Education and entertainment intersect in the musical research of Sociology’s Oliver Wang.
Wang, who joined the university in 2006, wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Spinning Identities: A Social History of the Filipino-American Disc Jockey Community 1978-1995.” He received his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley, the latter in 2004 and backs up his research with a thriving career as a DJ who currently performs weekly in Echo Park.
“It’s been fun,” said Wang of his music-making. “It’s an interesting way to stay engaged with the music in more than an academic sense. It forms a personal, visceral connection to the music.”
In his dissertation, Wang discusses the dominance of Filipino-American DJs in the Bay area for a roughly 20-year span. “They ran record labels, they led the party promotion scene and they appeared on radio,” he explained. In his own DJ career, Wang worked from 1994-2004 hosting a radio show in Berkeley and club gigs. “I recently DJ’d my first wedding,” he laughed.
The Filipino DJs he traces in his research were the stars of a huge musical scene. “Even though it was multi-racial, the scene was predominantly Filipino-American,” he said. “They were the most thoroughly invested in it. There were hundreds of crews that came and went during the 1980s. To me, this was a fascinating piece of history that nobody knew about. My research was all interviews because there was almost no printed material about it.”
The successful DJ, as Wang knows by personal experience, needs a skill set that includes the knack to read a crowd. “You need the ability to understand what it is that other people are looking for you to do. The trick is to find one way to be able to address both their needs and to lead. You want to do more than just comment on the music. You want to lead a crowd in a direction you’d like to see happen. This is not unlike the classroom experience,” he laughed. “Educators are expected to know both their students’ needs and the direction they need to go. Obviously, a DJ works in a setting with a different chemistry but both positions are about negotiating that chemistry. What is the next song that will maintain a dance environment and not kill the vibe? You learn through experience. You develop an intuition about the best path to take.”
There have been several cultural explanations for the rise of the Filipino DJ. “For instance, their families came from a culture immersed in American music for decades. But more important were peer groups. Once a few crews became established, they influenced their peers to get out and do the same,” he said. “It grew by word of mouth passed between teens who wished to emulate their peers in campus popularity.”
The DJ’s most important tool today is not technology but diversity. “A DJ needs a lot to choose from,” he said. “For instance, when I did my first wedding recently, my first priority was, what do they want? What is the age range? In this case, it was everyone from teenagers to grandparents. If I were working a Hollywood club, I could get away with just contemporary hip-hop and R&B. But for this wedding, I made sure I had music from the 1950s to the present and I made sure I had more than I could possibly use. I felt it was important to be prepared for any contingency. A narrow selection runs the risk of alienating half the audience.”
The key is experience. “The more you DJ, the better you become at reading the signs from a crowd about what direction they’re leaning in,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for nearly 15 years and it is still possible to play a song you think will get them dancing and, instead, the floor clears out. Being a DJ is a constantly transforming environment.”
As a DJ himself, Wang finds himself distracted by the competition. “I pay a lot more attention than I used to,” he said. “How do they mix? How do they transition from song to song? I’m not above craning my neck to read another DJ’s playlist or seeing what is next on the turntable. I become much more tuned into what the DJ is doing than the party itself.”
The future of the DJ could go one of two ways, Wang feels. “We live in a playlist culture,” he explained. “iTunes and MP3s have made people much more used to listening to music outside of a set sequence. Instead of buying a cassette and listening to it straight through to the end, people are beginning to assemble any order of songs they want. The individual has far more power over how they consume music and the kinds of music they consume and one can argue this diminishes the DJ. But on the flip side, I think that with the growth of more music and the sheer volume of what is out there, the need for filtering and the critical gate keeping function increases the role of the DJ in narrowing down a million musical possibilities into the dozen choices that will rock their worlds.”