One of the funniest (yet frustrating) things about many DJs is their incessant ability to invent things that they think make someone a “real”, or “better” DJ.
It seems like we would have a whole lot more good DJs in the world if we spent more time focusing on things that matter. Things like observation, intuition, crowd-reading, programming, moods, empathy, music theory, marketability, and so on.
Yet, most people spend their time complaining about the myths listed below. Here’s a list of things that don’t inherently make you a better DJ.
1. Owning or Using “Pro” Gear
Don’t get me wrong, I love playing on a set of CDJ-2000s and a 900nexus. But the notion that this is a real requirement… that this is what separates the “big boys” from the bedroom DJs, is kinda silly.
I’ve watched Kevin Saunderson destroy a crowd with a Kontrol S4. I’ve seen Richie Hawtin enamor large audiences using little more than a pair of X1′s. I’ve seen Ean Golden use whatever budget controller he happened to have in his bag that week to wow onlooking spectators and move dancers’ feet. And the things I’ve heard come out of local heavy-hitters using only a MIDI keyboard and a laptop…
There is a place for pro gear, certainly. But the point is, if you could’ve put Mario Andretti behind the wheel of a Geo Metro, he’d still have done something impressive.
2. Playing Records
Mixing vinyl is fun, sexy, and satisfying. But two flat, black circles do not a professional make.
Haven’t we gotten over this whole format bias thing yet? Or are you still controller-shaming DJs?
Bad DJs are just as proficient at being bad DJs on your preferred music format vs. their own. By blaming it on digital, you end up giving them too much credit.
3. Having Thousands and Thousands of Songs
Diversity! I’ve preached about it more than once. But at a certain point, you’re just hoarding.
One of the best things you can do to improve your sets (especially the more impromptu ones) is to do the opposite… to start whittling down the number of tracks that are in your collection.
The problem with having 10 terabytes of music with you at every gig is that it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever want to play them all. So, now you’re at a signal-to-noise problem.
It’s highly unlikely that you have 10TB worth of “gems”. Why not start hacking and slashing down that collection until you are left with only music that’s amazing or functional for you and your style of DJing?
4. Using Sync
Just because technology has taken over the tedious job of matching your beats, it doesn’t mean that you are left with nothing to improve.
A DJ’s skill level does not stop at his or her ability to align beats. Most of us know that. However, because sync makes things so easy, it’s common to use this as an excuse to stop improving. That is the real tragedy of the sync button, if there is one.
5. NOT Using Sync
Conversely, one’s lack of desire to use the sync function doesn’t give them any particular benefit either. Don’t be too quick to jump on that high horse!
This argument typically comes from a place of ego… especially from people who learned how to DJ before things like sync, snap, and quantize were standard functionality.
Just like the “records” argument above, a bad DJ is still a bad DJ whether or not he or she uses the sync function. One just might trainwreck more than the other.
6. Playing Popular Music
Most commonly, the brand new DJ jumps straight into whatever sound is popular because they feel this is what they need to do to succeed.
It’s funny, because there is actually a lot of value in specializing. It’s actually easier to be noticed when you niche down and are the leader of a small group rather than another participant in a sea of thousands.
It makes me sad to see so many DJs base their sets off of the Beatport top 100 or Billboard charts, rather than trying to build their own sound.
7. NOT Playing Popular Music
I try to be as fair as possible. Beware… nobody is safe!
Just because you play the most underground and eclectic music possible, doesn’t automatically give you supreme DJ status. Yes, it’s great to build your own sound. Yes, it’s great to be a “crate digger”. But what are you doing with those sounds? Who is resonating with those gems?
The passionate DJ finds what he needs when the audience finds what they need. It’s the infinite self-reference loop of DJing.
Find your people and play to them.
8. FX and Button-Mashing
Playing with tricks and effects while DJing can be a lot of fun. But does it sound good? Does it add to the experience for your listeners?
Many people feel like they need to replace the time they used to spend on beatmatching and record-flipping, so they fill it in by playing with FX knobs or finger drumming.
These things have their place, and some are good at it. But, I’d postulate that it’s not most of us. Let’s not get crazy here.
The way I like to think of FX are as a utility. I always think, “what am I trying to accomplish by applying this effect?” If there’s no actual point to it, I’ll just let the track ride for a while.
Shuffling your feet and getting your groove on behind the decks. I’m not gonna knock it… I do it myself!
But let’s bring things down to earth, here. Dancing while mixing doesn’t magically make your set better. Anybody who thinks otherwise should attend a John Digweed show.
It is fair to say that crowds like seeing DJs enjoying themselves. But using it as criteria to determine the abilities of that person as a DJ? You’re just being nitpicky.
“Never trust a DJ who doesn’t dance” is a fun little quote, but let’s not put stock where it doesn’t belong.
10. Having Lots of Likes/Follows/Listens
A DJ with lots of likes on Facebook or plays on Soundcloud does not automatically equate to them having amazing DJ skill. It could simply mean they are good at marketing, or got lucky.
Conversely, I’ve been surprised by more than one DJ who has barely even made a mark on social media. This is the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” argument, and it rings true here.
This is why, as a promoter, I try to talk to my potential bookings and get to know them. I learn much more about their skills as a DJ by talking to them, learning their attitude and approach, observing their musical style, and seeing how they talk about these things to other people.
Let’s stop giving people free passes because of some meaningless metric, or writing them off because of what they use or how popular they are. Looking beyond the common arguments, and staying true to what you feel is important, is how you find those diamond-in-the-rough DJs.