Ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu famously laid out the aphorism, “When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten.” It’s a notion that could be applied to good DJing. A skilled DJ establishes a reliable atmosphere and takes you on an adventure, without it feeling as though a taste agenda is being forced on you. Two people well acquainted with this delicate craft are Sydney DJ and club owner Murat Kilic and Sneaky Sound System songwriter and producer Black Angus (Angus McDonald).
“I really believe that the best [DJs] are the ones that go in directions that are least expected,” says Kilic. “That’s a true talent and a lot of people don’t have it, to be frank. The whole magic of a DJ set, which gets people excited, is that unexpectedness.”
“I think it’s critical that you keep it unplanned,” McDonald adds. “That’s really what the art of DJing is. You just go with the vibe, really.”
This Saturday, as part of Vivid Music’s Spice Spektrum program (held at Kilic’s club, The Spice Cellar), the pair will combine their respective skills for a night of back-to-back tune selection. The Sneaky vs Spice showcase isn’t Kilic and McDonald’s first dual engagement. In fact, the last time they manned the decks together the set endured for a whopping 12 hours. The chemistry came naturally.
“I remember Gus walked in [to Spice] one Saturday night at about four in the morning,” Kilic recalls. “I was playing and naturally when my friends come along we chuck on a few tunes. It was working really well and we thought, ‘Fuck, this is alright.’”
“We found common ground,” McDonald agrees. “Obviously nothing was prepared then and nothing will be prepared on Saturday either. We just bounce off each other and let the night take us.”
“It’s good for us both to connect on that level,” adds Kilic. “It’s like we’re catching up without talking to each other. You’re kind of finishing off each other’s sentences.”
These days it seems like everyone’s a budding DJ. Facebook feeds are mottled with advertisements for someone or other’s entrance into venue soundtracking. The proliferation of amateur DJs isn’t quite destroying nighttime culture as we know it, but appreciation for specialty DJing has certainly dimmed.
“There’s some people who are really good at it and some people who are just playing records,” McDonald says. “Unfortunately the crowds have become less discerning. Spice is one of those magical places where you can’t get away with doing that. You’ve got to be on form, you’ve got to know what you’re doing.”
No matter the breadth of experience, a club DJ’s essential assignment is ensuring that everyone gathered has a damn good time. Even if you’re adamant about broadcasting your encyclopedic music knowledge, this shouldn’t compromise the vibrancy of the occasion.
“You’ve just got to get the balance right,” says McDonald. “There’s places that can handle getting a proper techno lesson and there’s other places [where] they just want to party; they just want to pick up a girl and have a good time. You’ve got to read the crowd.”
“A true artist and DJ always wants to educate the crowd,” Kilic says, “but an artist who’s got one foot in reality will try to play to the room a little. You always get the self-indulgent ones that don’t give a shit and just play what they want to play anyway.
“I find a lot of guys that are good producers, who have really bomb hits, are actually really average DJs. It goes to show that it’s not for everyone and it’s a combination of different skills.”
Meanwhile, much like performing original music, McDonald notes that presenting anything in conflict with one’s own tastes or beliefs is rather inexpedient.
“A DJ should only be carrying records that they love anyway. There’s always a way, with good records, to make them work with pretty much any crowd. Having those cheap shots, big hits in your back pocket that you don’t like – as soon as you go down that path you’re screwed.”
Despite Kilic and McDonald’s propensity to work the decks for hours – that 12-hour set ran from 10pm until 10am – it’s no longer feasible in the current political environment. “We’ve gone for four hours this year, mainly because of the lockout,” Kilic explains.
“Between three and five [Spice] can’t serve booze, so we’ve only rostered ourselves on until three. Although we stay open between three and five and we re-open at five, we’ve found that a lot of our patronage leave between three and five. We get about 50 per cent leave. So we’ve just re-jigged the lineup to deal with the situation dealt out by our corrupt government.”
Kilic is of course referring to the compulsory 1:30am lockouts and prohibition of alcohol service after 3:00am in Sydney’s CBD, introduced by former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell early this year. The new laws came in response to a few incidents of devastating late night violence. While action needed to be taken, Kilic says the laws hardly tackle the problem directly – and deal out harsh results for business.
“Our revenue’s dropped over 40 per cent on Saturday nights as a result,” Kilic reveals. “It’s definitely hurting us and for no apparent reason either. We’re part of the solution for this alcohol-related violence. We’re one of the venues that people can come to and dance in a safe environment, along with Goodgod Small Club, Oxford Art Factory. All these places have a music reputation and have a reputation for having people dance. We’ve got no footy screens and no pokies so we don’t get that rowdy drinking element that comes in.
“The saddest part is that no-one’s really doing anything. There’s no real momentum from anybody. When it happened in Melbourne there were a couple of groups that rallied and there was a big protest and they got it overturned within six months. Sydney doesn’t seem to have that same activist culture that Melbourne does.”
Even without the lockout laws, Sydney tends to become a fairly quiet place in the wintertime. However, since its inauguration in 2009, the Vivid festival has capably dragged people out of their midyear fireside languor.
“I think it’s fantastic,” says McDonald. “The curating’s been pretty spot on for the last few years. I think it’s a great way to break up the year. It’s great having an event to get people out.”
And on that note, while the future might look dire for many of the inner city’s favourite nightclubs, Sneaky vs Spice nevertheless promises to be an unfettered celebration.
“I can’t wait,” McDonald enthuses. “I’m looking forward to digging deep into the hard drives. Last time the dancefloor was full from about ten until eight in the morning.”
“It’s a good chance for me and Angus to catch up,” says Kilic, “and we’ll invite all of our friends. It’s always a good time – a lot of tequila shots getting bandied about.”
Sneaky Vs Spice will be part of Vivid Sydney 2014, playing The Spice Cellar on Saturday May 24 alongside Black Angus, Murat Kilic, Mike Witcombe, Cassette and Robbie Lowe. Tickets can be found online.