Two styles divide the city’s club scene
Picture a Jakarta nightclub. Apart from alcohol and ecstasy, the music is the soul of the club. The DJ is crucial.
As a profession and a lifestyle, DJ-ing is a pretty independent choice. No formal academic requirements are necessary. There are no set textbooks on how to become a DJ. You can learn the technical skills at home by mastering semi-professional equipment—which is how most professional DJs start their careers. The special qualifications are musical talent, technical proficiency and a cool demeanour.
In Jakarta, with its hundreds of clubs, DJ-ing is an occupation on the rise. With the burgeoning growth of the city’s nightlife scene—which started in the South Jakarta district of Melawai in the late 1980s—more and more youngsters interested in the art of mixing music have decided to learn DJ-ing as a promising way of making a living.
In the early days, learning how to be a DJ was nothing like the process of studying and exam-taking necessary to get into other professions. To become a decent public relations officer, you had simply to choose from a number of PR schools and go through the routine; but to become a DJ, many didn’t know how or where to begin. In the early 1990s, this all changed for Jakarta’s potential superstars, with the birth of several DJ schools.
These schools gained momentum with the boom of the nightlife industry over the next few years in West and South Jakarta—districts that insiders refer to respectively as ‘Kota’ and ‘Selatan’. These labels underlie contrasts between the two, in terms of the character of their clubs, the types of crowd they attract and the personalities of the DJs who work there.
Selatan is known for international tunes, while over in Kota, the last eight years have seen the creation of a new music genre that throws Indonesian pop into the mix. Like the western and southern compass points they stand for, Kota and Selatan clubs are very unlikely ever to align with each other. Their DJs have different approaches—Selatan DJs act as tastemakers, whereas Kota DJs are more dependent on the crowd, otherwise known as ‘the market‘.
No DJ school has lasted longer than a decade. Most don’t survive past two years; some don’t even make it through their first year, due to lack of enrolments. Unlike English language schools, DJ schools attract very few students. The schools—commonly known as ‘DJ courses’ (kursus DJ)—usually only have one or two students per class. For example, the D’Majors DJ Course in Selatan has only trained some forty DJs since its founding in 2003. In other words, their average output is one class with one teacher and one pupil per day. Each student takes two classes per week, at a fee of one million rupiah per month.
Also in contrast with English courses, DJ courses only last two to three months. Students are introduced to the equipment; given beat-to-beat modules; and taught creative mixing and other techniques. The absence of compulsory textbooks means that there are no shared theoretical standards between the schools. Each is free to implement its own unique ‘curriculum’. Of course, some similarities remain, because the basic techniques are essentially the same; but beyond the fundamentals, each DJ school allows its students to choose their preferred musical style. “Musical taste is not our responsibility,” says Glen, an instructor at D’Majors, “We don’t want to impose our tastes on the students.”
Even so, there is a tendency to push the students in the musical direction of their mentors. Glen, who has been in the business since 1988, admits that instructors can have a strong influence on their pupils. For example, as a Selatan DJ, he never teaches his students how to play Kota-style music. Likewise, many Kota schools do not teach their pupils Selatan sounds.
In other words, the location of a DJ school strongly influences the musical preferences of the DJs they produce. The DJ schools in Kota tend to produce DJs that favour local sounds; there is a general consensus that the Kota DJs play ‘commercial’ music. On the other hand, the Selatan schools are more aware of international music trends. Selatan DJs are regarded as having more integrity and artistic awareness than their Kota peers. Thus, an intra-city rivalry is born.
Bedroom DJs versus Commercial DJs: an education
To understand DJ schools in Jakarta is to understand two contrasting streams of thought: Kota, with its commercial local music, is geared for mass consumption. Selatan, with its idealistic global sounds, is freer from market pressure and more selective.
In Selatan, the pupils tend to come from upper-middle class professional backgrounds. They study DJ-ing as a spare-time activity. “Only about 25% of our students are in it for the work. Most are only into it as a hobby,” says David, owner of D’Majors.
None of his graduates end up as full-time professional DJs. Meanwhile, the students in Kota are mainly middle class kids, intent on a DJ-ing career. “Most of my DJ students have a commercial goal. They hope to get a job after graduating from here,” says Agustinus Leo, an instructor at Biz Mixing Studio.
DJs earn more than the average club worker. Resident DJs, like most of those who work in Kota clubs, earn about two million rupiah per month when they start out and can attract as much as six million per month once they’ve made a name for themselves. In Selatan, where a lot of DJs are freelance, the money is even better: an average of four million rupiah per three-hour set. The repertoires of Selatan students are not tied to the tastes of the crowd. “They usually just want to express the songs in their heads. They don’t care about what the market wants,” says David.
According to Agus, Kota DJs are more conscious of the importance of popular taste. “If they don’t play what the crowd wants, they won’t get jobs,” he says.
As the Selatan pupils are relatively wealthy, they usually own their own home equipment and go shopping for vinyl at Rp 150.000 a disc. As a result, they’re more expressive than the Kota students—only a few of whom can afford to buy new music, let alone their own equipment, so they’re resigned to playing whatever they can get hold of. These conditions earn them the nickname ‘commercial DJs’. As a result, many Kota graduates eventually find jobs as resident DJs at Kota clubs, while Selatan graduates stick with it as just a hobby: hence the title, ‘bedroom DJs’. Bedroom DJs perform for their own amusement, with perhaps the occasional gig at private parties held by friends. Full-time Selatan DJs are a rarity.
“At first, I just went to clubs a lot. Eventually, I became interested in learning how to play at home,” says Intan, a production-house employee who once took a Selatan course. A fan of progressive music, she claims she has no intention of becoming a DJ who plays to a crowd of hundreds: “I just play for myself,” she says, “If I play for others, it’s probably just at a friend’s birthday party.”
For Intan, being a DJ doesn’t have to involve pleasing other people. “It’s like painting—you don’t have to show it to others, do you? You can paint for yourself or those closest to you,” she says. So if DJ-ing is an individualistic art process, why do people like Intan go to study at a formal institution? As she sees it, “Those DJ schools just teach technique. As for style, I didn’t learn [that] from them.”
Mono, a Kota graduate who works at a small bar, is completely different to Intan. He says he always wanted to work as a DJ, especially since he took his course: “My hobby has always been music, so why not make money from that hobby?” he says. To that end, he deliberately sought out popular commercial DJs to learn from and became a Kota student.
Owing to these characteristic differences between Selatan and Kota, there are also differences in the learning materials. For example, at Kota schools they specifically teach how a DJ should act in front of the crowd—everything from how to use a microphone to how to handle patron complaints if the songs aren’t to their liking. They don’t teach this at Selatan DJ schools.
Whatever their individual traits, Jakarta’s DJ schools are reflections of their respective clubbing environments—the Selatan scene is more idiosyncratic, and Kota is tuned to mass appeal. It’s still too early to tell how the formal training offered by these DJ schools may shape Jakarta’s nightlife-industry, since the majority of working DJs are still self-taught. Most find their own equipment, choose their own songs, and express themselves as they please—whether they are ‘bedroom’ or ‘commercial’, whether they do it for love alone or for both love and money.