How To Create A Unique DJ Sound

| Read time: 5 mins
set planning tunes
Last updated 18 February, 2014

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Crate-Digging-Vinyl
Cratedigging is an essential part of creating your own sound. It could mean finding old vinyl and learning to rip it so you are playing unique digital files, too. Pic: The Find Mag

Part of being a successful DJ is creating your unique DJ sound, an idea we touched on in Why Smart DJs Play More Than One Style Of Music. Anything is possible in the DJ world. For you to have a chance at real success, locally, nationally or internationally, you’ll need to stand out from the rest and create your own unique style.

Many DJs you’ll see and hear when you go out in bars and clubs play similar music to each other. There’s not much really wrong with this, as long as they’re making people happy and as long as people are dancing.

But if you want to be better than them and rise above the average DJ, get real, better paid club DJ gigs and keep on getting them every weekend, then you need to step up from that.

Your music selection, the order of your tracks, the style of mixing and the blend should all be in your style or DJ sound. Your style needs to be so unique to you that you could copyright it. No one else can play in the way you do. DJs may try to copy you, but they’ll never do it, because only you know how to react and surprise people with your unique style. We covered some general tactics in 3 Secrets Of Mixing Different Styles, and now it’s time to develop some of those ideas a little more. So, like Montell Jordan, this is how we do it!

1. Find rare gems

First up, you need to get busy searching. Whether it’s seeking out quiet record shops where the crates have dust on them to find samples, finding random websites with solo artists, contacting bloggers that few others know of or digging into your own collection, you need tunes no-one else has got. The ideal way of creating your sound is to find the best combination of least known but most catchy and memorable tunes. The kind of tunes that have the music freaks on the floor staring at you and crowding around you to find out what they are.

Some gimp will fail miserably in an attempt to recognise your tunes with Shazam, because Shazam doesn’t have a clue who this track is by. These are the tunes that make you stand out.

2. Create DJ remixes

Create DJ remixes iPad
you don’t need a studio any more to create remixes – free apps for iPads and even iPhones let you add an extra something to well known-tunes to make them your own.

Look at any successful DJ nowadays and you’ll see they have a ton of remixes and some of their own tunes to their name. DJs the like of Soulwax, Boys Noize and Laidback Luke are just a few examples. With some luck, your great remix you could end up getting you lots of attention on DJ forums and on YouTube. With this kind of viral success, getting gigs should be a breeze for you.

I’ve DJed with a group called Jolie Cherie. Since they got signed to Kitsune records, they get huge DJ gigs in the best clubs in London and Paris. And they’re not even DJs, they’re musicians. A good tune or remix can let you leapfrog masses of other DJs.

3. Be a punk

By being a punk I mean go against the grain. You’re there so that people can enjoy themselves, but there’s nothing wrong with being a rebel and shocking people with your DJ sound style. This doesn’t mean you playing a set for yourself, dancing away in your booth while everyone else looks at you in bewildered silence and disappointment. But it does mean you play against the grain. Drop surprises. Be a bit crazy.

How do you do that? Vary your style and drop the last tune they would expect! Ask yourself a question: what is the last possible tune anyone would expect me to play right now? Then play it…

Example: I was in a bar/club playing nu-funk, disco, house and nuggets of hip-hop when I suddenly hammered out Gay Bar by Electric Six. As you may know, this is a hard rock tune. Everyone was dancing and this just kind of confused them. They didn’t stop though. I didn’t care about the reaction of some people who didn’t like it. This takes some guts but it gets you noticed. Just make sure you pull it off right and make sure your surprise tunes reflect something in the atmosphere. Shock people, but do it in an original way.

There is an art to this and it does take some practice, so try it at smaller venues first…

4. Be eclectic

Anyone can become a genre DJ for a year or two. What happens is that genre-focused DJs get great gigs to start with, when their music is fashionable. Then when clubbers decide they like something else, these guys get dropped like hot potatoes. Music is fickle and changes rapidly, just like fashion. Playing electro, which is fashionable in some countries now, and nothing else, will get you nowhere long-term. You’ll be good for a year or two, then everyone will move on to something else and some of them will even dislike your style.

Electric Six Gay Bar
Would you dare drop Electric Six’s Gay Bar in a cool, funky DJ set?

Being eclectic means changing your style. This style of playing reflects a unique DJ sound and you’ll be remembered far better for it. If you’re playing electro, then drop some pop d’n’b just to show people you’ve got balls. Why not be crazy and drop in some old Dusty Springfield rework that you’ve done yourself? Vary within your genre, push the boundaries.

Get to know how to play various styles. As well as creating your own sound, you’ll be able to get noticed and you should even get more gigs as your style can be adapted to any venue, not just single-genre venues.

Practice mixing five different styles and then try it on a night out.

5. Mix old and new tunes

Why you should mix old tunes? Isn’t DJing all about the best new amazing tracks, hot off the block? No it’s not. And you’d be making a mistake thinking it was. Much of the music you hear today is older music recycled. Loads of what you play right now is based on older tunes, containing samples from other tunes. Certain tracks may simply be direct copies.

When you make a shout back to old tunes people love it. When the cheesy song Lady by Modjo was well known, I’d deliberately play the song it had stolen from to make people jig. Yep, check out some old tunes by Chic and listen to them. You’ll see where Modjo completely lifted their only successful track from.

Likewise, there are a couple of Daft Punk tracks which sample heavily from old soul and funk. When I drop them, people look bewildered but still love it. There’s a massive Dr Dre number which directly takes the music from an old Joe Cocker classic. It goes on..

When a certain style is fashionable, give a shout to old styles that are similar too. New music trends are a rehash of old ones. When nu-rave was trendy, I would drop loads of the old classics from real rave back in the early 90s. People loved this.

Not only does it make people dance, but it shows you have depth too. You’ll also have some older party animals in the crowd; there always are. They’ll absolutely love you for blasting out tunes of their young days.

• Matt Challands is a DJ living in Paris, France, is one half of electro duo Sao Paulo Punks and runs a DJ blog too.

What steps are you taking to develop your own DJ style? Have you ever taken big risks in a DJ set? How did it work out for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments…