Spinning some game

By HermineBloom

Consider the mystique of a glistening DJ, nonchalantly wearing just one headphone and hovering over his laptop amidst a crowd of wildly enthusiastic, dancing drunks—or the one-man show who controls sheer pandemonium with a swift click of the mouse and iconic turntable scratching. Without so much as guitar strings to pluck, DJs possess a unique, undeniable star quality by exuding “cool” in a reckless, club-going culture where mashing together top 40 hits, old school hip-hop and sparkling synth makes them a party’s most valuable asset.

Here’s where the beauty of interactive video games come in. Today, anyone with $120 to spend can be a beat-making, mixing, scratching, self-proclaimed DJ in the comfort of their own living room. FreeStyle Games, a small music game-developing company, has teamed up with the leading worldwide Rock Band and the original Guitar Hero series publishers, Activision, to produce DJ Hero, which was released in stores nationwide on Oct. 27.

With an exclusive, original 93-mix track list, plastic turntable and mixer, DJ Hero, not unlike its music rhythm game predecessors, supports the notion that many people are anxious to become ultra-cool DJs, even for a fleeting moment in a fantasy scenario, said Griffin McElroy, contributing editor for Joystiq and music rhythm game connoisseur. The question, however, is whether DJ Hero is in fact, an accurate portrayal of what it’s actually like to deejay, or if the concept mirrors that of Guitar Hero’s plastic, colored buttons, which McElroy said are nothing like the 15 or 16 frets on an actual guitar with six strings.

“Video games are about wish-fulfillment, really,” said Tom Dowd, assistant professor in the Interactive Arts and Media Department at Columbia. “And culturally, who do we put on pedestals more than social, cultural, political or intellectual heroes these days? Rock stars and pop stars. It fulfills a not-too-well-hidden desire for each of us to be idolized.”

Dowd further explained that we’re familiar with rhythm as a means of expression because we practice rhythms on a day-to-day basis by singing, drumming along with a song or performing virtually any task that requires timing.

“It’s a powerful combination and connecting that gameplay to a physical prop, toy or controller seems so obvious now,” Dowd said.

Still, rhythm-based video games have been around almost as long as there have been games with audio, especially in Japan with companies like Konami, a leading Japanese game developing and publishing powerhouse founded in 1969.

In regards to DJ Hero, Dowd, although only having witnessed someone else play the game, admits that it’s an incredibly cool piece of technology that works well, despite its lack of widespread appeal.

“Everybody at one point or another has the fantasy of being a big rock star,” Dowd said. “And what do you picture yourself as? You picture yourself playing the guitar, drumming or singing. But not a lot of people picture themselves in a club scratching records.”

The “casual gaming movement,” where anyone can pick up a plastic guitar or a Wiimote, Dowd said, isn’t necessarily new.

“The most popular games on the Internet are Hearts and Solitaire, so it’s not like the casual games movement is a revolution,” Dowd said. “It’s always kind of been there, it’s just moving off of the PC and into the living room.”

McElroy, 22, calls himself an avid gamer when it comes to the musical-rhythm game variety, having played everything from Harmonix-made, widely popular Guitar Hero to Konami’s Guitar Freaks, which is the simulation of playing the electric guitar with similar gameplay to the ever-popular, Americanized Guitar Hero series.

McElroy landed a full-time editing gig at Joystiq, a frequented blog devoted to video game news and commentary, after writing for his hometown paper about video games and freelancing, he said. Recently, McElroy moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he didn’t know anyone. With the help of Harmonix’s Rock band, however, he now meets with a group of new friends to play the game every Monday night.

“Rock Band was made by Harmonix, who started off the Guitar Hero franchise, and I think a lot of people knew exactly what they were getting themselves into, which was Guitar Hero mixed with karaoke, mixed with drumming,” McElroy said. “I think that’s a winning combination if I’ve ever heard of one. I also think more people were willing to drop that much money on something that they knew they’d probably like.”

DJ Hero, on the other hand, is what McElroy describes as a phenomenal risk for the folks at Activision, which he said is a company that’s generally more concerned with turning out another sequel for a pre-existing game or trying to squeeze as much money out of a video game franchise as they possibly can.

Essentially, DJ Hero’s controller consists of a wireless deck with a movable turntable that supports three stream buttons, an effects dial, a cross-fader and a euphoria button, which acts much like the star power button in Guitar Hero. The game allows players to scratch and mix according to the cues on the screen, McElroy said. A familiarity with mash-ups that comprise of hip-hop, R&B, dance and techno seems necessary, as the game includes mixes by DJ Jazzy Jeff, the late DJ A.M., Jay-Z, Cut Chemist, Daft Punk and Grandmaster Flash, to name a few. All of whom have composed new beats just for the game, he said.

While most people have heard the song “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas, not everyone knows who the DJ, Cut Chemist, is­­­­—let alone mashed up components of his beats. Still, while admittedly more difficult than other rhythm games, McElroy claims that DJ Hero has one of the best soundtracks of a music rhythm game he’s played thus far.

“Not only does it incorporate mash-ups, which is completely unheard of, it has genres of music that Guitar Hero and Rock band have never dreamed of touching on,” McElroy said. “I think it’s the first rhythm game that really incorporates hip-hop in an effective manner. There are a lot of karaoke rap games that don’t really get the hip-hop culture. I think DJ Hero does a better job at doing that.”

The DJ culture in itself is changing with the times as well, which Kyle Garvin, a 21-year-old DJ, acknowledges by calling himself more of a beat composer and a sampler rather than a traditional disc jockey.

“It’s a lot of fun to bust out a song at a party or to be able to figure out [how to] mesh other parts of songs that you liked into something that sound a little more original—something that people can latch on to, but sometimes they don’t know exactly where it came from,” Garvin said.

After two years of deejaying for the sake of having fun with his friends and getting his music out there in Milwaukee, Wis., Garvin is continuing to reorganize parts of songs for an energetic crowd, he said. That same rush mixed with musical reinvention, however, has discouraged him from purchasing DJ Hero

in the first place.

“[DJ Hero] seems like something that’s kind of taking away from the actual art form itself,” Garvin said. “It kind of grants people who haven’t gotten into the ability to do that in that fantasy scenario, but there’s a lot of equipment out there for starter DJs or amateur guitarists to introduce them to that. It’s kind of taking away from that ability that everyone has to actually play real music, as opposed to sitting in your living room and pretending to.”

Though never having tried to play DJ Hero before, Garvin is content to scratch and mix in real-life, whereas Megan Levine, 20-year-old Bizar Entertainment-employed DJ, actually believes that the game could serve as a practice model for DJs and non-DJs alike.

Levine has been deejaying for six years since she first began training at Bizar Entertainment, 151 S. Pfingsten Rd., Deerfield, Ill. After working primarily at Bizar’s weddings or bar and bat-mitzvahs, she later began to DJ at bars around the city and eventually for high-end nightclubs such as Level, 1045 N. Rush St., and the W Hotel, 644 N. Lake Shore Drive.

Despite the fact that there’s only one CD player used in DJ Hero, Levine believes that the game is entertaining and more applicable to real-life than Guitar Hero. The stigma associated with deejaying may have something to do with the fact that most club-goers are acutely sensitive to what songs the DJ chooses rather than the quality of mixing of the DJ, she said.

“People think that when DJs have a computer, they’re not doing anything and that the computer’s doing it for them,” Levine said. “The computer’s not doing anything. The benefit of having a computer there is because you’ll see all these DJs with flashlights and big booklet of CDs. When you’re working in a dark nightclub, that becomes really irritating and practically impossible.”

McElroy, like many who exist purely in the crowd witnessing (or dancing in most cases), doesn’t know exactly how to pinpoint the reasons behind what makes a DJ so insanely popular, sought after and downright cool in modern-day culture.

“I appreciate it because there’s something magical and amazing about taking these old familiar songs and colliding two of them to create a completely new and completely original, really fresh song,” McElroy said. “DJ Hero is just chock-full of those. There have been a few [songs] that I’ve gotten stuck

in my head nonstop.”