Real Talk: Secretsundaze
Why is it that every party, press release, and social media blurb isn't complete without the “Selector” DJ?
Secretsundaze is the work of Giles Smith and James Priestley, a London-based DJ-production duo acknowledged for their commitment and professionalism towards their work. For over 17 years, Smith and Priestley have been spinning records across the British capital and beyond, and have since established Secresundaze as a much-loved party brand and record label. Their monthly Secretsundaze All Night Long residency at London’s The Pickle Factory is a colourful all-night romp traversing house, boogie, techno, garage, and whatever else takes their fancy; while their larger showcases at the likes of Oval Space and Barcelona’s Parc Del Forum have become the stuff of legend, consistently drawing an inclusive, fun, and loyal crowd. As Time Out London once said: “Secretsundaze has changed the face of daytime clubbing.”
Since its 2007 inception, the Secretsundaze label has had a steady and carefully curated output—featuring releases from the likes of DJ Qu, Shanti Celeste, and Brawther, in addition to the work of the label heads themselves. More recently, Palms Trax, Fred P, and DJ Slyngshot have joined the ranks with further material in the pipeline.
In this month’s Real Talk, Smith and Priestley take some time out to discuss a very timely topic: the rise of the “Selector” DJ. Why is it, they ask, that every party, press release, and blurb for social media seems incomplete without their “Selector” DJ?
When considering a topic for our Real Talk piece for XLR8R, we wanted to take the opportunity to dig deeper into something we’d noticed within the scene that interested us, and on a topic that maybe hadn’t been addressed that much in the written form previously. We also wanted to write something that serves as a snapshot of where the electronic music scene is today, certainly in London anyway.
It seems that every party, press release, and blurb for social media isn’t complete without their “Selector” DJ these days—what, why, and how is that? What even is a “Selector”? It almost feels that the term “Selector” has become a synonym for DJ. Is there a difference? Or are they the same thing? Given the importance of the DJ within dance culture, we thought these questions were more than worthy of some examination.
Let’s begin by discussing what a “Selector” is. The term was coined in the 1950s, born out of Jamaican sound system culture. It was during this period that many of the attributes of what we consider a DJ to be now—where playing records became a performance as opposed to a means to just programming and playing recorded music to an audience—came to prominence. Local sound systems were essentially local neighbourhood groups or microcosms, and their rivalry is maybe most easily likened today to the support some local football teams garner: fierce and not always friendly.
The size and power of the physical speaker stacks of sound systems was vastly important, as were the records or “specials” that they played, many of which were “exclusive.” But another tool emerged in the sound systems’ arsenal. The role of the DJ split, as the DJ took to the mic, essentially assuming the role of what we currently refer to as an MC, or a “toaster.” This person, somewhat confusingly, became known as the “DJ.” This led to a new role within the sound system, where one of its members now assumed the sole responsibility for choosing and physically playing the records, while the vocalist “DJ” carried out the role of MC—concentrating on drumming up the heat on the floor through his choice and delivery of words. Enter the “Selector.”
While it was the “DJ” who rose to prominence in the same way that rappers have in hip-hop, the role of the “Selector” was still important. Being restricted to the use of one deck, the “Selectors” were limited in what technical prowess they could show, so if they were being judged purely on their selections, exclusivity became key. Some of the leading “Selectors” in the ‘50s would regularly go on what we would describe as digging trips, often to the United States, bringing back cuts that would be exclusive to their soundsystem—searching for records that people on the island wouldn’t be able to hear anywhere else.
Towards the end of the ‘50s, the US began to move to a smoother sound and that didn’t work so well in the dance halls. So the people behind the sound systems began making their own music to play, with their “dubs” and “versions” pressed onto acetates or dubplates to amp up their arsenal of exclusive material. Two of the so-called “Big Three,” Sir Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid (of Trojan fame), were the first to start doing this back in 1957.
Now, fast forward to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s of New York, where Francis Grosso and a couple of others turned DJing on its head. This period has been well documented and we want to keep the piece quite focused on the “Selector,” but essentially they were responding to a time, place, society, and the birth of a newly formed culture where high octane up-all-night sessions started to become the norm. Maintaining a steady and relentless beat became king. Two turntables— basic machines without pitch controls etc.—were required and, as a result, an incredible amount of skill to operate them effectively. This is when the modern DJ as we know it was born, and technical skill reigned nearly as important, at times, as the actual tracks being played. From the street corners of the Bronx to the downtown discos, a DJ’s technical ability became of great significance.
This is the period where dance music culture exploded. The nights and parties started to go on for longer and longer. The records that were played themselves became extended so they would play for longer. They would have longer instrumental drum-based sections within the tracks and intros and outros so the DJ could more easily mix them; all of this was done with the aim of keeping the beat going and people dancing longer and harder.
There were exceptions, of course, most notably David Mancuso and Larry Levan, that have been better known for the records they play and the narrative they form, as opposed to the “skill” in which they put two records together. In fact, David Mancuso later went on to snub mixing records altogether, but this period generally heralded an emphasis on a DJ’s skill.
So why is it now, decades later, that we’re starting to refer to DJs as “Selectors” again. What’s behind this change?
Well, first of all, let’s try to offer up a modern definition of a “Selector.” Our assessment of this is that a “Selector” is defined by his expert choice and knowledge of the music he/she plays, much of which is often rare, exclusive, or largely unknown. The term also implies that this artist’s reputation is largely based around this, as opposed to their technical ability. We think this is the true meaning of a modern “Selector”—and we must note, too, that we believe this new term to be founded upon the old use of the word. Although now a global phenomenon, much of this new “Selector scene” arose in London where there has long been a strong history and knowledge of sound system culture.
However, as mentioned above, we’ve noticed the term being used to replace the term “DJ” itself, and the word seems to have also taken on a new meaning. Is that valid? We’ll examine that further later in the piece.
But, reverting back to the above, let’s now consider why these “Selector” DJs have risen up in recent times—why there are more of them in the spotlight than ever before. Why has the term become so prominent? (At this point, we must note that our examination of this is loosely constructed around electronic music and London as we’re based here, but we’ve also taken into consideration our experience of playing internationally.)
We begin with a consideration of where music is being “consumed,” and how we’re coming together to listen to music. It has been well documented how, in recent years, many clubs in London and further afield in the UK have closed. There’s a number of factors behind this, from gentrification to political posturing. In London especially, it is difficult to effectively operate a club with the high costs of rent, licensing, and planning constraints, and noise complaints from local residents.
One of the most beloved clubs we have lost in recent years is Plastic People, which was a true club in every sense of the word. Sadly, it hasn’t really been replaced, although The Pickle Factory, where we’re fortunate to hold a monthly residency, is probably the closest London has to offer right now and as much as we love it, it can still fall somewhat short.
What has emerged in the last few years though is a plethora of so-called audiophile bars, with the excellent Brilliant Corners leading the way. With Plastic having been renowned for its sound system, you could argue that Brilliant Corners and the like have picked up the proverbial baton. But the environments of the two couldn’t be more different: Plastic was a true dancefloor experience, deliberately dark to keep your mind focused on the music, which was played uncompromisingly loud and clear.
Don’t get us wrong, we love Brilliant Corners—we launched our new single there a month or so ago—but essentially it’s a Japanese fusion restaurant, serving great sashimi and the like alongside a stellar selection of natural wines. Some excellent local and often lesser-known DJs play records there over a sweet sounding Klipschorn sound system. Some of the world’s most loved DJs have also graced the decks, including Floating Points, Four Tet, and Hunee, all of whom have played fairly regularly.
Because of the nature of the venue, at times there is an almost unwritten no house music rule/policy. So here you have an environment where you have DJs presenting music that is appropriate for music lovers, eating and drinking with friends in a well-lit space, as opposed to sweating their troubles away in a dark basement. This is the perfect breeding ground for the someone who is able to show off their wares to an appreciative crowd while providing an apt “soundtrack”—or a “Selector.” Let’s not forget, clubs are very specific environments and a world apart from places such as Brilliant Corners, which blend music with social and culinary. Club DJs often don’t perform well in these environments as the skill set and musical palette required is hugely different. Essentially, audiophile bars provide “Selectors” with a great setting for them to showcase their work / present their art.
Let’s also look at where the younger generation of music lovers are spending their summers. Not so long ago, it was the vast dancefloors of Ibiza. The more musically switched on young people of Europe have largely shunned Ibiza these days, and it’s the beaches and boat parties of festivals such as Love International and Dimensions in Croatia, as opposed to your Pachas and Amnesias, that are the hot destinations. Croatia even has its own Selectors festival now, brought to you by the people behind Dekmantel, where the world’s finest “Selectors” converge for a week of unparalleled Selector pressure no less.
It’s not hard to see how these changes are feeding into the Selector phenomenon. Our favourite big party in Ibiza was Cocoon at Amnesia, circa 2007, with DJs like Ricardo Villalobos and Dorian Paic expertly steering crazy big dancefloors. As great as some of those sets were, they’re probably not what you’d wanna hear as the sun drops in the Adriatic on a 150-person Argonaughty boat party. Essentially, a move away from larger nighttime dancefloors to more laid back, lower capacity, daytime sessions had led to a dropping in BPM and a wider variety in music, two attributes widely associated with “Selectors.”
Like most things, the internet has also played an instrumental role. The rise of online music streaming platforms, particularly more recently local “boutique” internet radio stations such as NTS, Worldwide FM, and Redlight Radio, has been key. Many of these stations or platforms have a strong culture of tracklisting their shows, with artist and song titles easily available to people listening in live or streaming back via platforms like Mixcloud. This serves as not only a great platform for “Selectors” but also a great breeding ground for them, with the younger generation easily learning about the music and adding to their own collections, often purchasing records via online music marketplaces like Discogs. This particularly lends itself to “Selectors” because of the type of music being played on these stations, which is often largely not club-focussed, certainly in comparison to the jungle and garage pirate radio stations of the 1990s, for example.
This change in music listening and buying culture, combined with the lack of opportunity for emerging DJs to hone their skills in a “live” environment, due as a result of the closure of clubs and other live music venues, has seen some DJs focus on getting slots on these specialist stations, over gaining spots in clubs. This perfectly feeds into the “Selector” ethos of specialist music and presentation, and many acclaimed “Selectors” have regular shows on stations such as these. Compared with emerging DJs starting their own club nights, for example, this activity is financially “risk-free,” certainly less stressful but also one with a potentially global reach or audience. This reach is much wider than the initial friends and friends of friends network which new club-nights tend to be focussed around, so many feel it’s perhaps a better route to getting noticed as an emerging DJ / artist.
Technology, of course, has also played a role. The advent of CDJs and other digital DJ technology has made the technical job of the DJ much easier, arguably making it harder for DJs to distinguish themselves in this way; beat matching is all but automated these days. Similarly, the accessibility of music is now so wide; everyone can have the hottest new track within minutes thanks to digital downloads and the internet, so it’s no wonder certain DJs are eschewing this, and instead of spending their time going through countless promos and new releases, are digging back into their collections or searching for older / less immediately accessible music, to give themselves a competitive edge.
So these some of the conditions that we feel has fuelled the rise of the Selector. But is it all good, and what’s our stance on it all?
One criticism of Selector culture is that it exacerbates or certainly highlights socio-demographic issues within our scene. Although the scene is collectively but slowly doing its bit to address this, there are still a large number of white middle-class DJs and artists that dominate the bills of our festivals and clubs. That, largely and loosely, is the status quo of the current electronic music industry. That hasn’t always been the case though: the roots of disco, hip-hop, house, techno, and jungle were much more varied, with a much broader ethnic mix and background catapulting these genres to where they are now.
These days though, you could argue that it’s often only those more privileged that are able to go down the route of the “Selector DJ.” Whilst, of course, there are plenty of cheap and not so widely known records out there that can help define a DJ, some of the more exclusive records are naturally high in value and therefore only in the reach of a certain few, where exclusive records become some sort of cultural capital/currency. Many “Selectors” get involved in the fervent re-issue market, licensing and repressing, often in limited quantities, their little-known exclusive gems. This activity requires certain skills and resources often only available to those who are fairly privileged and although done with much love, serves as a massive boost to their Selector credentials.
These issues of exclusivity are exacerbated by the type of person out enjoying electronic music these days. The global ‘market’ that our scene is a part of is huge and comes with a highly competitive price tag. To keep up with the rising fees of international DJs and London rental markets, tickets to London’s best parties are highly priced, making it anything but inclusive, meaning that often only a certain demographic can hear these key DJs play, certainly regularly. This means that the audience of “Selectors” doesn’t look so different to the “Selectors” themselves. It’s only the more wealthy end of society that can afford entry to these parties, and therefore the ones that can more easily afford to buy the exclusive records they are hearing.
Questions must also be asked about how widely the term “Selector” is being used. Should the term apply to DJs? Or should it be reserved for referencing a certain type of DJ, one with a deep knowledge and passion for their respective sounds? What about DJs in the scene which is currently labelled as “tech house or tech? Based on the above, are they really selectors? Or is it people in that world once again trying to jump on the merits of another world they aspire to be more like? We don’t know much about this current “tech house” scene” (although we’re big fans of the OG ‘90s tech house sounds) but it looks like another bandwagon jump from where we’re sitting. We all sadly know what happened to the term “deep house” after all.
In summary, we’re all for this “Selector” movement, albeit with some reservations. In our opinion, every good DJ is a “Selector”; every DJ should have a deep and wide-reaching grasp of music. In fact, we hold track selection and programming in way higher importance than technical ability. We’re often referred to as “Selectors”; in fact, we’re sure we’ve also referred to ourselves as “Selectors” in our biography. for example, but quite frankly, we’d rather be referred to as “bad boy DJs” any day of the week. While tune selection is crucially important, let’s not get elitist about it. The majority of our favourite records and the ones that have defined us over the years probably average in value of £10 rather than £100. “Selectors,” lets not lose dance-floors up our arses; let’s not play obscure records just for the sake of it. Let’s remember that our job as DJs is to make people dance. Whilst touring with vinyl for busy international DJs is a comparative nightmare, let’s not lose that tradition of vinyl culture and DJing, something we often feel we ourselves are hanging on to for our dear lives.