[Opinion] What makes a good DJ?
What does make a good DJ?
Is this something we can simply pigeonhole into a neat little compartment or is the subject way too subjective to even bother talking about?
I was motivated to write this little piece by an IDM Mag fan on Facebook named Nhlanhla Radebe who responded to the meme below.
He asked the exact question.
What makes a good DJ?
It seems like a harmless enough question and a part of me wants to say that creativity should not be judged but let’s face it; we’re all judging each other all the time.
There would not be lists and lists of ‘Best guitarists of all time,’ and ‘Best albums,’ and on and on if it weren’t for the fact that we all like to subjectively judge each other.
Sadly a thing like the DJ Mag Top 100 – which is no more than a popularity contest with the best PR drive behind it – has reduced the artform (can we call DJing an artform?) to something of a novelty.
But there are a lot of really good DJs out there; big names and lesser known ones who have worked hard to be as good as they are.
Black Coffee, for example, is a very, very good DJ.
It’s no coincidence that he is killing it internationally right now. The man has skills and is able to leave an indelible impression on a dancefloor.
So what does make a good DJ?
Here are a few pointers I jotted down when prompted by Nhlanhla online. They’re not rocket science but are certainly worth reminding ourselves about…
1. Honing one’s craft
The biggest difference with learning to DJ today as opposed to, say 20 years ago, is that the barrier to get started is significantly less now. Music is easily accessible online, laptops, iPads and DJ apps mean that with very little outlay one can fiddle around with mixing beats.
Add a controller to the equation and bam! You’re a DJ.
I think this is great – just like music should not be exclusive, neither should DJing.
However just because DJ software makes mixing two songs together and by extension being a DJ something anybody can do, this does not mean that endless hours practicing are not required.
Experimenting with different mixing techniques, listening and understanding the impact of different songs and keys of songs and paying attention to how a body of music – i.e. a DJ set – is the sum of all its parts is paramount to being good at it.
Honing one’s craft means putting in the time, developing your own style, watching what the guys you aspire to be like do well and being determined to be the best version of yourself as a DJ.
Don’t take shortcuts.
2. Technically adept at mixing
Okay so we can all argue that mixing is not as important as track selection.
But when you get in front of an audience you need to be in control of the gear you are using and be confident and determined to segue a set of music together as seamlessly and thoughtfully as you possibly can.
My issue with sync buttons – which are available both on media players and Dj controllers/software so this has nothing to do with laptop DJs – is that I come across way too many DJs who have relied on the software to mix the music for them.
So they haven’t learnt to listen and by extension layer music in an elegant and effective way.
In fact there are DJs out there using laptops and controllers and still not even beat mixing 4 to the floor music. i.e. mixing only in the breaks and not on the kicks!
That I’m afraid is a jukebox, not a DJ!
3. Spending hours searching for those rare tunes nobody else is playing
This is a biggie.
The ubiquitous availability of music today is a double edged sword.
It means one can simply hop onto a site like Beatport and grab the top 10 (or hundred) of any genre and assume you have all the biggest tracks to drop in your set.
Good DJs look for music others aren’t playing.
Yes the smart DJ will know when the time is right to drop a big hit or a floor filler but a great set is made up of unexpected twists and turns and by extension playing music that is less obvious.
Unless you’re a wedding/special events DJ: I suggest you know exactly which hits your client wants if that’s your profession. 🙂
4. Playing original songs (not pirated MP3’s)
Do I need to say much about this?
Firstly if your music is coming from an unknown or dodgy source you cannot be sure of the quality.
Secondly if you are simply downloading tons of songs from torrent sites you cannot and will not appreciate the good ones from the bad.
Ripping music from Soundcloud or YouTube is the biggest no-no of all by the way.
The people who make this music spend a lot of time and effort producing it and while I do understand that every DJ shares music and always has, sharing with others that also buy their own music is at least okay.
But ripping music off dodgy sites to DJ with… sorry that sucks and you suck as a DJ then!
5. Taking time to understand the dynamics of a dancefloor and what makes people move in unison
If you want to be a good DJ, you should observe the movement of the dancefloor and the highs and lows of your set each and every time you play.
The same track that rocked the floor the last time you played it could do nothing when played under different circumstances or at a different time of your set, or after a different track.
These experiences should be committed to memory and over time you will simply get better at knowing what to do next.
Which brings me to my next point…
6. Preparation yes; pre-planned sets – no!
This is definitely a highly subjective point.
I’ve played completely pre-planned sets before.
And they’ve worked. But with years of experience I’d say that I probably had more than an 80% chance of knowing beforehand what was expected from my set for the party I was playing at and the timeslot.
As a rule though, I don’t play a pre-planned set. I do arrive armed with a rekordbox playlist – which is equivalent to packing one’s crate of records before a gig in the old days.
But if you expect to simply stand up there and push play on 20 tracks already laid out in sequence and rock the floor every time, it’s not going to happen.
You’re also going to miss out the on the exhilaration of the ‘in-the-moment’ decision making that is required to decide there and then what the dancefloor needs next.
You will also learn a lot more about yourself, your music and the people you play to.
7. Respect other DJs
Don’t be a doos!
When your time is up, don’t say ‘just one more track bru!’
Also don’t be one of those dicks who deliberately leaves the FX on, or turns all the EQs down or switches the signal to phono on the channel just to throw them off when they start.
And if they have to set up a laptop before playing, be helpful. You’re brimming with confidence after near completion of your set but the next DJ is anxious. Be nice, assist where you can.
This is music, not a flippin’ sports contest.
8. Respect the dancefloor
Your job as a DJ is to make people dance. Well in most cases it is.
You are NOT the main attraction. The music is!
Most people come for the music and to dance to good music; and most are not THAT interested in who is behind the decks. They just want to have a good time and be moved by the music.
Make people dance, not watch you jump up and down like a cheerleader.
Golden Rule: never have more fun behind the decks than the dancefloor is having; no amount of hand waving, punching the air or jumping up and down is going to make a difference if you’re playing crap music!
9. Playing the appropriate music for your set time and mood of the party
Unless you are a headliner booked for a specific style or sound, which in many cases is usually a DJ/Producer who is known for his/her own music, you need to respect the flow of the party and the timeslot you are booked for.
A good DJ will play the right music for the right timeslot and environment; not just what he/she wants to play.
10. Know at all times that the music is more important than you…
You play other people’s music.
Never forget that.
So respect the music and appreciate that as much as dance music producers need DJs to play out their music, DJs need the music as the tools of their trade.
If you DJ with a sense of purpose and with the intention to deliver the best possible presentation of the music you love to play, you will go a long way to being a good DJ.
I hope these help.
It is, of course, subjective opinion, but for me this has worked and I’d like to think that I never take trying to be a good DJ for granted.