How to Judge a DJ Set, With Mike Servito, Bobby Browser, and the Surface Tension Residents
Surface Tension Residents Night // Mike Servito, Bobby Browser
Project One // An Underground
Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014
"I'd really like to start a band called Fascist Polyrhythms. It'd be like a brooding white guy version of Fela Kuti," said a friend in idle conversation while a DJ pushed through an extended blend between two dub-techno records. We were at Project One, waiting for another to arrive so that we could make the trek across the bridge to the East Bay for an underground. In the meantime, we were taking in Surface Tension, a new party that focuses on the darker side of dance music, with a soundtrack that fuses gothy '80s minimal synth cuts and booming German techno.
There are a number of different ways to judge a DJ set as a casual observer. Much of it depends on personal taste and expectation, but there a few relatively objective qualities that I tend to consider. They are: how well a DJ blends between songs, how well a DJ interacts with and responds to their dancefloor, how well a DJ selects tracks, how well a DJ tweaks songs with EQs, and how well a DJ places their songs in the context of a broader mix. To be good in all these areas is a goal to strive for, but, practically speaking, few people manage to tick all the boxes.
In general, the most important of these is song selection: to be able to choose the right track for the right moment is a delicate and hard-to-learn art. It's the kind of thing that, when done right, can often compensate for other technical failings. After all, dancers are at clubs to dance to good music. This was the case with one of the resident DJs in the early slot at Surface Tension, who roughly mixed through a series of excellent delay-washed percussive techno tracks that sounded great when allowed to breathe. (I wish I could identify these songs, not just for the sake of illustrating the night, but also for my own collection.) His set was all about the music, with less of an emphasis on the technicalities of DJing. This loose but passionate playing added a relaxed feeling to the ambiance, which was unusual, considering the urgency of the beat. Sometimes all you need are a few good tracks and some receptive dancers. Surface Tension had plenty of both.
Then we were across the bridge in the East Bay, at an unfinished warehouse space with chains hanging from the ceiling and white emergency lights spinning on the walls. Capacity was so tight that people were being turned away at the door. On our way in, a sad-faced clubber tried to sneak in behind us, but a bouncer stopped him, shook his head, and said, "No, no, no. You've already tried to get in three times tonight, it's not happening!" Bobby Browser was on the last few songs of a live set of sample-heavy deep house played from his laptop and a small assortment of gear. The beat was visceral and punchy, with warm stabs occasionally shooting out from four van-sized speaker stacks. The dancefloor was mobbed and the bathroom line looked like it'd take about an hour to get through.
Our arrival at the underground was due to a few factors. Bobby Browser's set was one of them -- he's leaving the Bay Area soon. However, another major pull was an extended set by Mike Servito, a Brooklyn house DJ affiliated with New York's long-running "The Bunker" party series. Though I was aware of his reputation, I'd never heard him play before. A DJ friend of mine encouraged me to check him out. While Servito spun, that friend said, "I want to get back into spinning vinyl. It's just, if you can mix this good on wax it's like" -- my friend put his hand on his crotch and pretended to orgasm while wagging an invisible dick in the air -- "Ugggghhh, you know?"
Servito's playing provokes a reaction for a reason: he's an extremely talented DJ who possesses both enviable technical abilities and a keen ear for song selection. Yet there was something more to his appeal than just these qualities. The overall mix he created was beyond a collection of songs, it was a full narrative that he built through subtle multi-song passages that evolved through different moods. He moved into the dark murmurings of El Prevost's "Allez Ally (Shonky Remix)," then took a turn into the P-funk loop of Pascal Rioux's "High Funk," and then much later played Levon Vincent's "Love Technique" (which incited two-fingered whistles and screams). It felt like he was thinking four or five steps ahead of the record he was playing; it was like hearing someone play chess. He exuded confidence, which built a kind of relationship of trust with the dancefloor -- when he decided to throw a few weird lo-fi curveballs into his set, nobody left.
My favorite part of the night came earlier, when one of his records started skipping and got caught in a loop -- he looked quizzically at the turntable and turned off the power, causing all sound to crawl to a grinding stop. Everyone blinked. He put the needle on a different record, pressed play, and put the party back in full swing like he'd planned the whole thing. Basically, what I'm trying to say here is that there's DJing and then there are DJs who make the rest of us look bad. Mike Servito is one of the latter.