Is ‘DJ’ a dirty name? Depends on who you ask

My college economics professor used to tell this dumb joke: What does a guy have to do to be called an economist? Answer: Simple — he can just call himself an economist, because anyone can. Ha? No, it’s not funny, but it’s true.

The world of DJ-producers is similar. Anybody who mixes songs on an iPhone app can call himself or herself a DJ-producer. There is no DJ police to stop him or her.

But we music lovers know the difference between a real DJ-producer and a crappy wannabe.

However, we are still left with an unresolved and terribly silly question: Do DJ-producers even want to be called “DJs”?

You would think this is a no-brainer. It is not. The most talented, genius DJ-producers of our time disagree over the simple matter of how they wish to be addressed publicly.

The great Morgan Page — who DJs Saturday at Encore’s Surrender nightclub — told me last year he could go for “artist.”

“Whenever (publicists) try to insert ‘DJ’ Morgan Page, I’m like, ‘Take that out of there. It’s really dated.’ I mean, I am a DJ. But I like to be thought of as an artist first.”

That is totally fair. Page is a musician who creates sumptuous songs in his music studio, ergo he is a musical artist.

We could just call him a “musician.” But it’s hard to find electronic music artists such as Page referred to in the raw as “musicians” in the media, because why?

“Everybody likes to fixate on if you play instruments” in live settings, but DJs do not play traditional instruments, Page said.

Last summer, I was talking to Martin Solveig about all this, and he told me explicitly “don’t worry” about whatever label I give him in print.

“For me, ‘DJ’ is very good. ‘Music producer’ is very good. ‘Electronic music producer’ is very good,” Solveig said.

“I’m happy with any of it. It doesn’t change the reality of what we are, right?”


“Over the years, many words have been used,” Solveig said. “But in the end, the one that everyone is quite happy about, and understands more of what it’s all about, is ‘DJ.’ So for me, I’m just going to go with ‘DJ.’ ”

That is a strong choice for Solveig, because not only is he a hit songwriting musician, he is also singer. He’s definitely a “musician” and an “artist.”

This whole debate — if you can even call it that — is a lighthearted affair. I’m not the one trying to turn “DJ” into a dirty name.

No, that was Deadmau5. Two years ago, he publicly flogged himself and his DJ peers by saying DJs only press the play button at gigs, and that they are just studio musicians who also book DJ gigs.

Deadmau5’s official bio even said for a while he “doesn’t like being called a DJ,” and that he “rolls his eyes at the description.”

Which is fitting, because I have seen Deadmau5 DJ. He is correct. He is not good at it. He is a master studio musician. I listen to his albums at home routinely for vast enjoyment. But his DJing skills? Meh. Well, they’re much better than mine.

Personally, I will continue to call them “DJ-producers,” or “DJ-musicians,” or “DJ-artists.”

But I will let the American laureate of electronic music, Moby, have the last word here. A few months ago, he kept calling himself a DJ in an interview with me, but he pointed out the difference between his DJ gigs (when he remixes songs he and other EDM artists created) and his artist-performance concerts (when he stages a more traditional show of his classic songs).

“The music I play when I DJ doesn’t sound all that much like the music I make on my records,” Moby said.

“DJ sets are big and loud and bombastic. They’re designed for that context at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning.

“What I have found at nightclubs, at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, is the only gestures that are effective are the big bombastic blunt gestures. If you try to do anything understated or nuanced at 2 in the morning, the results can be kind of tragic.”

Not as tragic as when Deadmau5 dismissed all DJs for supposedly just pushing play. I wonder if Deadmau5 has any idea how many DJs still call him a (expletive) because of that anti-“DJ” rant he went on.

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Page 3A in the main section on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He also writes for Neon on Fridays. Email him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.