In a Club's Life, DJs Are the Heartbeat

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In a Club's Life, DJs Are the Heartbeat

MI, a techno club located in a basement in Hongdae (the area around Hongik University in Seoul), was full of pounding music at 11 p.m. one Saturday. In most techno clubs around this part of town, 11 p.m. is considered early in the evening. These sort of clubs usually only hit full swing at around 1 a.m. On weekday nights, they close at about 4 a.m., but on weekends they stay open until dawn.

Most of the guests in MI were in their 20s. They were not drinking heavily but instead were concentrating on enjoying the newest sounds proffered by disc jockeys, such as Dave Davis' "Underground Subway," and Digger's "Look Ahead." As the music enveloped their bodies, conversation was evidently a secondary concern.

In the same neighborhood, there is a hip-hop club named NBINB, also underground. A few bouncers guard the entrance to the club. These sturdily built doormen may look intimidating, but they are civil to guests as long as the guests do not cause trouble. Inside it was a little darker than inside the techno club, and the clientele, which included many different nationalities, seemed a little younger.

Clubbing is taking off in Korea these days. With the boom comes an increasing interest in music and the art of the DJ.

The club scene in Korea can be divided into several loose groupings. South of the river there are old Korean institutions such as Juliana Seoul and Boss 677, and hotel clubs such as J.J. Mahoney's (in the Grand Hyatt hotel) or Pharaoh's (in the Hilton hotel). Here the emphasis lies not so much on the music, but on dressing up to meet new people and potential dates. This often takes place through "bookings," whereby the waiters, acting as go-betweens, arrange blind dates on the spot at the behest of clients.

The club scene flourishing in Hongdae now offers less emphasis on romancing and dress and a greater preoccupation with the music.

The role of the DJ is also changing. The old-style "action DJ," to be found in clubs on the outskirts of Seoul, plays predominately Korean tunes and offers a more visual performance, lip-synching or commentating along with songs.

At the more refined hotel clubs, DJs focus on the music, mixing CDs into each other by adjusting the tempo for a continuous stream of music.

DJs who are more serious about their work are usually to be found at techno or hip-hop clubs. Unlike other DJs, here the tools of the trade are vinyl LPs and a double set of record players ("decks"). These DJs are considered artists as they do much more than simply pressing "play." They create their own music out of existing tracks by playing two or more at the same time and mixing or synthesizing different sounds. Watching those DJs working is like watching a live performance. There are more than 30 DJs in Seoul of this caliber.

One of the best DJs in Korea who specializes in techno music is known simply as Unkle. His personal history tracks the surge of national interest in the art of being a DJ.

Unkle, who also runs a record shop and club MI in Hongdae, began to work as a DJ in the late 1970s. He worked at a coffee house and played records for guests who requested their favorite music. He began to take his job more seriously and left to work at Crystal, a hotel club that opened in Seoul's Jongno district in 1983. At that time, he was inspired by professional DJs visiting from Britain and Hong Kong, who showed off various techniques such as mixing. He then worked at the club ZZQ for 11 years until 1996 when he opened MI, the first techno club in Korea.

Hip-hop is a more recent arrival in Korea and has become a fad in the last year or so. It has spurred increasing numbers of young people to set their sights on becoming professional hip-hop DJs. Meeting this demand are institutions that offer disc jockey lessons.

For instance, Battle DJ, which opened in Jamwon-dong last January, offers a four month course with evening lessons twice weekly. Most of the 50 students are attending college, and they include a significant proportion of women.

by Choe Jae-hee

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