How Copying Unlocks Creativity For DJs & Producers


Far from being cheating, copying others - especially when you're learning to DJ or to produce - is key to getting results fast, developing your own style, and frankly, having fun...

One theme that comes up again and again across all areas of our community - whether it's DJs, musicians, producers, DJ business owners, or whoever - is: "Is it OK to copy?" To be clear, we're not talking about copying your mate's entire music collection (or indeed downloading someone else's, P2P style), but rather imitating, emulating, trying to perfect your version of what someone else has done.

So for example, we may hear this question when a DJ says to us: "Is it OK to perform a great transition or mix I heard another DJ play, in my own sets?" (Often this turns out to be an acapella over another track.) Or we may hear a wannabe producer say: "Is it OK to try and copy tracks I love?"

But it covers other things to. The look and feel of a business card, a website theme, maybe a combination of DJ gear ("I just LOVE what he does with that sampler / drum machine / groove box - is it OK for me to 'copy' him?")

Successful people have always copied...

Steve Jobs - a man himself famously once described as a "tweaker", someone who takes something that exist and makes it better - made some controversial comments about innovation during his career, one time expressing strong agreement with the following quote from Pablo Picasso, no less: "Good artists copy; great artists steal."

In a lesser-known quote, Picasso also said: "One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility." In other words, copying others who inspire you and excite you can actually save you from going down a creative cul-de-sac.

So it seems that both for beginners and for established creative people of all types, copying is part of the process.

There's a great book on this subject by a guy called Austin Kleon, called Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Here are some extracts from it:

"Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.

We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism – plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practising scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces.

What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.

If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it."

Here are five reasons why you should be embracing copying in your DJing and music production career, and not back away from it, worried you'll upset people or that you're not "doing it right".

5 Reasons To Copy

1. It's the best way to learn

When you first pick up a guitar, do you immediately invent some chords nobody's played before, then come up with some amazing new genre of music nobody has heard before? Of course you don't. You learn some simple existing chords, then learn to play whole songs using those chords. In doing so, what you're actually learning is the essential basics of playing the guitar. Yes, through copying.

Even the Beatles started as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, "I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did." And Oasis? I don't think it's unfair to say they copied The Beatles. Didn't do them too much harm did it?

2. You'll accidentally invent your own style anyway

Let's say you're a producer, trying to copy your favourite track. Do you really think you'll find the right drums, reverbs, effects, vocal samples, mixing techniques and so on to make your version of your favourite track sound exactly like the original? Especially as a beginner, the answer is going to be an emphatic "no". But by trying to copy something, you will come up with your own ways of doing things that are the beginning of your own "style"

Austin Kleon again: "The basketball star Kobe Bryant has admitted that all of his moves on the court were stolen from watching tapes of his heroes. But initially, when Bryant stole a lot of those moves, he realised he couldn’t completely pull them off because he didn’t have the same body type as the guys he was thieving from. He had to adapt the moves to make them his own.

"Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and end up doing their own thing. In O’Brien’s words, 'It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.'"


If you don't copy others, warned Pablo Picasso, you may just end copying yourself, and getting stale...

3. It helps you get stuff done quicker

A lot of the things we feel and want to express creatively aren't easy to do from scratch. Copying lets you get it done so you can move on to the next thing.

Say you want a nice website for your DJing. It's much easier to give a graphic designer on three existing DJ logos whose look and feel you like, and say "give me something like that", than it is to invent your own logo. It then makes much more sense to slot your new (derivative) logo into a website template that you bought somewhere like Theme Forest) than to design your own website from scratch.

Once you're set up, with your social media feeds plugged in and all, what stuff should you post on your site? Again, makes sense to study what successful people who have great online profiles are doing are doing, and copy them. (Hint: Rule of Thirds: one third promoting yourself, one third interesting stuff other people are doing, one third interactions with your fans/followers. I didn't invent that, by the way: I copied/adapted it.)

What you get at the end is a combination of elements that represent you. Individually none of them is particularly unique, but you got the job done - and you now (in this case) have a base on which to build the face you show the world online into something uniquely yours.

4. Everyone else is doing it

If you just want to go with the crowd, copy! Especially in the realm of music production, copying has become the norm. As soon as samplers became accessible to the masses, whole new genres of music sprung up that couldn't have existed without wholesale copying.

The Amen Break

Here's a case study. Drum & bass as a musical genre was, literally, founded on one short sample popularly known as "the Amen Break", from The Winston's "Amen, Brother", an obscure B-side that contained a six-second drum break that would go on to change the face of all types of music (jump to 1:26 to hear it):

Here's one of the most famous examples of that sample being used, slowed down to a hip hop tempo:

Here's another, sped up for some London jungle (jump to 2:21):

You can even catch it in the build on this huge pop hit (from 0:25):

Indeed, once you know that break, you spot it bloody everywhere. Check out the build from around 0:30 in this recent chart hit, for a more subtle use of it:

(Want to explore how extensively all forms of popular music today sample all other forms previously? Head over to Who Sampled. Book an afternoon. It's like crack cocaine to music fans, that site...)

5. It's easier than ever

Some people bemoan this. They say it's a bad thing. But they're wrong. The fact that the path to expressing yourself creatively is now easier to follow than ever, because "everything is out there", is goooood. As Seth Godin once famously said, true professionals don't fear amateurs.

Want to play a set like your favourite DJ? Shazam the tracks, buy them, and get practising! No need to spend months tracking down obscure vinyl that take half a year's salary to afford just to get started.

Want to make a tune in a genre you like? No need to save for years to buy expensive synthesisers, get a degree in sound engineering, go to music school, and become mates with a studio owner who'll let you mess around. (All of these things are great, by the way - just by no means necessary.)

Instead, head over to Loopmasters or Beatport Sounds or any of the other dozens of big sample companies, buy a promising-sounding sample pack or two for your genre for next to nothing, and get experimenting on your laptop.

In both cases, trust me: Along the way you'll learn loads and make lots of mistakes, but you'll be far more likely to finish - putting yourself up there with the minority of DJ/producers who actually finish anything at all rather than just talking about it. You'll be ready to go right back to ther beginning and start again. Prolific beats perfect. It's fun! You're getting there...


Of course, there are pitfalls here. If you copy without a passion for trying to understand what's going on underneath, you'll compromise your learning (it's back to that wanting to know how a car works by taking it apart and putting it back together again argument - that interest in "peeling back the layers" has to be there). If you copy for commercial gain, or to deceive - not cool. That's just plagiarism/forgery. That's why copyright laws exist.

But copying as a creative tool? That's different. If you think of creativity as a chain, passing through time and generations, then to be a link in that chain, you have to copy. It's almost your obligation to do so. By copying, you'll inevitably introduce a bit of yourself, and by doing so again and again as you improve as a DJ or producer, you'll start to develop a style of your own.

And in the future, someone may just use your work as their starting point. Just as those who you're inspired by did with their forefathers. That's how creativity works. Embrace it and get making stuff! Copying is cool.

Have you learned about DJing or music productions through copying, using samples, emulating stuff you admire? Let us know your thoughts, advice, and where you think the line should be drawn, in the comments...

Get access to all our free DJ training!

Join over 150,000 Digital DJ Tips members to get exclusive free DJ training videos, articles & resources plus twice-weekly emails with the best of our tutorials, reviews and DJ news. It’s free, and you can unsubscribe at any time!


  1. Ade Sands says:

    Good article. I would definitely say that as much as I may have copied what I saw other DJ's doing, it wasn't a copy paste of their set or tunes, but how it was presented, and how sets were constructed. The biggest shift in my DJ'ing, and what inspired me to move my mixing and creativity to the next level was listening to 2ManyDJ's. If I was to put it down to a single mix, it has to be 'As heard on Radio Soulwax, part 2'. The single biggest inspiring force in my DJ'ing to this day. These guys demonstrated that multiple genres can co-exist in a DJ set, and still sound fantastic, that accapella's just aren't for layers, instrumental and drum sections can be used to maximise creativity, and they just don't stop there.

  2. DJ Vintage says:

    Even if I WERE to copy and paste a full set by another DJ, same tracks, same order, same FX and same transitions that he/she used to explode the place, fair chance I wouldn't have the same effect with it.

    Every DJ set is a unique moment in time, built by a DJ during his gig, based on the crowd in front of him/her. While you can copy the set, you can't copy the circumstances.

    Trying two tracks together that you hadn't thought about putting together because somebody did it in an otherwise very different set, using a (type of) transition you heard somewhere else first with other tracks (or even the same), good for you.

    At some point someone started using turntables with pitch control in order to bring two tracks to the same speed so you could blend them together seamlessly. I don't think there is a DJ today who thinks he/she is copying someone by manually beat-matching. Yet the technique only evolved to this level by massive copying of the thing the first person doing it did.

    And after all, it's ego-stroking to know people are trying to use the things you came up with. Copying is, after all, the biggest possible compliment.

  3. Juli Jane says:

    Off-topic but I wonder about the stock photo this article opens with. It looks wrong to me. We see a cut key on the left and a uncut key on the right, so clearly the left key should be copied to right. But the tool above the keys looks like the actual drill is on the left side, while the "stick" which "scans" the original key is on the right. So this does not seem to make sense?

  4. Juli Jane says:

    After I have mixed in (the) key question 😀 I would like to add a few comments on the article. I think it is quite spot on. During reading several thoughts came to mind which I then found spelled out later in the article. So good job and insightful stuff.

    I wonder if part of the problem is naming it "copying". Until the invention of digital media, a copy was always something inferior to the original. And it mostly carries a negative connotation especially since business started to equate copying to stealing.

    I don't copy. I might emulate something or someone I noticed but mostly I would say that I use the works of others as an inspiration. For example: I don't really look for new releases or do a regular hunt for new tracks (and still manage to find enough stuff). It is more often that I hear something elsewhere and this inspired me to e.g. have a look at the producer in question or to check remixes of the track I heard etc. Sure, sometimes I add tracks I heard to my repository as is, but more often it leads me to discovering other tracks or remixes. Especially remixes can be a quite interesting area, leading to tracks quite different in feeling than the original one.

    The funny thing about this "copying" issue is that this discussion is nothing which bothers the people who really copy/steal. The ones which are the real problem are not reached by such an article and not deterred from doing it. Instead we, the people who try to be fair are limiting ourselves in fear of doing the wrong thing or getting accused of something. An excellent example is the use of sample packs you mentioned. Many people seem to thing that it is wrong to use samples, let alone loops, at least if you take them as is and don't modify them heavily. They say that this is your creative work you have to do. But I don't think this is true. It's more like lego bricks, everyone can have them, they look the same everywhere, but still the combination of them is most often a very personal thing resulting in a unique outcome.

    So I would say: Don't copy, but be sure to get inspired by what others have done before!

  5. Todd Oddity says:

    Waaaaaaaaay back when I was first starting out, I used to listen to DJs from Montreal clubs on the radio late at night - it helped expose me to music, and as I heard mixes I liked I would attempt them myself. Of course, I'd try a couple mixes from one DJ/club, then a couple of mixes from another DJ/club and on & on. So while what I was doing was copying, it helped me learn, and most importantly, I was actually creating my own vibe by taking those various bits I was attempting to copy and putting them together into one set of my own. So ya, I agree with the article - it's an important part of learning and growing.

  6. Michael McKenzie says:

    Way back in the 80's my sister went to NYC and came back with a cassette. One side had Marley Marl's radio show. The other side was Tony Humphries set on W-KISS. I deconstructed that mix. Got every single record. The last one was a 12" from a group called Kidstuff. Copying that mix taught me so much about mixing and phrasing. Tony Humphries did the mix on the fly. Me I had to work hard to finish it. But when I did... Big up to Tony Humphries!!!!

Have Your Say