Thursday, May 13, 2010
I WAS SURROUNDED by patrons of the arts. Sipping a pear martini, I was struck by moving flashes of an oversized disco ball. Then I dunked a complimentary cookie into a shot glass of whole milk. The location was an overstocked ruby red dessert lounge, and I was partying on the harbor alongside hired dancers gold flecked in Amazonian getups. Tonight, one of Hollywood’s best known DJ of the stars, Ruckus, was laying it down in full effect.
Normally, I seek out DJ’s in clubs, arenas, or festivals, but tonight I was spoiled by the beats at Boston’s premier modern art museum – the ICA. My desire to meet and hear Ruckus on the decks was what drew me here primarily, but the museum’s modernistic location on the waterfront is second to none. Ruckus is known for being the DJ the rich and famous people call upon for their private parties, and so his set was definitely a treat for the patrons of the ICA.
AT A MERE 24 YEARS OLD, DJ RUCKUS has an outsized amount of experience, having produced for the likes of Janet Jackson, Outkast, and Chris Brown. Outside of pop and RnB, Ruckus prefers to produce his own tracks in house style, because it offers him the most “open space” [to work with]. “I love the freedom of house. It’s extremely creative, and as long as the energy is right, you can do what you like.” Later on, when I got a chance to ask Ruckus to reveal the true meaning of the title of his upcoming album, Electric Sex, he coyly looked in my eyes, and stated matter-of-factly, “When I get behind the turntables, that’s kinda what I call myself.”
Despite his impressive production resume, I didn’t know what to expect from Ruckus as an event DJ. What exactly does someone of his celebrity bring in his DJ bag to this kind of an event? He could easily pop on some top 40’s from the last few decades, as that would probably satiate the crowd of upper-class contemporary art beneficiaries that had gathered at the gala. But where’s the challenge, I wondered? How can a DJ like him be creative in environment like this? Really, what little risk to your DJ reputation could he take by sticking to proven mainstream tracks? Why not support the up and coming struggling artists who aren’t backed by nostalgia, commercial radio, and billions of dollars in marketing? Would we, as a crowd, get to know the real Ruckus, or would he function more as an anonymous jukebox? Why did they hire a superstar DJ from LA in the first place when so many of Boston’s talented DJ’s could use the support?
THEN RUCKUS STARTED TO SPIN. And then he smiled, and then I smiled, and lots of other people smiled. And the dance floor filled. DJ Ruckus was creating mega-mix magic. Perhaps he wasn’t playing brand new, never-before heard, underground tracks, but he was mixing tried and true tracks with an energy and skill that kept the entire room on its feet, dancing and smiling. It was a combo prom-wedding-karaoke night with tunes suited for all audiences. Ruckus brought out song after song that we could recognize and sing along to, and he wasn’t cynically looking down on his audience for enjoying it.
Ruckus was smiling at us because he knows our secret; everyone likes at least some pop songs, and he was permitting us to let loose, to have fun. We were smiling back because we had no choice but to give in to his playfulness. Yes, Ruckus played all pop tunes, but the magic was in the way he played them; mixing seamlessly from one track to the next, leaping across styles, decades, and production styles, mashing the unmashed, switching it up every minute, and drenching us with hooks and hype. He was relentlessly hitting the part of us that can’t ignore the joy that music spreads, and consequently, we remembered that parties are supposed to be happy. There’s a reason why some songs become hits and are remembered by so many people over generations. True, it’s partly the business promoting specific artists ad nauseam, but it’s also because some songs have a feel good factor that we associate with good times, silly food, friendship, and romance. Music is emotionality, and pop has the ability to overtake us in unison, becoming part of the soundtrack of our lives.
OF COURSE I don’t want to hear the same songs every time I go out. I’m interested in independent music because it offers a more diverse musical landscape, and is (theoretically), open to a greater number of artists than mainstream pop culture. I am not a fan of how mainstream culture barricades many struggling artists to disproportionately benefit the select few. I am not a fan of how new independent musicians are victimized by former independent musicians who have now joined the corporate ranks. But it’s exhausting to be a perpetual cynic. Even our underground scenes can be repetitive, and sometimes the attitude of a scenester or hipster party is dreadfully inhibiting. I want my DJ’s to keep their fingers on the pulse, but I don’t always want to hear brand new music. Sometimes I want to hear music I know and love for whatever personal reason, and I want to hear it loud, and I want to sing along, and I don’t want to be criticized for it.
Hearing music alongside a crowd of people is an important way to enjoy it. In a major way, the style of music is not the most important factor for a DJ. If a DJ does their job, a collective happiness makes its way through a crowd, and carries on in each individual long after the event. Everyone is present during the set, self consciousness is thrown to the wind, the time is sweet, and the memories are sweeter.
RUCKUS DID HIS JOB. And he did it well. His skill on the decks is obvious, especially in his understanding that the DJ is being relied upon to provide entertainment. He probably knew the crowd at this event wanted mainly mainstream music. I don’t know if Ruckus liked the crowd, or if secretly he was an uninvested guy just doing his job. I don’t know if he played his personal favorite tracks, or if Ruckus was frustrated that he could not play his own productions all night long. I do know that Ruckus was hired to give a specific crowd a specifically requested type of music. He did not act imprisoned by the demands of his audience. He did not look disdainfully on the older people in the crowd because they loved a hit heard countless times on generic commercial radio. Ruckus gave us the music his live audience would relate to, but he didn’t do it robotically. He stamped his unmistakable imprint all over every track, mixing magic ear candy out of pop puzzle pieces, surprising us with his collage, and keeping the energy non-stop.
I know many event DJ’s refuse to take requests, and I support that position under the right circumstances. In his case, I admire Ruckus because he exercises his creativity on the decks with the music style he was hired to play. Then Ruckus goes into the studio and has the freedom to create his own sound for his target market. He builds his name up in one arena, and that supports his dreams in another. I imagine, by keeping an open mind to all kinds of music, Ruckus learns more about music than if he refused to listen to anything outside his preferred genre. Ruckus spoke to me of his interest in acting. He feels that a big part of being a successful DJ is being entertaining behind the decks. I don’t know how much acting is necessary, but I do have a theory that DJ’s who smile while on the decks are more popular than DJ’s that don’t (I’m unclear of the causal nature of that relationship). In Ruckus’ case, his smile seemed completely genuine. I may be projecting my own utopian ideals onto a DJ whom I only met once, and whom I admittedly watched from a happily inebriated state, (thanks pear martini!), but I feel Ruckus genuinely enjoyed spinning his set, even if the track list does not reflect the music he produces in his studio.
ONE KIND OF ART, when supporting another, can support even more. Not all art is about pop-induced happiness, but it makes for a really fun party when it is.
DJ Ruckus smiling & me smiling....wearing feathers the dancers gave me....