Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

by Jace Clayton

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In 2001, Jace Clayton was an amateur DJ who recorded a three-turntable, sixty-minute mix called Gold Teeth Thiefand put it online to share with his friends. Within months, the mix became an international calling card, whisking Clayton away to a sprawling, multitiered nightclub in Zagreb, a tiny gallery in Osaka, a former brothel in São Paolo, and the atrium of MoMA. And just as the music world made its fitful, uncertain transition from analog to digital, Clayton found himself on the front lines of an education in the creative upheavals of art production in the twenty-first-century globalized world.

Uproot is a guided tour of this newly opened cultural space, mapped with both his own experiences and his relationships with other industry game-changers such as M.I.A. and Pirate Bay. With humor, insight, and expertise, Clayton illuminates the connections between a Congolese hotel band and the indie rock scene, Mexican surfers and Israeli techno, Japanese record collectors and hidden rain-forest treasure, and offers an unparalleled understanding of music in a digital age. Uproot takes readers behind the turntable decks to tell a story that only a DJ--and writer--of this caliber can tell.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374708849
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/16/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 607,224
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Jace Clayton's essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Bidoun, Frieze, and FADER, where he is a regular contributor. As DJ /rupture, he has performed widely and released several critically acclaimed albums. He lives and works in New York City.
Jace Clayton's essays have appears in THE WASHINGTON POST, BIDOUN, and FRIEZE and THE FADER, where he is a regular contributor. As DJ /rupture, he has performed widely and released several critically acclaimed albums. He lives and works in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


Travels in Twenty-First-Century Music and Digital Culture

By Jace Clayton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Jace Clayton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70884-9



The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting. As so many of our ways of communicating with each other and experiencing the world translate to the digital and dematerialize, much is lost, and many new possibilities emerge. When people look back a hundred years from now, this time will be seen as a crucial turning point, when we went from analog to digital. Much of what is special about this transition gets articulated by music, those waves of magic that happen when the human spirit joins with technology to create vibrations that enchant us regardless of language or age, afloat between novelty and tradition and always asking to be shared. Zeitgeist heartbeats. A three-minute pop song can stop time, as sure as a three-second sample can conjure up decades of history. Music clocks the speed of our age — then runs it down or winds it up or makes it funky as the moment requires.

In the last twenty years digital technology has without question changed all aspects of music: inspiration, production, distribution, performance, reception — everything. Some of this has been for the bad, but plenty has been for the good. And these profound electronic transformations are only part of the picture. When I reflect on my life since I started DJing internationally in 2000, my head starts to spin. Who knows how many cities and time zones I've passed through. My wife sometimes calls me "the jet-lag king." I've taken easily a thousand flights, and in each destination I've been surprised by on-the-ground details that complicate or outright contradict the standard media narratives about how music is changing. The more I traveled the more I saw how the ways in which we make, access, and value music have shifted, creating new social meanings that get at the heart of what it means to be alive in our wired and unpredictable time.

I've DJed in more than three dozen countries. What I do isn't precisely popular in any of them, but enough people knew me and my music, and were happy to show me what mattered in their scene and why.

* * *

It's hard to reach North Cyprus — the top slice of a tiny island in the Mediterranean that seceded after a war with Greece in 1974 — not least because only one country, Turkey, officially recognizes it. Yet there we were, whizzing through arid country past pastel bunker-mansions, the architectural embodiment of militarized paranoia and extreme wealth, en route to an empty four-star hotel. We were going to rest for a day and then play music in the ruins of a crusader castle. It was the year 2000. I was the turntablist for an acid jazz group from New York City. The band didn't really need a DJ, but it did need someone to signify "hip-hop," and that was me. There were six of us, including our saxophonist leader, a bassist, a drummer, a Haitian sampler-player, and a singer, Norah Jones, before she was known for anything besides being Ravi Shankar's daughter.

When the cab dropped us off at the hotel, it was practically vacant: four liveried attendants were in the hotel casino, bored behind the empty gaming tables, and a grand total of two other paying guests — elderly British pensioners, holdovers from remembered pre-1974 days when Cyprus was undivided. I unloaded my gear and sat beside the pool, making small talk with our host, trying to figure out exactly why our band had been imported all the way from New York to play an opulent deserted island. Down the coast, thirty miles away in the haze, a tall cluster of glass-and-steel buildings hugged the shore. "What's that city?" I asked. It looked like Miami. "Varosha," she said. Completely evacuated in the 1974 conflict. A ghost town on the dividing line between North and South Cyprus. The only people there were UN patrol units and kids from either side who illegally entered the prohibited zone to live out a J. G. Ballard fantasy of decadent parties in abandoned seaside resorts.

If North Cyprus represented the forgotten side of a fault line of global conflict, how were we getting paid? Who owned those scattered mansions that we saw on the way from the airport? Was our trip bankrolled with narco-dollars, to please the criminals hiding out in an empty landscape, or with Turkish state funding, to win tourists back? I never found out. I played the show, bought a laptop with my earnings, quit the band, and moved from New York to Madrid.

* * *

A few years earlier, I had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attending college while trying to teach myself how to be a DJ. Friends and I began throwing events in nontraditional club spaces — an architect's studio, a cafeteria, the Boston Children's Museum. We were actively mixing things up against the segregationist logic of Boston's dance scene, doing such things as inviting dancehall reggae DJs to perform alongside experimental guitar bands and stocking a room with "noise toys" for audience members to participate in lo-fi electronics jam sessions. It was a fun, heady time. We were starting to draw regular crowds, and gradually I was getting competent on the decks (though I shudder to recall the spectacular mistakes I subjected everyone to in those first few years when my ideas outpaced my technical abilities by a long shot). I was able to develop my style precisely because our little scene was born from frustrations with the standard club experience: we wanted an exploratory, open space.

As I look back on those Boston days, I'm proud of our unspoken belief that if a supportive network came first, exciting musical moments would follow. Journalists love to crown royalty; magazine covers and website banners practically demand it. Yet as I've traveled, time and time again I've found myself in places where musical innovation and excitement emerge from a community experience, wherein the most groundbreaking or influential artists are rarely the most lauded.

* * *

In 2001 I recorded a three-turntable, sixty-minute mix called Gold Teeth Thief. It was deliberately all over the place: I opened with R&B futurist Missy Elliott and ended with Muslimgauze, an obscure one-man band from Manchester who layered field recordings from the Middle East over trancelike electronic beats. I uploaded the mix to the Internet so my friends could listen. Who else would? One magazine reviewed it, then another, and soon a lot of magazines, leading to hundreds of thousands of downloads. Meanwhile, I had moved to Madrid, happily going about my days without regular Internet access. I didn't know what was up. A few months after the mix went online, I got a phone call from a large European independent label. I'd used one of their songs on the mix. They loved it! It was the best DJ session they'd heard in ages! They wanted to license the Gold Teeth Thief mix and give it a proper release, assuming they could pay the various labels a fee of $1,000 per track. "That'd be fantastic," I said, "but pretty expensive. I use forty-four different songs on it. Some of those are major pop tunes, and a bunch are unlicensable bootlegs. It'd be a nightmare to do legally." They insisted that I send a complete track list so that their legal department could get cracking. Result: "Impossible. Our lawyers laughed at us."

As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it's what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it's largely illegal. If I were a band, and Gold Teeth Thief an album, not a mix, that would have been my big break. A powerful label, big advance fees, well-connected publicists, a coordinated tour. But it's more common for even a popular DJ to receive a cease-and-desist order than to get a mix-album deal with a large label.

It's hard to care. Viral culture doesn't play well with intellectual property laws. I knew Gold Teeth Thief couldn't enter the commercial world when I did it. I didn't need it to. Word-of-mouth buzz and bootleg mixes are the DJ's symbolic currency; live shows provide the cash. A few months after Gold Teeth Thief was posted online, I received my first real gig offer. A choreographer in Berlin wanted to fly me there, house me for a night or two, and pay me &8364;500 to DJ. Good that he didn't haggle over the fee — I would have done it for free. Being paid the equivalent of a month's rent back in Madrid to mix my favorite records! My head spun. Little did I know that this was to be the first of many such offers; Gold Teeth Thief ended up being a great calling card.

In the years to come I would start performing in far-flung locales and cosmopolitan megacities: a sprawling, multitiered nightclub in Zagreb, a tiny gallery in Osaka, a former brothel in São Paulo, the American Museum of Natural History. All the while I was crossing paths (and in many cases collaborating) with a huge range of musicians, producers, fans, visual artists, technological visionaries, and fellow DJs from all over the world. Some of these were industry veterans who had toured the globe many times; others were teenagers leaving the confines of their sub-Saharan villages for the first time in their lives. The bottom line? I saw and learned a lot more than I would have had I stayed put in Massachusetts. Without realizing it, just as the music world was making its fitful, uncertain transition from analog to digital, I was getting a frontline education in the creative upheavals of art production in the twenty-first-century globalized world.

* * *

In 2009, almost a decade later, I appeared on a New Yorker Festival panel about the state of the music industry. The magazine had assembled delegates from every cross section of the music biz to weigh in. The panelists included a major-label bigwig, the owner of a prestigious downtown New York independent label, a veteran studio session musician (he'd played bass for everyone from Caetano Veloso to Henry Rollins), and a marketing guru who'd discovered Nirvana — and then me, I suppose as the representative of burgeoning digital culture.

I was the last to speak that afternoon, and I was a bit surprised by all that was said before I had my turn. One by one, everyone else onstage told his or her personalized version of the same story: that in the last decade the sky had fallen — the rise of digital culture had pretty much killed off every aspect of the music business, and we were left to react, defensively, to these harsh changes. Granted, I knew things were bad in a lot of ways. Around 2003 I started to see all my favorite record shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn shutting their doors. CD sales fell dramatically, and distributors and record labels were taking fewer artistic risks. Visionary musicians who for the last decade or two had been able to survive — barely — on a trickle of record-sale royalties were forced into silence and bad day jobs. As the money hunkered down around concerts and merchandise, corporations such as Live Nation started buying up independent venues across the States, replacing fan-built booking networks with a more streamlined, profit-maximizing approach. Ticket prices went up, and while live gigs continued to flourish, those profits didn't necessarily reach the musicians sweating onstage each night. Everyone was a bit worried.

But, at the same time, my experiences have shown me that for each of the avenues closed down by the proliferation of digital technology, unexpected new pathways have opened up.


Dancing is a form of listening.

And I wouldn't be a musician if it weren't for nights spent on the dance floor of an after-hours club in Boston called the Loft.

DJs spun house on the first floor. The smaller upstairs room was dedicated to faster stuff, loosely grouped under the category rave music, which mostly meant techno, but at some point they started playing hour-long sets of jungle. It was an epiphany. When I first experienced the Loft DJs' transition from techno's thump-thump-thump clockwork to the percussive mayhem of jungle, it felt as if music had unfolded into a new dimension. Jungle was spacious, edgy, and sudden, built from sliced-up breakbeats spiked with hip-hop and reggae samples. Those bits of other records (many of which I had in my collection) offered concrete footholds into musical history, while the genre as a whole flung itself forward, with fresh mutations and reinventions each month.

I remember feeling submerged as bass lines, blubbery and whaleish, rolled around the room. Sonic activity in the midrange frequencies was often sparse, stepped back to let the low and high ends of the spectrum hit with maximum impact and clarity. Unpredictable kick-and-snare combinations skittered high above the bass, programmed into machine-gone-wild levels of complexity, at twice the tempo. This meant that the dancers could choose which rhythmic time frame to follow: the busy percussion (the speed of fast techno) or the half-time bass line (the speed of slow hip-hop). Mostly we did our best to embody both dynamics, fast and slow, in acknowledgment that this new music was asking us to move in new ways.

During all of this the DJs were nowhere to be seen. Surely they must have been tucked away in some booth somewhere. I never bothered to look for them. It was dark, and who wants to be a wallflower? And what was there to watch even if we found them? The focus was on the sound, as activated by us dancers. We didn't need a figurehead onstage pulling in our attention. There wasn't even a stage. This was music without heroes. We were what was happening.

Those late nights at the Loft taught me never to take an audience for granted. It's not something that just materializes and passively consumes your creation. Especially in the visual arts, there's the sense that an artist makes his or her work, installs it in a gallery, and that's it. Little consideration is given to who's going to see and how they might engage with it. Whereas up in the Loft, engagement with the audience was everything: the crowd responded to the energy of the mix, and the DJs fed off that, creating a tight feedback loop. The audience became a form of intelligence and expression in and of itself. The people in the room were never entirely separate from the performers.

These experiences inspired me to become a DJ. The Loft showed me that I didn't need to jump around onstage or even play an instrument to be a musician. I didn't even have to be seen! Perfect for a shy soundboy. Besides, I'd fallen in love with jungle, and back then the only way to access it outside of the club was to listen to hard-to-get twelve inches, which meant buying them, and if I was gonna do that, I might as well go all the way. I scraped together savings for months to be able to buy a pair of secondhand Technics 1200s turntables from DJ Bruno, one of the residents at the Loft. It turned out to be one of the best purchases I ever made. Two decades later they work as well as they did the day I bought 'em.

* * *

Near the beginning of my career, I did a DJ set at the Montreux Jazz Festival, up in the mountains of Switzerland. For me it was crazy. I was DJing in front of a thousand people for the first time, and it was working, they were following me. I was doing what I would do at home, no-holds-barred. Even on that big stage, I stuck to the no-frills performance attitude I learned at the Loft. I don't throw my hands in the air, pump my fist, wave at cute dancers, or yell shout-outs into the mic. I kept my attention trained on the mixer and the turntables, swallowed up in the work, only glancing at the crowd every so often to gauge responses.

Montreux was a predominantly white, European crowd, and I'm a black DJ. (The festival program said I was a woman of Egyptian Italian descent, but we all make mistakes.) A lot of security was up front, and I saw this one other black guy, trying to reach me.

"Hey!" he yelled. "Hey, DJ!" I didn't look up. Ten minutes later he was still there, still gesturing.

I asked security to let him get close so I could hear. "'Back That Azz Up'!" he shouted. "Play 'Back That Azz Up'!" Ten years later, it's no longer a Juvenile song, but perhaps a song featuring a kid from Juvenile's crew — Lil Wayne — that somebody will still shout for, every night, anywhere in the world. That people remain comfortable barking orders at DJs to play this or that song (often fully out of touch with whatever the DJ is mixing at the moment) speaks to the lingering confusion about what a DJ is. Jukebox or creator? Something you become when playing YouTube vids at a house party or a life path that takes years of specialized training?

While this lack of consensus about the role of talent and technique in DJ culture is part of what I find so compelling about it, I like to explain what's going on whenever possible.


Excerpted from Uproot by Jace Clayton. Copyright © 2016 Jace Clayton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Author's Note,
1 Confessions of a DJ,
2 Auto-Tune Gives You a Better Me,
3 How Music Travels,
4 World Music 2.0,
5 Red Bull Gives You Wings,
6 Cut & Paste,
7 Tools,
8 Loops,
9 How to Hold On?,
10 Active Listening,
A Note About the Author,

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