Since I started DJing in 2005, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to open for many talented artists whom I respect and admire. Some of my favorites include Roy Davis Jr, Green Velvet, Squarepusher, Afrika Bambaataa, Andy Cato of Groove Armada, Holy Ghost!, Curses, Tommie Sunshine, Stacey Pullen, Tittsworth and Jesse Rose. Yes I’m name-dropping here, but it’s for the purpose of showing that I’ve warmed up for a breadth of different artists with a variety of styles and thus may have some semblance of a clue as to what I'm talking about.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. The first time I warmed up for Green Velvet I was so excited and enthusiastically jumping around the stage at the beginning of his set that he had to ask me to chill out. My first time opening for Afrika Bambaataa was definitely a booking I should have said no to. It was a hip hop venue on NYE and I think Bam was the only person in the room feeling my set. DJing with the Zulu Nation standing behind you and a bunch of hip hop superfans staring through you at the headliner that they just want to hear already is a new kind of awkward. I’ve also not been invited back to a venue once because I banged it out too hard in an opening set.
I’d like to think I’ve learned from some of these mistakes and that it’s made me a better opening DJ. It's an art form I respect, and I always have room to learn and grow. Here are some tips I’d like to share with other opening DJs in hopes of making the world a better place for the headliners.
Research, Research, Research!
Take some time before the show to get to know the act you’re opening for. Listening to their original tracks is great. Also try to find some DJ sets to get a sense of their vibe. A lot of times, there's a disparity between an artist's DJ sets and productions, so listen smartly to thematic threads. Also give some consideration to the venue, the promoter, and their audience. You’re not expected to completely change your style to be the exact same as the main act by any means, but look for a side within your sound that will compliment them.
Choose Your Spots
It can be tempting to say yes to every booking, especially at first, but it’s important to consider if a booking is appropriate and to do your best to set yourself up for success. If a venue or promoter is reaching out about a gig that isn’t really a fit for your style, ask if they have anything else in the works that might make a bit more sense. Playing for an unappreciative or non-existent crowd is a drag at any level.
Build a Gig-Specific Crate
When I first got into DJing I was only playing vinyl, so this was a necessity since a record bag only fit 50-80 records. This changed when I made the move to CDJs and I really got out of the habit of preparing before a gig. However, this summer when I did 4 shows with Sean Glass of Win Music for his birthday week, he gently reminded me that digging through your music and organizing it is a very good use of time in preparation for a gig. I’m now back in the habit of it and it really helps me to get into the zone quickly once I get on the decks.
Tease the Crowd
No, I don’t mean get on the mic and call everyone a bunch of D-Bags. A night out is a marathon, not a sprint. Often times people want to show up at the club, chill, knock a few back, and ease their way onto the dance floor. A great opening DJ can match the energy of the room, and knows just when to start sprinkling in some more assertive tunes. The early dance floor is often delicate and a wrong decision can clear it. Make eye contact with those bold first dancers and give them a smile. Once the floor starts to really fill up, you can take some more risks.
Be mindful of keeping momentum without just going for the jugular. Create little peaks and valleys. Another analogy I love is that an opening set is like tantric sex, not XXX hardcore. I know some of you are probably opening for acts that are a lot harder, and that younger crowds tend to be more immediately up for bangers. It’s still good to leave some room for the headliner to come over the top though, and it’s a great idea to take the energy down a bit for the last few tracks for just that reason.
Don’t Play The Headliner’s Tracks
This should be a no-brainer. Unless it’s your remix of their song or vice versa, this is a no-no. Don’t be that DJ.
Attitude of Gratitude
Opening for a bigger act is a privilege. It builds your name to be billed alongside them, and you have the opportunity of minting some new fans who came to see the main act but showed up early. Keep that in mind and be respectful to the act, their friends, the venue staff, and the promotions team. If people like to work with you, they are way more likely to book you again. Also stick around after your set, meet some of the audience, and watch how the night develops knowing that you’ve been a part of creating the groove that is happening.