Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell Out: 'Classical music is irrelevant to today's youth'

As he prepares to take part in a Cambridge Union debate with Stephen Fry, Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell Out explains why classical music has had its day
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The Independent Culture

Can you remember the last time your face expressed utter bewilderment? Maybe you have never felt like it? Maybe it isn't that common? Maybe it is a look that your face saves on the off-chance that something particularly bizarre and exciting might happen to you... like finding out that you have been invited to speak in front of hundreds of people at a Cambridge University debate for example, and pitted against the brainiac national treasure Stephen Fry no less...

My name is Kissy Sell Out. To quickly clear up a couple of things, I am not a girl and I haven't sold out yet. I am, however, a record producer and international DJ who runs an independent music and design label called San City High. I also host a weekly show on BBC Radio 1 called the Kissy Klub.

The debate is entitled "This House Believes Classical Music Is Irrelevant to Today's Youth". It's taking place tonight and I shall be arguing in favour of the motion. The idea of speaking at a posh university my mother once attended is a terrifying prospect, but if they were going to ask anyone from the new generation currently tearing the music industry rule book to pieces, I guess I'm as good a choice as any. I know that sounds bold and a little naive on paper, but it's not often that the unique quirks of my life make me the most appropriate person to call upon for a formal debate.

My music has gained a reputation over the years for being as heavily influenced by classical music as it is by modern electro and Nineties speed garage records. I love the idea of danger and risk-taking in music. Many famous classical pieces by Vivaldi, Bach and my favourite composer, Luigi Boccherini, frequently appear in my DJ sets and much of my new album centres around compositions I have written and played on instruments such as cellos, oboes and plucked violas. Mixing all that together is a difficult thing to do, but something I practice doing every day, so hopefully my live DJ shows are as technically tight as they are entertaining.

My knowledge of classical music may seem amateurish in comparison to Stephen Fry; however, it's not for lack of trying. I have spent hours, days and weeks of my life researching classical music, trawling through compilation CDs and watching the credits roll at the end of a good film to find those precious minutes of heaven. It did occur to me rather quickly that it may well be that the efforts of obsessive record collectors like me (now mp3 download addicts) that prove just how irrelevant classical music really is. Even the arrival of efficient online music stores hasn't made classical music any easier to get into. Music titles featuring so many numbers in are also a serious buzz-kill.

If while reading this you are wondering what young people are listening to, I can reveal that a simple trip on the bus before 8.30am or after 3.15pm may prove enlightening. I could reel off a handful of confusing sub-genres, such as drumstep, deep-house or liquid drum'n'bass, that are currently all the rage, but the main thing you need to know, which even in my mid-twenties has taken me time to adjust to, is that genres don't really matter anymore.

You may have heard ritzy slogans such as "smash'n'grab society", but a less tabloid-grabbing perspective is simply that young people want everything at once, and for the first time, they can have it. They can also do a hell of a lot more than even I could a decade ago. To prove this point, you only have to throw your gaze over the developments in technology that have revolutionised the possibilities available to even the most novice musician during the last few years. In the present day, a teenager can write and produce a professional track with a computer program like Ableton Live in their bedroom and be done making their smash hit before it's even time for binge-drinking on the field.

Talking of binge-drinking on the field (but in no way encouraging it), one of the most wonderful things about the power of music is its ability to bring people together. Our youth is a time of incredible change when we are filled with an urgent need to etch out a sense of identity and determine where we belong. The potency of this basic human need to connect with our own little tribes beautifully correlates with music. Would we have had the development of racial integration without the 1920s and 30s jazz halls, where black and white kids danced together? How different would fashion have been without 1970s glam rockers or punks? Would rave culture have exploded so massively without the late-Eighties summer of love? Would classical music have helped Africa in the same way that Live Aid did? Music and youth have, throughout the ages, formed strong and passionate bonds which have shaped societies and quite literally changed the world.

Sadly, classical music has always been a largely elitist form of artistic expression, aimed at the higher classes and funded by royalty and wealthy patrons. It is a sorry state of affairs, as music scenes that transcend social boundaries of age or class should surely be of the upmost importance in youth culture.

Classical music does still frequently filter secretly through to popular culture. An example that springs to mind is the football anthem "All Together Now" by The Farm, a great little number I was eager to remix into my DJ sets around the royal wedding weekend. Despite having heard the track on television when I was younger, it's only now that I'm musically studied enough to notice that the song steals its melody from Canon in D by Pachelbel, coincidently a wedding favourite... POW! Kissy the young-fogy strikes again! Although, I wonder how many newlyweds know that that is what they just walked down the aisle to?

The first time I heard something that came close to remixing classical music was Malcolm McLaren's Fans album, which sampled operas such as Madama Butterfly and Carmen. Although the r'n'b structures the opera samples were mixed with sound rather dated now, there's something acutely exquisite about the emotive peaks and troughs of those operatic vocals which will never fade.

McLaren unlocked something with his high-concept album which is rarely seen in popular music. As McLaren did with opera in 1984, the same year I was born, I have never felt the urge to use classical music as anything more than a motif in my own productions. This is because I feel totally indifferent to the written form, which is after all how all classical music was preserved. Music in a written form can never possess anything comparable to the visceral power of a sound recording, coming from the inception of an idea rather than the expression of one. This doesn't just make classical music irrelevant to youth culture, but also leaves it stunted and emotionally devoid.

I guess my closing point that relates to this oncoming clash of opinions between Mr Fry and I, is that certain things will always get lost in the fire. These things of beauty may very well stand proud, underpinning the path that led us to this modern world, but they often need translation in order to be appreciated by a population increasingly unburdened with concerns of the past.

Kissy Sell Out's new album, 'Wild Romance', is out on 23 May. You can watch a live stream of the debate with Stephen Fry tonight via Kissy Sell Out's Facebook page at 7pm