DJ'ing isn't easy. It usually takes years of sweating it out in hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, passing out mix CDs to anyone who'll take one, and opening for big-name headliners before you finally reach the heights of Tisto. Concurrently most of the top jocks who can sell out a superclub or arena on their name alone are in their thirties, if not older.
So count James Zabiela as the exception to the rule. At the tender age of 25, the Southampton (Hampshire, UK) prodigy is already considered to be one of the best in the business. "I'm not that young anymore," he protests. "I turn 26 in August ... I get to start shaving and everything."
"Most people start a lot later," he adds, noting he has been DJ'ing professionally since he was sixteen. "If I had started now and it had taken me the same amount of time to get noticed, I would be 31 before I would manage to get some sort of recognition."
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Zabiela's ascent was a relatively straightforward one. His father was a "proper raver" during the golden era of English acid house, so he was exposed to techno and other electronic flavors at an early age. He recalls getting his first pair of decks as a Christmas present when he was fifteen. Around then he began working in a local record shop and spinning at nightclubs; eventually he gave a tape to Lee Burridge, who passed it on to Sasha. The trance progenitor took Zabiela under his wing, giving him the opening slot during several of his international tours.
It's a measure of how long electronic dance culture has been around that someone like Zabiela has emerged completely versed in its rituals and traditions. But he doesn't content himself with the airy trance anthems or throbbing tribal/progressive house that most of his compatriots dole out. On Utilities, his third mix CD and second for the Thrive Records' Renaissance series, he incorporates Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker" as well as Hisham Samawi and Dennis Rodgers. "I like so many different styles," he says. "I like Danny Howells and Sasha, but I also like Warp Records, people like Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert, and Tipper.
"When I was a lot younger, [Sasha] was sort of my hero DJ. I was really into the same music as him," he continues. "But I think, with anyone, if you're just constantly exposed to music all the time, your tastes will change and develop."
With all this going for Zabiela, one would imagine him to be fully engaged in club culture's vagaries, cranking out hymns to sex, drugs, alcohol, and banging beats. But he seems to be a bit of a nerd. He sings the praises of Doctor Who, the quirky English sci-fi telly program he calls "our version of Star Trek." A "sci-fi nut," he likes to play Xbox in his spare time, brags about going to see Batman Begins, and spends a great deal of time on the Internet.
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Hence the name Utilities, which is based on the technology Zabiela used to create the two-disc mix. Computed was made with the Ableton program. The second disc, Recorded, was made with three CDJs (or turntable-style machines for CDs), a sampler, and two Pioneer EFX 1000 units, which he helped develop.
Utilities puts Zabiela at the center of a debate about the use of CDJs, which are rapidly gaining acceptance among professional jocks, instead of the traditional vinyl/turntable setup. On the surface it appears CDJs help achieve a cleaner mix than turntables, which cause background noise from scratched records, lint collecting under the needle, et cetera. But Zabiela, who says he still uses a turntable during his live sets, counters, "Mixing a CD is no different than mixing a record, really ... you've got a CD player with pitch control, just like a record player.
"I'm always making mistakes," he adds modestly, noting that two CDs can drift out of perfect time just as two records can. "Once, I pushed the eject button once. It was a painful experience because the CD comes out, then you've got to put it back in. That whole loading time is so painful. Whereas with the record, if the needle flies off, you can just drop it back in."
So there you have it. Zabiela loves technology, but he doesn't aspire to be a perfect, technically proficient DJ. "It's not really about nerding out. It's really having fun with the music, goofing around, and seeing what you can do."