The Single Skill You Truly Need To Be A Real DJ

Read time: 6 mins
Last updated 6 April, 2018

A-Trak hit a nerve with his #realdjing hashtag on Twitter in 2014. As the new year started, we too got to thinking about what we think the one skill all DJs should have really is.

In one shape or form, “what do I need to do to be a real DJ?” is the question that rules the conversation here at Digital DJ Tips, in our forums, comments and private conversations with our members and students. Sure, often this topic is a little under cover hidden behind questions like “what controller do I need?”, “do I need to be able to ______ to be a real DJ”, and so on, but basically the real thing underpinning such questions is “what is a real DJ?” (and implied, “what do I have to do to become one?”). No wonder A-Trak’s #realdjing hashtag hit such a nerve in 2014.

Now, as Digital DJ Tips forum moderator for many years here alongside DJ Vintage, we’ve got decades of DJing experience between us (his name kind of gives it away, doesn’t it?), and in all kinds of situations, so we’re definitely well placed to give our own definitive answer about this – but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy question to answer.

Nonetheless, I’ve found myself answering it on the forum in many of the forms it takes dozens of times this year. But since it’s the start of a new year, I though I’d look back and reflect on the quality of the help I’ve been offering people. Were my answers really the full picture? Was there something I was missing?

In trying to get down to that one “nugget of truth”, I looked back over the year on the forums and in our comments, and realised the questions tended to fall into a few categories: Gear, skills and music (or more specifically, set programming). So let’s look at them individually.

Does the gear you choose make you a real DJ?

Does a real DJ use specific gear, many of you asked? My reflex always was to say no, as I consider myself a “real” DJ and I do not use any special gear at all, actually my gear is quite cheap to replicate for anyone.

This year I was lucky enough to meet many pro DJs at festivals where I was warming up. And yes, some of them used CDJs (one of the main things I get asked), but some others used total nuts set-ups (K2s and custom-made controllers, custom mapped…). Some used simple controllers, a few used vinyl, some of those with DVS and some without.

Some used Traktor, some Serato, some Ableton,… the list could be pretty much as long as you want, and the set-ups ranged from US$500 to US$50,000 or more! I saw Armin van Buuren play and entertain quite nicely simply using the Philips M1X DJ consumer boombox with his iPad. During my holiday I also heard an excellent DJ playing on the beach using simply a Mixtrack Pro.

Are you a real DJ, even if you use a controller? What about if you add decks, like this? Does a laptop in any way, shape or form stop you being a real DJ? Do real DJs always use Traktor, or Serato, or no software art all?

And the times they are a-changing, too! I had the pleasure this year to play at quite a lot of clubs, bars and lounges. While many of them had the usual CDJ set-up, I did not encounter a single one where it was a problem to hook up my controller and set up my laptop. Some of them even considered the DJs who bring their own stuff as “better”, keeping older CDJs in their venues only as backup. How refreshing is that after all the friction towards digital DJing that’s gone before? The bigger clubs with their own tech crews nowadays even expect you to tell them what you want and where. You arrive and it’s a blank slate.

So to cut a long story short: No, gear does not make you a real DJ. It is only a tool to express yourself, and over time you will find what suits you best.

Do technical skills make you a real DJ?

Now what about skills? Do skills make you a real DJ? Are there any essential skills to DJing? I reflected over this a lot and thought about the sets I’ve heard over the year and thought about those I enjoyed the most. Now some of the DJs of course beatmatched everything, some keymatched, some did awesome scratch routines, some did even more awesome controllerism stuff, and others just… you know… played some songs. Now I have to say I enjoyed sets from some of those madly skilled DJs, but I also enjoyed lots of sets from, let’s say, less technically skilled DJs, who did no fancy stuff at all.

However after thinking a lot about it, there is one thing that stood out for all the sets I hugely enjoyed, and it was, for want of a better word, style. All those DJs knew what they were doing, knew what they could pull off without getting over the top of their own skills, and knew how to stay true to themselves. Also all of them stayed in a sort of safety zone, but had the balls to sometimes make something a little more crazy, but never so over the top that it could end in a total train wreck. So maybe there are skills that every DJ should have, but honestly these are the ones that you acquire through experience, just through doing it. Knowing yourself and knowing what you can do. Developing a routine, a style, a way of playing, and staying true to it when playing out.

Norman Jay
UK veteran and legend Norman Jay works the mic at his Good Times soundsystem at the Notting Hill carnival. What exact skills do you need to call yourself a real DJ, then? Are mixing skills as important as scratching? Beatmatching as important as crowd interaction? Can there ever be a definitive answer to such questions?

All of the above – the technical stuff and the stuff experience brings – can be learned, through practice, having good mentors (or taking courses) and some more practice – especially practice playing out live in front of an audience.

So is “technical skills” a good answer to our question, what makes a real DJ? Well not really, because everyone should immediately know that you need practice, someone to tell you how to do things, and experience in order to develop into a competent DJ who knows what he or she is capable of and plays within those limits.

This is nothing unique to DJing, it is the same with any instrument, with sports, and pretty much anything you want to become more professional in. You have to invest time and effort and sometimes money to get the skills, and you need the experience to be able to apply them.

So skills aren’t the one definitive thing either, it seems. So what, then?

Does good set programming make you a real DJ?

I read an article this year by Jimmy Iovine. Now one cannot argue that he isn’t one of the more influential producers out there and someone with deepest knowledge of music. There in the interview stood one sentence which totally floored me: “You have to know what’s next and software simply cannot do it, yet.”

Wow. But was he right? It was time to make another re-run in my head about the sets I’ve heard this year, and especially those I did not like that much. There was one set I remembered that was OK until the middle and then, even though the transitions were perfect, it went south and people left the venue en masse. Thinking about that made me realise, yes the poor guy simply played the wrong tune, didn’t manage to claw back from it, and it was over for him.

Searching through some tracklists of some of my own sets from last year that I liked and disliked it became even more evident. Yes while some songs even in sets I liked were not my favourites, they fitted in perfectly there and left me in the mood for the next song. Is this the sole reason why we DJs are (sometimes) still better than the genius tracklists?

Yes! I truly believe it is. It is as simple as that, and at the same time unimaginably hard. Of everything, knowing what to play next is the one skill that separates DJs from playlists – whatever their gear, and whatever their other skills.

I say “simple”, because “knowing what is next” is the one thing a real DJ does better than anyone else. It is not guessing what is next, it is not assuming what is next, it is knowing what must come next, to the bottom of your heart.

next tune
Having the experience, passion, knowledge and pure hard work behind you to know – know – that you have the perfect next tune, whatever the set. is – for me – the ultimate skill of DJing.

I say “unimaginably hard”, because there are so many parameters to consider: You can’t plan it in advance, because you have to read the crowd. The people in the crowd can be quite diverse and sometimes a single bad tune can wreck a whole set. You also have to stay true to the mood, you have to select sometimes the right key and the right BPM, but also the right style and transition. All of this needs a lot of experience playing out, but also a deep love for music and a passion not to simply play what you like yourself, but to entertain the crowd. Sure, workable gear and enough skills to use it get you to square one, but they definitely don’t make you a “real DJ”.

So yes, I believe that in the end, I can answer my question with that simple sentence, something so easy to say but that we can work a lifetime in coming closer to achieving consistently and reliably: A real DJ knows what is next. Or to put it another way (as a very experienced DJ friend once said): “A DJ is only as good as his last mix.”

What an exhilarating, exciting and also scary thing for all of us DJs, whatever skills we prefer and whatever gear we use, to accept and strive to get right every time!

What do you think defines “real DJing”? Is it the gear, of the mix of skills you have? Is it crowd reading? Is it flexibility in adapting what you do to the people in front of you? Does production have a place in DJing nowadays? Or is it simply “the right tune, for the people in front of you, right now”? Please share your personal thoughts in the comments.

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