Just a couple of months ago, and invoking record levels of red mist with some in the DJ community, a DJ dared to use just an iPhone to play a Boiler Room gig. And this weekend the legendary producer Madlib made an announcement that had a very similar effect on some in the Hip Hop community:
I made all of the beats for Bandana on my iPad.
— Madlib (@madlib) June 29, 2019
I smiled and shook my head, waiting for the flood-hates to open. And they definitely did. Madlib’s post exploded, and garnered a wide range of responses and emotions.
But I had to grin at the irony of purists berating an obviously gifted producer for the gear he uses, rather than commenting on the actual music. It’s not like anyone even knew, or commented that “it sounds like an iPad beat”. The biggest irony is how the emotions being expressed are based around a producer not using an old box to sequence samples vs a new box to sequence samples. It smacks of CDJ owners attacking controller users for not keeping it real. And I wonder if the reaction had been the same had Madlib made the beats in Live or Maschine on a very powerful laptop?
iPad MAD BRO?
As I frequently do these days, I stepped back and asked myself why people were upset. What has made them so mad that they feel the need to unload into their social channels. My best guess, much like DJing, is the democratisation of performance and creativity is seen as killing the craft of (insert old workflow impacted by new tech here).
Owning an MPC or any kind of drum machine often marked you out as the anointed one in your circle. They were expensive and actually quite user hostile by today’s standards. If you owned one, and more importantly could use it, you were special.
So instead of mastering an MPC or Roland SP, and the art of digging and sampling, beatmaking is now in the hands of everyone with an iPad and an internet account. Quality beats and samples are factory-farmed and available from numerous sources (NI’s new sounds.com is just one of so many examples), and largely don’t require a legal team to clear before you upload your creation to Beatport.
So the ability for just about anyone to knock out a decent beat is easier than it ever was. Indeed, iPhones come pre-installed with Garageband that allows you to produce half decent tracks for nothing. Thus yet another arcane analogue craft has been placed in the hands of the great unwashed and unworthy. And the keepers of the faith ain’t happy. Perhaps they’re just mad that they loved the beats and had no clue how they were made. They feel conned, but they shouldn’t.
Another overwhelming vibe is one of surprise that an iPad is capable of making production quality beats and compositions. It’s all too easily lumped in with iPhones as purely an underpowered mobile device, and as such not considered worthy of tasks that require real grunt.
Need evidence of the iPad Pro’s power? Adobe is putting Photoshop out on iPad later this year. Not Elements or some LE version — full fat Photoshop. And have you seen the quality of the 3D games being released? Trust me — the iPad Pro is an absolute beast, and should not be underestimated. And with the advent of USB C, I wouldn’t be surprised is the DJ industry didn’t jump on the platform in the next couple of years.
The thing everyone forgets
The common assumption is that new tech replaces the need for creative human skills. When the sync button arrived, the DJ community rallied against it proclaiming that it was the end of DJing*, and conveniently looked past at the almost entirely human element that goes into the process of successfully filling a dance floor.
*Fact check: This just in — DJing is still going strong, if not stronger because of technology.
And it’s the same for production. Giving me an iPad loaded with Madlib’s sample library will not yield a string of Billboard smashes or Hip Hop classics, and it’s even less likely that I’ll make anything decent with an old analogue sampler either. And while I’m confident of my chops to knock out some pretty decent 707 and 808 beats, I’m sure as shit not Arthur Baker or Juan Atkins. Yes, I can sequence beats, but outside of that you’re in the realm of learned human creativity that I simply don’t have in the producer realm, and nor will the torrent of bedroom producers emboldened and legitimised my Madlib’s tweet either.
See, it’s not the tech — it’s the user of the tech that matters. Technology makes some tasks easier, but it doesn’t make you an instant DJ or world-class producer. Holding onto the belief that using established gear legitimises you and your craft is folly. Yes, you absolutely feel better doing it, and if pushed I’d take original 303, 707, and 808s to make music again. I like the analogue process of pressing physical hardware button and twisting knobs, but that doesn’t mean that the output would be any better. Use what makes you feel good, and gives you the results you want.
But at the same time, I’m fully aware that skills don’t come in boxes or downloads. Madlib would own most people with just his iPhone alone.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Once again, a great disturbance was felt when new tech made waves in the old tech pool. And the same old tropes and clichés were smashed into keyboards around the world, while seemingly looking past how a gifted producer made quality music with an iPad alone, without them even knowing.
I’m pleased however that the majority are now intrigued enough to look at iPads for music making and production. If Madlib can get behind it, then it’s legitimised the platform for everyone else too. And if you think he’s alone in using iPads, then you’re sorely mistaken. He’s just got the nuts to stand up and get behind his process.
One thing is certain — whatever new technology comes along, at some point a brave lemming (ideally famous) will use it and not give a shit what you think. And keyboard warrioring your Neo-luddist discontent won’t stop the march of technology either. Just look where that’s got purist DJs so far.