What Family Pop Concerts Can Teach You About DJing

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 5 mins
Last updated 2 December, 2017

Björn Again
Björn Again: Rappers and DJs as well as camp pop performers.

What can a family pop concert teach you about DJing? Quite a lot, as it happens.

We don’t get an awful lot of live music around here in southern Spain, and my partner loves to dress up whenever she can (she was wearing fairy wings and a tutu when I first met her, so I knew what I was getting myself into…). So when Abba tribute band Björn Again were booked by a promoter friend of mine to play under the moonlight in our local bullring, we were happy to go along and lend our support.

This was a true family occasion – small children with their young parents; sixties couples on nostalgia trips; happy holiday-makers; curious Spaniards; and – as if often the case in small communities – everyone who was anyone just “showing their faces”. The entertainment was true to the crowd, with a children’s party compere, TV talent show finalists and of course, the main act with their costumes, humour and a whole host of timeless radio hits to belt out to the carefree crowd. It was all good fun. But what lessons could be taken from it for the serious DJ?

Lesson 1: Be enthusastic.

Black Eyed Peas
Black Eyed Peas – beware of karaoke cover versions.

The compere for the event was a camp, kiddies-style entertainer, who at one stage crucified a karaoke version of the Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling. But he was infectious in his enthusiasm, and he successfully warmed the crowd up despite his dubious singing voice.

A bit later, a DJ did nothing more than spin classic 60s and 70s hits (Chubby Checker, James Brown) end-to-end. But he had his own overblown dance moves for every single tune he played. The baby boomer parents and their families were twisting in the aisles as he marched around with a beaming smile on his face behind his decks (which were set up centre stage.)

As a DJ you are also an entertainer, and people are looking to you for their cue to do things. If you dance, they’ll dance. If you clap your hands, they’ll clap along. If you shout, they’ll start shouting. Really, it can be that simple.

Lesson 1: Be enthusiastic

Lesson 2: Do something exceptional.

Ruth Lorenzo
Ruth Lorenzo, rock chick and flamenco talent. (Pic: Jonny Gates)

One of the warm-up acts was a local Spanish singer who’s known for her energetic rock cover versions (a quick shout out for her: She’s called Ruth Lorenzo, and she came to the public’s attention in Great Britain on The X Factor talent TV show).

Half-way through her set, she announced that her mum was in the crowd, and as a tribute to her, she dropped the rock chick act and for two electrifying minutes sang – with power and passion – a genuine flamenco cantante. She was completely unaccompanied, and sang so well it stopped everyone in their tracks, cementing her in our minds as much more than a one-dimensional pop singer.

As a DJ, you too can practise and show off a skill they’re not expecting. If you’re a smooth mixin’ house DJ, show off a scratching trick. If you’re a play-records-end-to-end type of DJ, spend some time with an acapella and some instrumentals perfecting a live mash up. If there’s a tune you’re known for, program some cue points and work out a bit of a re-edit of it.

These things take practise, but that’s the point; they help you to rise above those DJs who don’t bother. So rehearse something unexpected. Remember, with digital DJing kit, this kind of thing is more a question of effort than raw skill. Put the time in to do it.

Lesson 2: Do something exceptional.

Lesson 3: Play something they’re really not expecting.

Nirvana weren\’t known for their glam house affinities.

For those of you too young or too cool to know, Abba were a super-successful 70s disco pop act from Sweden – two girls in knee-length white boots and whip-them-off costumes, two cheesy bearded blokes, and a host of sparkling pop hits. For the best part of a decade, they were a sensation across most of the known world.

As I mentioned earlier, last night’s headliners were Björn Again, an act who’ve made a living performing as Abba. Hence you get all the costumes, all the hits, all the best bits and a show that is probably more “Abba” than they ever were (no fillers, no “here’s one off our new album” – just what the crowd really wants.) There’s also, of course, the small fact that Abba split up donkey’s years ago, so they offer a chance to pretend for a bit that they haven’t and indulge in a little nostalgia.

However, right in the middle of their set last night, the beat changed and one of the blokes in the band delivered a thoroughly modern rap, with the keyboard player dropping some vinyl scratching samples for good measure. It was completely out of character for Abba, because it was something the real band would never have done – not least because that style of rap just wasn’t invented until years after they split up! It made everyone laugh and gently reminded them that this wasn’t, in fact, the 70s.

Battlestar Galactica
Battlestar Galactica: Space disco, anyone?

It’s a bit like the part in the intro to the original TV series of The A Team, where The Face double-takes on spotting a robot out of Battlestar Galactica (Dirk Benedict, the actor who played The Face, made his name acting in Battlestar Galactica a few years previously). Such moments give everyone a different angle on the particular suspension-of-reality that’s going on, be it a TV show, covers band…

…or DJ set. Yes, as a DJ, you can do this too. If you’re a singalong house DJ, drop a rock track (for many years the cliche was to play Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit). If you’re a tech house DJ, play a monotonous 60s psychedelic track. If you’re a hip hop DJ, play the original of one of the tunes your favourite acts sample for their musical beds. If you’re a serious instrumental techno DJ, play a big vocal.

This is a trick it’s sometimes challenging to get right. You have to know your music well enough to get away with this stuff. I played warm-up in a trance club for many years (so I was basically playing progressive house), and one Hallowe’en I practised mixing in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, because I wanted to fill the place with smoke, kill the lights and double the volume at that big synth break at the start.

Michael Jackson: Not as scary as your typical angry drunk girl from Manchester.

It kind of worked, until a girl came up to me screaming “get this shit off!” Maybe I’d not got back to my warm-up style quickly enough, maybe I’d misjudged the crowd, maybe she was a nutter (trouble is you never fully know). I did indeed “get that shit off” after a while.

But I have plenty of tunes I use for precisely this trick that I can rely on to work, and you should find some that fit your style too.

If nothing else, it gets you remembered, and not everyone who “gets” the meaning is going to come up and shake your hand – they’ll just hopefully go away thinking there’s more to you than one type of music or style of playing, and that you can take a broader look at what you’re doing than just playing down-the-line underground dubstep or whatever.

Lesson 3: Play something they’re really not expecting.

Inspiration is everywhere

Music is a broad church. This means that the smart DJ should religiously attend any gig they can; go to different club nights outside of their “comfort zone”; tune in to foreign radio stations just to see what they’re playing; listen to five-star rated albums in completely different musical genres to their DJing… you get the picture. Everything multiplies up this way, and you will get inspiration for your DJ sets from the strangest places.

So, if your girlfriend (or boyfriend…) wants to put suede boots and a wig on and drag you to a kitsch cover versions night, don’t screw your nose up. Go along, have a beer or two, and let your hair down. You can be sure there’ll be something you can take away that will improve your DJing sets.

Been to any family pop concerts recently you’d care to share with us? Spotted Ritchie Hawtin at a Village People concert? Let us know!

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