider the story of DJ Ray, one he narrated in 2010 in a personal interview. (4) He came from a lower-middle-class family and trained to become a DJ under different people in the city. There was no institution to learn the tricks of being a turntablist, especially when he started DJ-ing in 1997 at the age of seventeen, with virtually no money; he was lucky enough to have access to sound equipment because his brother dealt in it. Having initially learnt the DJ's art on a turntable, he now uses software to create remixes. A number of small event companies (such as Music Masterzs, a company that he was with) that also deal in sound equipment were a source of employment for him. The rapid rise in the use of sound systems and the appearance of the "DJ" as a desirable presence at events prompted several processes of imitation and neighbourhood {mohalla) DJ-ing.

This mohalla DJ appears in Jeebesh Bagchi's comments on remixes and remixing, which he sees as a "cinema-derived form". The mohalla DJ and his remixes are produced within a largely non-legal city of migrants whose access to material technology and essentials such as electricity and space is created through ad-hoc arrangements. While speaking about the music culture of these spaces Bagchi says, "The amplifiers and recorders are a strand in an extensive web that encompasses diverse music cultures, performative practices and production-distribution networks. These include practices central to the work of neighbourhood DJs who perform at weddings, life-cycle rituals, religious functions and social occasions." (5) Further, he states that traditional markers of leisure, work and everyday life practices are ones that are fluid in this class, due to the intermingling of technology and small entrepreneurial practices, and he indicates how these practices may draw the ire of many, especially with the presence of remixes. (6)

Bagchi urges us not to abandon these sites and spaces in favour of an overwhelming industrialization narrative. What his essay seems to not engage with or talk about is either the knowledge or affective economies that these mohalla DJs or indeed any others participate in. While being unable to track many of the mohalla DJs, I nevertheless attempt to piece together narratives of DJs who in their own words place themselves as coming from the "lower class" or "lower-middle class". While his essay allows us to think through the very crucial infrastructures of piracy and DJ-ing, it does not address that which drives the pirate economy: love for and knowledge of music and movies. Bagchi attempts then to place the figure of the DJ amidst the movement of all kinds of desires and affective regimes: dance, music, community, professional aspirations, knowledge that allows one to choose, and the pirate economy. It is some of these desires, economies and regimes that the essay tracks, concentrating on the narratives that emerged through interviews and ethnographic research with a few DJs who work for the most part in Delhi.

The pirate economy that I sketch is embedded within the structures of aspirations that this pirate culture participates in. These aspirations carry a desire both for upward mobility and for an urban/e sensibility; it may perhaps further be suggested that they are imbricated upon a love for and knowledge of music. The aspirations of DJs arise from the affective and the emotional as well as from the knowledge structures that they participate in while being "pirates". Before moving on to these regimes, perhaps it would be fruitful to locate the economy these DJs belong to, and the social mobility as well as some of the labour practices within this circuit.

Upward Mobility and the Pirate Economy

There is an extraordinary economy that sustains the proliferation of DJ-ing, including a DVD with eighteen different mixing and music-studio-creation softwares (including very popular DJ-ing software such as Ableton, Cubase, Sony ACID base Studio) being sold for as low as Rs 70 in Nehru Place. What the presence and ubiquity of this software does is to heighten the possibility of a studio-less and turntable-less existence. The seller of the software, Rahul insists that he manages to sell at least ten of these DVDs every day and that a number of his customers are DJs. However, while the potential and possibility seems to be created by such a presence it is actually shunned for the most part by those who have been DJ-ing for some years, who say that it is futile to depend only upon laptops and pirated software. The availability of cheap software and its usefulness or lack thereof was explained to me by DJs Vinay and Rishi. They attribute its sales to aspiring DJs at the beginning of their careers who have no knowledge of the worth of the original software, and who are unaware that these pirated copies will stop working in a few days. This simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the pirate economy, in which the DJ participates, is interesting in how it wishes to hold on to the "original" in order to gain legitimacy. Usually, the more a DJ manages to earn, the more money he will actually be able and willing to spend on acquiring software and music; legitimacy and authority go hand in hand with a DJ's money.

This world of piracy has some differences with those described by others who have studied the DJ, such as Amit Rai who speaks of a "new filmi DJ culture" that he sees as having come into being.8 He says that the "new hero of Hindi-Urdu cinema is the cosmopolitan DJ. In keeping with global cultural and economic trends, DJ culture has exploded in India in the past ten years. The DJ has become a ubiquitous figure creating intensive aural timespaces everywhere including music videos, films, art exhibition openings, and wedding receptions." Rai, whose theorization draws upon ethnographies done in Bhopal, concentrates for the most part on the positioning of the body's experience as virtual or affective in these new "ad-hoc media publics" as he terms them. Further, he marks the rise of the DJ and his culture as being part of not only the new media of Bhopal, but also as one that is controlled by the same people/ business families that earlier controlled single-screen theatres in the city. Indeed, the DJ and his economy are not Rais concern, as much as the new media assemblages of DJ equipment and sound equipment/technology are. While he pays some degree of attention to those working alongside the DJ and, as a consequence, does indicate the class and caste structures of those labourers, he seems unconcerned with the details of the labour and industrial economy that the equipment he points to comes along with. For example, for most DJs I spoke with including DJ Rishi, their initial earning was often nil, sometimes for a period as long as a year when they helped other DJs in order to acquire experience. Even as independent DJs they began with as little as Rs 300 per performance (in 2005/06), gradually heading toward Rs 500 and upward. A fellow DJ with whom Rishi works now, DJ Sunny initially earned Rs 3,000 per month. Of the several DJs that were interviewed, only DJ Deepak Mutneja, who moved from Ghaziabad to Delhi, attended an institute. Here he trained under a famous DJ, Sunny Sarid, paying Rs 50,000 in 2005/06 for a three-month programme in order to become a DJ. He started playing at the rather higher fee of Rs 1,000 per performance. He claimed that he was the first DJ from Ghaziabad to come to Delhi and acquire a residency in a five-star hotel, and was extremely concerned about improving his English language skills--a necessity in his world to improve one's social standing. Most of the DJs said they participated in an informal economy of learning music. For the most part, they all worked with one or another DJ or event company for some time, before becoming known for their own work.

Listening and Loving through the Routes of Piracy

Before elaborating upon and thinking through the pedagogic structures, or the lack thereof, a detour through some of the experiences of listening to music that DJs have mixed would be useful, to highlight some of the modes in which the learning of music takes place as well as the vocabulary that is used. For instance, DJs have been placed within a larger discourse of "love" for the songs and singers of the Hindi him music industry. A discussion of DJ Aqeel Ali's music in a newspaper article is a case in point. Ali was described as being "known to be a Kishore Kumar junkie" in an article in Hindustan Times which discussed remix music. (9) Note the term--junkie: Ali is described in the terms of a drug addict. A habit of listening to Kishore Kumar (implying something simultaneously natural and learned); a stoned-out existence on Kishore Kumar; a body suspended between the love of Kishore Kumar and reality. This love for Kishoreda takes on an extraordinary insistence in the case of this listener-creator, making it one wherein the bodily relation with the music and the star is highlighted. The location of the DJ was placed squarely within an affective economy always discussed in terms of excess and their role as listeners was foregrounded.

Other instances within experiences of listening include DJ Vinay's narration. Even while shying away from responding to what he knew of music before he became a DJ or indeed the modes in which he listened to music, he did have this to say: "Main DJ bana kyunki pehli baari jab main club main gay a, Bollywood gaana chal raha tha, gyaaravi/baaravi main tha, toh ek dum se music sun kar accha laga. Us umar main toh vaise bhiyeh sab zyaada pasand aata hail' (I became a DJ because the first time I went to a club, Bollywood music was playing and I immediately felt good listening to it. I was in class 11 or 12, and at that age one always gets very enthusiastic). His response is interesting in relating the immediacy of the relationship established between the music and his desire to be there, be impressed by it and make that listening, with his body, the reason behind why he became a DJ.

When speaking about his experiences of listening, DJ Deepak Mutneja's response was: "Main class 10 main tha, 'perfect age' thi, main cassette recording shop main jaata tha, batata tha kaunse gaane chahiye--us zamane main dus rupaiye lagte the ek gaane ke. Tab se tha ke main music main kuch karoon. Main doston ke systems par, ya unki cassettes se gaane sunta tha, "chartbusters" sunta tha, Chitrahaar dekha, radio par sune ... main jaa kar cassette recording shop par beth jaata tha aur wahaan par sunta rehta tha aur unse poochta tha kaunse gaane loon, kaunse popular hain. (I was in class 10, the perfect age, I used to go to a cassette recording shop and tell them which songs I wanted--then it was Rs 10 per song. Since then I wanted to do something in music. I used to listen to "chartbusters", on friends' systems, watch Bollywood songs on TV, listen to them on the radio ... go and listen at the cassette recording shop and ask them which songs to buy, which were popular [emphasis added].)

This mode of listening to music made Deepak Mutneja already an entrant into the pirate economy. His story may lead us to think about two things: one--that there is to be found in most narratives by DJs this relationship of love with music, and there is a foregrounding of the affective (as also seen in the description of DJ Vinay); two--that the "pirate" (the cassette shop owner/recorder of music) had some knowledge of music that this young boy did not. He not only acquired music from the shop but also knowledge of the "chartbusters", the songs that were most popular at the time. He would sit at the shop and listen to what others were asking for--in other words, much of the knowledge that he gained was through hearsay and potentially incomplete. Songs would exist as songs, sans music directors, composers, singers, lyricists, actors and even actresses, many a time, in these shops that would record songs on cassettes for you. Thus, perhaps it may be suggested that the pirate economy surrounding music, particularly Hindi film music, seems to hinge upon an intimate knowledge that is gained through this hearsay and fragmentary knowledge. This knowledge of music seems to move almost in a rhizomatic manner between listeners and perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the circuits of piracy.

This knowledge is interestingly also related to power, as DJs Vinay and Sunny seem to suggest in their narration. During the course of his being instructed by another DJ in the afternoons, Vinay was told by his bhaiyya (the DJ instructing him), "crowd aapki ungliyon par naachta hai. Jahaan console se aapke ungli uth gayi, wahaan log naachna bandh kardenge" (The crowd dances to the command of your fingers. Where your finger is off the console, the dancing will stop.) Sunny added to this, "You (i.e. the DJ) are ruled by music, aur aap music se hi crowd ko rule karte hain" (The DJ is ruled by music, and he rules the crowd through music.) This vocabulary of control and power indicated by the DJs is interesting, inasmuch as at one level, it is perhaps a way of expressing a control that is unavailable to them, to their class. But, perhaps to understand this relationship only through the prism of class would be reductive. Megan Watkins in a recent essay reminds us of the distinction that Spinoza makes between affectus (force) and affectio (capacity), the force of an affecting body and the impact it leaves on the one affected. (10) Affectio may be fleeting but it may also leave a residue, a lasting impression that produces particular kinds of bodily capacities. Most of the experiences of listening as well as of playing to affect/control the crowd narrated by DJs may perhaps be seen as drawing upon this understanding of affectio. But even more interesting than this vocabulary of control, is the narration of their ways of learning about music from this crowd and from other DJs.

What We Learn: The DJs Education and Ours

Watkins in the same essay highlights the relationship between affect and pedagogy as well. While she uses the relationship between the two to think in terms of classroom teaching techniques, one may perhaps use the connection that she makes in the context of a very different practice, almost entirely informal, of teaching-learning. This culture of "apprenticeship" is perhaps worthy of closer examination, for it is with this that we enter into another node of the knowledge and affective structures that the DJ and the music he plays participate in. It may be productive to consider the apprentice-like structure of the DJ-ing economy through Jean Laves useful phrase/ concept "communities of practice". (11)

Most of the DJs I spoke with referred to those from whom they had learnt as bhaiyya (brother), and DJs like Rishi and Vinay speak of their apprenticeship as being carried out through assisting other more senior DJs at parties, before they could think in terms of working on their own. Thus, the construction of the practitioner's (here the DJ's) identity is, in Laves words, "a collective enterprise and is only partly a matter of an individual's sense of self, biography, and substance". This may be seen alongside the insistence that the DJ's work is a "study of music" (something almost all my informants mentioned). Deepak Mutneja in fact explained step-by-step, in some detail, the process of creating a remix and bringing together two tracks. Now, while of course this is a move to legitimize and create value for the profession of a DJ, it may perhaps also be seen as a move toward consolidating knowledge and pedagogic practices as well, and indeed this "community of practice".

However, in order to understand the relationships within this community of practice, if one accepts the term, one must also look at the even more unstructured modes of learning music that DJs believe they participate in. During the interview DJ Sunny said (and both DJs Rishi and Vinay who were there at the time concurred) that the way they learned about music the most was through being told about a song, which is how for example he heard about "Chamak Chalo"--from a person in the crowd, or over the phone from another DJ, on the internet or through Facebook etc. All one received was the title of the song, or a short bit of the tune. "Updating" oneself, as Sunny put it, is done precisely through this mode, almost like a contagion, where one person's knowledge infects the other; where it is passed on in a random manner, without any further detail. Much like the DJ's experience of listening to songs and gaining knowledge through the pirate economy, the knowledge of the song is passed on, on the basis of the affective force (affectus) it has and the capacity to be affected (affection) it can produce. And, predominantly, it seems this is what forms the basis of a DJ's knowledge. Pedagogy, here, may be seen as being tied to the affective relationship produced by the song itself and to the affective ties of the DJ-ing community.

In conclusion, it appears that the drive of the pirate economy is in fact desire and the affective relationship that exists between the music/song and those who participate in the economy. It may be suggested, therefore, that there is something, in excess of the law, that may even be ungovernable, in this relationship between the DJ and the music he spins. The location of this DJ is perhaps that which will enable a new understanding of the figure of the DJ, different from the Barthesian framework that is often deployed of him inhabiting and embodying the tradition of the musica practica, and perhaps probe instead his labours and loves.


(1) Vinayak Chakravorty, "Shaken, Stirred & Remixes: Sandeep Chowta Unplugged", Hindustan Times (HT City), December 24, 2003, p. 11.

(2) Cited in Gregory Booth, Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai's Film Studios, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 290.

(3) Clinton Hutton makes a strong case for the relationship between sound systems and the DJ in the context of Jamaica and its dancehall traditions. Clinton Hutton, "Forging Identity and Community through Aestheticism and Entertainment: The Sound System and the Rise of the DJ", Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 4, December 2007, pp. 16-31. Accessed at stable/40654996. Further, to examine how the networks of pirate infrastructure allowed for the circulation of technology and opened new kinds of configurations within the migrant economy, see Ravi Sundaram, Pirate Modernity: Delhi's Media Urbanism, London/New York: Routledge, 2010.

(4) DJ Ray is a pseudonym, name changed on the informant's request.

(5) Jeebesh Bagchi, "Acceleration and Conflicts: Comments on the Cinematic Object in the 1990s and After", Journal of the Moving Image, December 2006. Accessed at film_journal/jmi_05/article_02.php.

(6) Bagchi says, "This technology-entrepreneurship-performance complex exists within the context of neighbourhood culture that does not constitute separations between the realms of work/home/ leisure. The music system itself could be playing materials of all kind; some of the material would constitute violations of intellectual property law, some would be construed as indecent and immoral provocations by the morality brigade, and sometimes, as in the case of many popular remix numbers, they would be both." Ibid.

(7) As we move to the mohalla DJ, one must remember that many of those DJs that emerge from within this class are not women. The few women who are part of the profession of DJ-ing are those that usually belong to the upper echelons of the middle class. Many such women have been interviewed in interviews in newspapers and magazines; they have been able to release music albums featuring their names. While there is no academic article on women DJs in India, the material available through popular journalistic coverage indicates the above. Also, the conversations I had with most DJs (who were all male and belonging to the lower-middle and middle classes) seemed to indicate a dominantly masculine sociality.

(8) See Amit Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India's New Media Assemblage, Durham/ London: Duke University Press, 2009.

(9) Asmita Aggarwal, "Remix Rhythm Gets aTandoori Punch", Hindustan Times (HT City), April 2, 2003, p. 1.

(10) Megan Watkins, "Desiring Recognition, Accumulating Affect", in Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (eds.), The Affect Theory Reader. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 269-85.

(11) Jean Lave, "Situating Learning in Communities of Practice", available at http://www.


Except for figure 1, all illustrations courtesy the writer.

Caption: 1 A DJ at work. Photograph: Shiv Ahuja.

Caption: 2 Poster for The Return of Daddy Mix, a remix album featuring DJ Aqeel.

Caption: 3 Calling card of a Delhi event company.

Caption: 4 Menu card of a DJ remix album, listing Bollywood as well as international "chartbusters".


Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Duggal, Vebhuti
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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