Editorial: What Makes a Good Live DJ?

In today’s Editorial Edition of Remix Report, I’m gonna break down what I feel makes a good live DJ.  Obviously, you need to know how to mix and how to read crowds, but that isn’t breaking news so I won’t really get into that.   Instead I’m gonna try and get into the stuff that separates the elite from the average.

1)  KNOWING YOUR MUSIC/PREPARATION:

Volumes – Even if your mix is on point, if the next song comes in too low, it sounds awful, and ruins the vibe.  Consistent volume is key to maintaining a high energy level.

Intro Lengths – For songs where you don’t have pre-made intros, it’s important to know how many bars you have before the songs starts.   I’ll discuss this in more detail in the next section.

Energy Level – For lack of a better word, some songs just sound “empty” to me.  I don’t mean that in a demeaning way.  “Get It On Tonight” by Montell Jordan is a dope song, but try playing it after a song like “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira and you would know what I meant.  I know that’s a random example, but it’s just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

Song Structure – Not all choruses are 8 bars long.  “Magic Stick” and “Who AM I (Sim Simma)” both have 6 bar choruses.   More recently, “Best I Ever Had” and “All The Above” both have 12 bar choruses.  This is important information for DJs who like to mix using 8 bar intros.  Another important thing to know, is where the rapper/singer starts their second verse in relation to the chorus.  Sometimes they can overlap, so it’s a must to fade the chorus early, as to avoid hearing the artist start their verse, just to have it chopped mid-sentence.  “Hypnotize” and “Drink and My 2 Step” are good examples.  Again, I’ll discuss this aspect a little more in this second section.

2)  HOW YOU BRING THE NEXT SONG IN:

This is where knowing your music (song structure and intro lengths) comes in handy.  The biggest key to being a great live DJ, is that you keep the energy going.  Mixing drums over drums is very boring and kills any excitement in the crowd. Therefore, you always want the next songs hype or vocals to come in right after you exit the previous song.  Are there exceptions to this?  Yes.  Occasionally there will be a song where just the drums or melody may get you a reaction, but for the most part, the crowd wants to hear vocals!  That’s why you need to know which songs have 6 bar choruses, so you can adjust!

3)  NOT LETTING SONGS DRAG ON FOR TOO LONG:

Letting a song go on for too long, especially one that’s older can lull the crowd to sleep.  If you are playing good songs, you will normally get a crowd reaction when the songs drop.  Therefore, the shorter the length of songs, the more songs you can play through the night, and the more reactions you will get.   For songs that are extremely hot at the moment, like “Sexy Bitch” or “Tik Tok”, it’s cool to let them play a bit.  But for certain old school songs, or especially down south hip hop, you might want to consider only playing the chorus.

4)  MAKING YOUR OWN EDITS:

Maybe this should have been under preparation, but I figured it would be easiest to talk about this after I discussed 1,2, and 3.  The reason being, is that if you have trouble playing a song to fit the “guidelines” in the first three sections, EDIT IT!!!   Make it fit your set.  This is the beauty of the digital age, and computer software – you can personally format songs as you wish.  You can add hype, or create an acapella out.  You can delete verses, extend choruses.  Make different length intros or set cue points at different bar counts during the intro.   This is especially helpful for “quick mixing” in and out of songs like I mentioned in section 3.  Go crazy.  Do whatever you think will make you sound better or get a better reaction from your crowd.  I think it’s very important to be part of a record pool, as many will create a lot of these edits and save you the time.  Www.Djcity.com/digital has many dope “Hook First” edits, where they create an 8 bar intro followed by chorus first, them the first verse – to songs that normally just come in with verse.  Www.Directmusicservice.com has many edits where they shorten the song to cut out “dead weight” or parts that may make it drag.

5)  MIXING IN KEY:

Most people know to pay attention to key, when they make remixes, but its important to use the same concept live.  Not all songs have flat drum intros.  If the next songs you are mixing into has a little melody to the intro, it sounds horrible if the key is way off from the song you are mixing out of.   However, instead of using this principle to focus on the disasters that can occur if aren’t careful, think of how good you sound when your mixes ARE on key.  Again, this could have been in the preparation section, but its an advanced concept and I thought it deserved its own little explanation.

6)  HAVING GOOD SONG SELECTION:

I feel this is an important, yet overrated aspect of being a good live DJ.  In the beginning I stated I wanted to discuss what separates an average DJ from an elite DJ.  I feel like most DJs know not to start or end the night with “Move Bitch”  And most DJs know they should save the hottest tracks for primetime.  I will say this though, bringing back old songs that most DJs don’t play, and taking risks on others can be very rewarding when the crowd goes crazy like you thought they might.  Check our interview with Rock-It! Scientists from last week for more on that.  I’m also reminded of a tweet I read last week.  I wish I could remember who said it, but it was posted by a well known DJ whom most in the industry have heard of.   He basically said, if you were a fan of DJ AM, yet when you play in the club, you just play Lady Gaga, after Flo-Rida, after Sean Kingston, then you missed the point.   That’s not to say you shouldn’t be playing all the hot songs, but if you want to separate yourself from other DJs, you have to do it in a creative manner, and ultimately throw in songs people might not expect.  I also mentioned I wouldn’t really get into reading the crowd.  Most of us know not to play “Put It In Your Mouth” at your grandparents 50th Anniversary party.   But I will say this, if you come to a venue expecting to play certain songs, but the crowd is different than you expect, be prepared to adapt.  Don’t be stubborn.

7)  PLAYING THE RIGHT MASH-UPS:

Should this have been part of Song Selection?   I thought it deserved its own topic.  And I previously said that song selection was a little overated – but not if you include this as part of it.  To me this is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.  There’s so many mash-ups and mixes  out there, it’s a must you find the right ones to play.

8)  USING TRANSITIONS:

While I despise song to song transitions (It’s pretty much cheating to me), transitions that take the same song from one BPM to another can be very useful.   Sure you can always move up BPMS the old-fashioned way, but these transitions can speed up the process while still sounding smooth.

There are definitely a lot of sub-topics to be discussed here, and you can bet we will be going into greater detail in the future.  I also didn’t discuss scratching, because that’s not really a must, and there are only a select few who can do it at the highest level.  With that, I would say that if you do scratch, obviously make sure its on point – and also, don’t over do it.  As always, comments are appreciated and please let me know if I missed anything or if there is something you disagree with.  I would go into more detail but I gotta rush to make some last second edits before my gig tonight!

— Spring–

25 comments

  1. Yo mean i can’t play put it in your mouth at my next wedding gig?!
    Great editorial! Good points all around.
    Keep bang’n
    1

  2. Also I never really got in to transitions. I feel like you it’s a little like cheating.I will be honest i haven’t heard to many, maybe like 3 or so. I’m old school, i just work up and down the bpm’s and do the same techniques like break the record or slow it down to a drag. But now i’m interested in them, maybe i will give them another look.

  3. “But I will say this, if you come to a venue expecting to play certain songs, but the crowd is different than you expect, be prepared to adapt. Don’t be stubborn.”

    So very true!! I just recently DJ’d a spot in Rhode Island over the weekend. Let me tell you, the night before it i was at a House/Electro Venue and i was expecting this spot to be some-what the same. Opening DJ played all house, crowd was digging it, so i got on & continued for a little bit. They started losing interest and was getting some requests for more hip hop/rap…Went into a dirty south set and urban genre, and it KILLED!! I wasn’t expecting it at all, but sometimes you have to roll with the punches.

    It’s good to have a “Playlist” of songs that you might play or WANT to play during the evening but be prepared to go off of it. I have Playlists & regular Sets that i use almost every time i spin, but it’s also great to play a varied mix of everything, even if its only 1 verse or 30sec of the song. For example, that same crowd that liked down south, etc, end of the night i used my “Sweet Caroline” House mix that i have, and it went over great!!

    Step out of the box DJ’s, dont be afraid to play a little motown, a little disco/funk, rock, have fun with it!! I was helping out at a radio event a month ago and i told the dj to play 1 verse/chorus of “I Kissed A Girl”, and the crowd went INSANE!!

    YOU NEVER KNOW!!!

    -Skillz

    http://www.twitter.com/djskillzmusic
    http://www.facebook.com/djskillzmusic
    http://www.djskillzmusic.com

  4. TO Skillz
    Yes sir your so correct. I started out doing mobile gigs, and still do to some degree. But this one time i was doing a mobile gig, and the person that hired me stated that he wanted some house for his wedding recpt. So i was expecting all these young people to be there and ready to get it going. Let’s just say it didn’t happen like that.
    It was mostly older people, luckly for me i had learn my lesson many years ago, best to have it and not need then to need it and not have it. I killed it all night with frank sanatra, boddy darin and all the big bang records.
    It was cool because alot of the older crowd thank me for not playing so much pounding music. then i was able to go in to some 70’s music as well and end it with some hiphop joints as well.
    I think that starting out as a moblie dj, you are able to cut your teeth on learing how to adapt and read a crowd, so that when you move over to the big club settings, you will be a lot better because it would be nothing new to you.

  5. yo skillz that set you played at blu in providence was sick and i agree 100% that u have to be prepared to adjust especially in rhodes island where our crowds “wants” for music changes almost as much as our weather lol..but you killed it bro

  6. damn, sorry about the typos,in the above post from me.

  7. I have to say you guys rock!
    I’m just starting out in the industry at small venues and mobile house parties in the NJNYC area and have many known friends already in it giving me plenty of pointers. I’ve experienced already the good and the bad, with alot of “do’s & don’ts” and know that its a constant learning experience.
    Everything you guys explain is awesome and truely greatful for the site! Great tips!!!!
    Thanks!!!

  8. Thanks for the comments guys, and we’re glad you liked the post…Definitely some good points Kiz, and Skillz. JD was actually the one who mentioned I include the part about “adapting”, and it was a very good point. And you are right Kiz, ” best to have it and not need then to need it and not have it”. Very true indeed. And Kuncent, we’re happy you found our site, don’t be afraid to ask questions!

    Spring

  9. Great post. One thing IMO that will never change despite any technology that comes out is reading the crowd and finding out what they like/adapting as has been mentioned with the comments.

  10. Thanks FLIP! I appreciate it!

    As Far As Kiz, I too started out as a Mobile DJ and STILL do Mobile Gigs to this day…I’ll be honest, it’s my Bread & Butter. It deffinetly helped me to be able to judge a crowd, and not be afraid to play corny shit.

    A lil secret/trick i learned about playing corny shit….hit ’em in the head with all the shit they WANNA hear, get ’em pumped up and going, loving life, then try going into the other stuff. If it doesnt go over well, switch it back, but normally you’ll have ’em in the palm of ya hand!! I’m not saying play full length disco/rock songs, but you mix it up, they’ll love it!!!

    Refer back to the Rock-It! Scientists Video Interview.

  11. Something i also learned from a program director & a mixshow coordinator at 2 stations here in CT is you can play other stuff no prob, just be ready to jump into something HOT right after.

    Same with mobile gigs, we’ll do something CRAZY stupid or Corny beyond believe, then you hit em over the head with the #1 song and BAM they go nuts!!

  12. RE: Transitions

    I think transitions are a necessary evil given that there are constraints to your pitch adjust percentage. Even with master tempo, speeding up or slowing down a track 10% can sound strange….and sometimes you read your crowd and know that the few hops it might take to transition from house to hip hop or vice versa will take too long. Transitions are great when you need an evacuation plan and don’t want to sound sloppy in the process.

  13. Great comments by everybody above! I just want to add my two cents about both Mixing in Key as well as Transition Tracks…

    Mixing in Key – In my opinion, this is very overlooked and really important in several situations. If you’re playing house/electro/trance… basically any uptempo dance music, this is REALLY important. That music is created specifically to be mixed by DJs with other tracks. Playing it right requires relatively long blends (at least long compared to playing hip hop). I don’t care what anybody says, key clashes stand out in dance music, even to your average listener. So, please, program your up-tempo dance set while respecting basic music theory… it’s what will set you on a higher level of DJ. Also, mixing in key is pretty important when doing “low crowd noise” gigs, such as in-store performances. It’s a different situation when the crowd is singing along, talking to each other, drinking, macking on chicks, whatever. But when it’s relatively silent with the exception of your music, key clashes once again really stand out. I have several in-store retail clients, and I think being able to mix in a harmonic way is one of the reason I’m in demand for these types of gigs. Take note. Like good scratching (as Jay Spring said, don’t overdo that either) mixing in key is one of the subliminal things that your average listener isn’t listening for but can just feel it. It adds an element that sets you on a higher level than the next guy who isn’t doing it.

    Transition Tracks – All I’m going to say about them is be selective when choosing transition tracks to play. You can really bore/lose/confuse a crowd with a track that takes a long time to transition in speed (especially tracks that transition down). When the track kicks in at the target tempo, your crowd won’t get as excited as they could have been if the transition was shorter in length.

  14. Highly agree with Tommy Diz. Keep your transitions short & sweet to keep the vibe moving and Mixing in key is singlehandedly the most important thing a DJ can do. Alot of DJ’s dont and things can sound real strange. Yes, The normal crowd wont notice but musically speaking, You can elevate and drop the energy with what you play. Mixing in key helps alot.

    One thing that no one has mentioned on this topic is Stage Presence. Ive seen videos of myself years ago and never looked at the crowd. Fast forward to 2010 and Im pointing at the crowd, Getting them involved, Singing along to popular tunes. Your stage presence helps alot. The crowd feeds off your energy as well. If you look like you arent having a good time, even at a rough gig, They will notice. Im saying this from years of personal experience. Get in tune with the crowd.

    Plan Ahead. Jay Spring, KIZ and Skillz all touched on this. Be ready for anything. The trippiest stuff always goes over the best with crowds, believe it or not.

  15. One time, The homie Victor Menegaux had just finished his set at Infusion and stopped by my old gig at 1015 Folsom. He got on deck and played a dope set and wanted to get creative and stumble the crowd. He played NSYNC – Bye Bye Bye in the mix and the entire crowd blew up, Singing along word for word. You never know what will work. Def step out of the box. I played “Bohemian Rhapsody” at a HYPHY club a few years ago and didnt get shot. LOL

  16. @Audio1 haha ur a dummy
    In regards to transitions:
    i think they can be very helpful especially when your in a high bpm range trying to go down. to me just back spinning or shutting off the turntable seems a little tacky. in occasion i have done the option+t on serato (loop roll) and that worked pretty well if i was playing a hott track afterwards. some of you mentioned u get negative feedback from transitions, i feel the opposite. good transitions get the crowd hot and fired up. like the low to pop lock and drop it transition works everytime, they hear the pop and lock melody with the low loop they go crazy. but again this is for good transitions. now some of the transitions that have been coming out have been what i refer to as “lazy” – the remixer will just loop something, go in to a roll and when its done the other song just starts. those transitions ill admit dont get such a good response. but the good transitions do get a good crowd reaction. in a nut shell, i think you just have to know how to use them. what i do is i practice with them a lot in my sets. originally i just found my self digging for them when someone requested a song in a completely diff bpm range. but now that i practice with them alot more i use them just for fun and incorporate them in to my set and have fun with them.

    -Dj Quik Vic
    twitter.com./djquikvic

  17. @DJ Quik Vic
    I think you’re actually miss-interpreting what Audio1 and I were trying to say about transition tracks. That Low Pop Lock & Drop It transition works well because the actual time it takes to transition tempo is very quick. Although Discotech drags out the stutter samples and the interaction between the two tracks, it’s still very danceable because it stays at consistent bpm, drops quickly, then remains at a consistent bpm. What we (or at least I can speak for myself) were really referring to are the transition tracks that DJs make which slowly increase or decrease in tempo. If you’ve ever watched an alcohol filled dancefloor try to follow along to a gradual speed transition, you know this is a disaster. They try hard to figure it out, but after a couple seconds, the dancefloor just stops moving until the track reaches the target tempo. And when it does, you’ve already lost all that energy and momentum from your crowd (much worse for down transitions than up… up can work like this sometimes). In all honesty, I don’t play many transition tracks (but they can be useful if selectively chosen), for the most part, I create tempo changes live with “old fashioned methods”. There’s a lot more tricks and techniques you can learn and use other than back spinning or stopping the record, which I agree sound awful and awkward. It’s another beef I have with the remix sites (that are extremely useful, but abused)… back in the day if you wanted to have a smooth but drastic bpm change, you actually had to be a good & creative DJ and have the skills to do so… now you just need to spend a couple bucks on a remix site. Kind of a shame in my eyes.

  18. Good stuff, my pointer is stay creative and let people feel that you’re working behind that little booth. Don’t let yourself become the “cover band of DJing”

  19. Quik Vic – I think you misunderstood what we said. I am not saying to not use transitions, I was just stating to use them wisely. Alot of people cannot follow along when a transition hits, because they dont know where its going.

    One of my favorite transitions recently is DJ Deville’s Birthday Sex transition… Im in the 105bpm set and the party is pumping, I can put that in, get people riled up (Go Shorty, its ya Birthday) and then it quickly goes into Jeremih’s Birthday Sex. That track is still a banger in the club out here.

    You are right. Some transitions drag out way too long. The main thing is being selective and the transition cant deviate too much from the original track, otherwise you lose momentum and energy. With Deville’s one, Its a party break, hype & transition in one. Works everytime. This DJ stuff is great tho. Pushing creativity every chance we get is something that has kept me in the game for 18 years.

  20. when i said your a dummy to @audio1 i referred to “I played “Bohemian Rhapsody” at a HYPHY club a few years ago and didnt get shot. LOL” not to what he said in regards to trying new things.
    and yea i have played a transition where the crowd was like “wtf” and exactly what u guys said happend, they just stood there till they recognized what was going on. Thats why i practice with mine and see which keep the vibe going and doing kill the hype (only a selected few) and the ones that just drag on for ever (mostly all the new ones coming out). so i dont mean do disrespect to any one. Im fairly new to the DJ game and was only sharing my experience and point of view. i kno i dont have the experience as most of u, especially not @audio1, i have the upmost respect for him.

  21. Great comments about transitions. We’re going to have to dedicate a whole post to that topic. I think the basic thing everyone is saying is: Think about what you’re playing! Sounds simple, but a lot of people don’t put enough thought into it. You need to be prepared and have the ability to anticipate what the crowds reaction will be, whether it’s a song, remix or transition.

  22. You may want to add, Transition Etiquette… like how many times can/should a DJ transition. I went to a party a few weeks ago, and the DJ (who will remain nameless) transitioned every 10-15 minutes. I felt it interrupted any sort of flow for the night jumping between 70-80bpm rap and balls-on 130 electro…

  23. I agree with your rules here and would have to add a couple of things…

    Number one you touched on in the open, but I think that it gets overlooked. We need to read the crowd. Most successful DJs are very good at this, but often times when a big DJ comes to my city and I open for them, I do not see them look up at the crowd once. Almost like they have forgotten and just assume that whatever they play is killing it. And so it is just as important to remind newer DJs, LOOK UP AT THE CROWD. We get really in to our set, and fast cues and mixes that are possible now with Serato end up taking your eyes off the crowd.

    Example: I played with Clinton Sparks (for the first time in years) last summer at one of my regular spots. He watched the crowd the whole time. He played Shut It Down, about 3 months before I ever heard it (obviously cuz he produced it) and he realized that 1) the crowd was NOT into house and 2) this crowd was not dancing to anything they didn’t know. So he got out of it. He was smart to do so. Alot of other big name DJs I have played with have forced certain tracks on crowds and it ended up killing the vibe.

    Another huge thing that has helped set me apart is how I sound. I don’t mean my mixing or song selection. I mean that I am not clipping every amp and bottoming out speakers all nite long. You have to figure out the limits of the sound system that you are on and stick within those limits. You have all heard some mixtape DJ with an overmodulated mic screaming over tracks. It makes you sound bad. I have actually gotten compliments from bartenders and club owners saying “how come your shit always sounds so much cleaner than everyone else” and I say because I pay attention and I invest in real gear.

    Finally, and this might be a whole other topic (post) for later (titled PROFESSIONALITY), is DO NOT GET DRUNK. The first thing I saw on your site was the burning bible post, which I never had heard of. It alludes to this GREAT point about not being Drunk. I cannot tell you how much that has helped me in the last 10 years in clubs in my city to stand out over other DJs. A few of my DJ friends, who were all pretty good, eventually washed out because they got known for being drunk on the turntables. You’re not there to drink, you’re there to tear shit up. For most of us, the music, girls and the money are enough to make the night worth doing, but some people confuse free alcohol with and excuse to be shitfaced and make bad choices about music and what to say on the mic.

    Those would be my extra hints for anyone who is starting to play out live.

    PS- great site. good to hear intelligent conversation about this stuff and not just a bunch of clowns talking about trying to crack ableton.

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