Mike D DJ Set @ Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, Summerfest

July 6, 2016

Jul. 7, 2016
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The Beastie Boys were among the great tastemakers of their time, introducing an entire generation of skateboarders and alternative kids to strains of hip-hop, funk, electro and miscellanea that they otherwise might never have discovered. One of the tragedies of Adam Yauch's premature death was that we never got the chance to witness how the group might have aged, and where those tastes might have taken them next. Even if it's unlikely they had another Paul's Boutique (or even another Hello Nasty) in them, it would have always been interested seeing what they were up to, and catching up with whatever new or old sounds had been capturing their imagination.

That's part of the reason Mike D's DJ set was such an exciting Summerfest booking. Not only was it a novel break from the usual suspects that dominate the festival's hip-hop lineup, but it offered a reassurance that at least one of the Beastie Boys is still out there, still excited by music, and still interested in contributing to it in his own small way. And to judge by his set Wednesday night, Mike D has kept with the times. He opened with a dubstep remix of Kanye West's “Mercy,” and the set didn't get any less drop-intensive from there. With its dual fixations on dubstep and Atlanta rap, much of it could have been ripped from a recent Certified Clubtapes compilation. All those screeches and wobbles must have come as a shock to anybody expecting a return trip to the soul-funk of the Beasties' Ill Communication era.

The other takeaway from the set: DJing doesn't come naturally to Mike D. At all. For a guy who used to routinely headline arenas, he didn't have much of a stage presence. He spent more of his set squinting at his MacBook than working for the crowd. What exactly he was concentrating on wasn't clear, since he was rarely mixing anything. He didn't even fade songs into each other so much as he smashed them together, often with jarring gaps and pauses between tracks. For all the derision Paris Hilton's Summerfest booking attracted last year, she was by far the more technically proficient DJ.

He also struggled to read the crowd, which was modest by Summerfest's usual sardine-can standards and thinned considerably throughout the set. Though almost completely avoided deep cuts in favor of obvious choices, even many of his safe picks didn't land. Early in the set he misjudged the crowd's interest in hearing Desiigner's “Panda” for the trillionth time, and other tracks that should have killed on paper, including ilovemakonnen's “Thursday” and DJ Funk's immortal “Ass N Titties,” similarly bombed. Even when he started blending some Beastie Boys classics midway through his set, the rush was fleeting. He pasted snippets of “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” over Wiz Khalifa's “You and Your Friends,” but the beats didn't match at all. He set “Sure Shot” to Biggie's “Juicy”—a beat that always hits like an applause line—but he let the mashup ride for so long that the crowd got bored. (He missed a literal sure shot).

At times it was actively hard to watch. Though it should have been a minor, low-pressure gig, a way of playing for some fans without the expectations tied to releasing new music, Mike D still looked over his head, and he broke the cardinal rule of celebrity DJing: He didn't seem to be enjoying himself. Let there be no doubt about it; DJing is a lot harder than it looks.

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