I don’t think of DJs as being particularly heroic. Recently, the best-known examples — DJ AM and Samantha Ronson — have been famous for OD-ing and dating Lindsay Lohan, respectively. These are acts that require a certain fortitude, to be sure, but they’re hardly heroic.
But I understand the heroism of guitarists. Guitar Hero gets me standing up in my living room, rocking my hips and scowling at my fingers while I play a plastic “guitar.” Whenever I screw up, the music sounds like crap. And when I’m rocking, I’m synced with the music in a physically interdependent way — like dancing, but in my case more coordinated.
DJ Hero, in contrast, hands me a tiny mock turntable that perches on my knees. Three colored buttons rest under my right fingertips, mounted on a freely revolving turntable. Beneath my left hand, a mixing-board slider moves right, left and center. Like Guitar Hero, the challenge is simply to press the buttons as their corresponding colors scroll by on the screen’s musical highway, with the additional challenges of scratching the turntable and shifting the slider during the right passages.
With so much control, I was disappointed to discover that DJ Hero doesn’t take the speed or style of my scratches into consideration. Whether I wobble the turntable or scrub it, the audio track still scratches at the same pre-recorded rate. The only personality I can inject into the mixes comes in the form of audio distortions — making the music sound distant or tinny — during designated sections, and occasional passages where I can tap buttons to interject samples (such as “Hit me!” in the midst of Rihanna’s “Disturbia”).
During the mixes by old-timers such as Grandmaster Flash and DJ Jazzy Jeff — who were DJing before turntables gave way to laptops — and the heavy scratchers such as DJ Shadow, the motions of mixing and the sound come together to create a tuned-in vibe. I feel like I’m making music out of the parts of other music, which is what DJs do when they’re at their best.
But most of the mixes feel like push-button maps that I merely follow. The game’s analogue actions are poor matches for the ProTools production used by the likes of Daft Punk and DJ Yoda. I merely play catch-up, scrambling after the tweaks and twitches of the heroic tweakers and twitchers who have DJed before me.
THE GOOD: Hearing the separate parts of songs in DJ Hero throws the music into sharp relief. The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” is immortal — a single wail recalls the entire song. Likewise, Blondie and Rick James stand out as musical icons. Among hip-hoppers, 2Pac and Eric B. & Rakim retain their potency. Surprisingly, Vanilla Ice also emerges as a durable, slightly wackier precursor to Eminem.
THE BAD: Eminem himself comes across as a rapper whose music will fade into obscurity as soon as he’s no longer around to promote it relentlessly. Beck also reveals a musical thinness that puts him in the class of Tears for Fears — creators of tunes that will not likely survive their original audience. And Jay-Z contributes four lifeless mixes, sounding like he slept through his entire set.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Mixed.