House music legend Steve Lawler released a documentary earlier this year called The Art Of The DJ. It’s an engaging biopic on his rise to fame and his struggles and triumph over substances, and we couldn’t help but pick out truisms he was dropping throughout the film.
In this article, we’ve shortlisted six timeless truths from the documentary that will guide you to becoming a better DJ, whether you’re just starting out or you’ve got some gig experience under your belt…
6 DJ Truths:
1. Music should be your obsession
Want to be a better DJ? Listen to more music: the one thing that sets DJs apart from casual listeners is that DJs love listening to music, discovering new tunes, and playing them for others. When Steve was a resident in Ibiza, he was DJing seven hours a day, seven days a week. DJing that much meant religiously curating a DJ library and keeping it in tip-top shape.
Even though you don’t have a residency over at the White Isle, stay hungry and continue to grow your passion for the music that you play. Work to expand your musical and DJ knowledge: seek out different styles and see how you can integrate it with your own. Keep learning about new artists, and collect new tunes as if you gigged daily. This is what separates the truly dedicated from the casual players.
2. A combination of gigs, mixtapes, and a tune gets you “out there”
This is one of the most crucial takeaways from The Art Of The DJ. Steve took a three-prong approach to his career that got him success early on: this consisted of (1) gigging regularly, (2) promoting a quality mixtape, and (3) pushing a solid track that he produced.
The same rings true today: if you want to fast track your DJ career, juggling these three elements will increase your likelihood of success.
3. Surround yourself with DJs better than you
While Steve was no lightweight when he started DJing at Space in Ibiza, it would’ve been intimidating to play nights where you’d be on the same bill with living legends like Carl Cox. He shrugged it off, played his tunes and mixed the way he did, and later on became a huge crowd draw in his own right.
Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, because growth happens when you choose to be uncomfortable. If you’ve got used to DJing at the same bar and crowd, switch it up and book a date at a different venue with a different audience to keep you on your toes. If you’re used to playing warm up, ask the promoter if you can get bumped to primetime – just be sure you’ve got the chops and tunes to hold down the slot.
Here’s a test: If you find yourself near the bottom of a lineup with DJs who are more popular, skilled, or respected than you, then that’s how you know you’re in the right place. Grow, network, and learn from them.
4. Musical integrity should be a top priority
Being true to yourself is an important aspect of being a DJ, and you perform at your best when you love the music you’re spinning. Steve went through a period where he played tunes that were more attuned to larger festival audiences, and he wasn’t particularly fond of that music. While he had some success in that, he didn’t enjoy DJing as much because of this. He stopped DJing big shows and went back to his roots because he didn’t want to compromise his musical taste just to appease an expectant crowd and promoters.
It was frustrating for him at first because audiences didn’t “get” his music, but he remained true to himself and stuck to it. He says that he’s proud of the fact that now, he loves every set he plays and gives them everything he’s got.
DJing music that you abhor is the quickest route to turning it into a job that you hate. Do it because you love it, not just because you “have” to.
5. Music programming is king
Time and time again, the music you play trumps how you play it. Steve describes that moment when you feel that you’ve got the entire audience in the palm of your hand, and that they trust you enough to the point that you can play any tune and take the set any way you want, and they’ll go along with you. That comes with taking your audience on a journey, and that’s possible through intentional music programming that’s executed with attentive care.
6. DJing is an art form
According to Steve, when the essence of DJing (ie sharing music you love with others) becomes more important to you than just the monetary success or fame associated with it, that’s when DJing becomes an art form. Yes, money is an important thing – but it’s not the only thing.
Fine tune your path as you go through your DJ career to find the right mix of career success (monetary) and personal satisfaction (artistic). There will never be such a thing as a perfect balance, and as you evolve as an artist, your definition of what the “right mix” means will change too. Strive to learn what that mix is, and go for it.
DJ technology will evolve, and music styles will come and go – these are inevitable, but what we’ve outlined above are DJ maxims that have stood the test of time. Whether you’re new to DJing or you’ve been doing it for decades, evaluate what you’ve got going on using these truths as bases: this helps you keep your career in check and whether or not you’re treading the DJ path that you want to find yourself on.
These truths are not things you master by reading a manual or watching a tutorial. Your taste in music will constantly mature, your DJ techniques will continue refining, and your dreams will change as you go through life, so revisit these once in a while to take stock of your progress.
• If you’ve not seen Steve Lawler’s The Art Of The DJ, check it out now on Vimeo.
What do you think of these truths? Have any more you’d like to add? Have you seen The Art Of The DJ? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Share them with us below.