When I started DJing in the late 90s, I’d usually play friends’ house parties and the like. I’d bring my decks (a Numark CDN-22 dual CD player and a mixer), bring my CD collection tucked in my Case Logic bags, and hook up to whatever soundsystem was handy. Folk at the party would also bring their own CDs, leaving them stacked beside the “DJs booth”, and I’d proceed to spin these tunes all night, playing music I liked to hear as well as requests from party guests who had brought their own discs.
I never really thought of myself as someone who’d play “underground” tunes and the like, I just wanted to get the party going by playing tunes that made people move, but luckily it wasn’t all cheesy trance or mainstream house tunes: Once in a while, I’d throw in a Plastikman tune, or a Terry Francis track, or maybe even some St. Germain. If the crowd didn’t like it (“Where’s my Vengaboys?”), I’d simply play a track that I knew was going to resonate with them right after. This was how I’d “DJ” the whole night, night after night. Though crude, it was crowd-reading at its most basic form.
The one thing all DJs should never do…
Fast forward to today where we have access to literally all the music that’s ever been recorded in the last few decades: Whenever you’re at a gig and someone asks for a request, they know that you can just grab a tune online and mix it in after whatever your playing’s done, BPM/mood/musical key be damned! This of course causes DJs big problems, because we all know it isn’t how a DJ should operate (we aren’t human jukeboxes, as the saying goes) – but sometimes it just can’t be avoided.
So as such, whenever I play out nowadays I only have one rule. It has served me time and time again, which is why I want to share it with you:
Never play anything you don’t like.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Simply don’t play music you don’t enjoy. If you can’t imagine yourself vibing to it, don’t play it. If you can’t picture yourself on the dancefloor getting off to it, then just don’t drop it in your set. For me, this holds true for a luxury wedding reception with hundreds of guests on a private island, down to the occasional gig at my favourite dive joint with 30 sweaty punters, and it holds true for requests and my own collection.
Of course, a genuine broad taste is gonna pay you dividends here. If you don’t like playing disco or swing, don’t do wedding gigs, because it’ll be expected of you. If you don’t like playing EDM, Top40/mashups, don’t get yourself a gig at the mainstream club downtown. While it’s true that any DJ can take these gigs and play these tunes, if it isn’t in your heart to unleash yet another bout of YMCA or the latest Calvin Harris mega-blockbuster, you’ll slowly grow to despise these gigs, and as your aversion to it grows, so too will your aversion towards DJing. But at the same time, some DJs unashamedly love the exact same tunes. They’re playing the music they like, so that’s fine.
Stay true to yourself and your music policy
It may sound selfish at first, but it makes sense: As the provider of entertainment, you should be having fun yourself; anything less is akin to a birthday clown crying behind a big, red smile. You’ll be miserable and bored, and people will notice your lack of authenticity and enthusiasm sooner rather than later. You’ll be the DJ who doesn’t look like he wants to DJ. Whether you’re the type that likes the darkest of techno or the poppiest of chart tunes, only playing the music you like yourself stops this from happening.
Aside from keeping your sanity intact, it helps you take a stand as a DJ, too: Should boos erupt after you drop a cheesy dance track, it’s easier to wave it off, laugh, and then mix in that “unbelievably minimal” tune you have on 180gram vinyl to appease your discerning dancefloor. After all, you sincerely enjoyed the cheesy song, and you just wanted to show a little bit of playfulness, so no big deal.
Similarly, when other DJs diss you for playing a particular song, there isn’t a need to convince anyone that what you’re playing is exactly what you’d want to hear if you were on the dancefloor – as it is! No regrets! I’ve played shows where other DJs huddle in a corner laughing at my song selection and “skills”, and that’s fine with me: It just means my music isn’t for them, and so I’m totally fine with that! Likewise, if someone requests a song that you think is totally off, you can bank on your conviction never to play it without feeling bad about “letting someone down”.
Besides, if the dancefloor’s packed and people are having fun, does it really matter how “underground” or “trendy” your playlist is, and how elite your skills are?
• Here’s something that all DJs should do…. watch the presentation 🙂
What’s the one thing you’d never do as a DJ? We’d like to hear about it along with your other thoughts on this piece in the comments section below!