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Is staring at the DJ while they play really that bad?

Or should it just be about the music?

  • Words: Josh Baines | Illustration: Alex Jenkins
  • 28 February 2018

In the unlikely event that I ever find myself in possession of a time machine, an invisibility cloak, and the ability to fly, I know exactly where I’ll go. A studio in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1493 is where you’ll find me, hiding behind the easel as Albrecht Dürer puts the finishing touches to one of those masterworks that changed the direction of European art. It’s a daydream I’ve indulged in for hours and hours; I try not to gasp – I am, remember, invisible, not inaudible – as I watch his fingers work meticulously, each miniscule movement corresponding with another literal stroke of genius. In my version of the vision, Dürer steps back, exhales, mops his brow, and looks down at his hands. “How,” he says, in a soft voice, “how did they do this?”

It is a question I’ve found myself asking not just in galleries, standing slack-jawed in front of Dürer’s Christ As The Man Of Sorrows, but in nightclubs, too, standing slack-jawed in front of Jeff Mills’ six million fingers, hammering away at a TR-909, six sets of CDJs and three 1210s.

It feels strange, to this writer at least, that hands aren’t talked about more in club culture. They are, after all, the actual reason we’re participants in 21st century nightlife: hands put the records we’re dancing to together, and they put the dancefloors together too. It is for that reason that I’m not ashamed to say that my name is Josh, and I am obsessed with watching the hands and fingers of my favourite DJs.

It isn’t that I’m there just to intently watch fingers tap at cues and tweak EQs; I go to the bar sometimes, too. It is, in a way, a form of unsexual and entirely benign voyeurism. Positioning myself to avoid getting in either the DJ or the dancers’ way, I’ll happily stand just to the left or the right of the decks, my gaze firmly fixed on the mixer and the hands that are turning an inert lump of plastic and metal into an instrument of beauty, wonder, puzzlement, joy, anxiety, and freedom with all the deft precision of a philharmonic conductor and his baton.

To stay in the realm of the conservatoire, if you’d stumped the best part of a weekend city break to watch a world-class pianist tinkle their way through a particularly tricky Rachmaninoff piece, you’d be a fool not to watch their fingers intently, delighting in the combination of muscle memory, neurological transmission and sheer physical dexterity coming together to create something truly wonderful, and totally beyond your own capabilities. The same goes with a night on the tiles.

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