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The art of playing records

by Arttu Tolonen

A new book and a forthcoming doctoral dissertation give us a fascinating insight into the culture of DJs and DJing in Finland.
In many subcultures, the DJ is the prime mover, and as such has been the subject of countless books, especially in the US and Britain. In Finland, DJing has traditionally been seen more as a part of the service sector than DJs as artists, and you’d be hard-pressed to find books on Finnish music that even mention DJs.

This is slowly changing as a better understanding of the cultural impact of DJs and DJing is emerging.  

Last fall photographer Iina Esko and writer/DJ/promoter Matti Nives crowd-financed a book called DJ-kirja – näkökulmia suomalaiseen dj-kulttuuriin (DJ Book – Perspectives on Finnish DJ Culture), shedding some light on a generation (or two) of music lovers and crate diggers who played records in public during Finland’s gradual, post-Cold War reorientation towards the West and laid the groundwork for and in many cases instigated some major cultural changes.

DJ and PhD candidate Kim Ramstedt is writing a doctoral dissertation on DJs for Åbo Akademi University in Turku. Ramstedt’s thesis centres on the DJ and deals with the record as a conduit for a cultural experience that is, as a result of a subtle negotiation process conducted between the DJ and the listener, localised at the receiving end.


Chronicle of a generational experience

The oldest DJs in the DJ-kirja book compiled and edited by Iina Esko and Matti Nives were born in the 1950s and the youngest in the 1990s. Some have been playing for 30 years, others two. Regardless, it’s a chronicle of a generation of DJs and the experiences they – and the people who drank, socialised and paired up to a soundtrack they created – went through in the 1990s and 2000s.

It all started with one photo. Iina’s husband Pirkka Esko is a DJ and she happened to photograph him at home, surrounded by the detritus of a life spent loving music, hunched over a computer screen. It was just a snap and nothing came of it right then, but years later this image came back to haunt her and gave her an idea for a book.

“I came across the photo again and saw something more in it than just my husband in the same photo with the things he loves. I realised there were more people like him,” she says. “And the real eureka moment was when I realised there was no Finnish book about people like him.”

The DJs profiled are music lovers; nerds if you will. They are not DJs who play mainstream hits in mainstream clubs but people who’ve spent countless hours crate-digging all over the world, put on their own club nights and have their own aesthetic agenda. Some produce music and many work in some facet or another of the music business.

The DJs are photographed at home and they tell the reader at length, in their own words, about their relationship to music. There are articles dealing with  DJing, music and related stuff, like club flyers. Iina, Matti and graphic designers Antti Grundstén and Martin Martonen decided early in the process that it was not going to be an academic tome but a subjective look at the scene.


Looking for the madding crowd

From the start both Iina and Matti wanted to introduce the people in the book to a larger audience. 

“I was thinking about my dad, who’s very interested in music and culture, but he would never have heard of any of the people in the book,” she points out. “I wanted to change that.”

This decision moulded the book’s contents and structure. The original idea of having a list of 50 DJs with short articles had to go. Iina doubts someone unfamiliar with the scene could be cajoled into buying a long list of names. She and Matti thought reading about a smaller number of DJs in greater detail and learning about the different facets of their art would be more interesting. 

The decision serves the reader well. In addition to representing a wide variety of ages, the DJs profiled also differ in their approach to their craft. The book provides ample room for these differences to emerge. Articles dealing with the veterans of the scene are longer than the article for someone who’s been behind the decks for just a few years.

“The fact that the DJs speak as themselves underscores the fact that they are very different people who have a lot in common,” Iina explains.

The DJs profiled in the book are the undergrowth from which big things grow – like Flow Festival, which now attracts over 70,000 visitors to Suvilahti in Helsinki every August.

Perhaps there’s a DJ book waiting to be written in every European country.


The DJ as a conduit of culture

Kim Ramstedt has a history as a DJ and producer. His doctoral dissertation deals with how culture is transmitted from one place to another via the record and the DJ’s role as a mediator of this transfer.

Kim’s interest in the theoretical dimensions of DJing grew out of his own experiences as a DJ over the last 10 years. He’s written some academic articles on records and playing them, as well as a master’s thesis on reggae systems in Finland, and worked as a project coordinator for the Nomadic University development project, which also spurred his interest in the movement of cultural forms.

Reggae is a good way to look at what interests Kim, thanks to the historically important role, the DJ has played in African-Jamaican music.

“I was interested in how cultures spread via records and how it’s not enough for the object to move from one place to another. Meanings are built around the record,” he says. “I’ve had a radio show for a while, too, and have always played a lot of stuff from outside the Western mainstream, so an interest in the meanings people attach to the records outside of the culture they originate from follows naturally.”


Around the world on a record

Where the people profiled in DJ-kirja work by and large within the confines of Western and DJ-centric genres from hip hop to techno, Kim’s dissertation takes a closer look at music and cultures from Africa and Latin America, as well as reggae, and how they are localised in Finland. He also takes a look at the We Love Helsinki crew, who throw parties where an older and more rural social dance culture is transferred to a modern and urban Finland to a soundtrack of traditional iskelmä music. They are doing the same thing that a DJ playing Latin music at a party in Finland does, but the localisation happens on a temporal rather than geographic axis.

Kim wanted to shed some light on the different roles a DJ plays.

“We Love Helsinki is a great example of this,” Kim explains. “In fact, there’s so much going on at these events, focusing on just one aspect is hard. Everything from assuming traditional gender roles and social dancing to the old tram museum the events are held at and the narratives of iskelmä all contribute to a romanticised re-enactment of rural pavilion dances and feed the nostalgia. And the DJ comments on the recordings as well as what happens at the party.”

Another interesting thing that happens to genres like Afro and Latin as they’re transported to Finland is that the music that gets played at these parties in Finland is mainstream pop music in its home country. In Finland, it’s in the margins. This is something they have in common with music that’s part of club culture. It’s also marginal, albeit often by choice.

Generally, the whole mainstream vs marginal debate is a moot point in many of the cultures Latin American and Africa genres originate in. Everyone from 8 to 80 listens to the same music.

“This is a fascinating question for me to look at, too,” Kim says, “since at many of the parties I’ll be looking at, the audience will be comprised 50/50 of Finns and immigrants, so the different ways of viewing the music’s place in society is interesting.”


Performance is key

The theoretical underpinning involves performance as a concept, which can relate to how the DJ or the audience perform in their roles in it, as well as the interaction between the DJ and the audience, how the audience should understand the performance and what context to place it in. For example:

“During the early days of the system scene in Finland, the audience didn’t know how to relate to the fact that the DJ kept talking over the records,” Kim says. “In Jamaica that’s the whole point. In Finland in the late ’90s, the audience thought the DJ was wasted.”

Which is funny, considering that only a decade or so previously, hyping the crowd was expected of Finnish DJs too. DJs who don’t talk came to Finland via raves and modern club culture that came here from Britain.

We Love Helsinki represents a return to this paradigm for how Finnish music is played by the DJ.

Another thing the event has in common with Latin and African genres is physicality, or dancing. Dance schools play an important role, providing parties featuring Latin music with a ready and educated audience. This is more and more the case with dancehall and reggae, too. We Love Helsinki has been known to provide training in the dances that people used to dance to.

“Writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton has written about how a musical sound can be transported from one place to another via media, but cultures rooted in bodily expression such as dance do not move as easily,” Kim says. “That’s why dance schools are important too. The same applies to older Finnish dancehall culture, too. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, the relevant dances are no longer being passed down from parent to child.”

Everyone plays an important role at both the party and in the thesis.

Main photo: DJ duo Yé Yé. Photo: Iina Esko.