It’s every DJ’s dream, right? Banging out all your favourite tunes that you just know nobody in the room is going to know or have, but you’ve got ’em, and they rock. The place goes, wild, those phones are Shazam’ing, there’s a queue of people wanting track titles, there are no silly requests coming in ‘cos everyone’s dancing, and you’re the MAN (or woman, naturally…).
So why is it that sometimes we can feel like jukeboxes, like we’re treading an impossible tightrope, struggling to find tunes than anyone likes, never mind getting the chance to slip in the odd tune they don’t know to satisfy our own creative tastes? Well, this article isn’t about finding the good gigs, or jukebox vs creative DJ, or how to satisfy difficult crowds – but what it IS about is a strategy for getting to play at least some of the music you love, at least some of the time. It’s not all going to work for everyone at every gig, but hopefully there’s something here you can take away.
1. Entertain, then educate
I’ve seen it loads of times. A DJ comes on, head down, straight into what he or she loves – no consideration for the crowd, who came before, the flow of the night – nothing. And they wonder why their “amazing” music clears the floor. But then there’s the other way, which I’ve also seen, from underground as well as commercial DJs: You have a box of tunes that express you, for sure, but you also have tunes you are pretty sure will please the dancefloor. The thing smart DJs like these do is spend the first part of their set pleasing the crowd, then when they’ve won their confidence, feel their way with twisting things around to their way of thinking, gently and considerately.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that the second half of the night is usually the intoxicated half – or to put it another way, people aren’t going to generally become less likely to dance as the night wears on! So planning your set in this way gives you longer to weave in those 4am techno minimal must-hears that have been kicking around at the back of your collection for months. Get everyone onside, then test your “good” stuff – you may be surprised.
2. Tease and test
Of course, you don’t want to just play a whole pile of tunes everyone knows, then bang into some UK white label dub country step (i just made that up – please tell me I made it up!) and expect the whole floor to come with you. Teasing and testing is your friend here. You can tease riffs, beats, intro sections, vocals, drum loops – anything that is reminiscent of what you want to play later, just for a few seconds or eight bars, repeatedly, to get people used to the sounds you want to move across to.
This teasing is your “test” – you’re watching the dancefloor, watching who maybe recognises stuff you didn’t think they would, getting a feel for what you may or may not be able to get away with. You’re priming and preparing people for the direction you’d like your set to take, in good time. You’re marking our boundaries, pushing things slowly, and always with the dancefloor on your side.
3. There’s a difference between “like” and “know”
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “like” and “know” mean the same thing. Just because your crowd doesn’t know a song, doesn’t mean it won’t necessarily like it. You’re a DJ, a tastemaker. Let people taste the new music – they might like it! Remember, every song wasn’t known by anyone, once. Use your judgement to decide if a song is going to suit the night or not.
Of course this ties in with points 1 and 2: You can tease and test new music, and you can save it for later in your set, but there’s nothing better than “breaking” a tune that goes on to become huge – it’s “yours”, even though it subsequently gets heard everywhere. People will remember it, and you for first introducing them to it. Having an ear for a commercial song before anyone else is a huge skill and one not to be sniffed at – just ask the likes of Pete Tong, who has signed hundreds of hits with his “record label” hat on over the years, to give just one example.
4. Mix it well
Throwing a different style in badly is one thing. But playing a considered build up to a surprising twist in a pre-planned mini-mix is something else entirely. If you want to play a different style, to try something new, to surprise the crowd, then it definitely pays to plan a little and make sure they way you are going to mix that new thing in is clever, or at least smooth and accomplished.
There’s nothing wrong with practising mixes; it’s not the same as sticking rigidly to a pre-planned set, which is wrong of course (in most circumstances, anyway) – many DJs play from lots of 2-3 tune mini sets, slotting them together as they go along, and this can be a great way of holding the crowd’s attention with more challenging material – plus of course it makes you look good as a DJ, and pulling off pre-planned mixes in public that are maybe that bit more technical as a result is a buzz in itself, whether the material is challenging to the audience or not.
5. Look like you’re enjoying it
It can be really easy to look sheepish when playing tunes you’re not sure of – or to look scared, or be rigid (“rabbit in the headlamps”). It can happen to us all – I remember several times throwing on a tune that just bombed while DJing, and being so embarrassed that I actually hid (crouched down, pretending to look for something in my bag)! Luckily it doesn’t happen too often…
Thing is, you’re the leader of the party. Most people (with the greatest respect) are usually sheep – they’re looking around them for clues and pointers as to how to behave, and will generally follow the crowd. And the leaders of the crowd? Well, on a dancefloor, they’re looking at YOU. If you’re confident, dancing behind your decks, having fun (even if the material you’re playing is unknown to the audience / suddenly challenging), they are FAR more likely to copy you. Make no mistake: when you’re DJing, you’re leading from the front. Be bold. Make it as hard as you can for people to NOT enjoy your music!
6. Use mashups and remixes to introduce styles
Classic advice, but very true. In “old times”, you’d throw a familiar acapella over a challenging instrumental. Crudely, girls can dance to the vocal, boys to the beats. Not always the case, of course, but hopefully you see what I mean: If you can introduce something familiar to your new material, people will more likely accept it – especially if you tie it in with 4 above.
Now, more than ever in this SoundCloud world, there are myriad version of all kinds of tunes available. Find remixes of commercial tracks in the style you love. Find clever or fun mashups where the remixer has done the hard work for you. Have a go at doing your own re-edits to meld stuff more to the way you like to play or mix. Music isn’t sacred; it’s a tool, there to be twisted into whatever shapes you can imagine for your floors. And don’t worry about not being “purist” – remember, this is meant to be fun! Break a few rules – you’ll be remembered for it.
A DJ (who sadly I can’t recall) once said that he felt if he didn’t empty the dancefloor at least once a night, he wasn’t doing his job right. A bit extreme maybe, but you get his drift, no? It’s OK to like stuff nobody (yet) likes. Sometimes, a tune played one week will empty the floor, the next week it will fill it. Sometimes, the same tune played at the end of a set will work having bombed at the beginning. There are no hard and fast rules – if there were, everyone would know them! So it’s OK to mess up every now and then. In fact, it’s pretty much essential.
Bottom line is you don’t have to play music everyone loves all the time. For example, we all have our favourite comedian, right? But we don’t laugh at all their jokes. We don’t expect to. They’re allowed to push it too far every now and then, to “test out new material”. It’s the same with DJs – if what you do is part of a bigger picture, and you’re letting people glimpse parts of that picture every time you play, they’ll get it. They understand they’re not going to love everything you ever do. Be genuine, try your hardest, keep your vision, and you’ll at least start to work out where and how to get away with mixing the stuff you really want to play in with the stuff you have to.
What tips can you add to these? what experiences, good or bad, have you had with trying to play the music you love? I’d really like to hear your thoughts in the comments.