What if the D.J. were the NGO?
A few minutes from Sunset Park, Sixth Avenue is dotted with signs for panaderías and mercados, Cantonese sweet shops and Malaysian grocery stores. Women with toddlers sit on the steps of their brownstones, exchanging gossip loudly in Spanish. Across the street, old couples file arm-in-arm out of Grace Chinese Baptist Church. Reggaeton blares from a passing car. And around the corner, Jace Clayton sits near the window of his studio on a quiet tree-lined side street, sips from a cup of South American mate, and talks about music.
“What is world music, anyways?” he asks. With black-rimmed glasses and a calm, cool voice, he has the unmistakable air of the old-school hipster intellectual. The floor of his studio is cluttered with stacks of books and crates of records, cassettes, and CDs in old plastic or tattered paper covers. Rummaging through a pile behind him, Clayton pulls out a disk marked with Arabic letters: “Here, this one. You’ve gotta listen. It blows me away.”
Clayton, also known as DJ/Rupture, is a Brooklyn-based D.J., producer, and writer who has been catching ears worldwide with his work as a sort of globetrotting musical curator. As a self-described ethnomusicologist, Clayton studies the ways different cultures use digital technology in their music. As a world-famous D.J., he has made a name for himself through the way he uses the digital in his own music.
One month Clayton might be playing a live set at a festival in Monterrey or Barcelona. The next, he is crate-diving for vintage cumbia records in Bogota or finding new samba tracks in Sao Paulo. In between, he is writing for publications like n+1, Frieze, and Fader. And then it’s back to Brooklyn to mix sounds that are turning his Sunset Park studio into a Mecca for cross-cultural rhythms, and making Clayton, as Jon Pareles of the New York Times put it, the city’s “thoughtful pipeline for music from countless distant and obscure outposts.”
Clayton, 36, grew up in Boston and began D.J.ing there in the late 1990s, when he became tired of what he calls the “segregation of music cultures.” D.J.s and clubs would limit themselves to one genre or one tempo, and Clayton decided to buck the trend and break the rigidity of genres. He called himself DJ/Rupture, and he started experimenting, mixing heavy, textured sounds from different continents that had hardly if ever encountered each other on a turntable. In 2001, just a few years out of college—he studied literature at Harvard—DJ/Rupture released Gold Teeth Thief. A striking blend of genres, from hip-hop, reggae, and soul to dancehall, breakbeat, and spoken word, the mix became an underground hit and made a name for Clayton on the international D.J. circuit. With his eye on where Brooklyn meets the beyond, Clayton also founded Dutty Artz, a record label that has helped bring sounds like the ch-ch-ch of cumbia, the guttural base of reggaeton, and the clanking percussion of baile funk to D.J. sets and music libraries worldwide. “It’s remix culture gone mainstream,” he says.
For Clayton, however, D.J.ing and producing are about much more than just the remix. “It’s about understanding how sound, technology use in low-income communities, and public space are interacting to create the beats behind what we’re hearing,” he says. “It’s about how people are using technology in different places, on their own terms.” It is this drive to understand and spotlight world music traditions that has taken Clayton across Latin America, Africa, and, most recently, the Arab world—a region that he feels has been overlooked by Western D.J. culture. “With music coming from that region,” he says, “it’s like we’re in totally different worlds.”
The culprit? Music software. The rhythmic structures found in North African and Middle Eastern music aren’t compatible with mainstream music software programs. “The reason is straight-up structural,” Clayton says. “Latin American and African music are already in the right rhythmic zones, so it makes sense to D.J.s on both sides, but [North African and Middle Eastern] beats don’t gel well with Western time signatures.” Clayton is setting out to change this, and he’s going beyond digital—literally.
In the summer of 2011, with the help of Bo Anderson, a prominent Rio de Janeiro–based D.J., Clayton launched Beyond Digital, a nonprofit organization that seeks to understand how people are making music in the Arab world, and give them the digital tools to bring their music to the global stage. In June 2011, after receiving backing through Kickstarter, Clayton, Anderson, and a small group of American and European artists went to Casablanca to launch the project. Though he’d long admired music from Morocco, and used it in his mixes, Clayton had still never been there. “It was time for me to go there and see what people actually were doing with music,” he explains. But in addition to simply learning about the music scene, Beyond Digital wanted to circulate the sounds of that scene worldwide.
The first step was to make samples of Moroccan music easy to use and upload from computers everywhere. “There are so many samples of Latin music available online for people to use in the western world, and because so many people are using them, they get regurgitated and recycled,” Anderson explains. “The way sampling works is that one person samples one thing and another person samples that same thing again, and then it is repeated over and over.” Sampling is a sort of key to the global music world, and the Beyond Digital team wanted to give Moroccan musicians the opportunity to participate.
Next came the question of music software. The Beyond Digital team sought to bring North African and Middle Eastern music to the global stage, but in order to do so, they had to give Moroccan musicians the tools to make and share their own work digitally. So Clayton wanted to create digital tools compatible with the types of music people are already making in Morocco, enabling those musicians to produce music on their own terms. In a joint effort between musicians in Morocco, Beyond Digital, and programmers in Brooklyn, this is what he is doing.
Since Beyond Digital made its first trip to Morocco in 2011, Clayton has been writing software to work inside Ableton Live—a software program widely used by D.J.s internationally—to make it compatible with what Clayton calls “non-Western conceptions of music conception.” The first version of the program, called Sufi Plug Ins, became available as a free download this past May. The plug-ins offer a suite of audio tools, including synthesizers hardwired for North African and Arabic music. “The thought is that this, like everything with music on the Internet today, can go viral,” Clayton says. “The samples and the software are there for anyone and everyone to use.” Last time he checked, about 5,000 people had downloaded Sufi Plug Ins—musicians and producers both in and far beyond the Arab world.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled with this idea of the “discovery” of non-Western music. Diplo, best known as the D.J. behind Major Lazer and as the producer of hits for M.I.A., Chris Brown, and Beyoncé, got into a heated Twitter brawl last year with Venus Iceberg X, a well-known New York D.J., about the ethics of global music appropriation. Diplo has also been responsible for bringing sounds like Brazilian baile funk and Angolan kuduro out of their historical strongholds and into the mainstream. Venus accused him of musical colonialism: scrounging up sounds from the global south without giving due reference or respect to their origins.
Dr. Wayne Marshall, a D.J. himself and Professor of Musicology at M.I.T. who studies music appropriation, says this debate is an old one. “This feels like a repeat of a debate people have been having for decades. These charges have been leveled against Elvis, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and now Diplo. As for what’s new about this debate, it’s happening at what feels like a moment of unprecedented access to things at a geographical remove, where everything traverses the world in a far more rapid way than it used to.”
Thanks to the Internet, music from all corners of the world is now available for anyone anywhere to download and mix into their own tracks. One result is the democratization of music, but the flip side of today’s widespread music exchange is what can be seen as music exploitation. With the explosion of international sounds in music produced in the West, D.J.s often credit themselves with finding and remaking music from an “unknown” culture and exposing it anew to the world. “It seems reminiscent of a lot of the historical power dynamics and exchange relations that have happened between the so-called developed world and under-developed world,” Marshall says. “D.J.s are trolling the web looking for fresh, hot, exotic beats to play in their sets. So this is sort of outsourcing the production of their cool to this emerging world.”
In Marshall’s view, Clayton is well aware of these issues. “Jace strongly bucks this trend by expressing a sustained interest in something like cumbia or reggaeton … and coming back to it, unearthing new corners of it, and digging into other styles and time periods,” he says. “He looks for the substance behind it.” As Clayton says, “It’s not a hit-and-run operation.” He wants to support musicians, not exploit them. Technology, he says, is not a cure-all.
“As global D.J.s who are always searching out for new stuff,” Clayton asks, “how can we find a context for it? How can we translate that into interesting manifestations in the physical world, into ideas about exchange and collaboration? Uploading loops is not a significant enough step towards interpersonal connection and communication as going there, meeting with people, and talking face-to-face.”
Clayton takes this approach—of getting offline and going to the source—very seriously. Last year, while wandering around a bazaar in Casablanca, he stumbled upon a crate of beat-up CDs at the back of a hijab store. Within the pile was a mix by Imanaren, a group of Berber musicians from southern Morocco. Clayton listened and was instantly hooked. He sought out Imanaren and started recording them in a makeshift studio in downtown Casablanca. A few weeks later, the group released an eponymous album through Clayton’s record label, and there is now talk of a European tour.
Despite the anxiety around global music appropriation, Clayton remains hopeful that the D.J. can be an antidote to rather than an agent of exploitation. “What if the D.J. were the NGO?” is his motto with Beyond Digital. “Listening is paramount as a D.J.,” he says. “It is passive and open-eared. And I think of that as a way of being and interacting in the world, rather than simply going places where you know what you want to get in advance.”
Clayton is now setting his sights beyond Morocco. He is planning a digital literacy program for musicians in Egypt wanting to learn how to use music software, and is taking requests on how software programs could be re-programmed to better fit their own digital needs. “Music is something that unites people, and so is technology,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about, moving things around.”
EMILY GOGOLAK is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Observer, Rolling Stone Middle East, TheAtlantic.com, GlobalPost, and the International Herald Tribune/Ha'aretz.