Last month I attended C2 in Montreal where I indulged in some braindating, watched agog as Chelsea Manning hacked an entire audience’s phones, tripped out on augmented reality and immersed myself in a plethora of hands-on experiences and cutting-edge experiments. Alongside being taught by a teenager how to paint myself out of a corner and learning how to take cues (via forced collisions) from the likes of Bowie, Picasso and Warhol, I attended a workshop which gave a DJ’s take on trying new approaches to the creative process – ensuring it stays as fresh as a highlife chorus, as impactful as a funk bassline and as resonant as a string quartet in an echo chamber.
As a regular gig-goer, lifelong music lover, obsessive vinyl collector and erstwhile DJ, I was really interested to understand how I could further remix my approach to inventiveness. Whether it’s hacking punk culture for DIY design inspiration, applying festival concepts to corporate events or listening to high-energy electro as I speed towards a client deadline, I have always been inspired by whatever harmonies, beats and lyrics have been reverberating around my auricles. But how could I take this to the next level?
The workshop was facilitated by DJ Lexis (AKA Alexis Charpentier) who has been one of the pillars of the Montreal music scene for almost two decades and is an influential tastemaker who is always digging for future classics and forgotten treasures. If I went into all his projects and plaudits I’d be here all year, but suffice to say he’s respected by the likes of Gilles Peterson, Vice, Ninja Tune and Mixcloud. Alexis seamlessly mixed the following advice into his session.
Dig deeper and reach wider
Like an event manager or creative designer, a DJ is equal parts curator, researcher and entertainer. Alexis – who takes the art of searching for the obscure or unusual to another level – said he’ll happily listen to a hundred songs to find one great cut to play at a show. Whenever he enters a record shop, which I assume must be several times a day, Alexis heads straight to the most hard-to-reach box or inaccessible section to dig through a crate. His rationale is that fewer people will visit the cramped corners, peruse the wax behind the door or reach for the high shelves, therefore the likelihood of uncovering a secret gem just for himself – and therefore maintaining his unique sound and reputation – is greatly increased. This harks back to a pre-Shazam DJ trick, which was to remove or obscure the label of your best records so that your competition never knew what you were playing and the track remained exclusive to you.
Creativity is only as good as the sum of its inputs and influences. If you want your ideas to stand out from the homogeneous mass, then it’s time to start consuming different media to others, dig deeper into your unique interests and strive for wider, unorthodox experiences. Ditch Netflix for Boiler Room’s new 4:3 platform. Dial your DAB radio to WWOZ, a community station from New Orleans. Swap your mainstream newspaper for a specialist periodical (Printed Pages is packed with creative inspiration). Get off the beaten track on your next holiday. Start collecting stamps. Learn to play the oboe.
Be prepared, and be prepared to improvise
Much like pitching an idea to a client or developing a creative concept, being a DJ is half about the preparation and the rest about fluidly reacting and adapting to the live environment, crowd and situation. You might think you know where an idea is heading, but if you keep an open mind and be prepared for unexpected tangents and unforeseen deviations, then it may blossom into something even better than you’d intended. Grasping how to course-correct by identifying and reading your audience’s signals is as important to an event manager as it is to a DJ, so keep an ear to the ground, an eye on your crowd and prepare to excel in any eventuality.
Always follow a candy with three vegetables
Alexis had a great metaphor-based formula for the age-old DJ quandary of playing what you want versus spinning what the baying crowd are after. Referring to popularly-requested tunes as candy, he rationalised that he would only ever follow one such track with three songs which are less recognisable (AKA vegetables). This helps reassert his authority and dominant position as the guy who is running the show. If you play more than one candy in a row, he noted, the crowd will expect sugary treats all the time and you will never be able to play anything more discerning. As well as a great blueprint for keeping a crowd keen (and enjoying a balanced diet) it’s also a great analogy for being disruptive with your creative ideas and pushing conservative clients to embrace the new. After all, most people seem to prefer gradual disruption and incremental ideation, rather than being flooded with flux and change.
Reimagine, remix and restructure old concepts
After you’ve found that rare groove record and filed it away in your mammoth, non-alphabetically-filed collection, you need to work out which party or gig it’s going to best fit. Likewise, after you’ve captured your lightbulb moment and stored it, you need to understand where it can best be leveraged for maximum impact. Shelve your unused and unloved ideas and get ready to reboot, remix, revamp or mash them up at a later date. No one gets it right every time. I myself have cleared dancefloors by misjudging the situation and playing the wrong record and I’m sure Alexis has too. It happens, so use the experience to better yourself. The tunes that failed to ignite one party will set another on fire just like the daring creative concept that was lost on one client can be repurposed, tweaked and realigned to the benefit of another.
Turn things down
Not the volume though – crank that until the bass bins wobble. If you want to stay pure and keep the love for your craft alive, you need to be prepared to turn down work that doesn’t fit your ethos or float your proverbial boat. Pumping all your energy into something you love and believe in is always going to yield better creative results than slogging away at something purely for the financial reward. It’s why, no matter what financial carrot is dangled, Alexis probably won’t play at an oligarch’s birthday party or a metal all-dayer.
Hopefully, like me, you’ve learnt something new from DJ Lexis. If nothing else, your future creative endeavours will at least have a more diverse, discerning soundtrack. See you on the dancefloor. And don’t forget to eat your greens.