Monday Book: Theory of turntable toiling

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The Independent Culture


QUARTET, pounds 13

IT STARTS with Thomas Alva Edison and ends with Hegel. It contains the immortal line: "Since the parasite who was in love with metaphysics became a historian, ideas have been made subordinate to the phenomenon." But if you only intend to read a single major work of German post-structuralist dance-music theory in 1999, Ulf Poschardt's pioneering exploration should be the one.

First published in its young, Munich-based author's homeland in 1995, this sweeping history of the DJ already has a monumental look. "Like artists in the middle ages," it proclaims, "DJs were defined first as craftsmen." The news that they were put on earth "to interrogate and partially destroy" archaic notions of artistic authorship would no doubt come as news to Pete Tong or Jimmy Savile, but there is no reason why the labours of those who toil behind turntables should not be subject to theoretical illumination.

Initially, the omens are not good. "DJ Culture", the Pet Shop Boys song which gives the book its title, seemed an uncharacteristically after-the- fact notion for that sharp-eyed duo even when it first came out in 1991. And Poschardt begins by describing the gramophone as "the instrument with which the DJ would one day bring about a revolution in pop music", which would seem to be putting the cart somewhat before the horse.

Yet from these rather unpromising beginnings, DJ Culture expands in all directions. A big, crazy book - in the best sense of the latter adjective - it progresses magisterially from the beginnings of pop radio (in a show with the marvellous title "The world's largest make-believe ballroom") through the DJ as literary device (Mucho Maas, the enigmatic turntable overlord in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, looms especially large) to the early days of hip-hop and Acid House's end-of-the-millennium charleston.

The disjunction between Poschardt's academic language and the fragments of jive talk and rap lyric which crop up throughout the text is consistently intriguing - partly because distance lends enchantment, and it is fascinating to see this history viewed through a non-Anglophone filter; and partly because the change of perspective frees the author from the tyranny of received opinions.

In fact, it does not so much free him from those opinions as allow him to broadcast them simultaneously. Just as you are starting to be struck by the way his book reconciles contradictory sources - say, quotations from Engels and an i-D magazine history of the Eighties - by giving them equal weight, Poschardt explains why he is doing it. Just as the DJ uses two bits of reproductive technology in order to make a new sound, so he wants to blend contrasting strands of thought into an appealing multi- coloured thread.

"Interlinked and mixed together... fragmented and mixed to the point of unintelligibility", his brutally recontextualised raw materials will, he hopes, have the power to "generate new intelligibility".

Poschardt's new intelligibility sometimes takes a bit of digesting, but the weighty dough of his prose is leavened with a potent yeast of arresting one-liners ("Pop culture is a bastard"; "DJs tend towards laconic autism"; "Writing history is always also a terrorist act"). He also knows the value of a fact. Alongside the revelation that hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash was a trained electrician, the disturbing reality that "almost one in every three young people in Germany has had their hearing damaged between 2 and 6 kilohertz" will live long in the memory.

In the end, this book achieves a rare balance of political and cultural engagement - a brave and heartening response to a peculiarly German shame. The pernicious snobberies of the Frankfurt school - those grumpy killjoys like "Grand Wizard" Theodor Adorno - are laid to rest for good here. The rickety mansion of the cultural-studies industry has rested for too long on foundations riddled with the dry rot of intellectual contempt. Poschardt insists evangelically that "Adorno and Tate" (Greg Tate, the great black American cultural theorist) "must fertilise one another by communicating and ceasing to ebb alone".

Only rarely does Poschardt's confidence in "how infinitely strong, powerful and clever" his DJ culture is seem misplaced. His vision of Sir Mixalot's early Nineties exploitation smash, "Baby Got Back", as "rescuing the figures of black women from the diet-based terror of white women's magazines" will be more persuasive to those who have not seen the video. Or to those who respect Benny Hill's heroic struggle to free women's lingerie from the tyranny of the Freemans catalogue.