Editorial: Planned Sets Vs. “Freestyling” at a Live Gig

Imagine if we asked every DJ who visited our site to sit down, spend a few hours thinking, and come up with the perfect playlist for us.  In other words, the perfect 4 hour set, that would work better than any other set, for TODAY.  With time to think, I’m sure most of us could formulate a pretty dope night.  Every hot song and classic track would get played right in a row.  Each song would have a purpose, and would mix perfectly with the next one.  It wouldn’t really be too hard to come up with, because most DJs have small mini-sets that they know work well — so the night would mainly consist of tying those sets together, plus finding a way to fit the hot new songs in.  And then, you would have it:

The Optimal Night.

For any serious DJ who hasn’t thought of his/her optimal night, it is likely that you’ve atleast had one night, where you felt everything really came together extra well, and you’ve likely gone back into your Serato history to relive it and take notes of what really seemed to work.  If you haven’t done that yet, remember — it’s still there waiting for you :)

Anyway, the whole point of the above paragraphs is just to point out that whether we’ve thought of it or not, The Optimal Night DOES EXIST!!  Although it would be a little different for everyone, it’s still there.  And for DJs with a residency, knowing that the Optimal Night exists, can make doing your weekly gig somewhat of a struggle.  You know song B works best after song A, but you did that routine last week.  So now, you have to purposely stray from your Optimal Night and play song C after song A instead.  When you think of it, DJing at a residency may be one of the few jobs in the world where you purposely stray from whats optimal, just for the sake of switching it up.  It’s actually a little sad when you think of it that way, however, there is some good news!  We don’t always spin at residencies!!  So, how does that change things??

While we’ve spent alot of time on this site talking about how to stay fresh at your residency, we’ve yet to really discuss what to do when you’re a DJ who travels across your state, across the country, or internationally.  For those of us who’ve taken the step of leaving the local scene, you will find you have a whole new attitude once you’re ready to spin.  You realize this crowd you’re playing for hasn’t heard you spin, if not recently, not ever!   (Only the bigger names have to worry about YouTube) All your little sets that you’ve built over the year(s) are fair game to use.  No one will know!  If you’re a DJ who has an idea of what your Optimal Night is, this is you’re chance to play it.  The question now is, will you??  Should you??

I’ve heard alot of opinions on this issue, and it seems like most people are cool with playing sets.  Count me in that group as well.  If I’m spinning somewhere I haven’t been before, while I’m not gonna run a playlist for the entire night, there’s still a good chance you’ll hear “Be Faithful” after DMX’s “Party Up”.  I found that’s a mix that works for me well during my old school set, and If I have the chance, I’m probably gonna stick with it.  Not always, but more often that not.

Now as a DJ, I can’t deny that if I went somewhere and killed it — and then a fellow DJ said to me, “WOW DUDE, that was crazy, was that a planned set, or did u just wing that??”, it would be cool to act nonchalant and reply “Ehhh you know, just kinda winged it — why –did it sound okay?” :)  But I try to be honest, and I’ll usually explain the whole “yes and no” thing.   I definitely can relate to what DJ Vice said last month while on DjCity.com’s The MikiDz Show.  Vice explained, “I don’t wanna get bored of myself.  Like I don’t wanna go to a gig and be like ‘Alright, let me go to the crate, and  here’s the 17 records in a row.  I’m just gonna play these and then I’m safe, I’m good, everyone’s dancing!’  Then it becomes a job to me.  I’m never gonna let this become a job.”

So while I won’t frown on those who do come to the club with an entire playlist, I think it’s cool to mix in a little “freestyling” in there as well.  There’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself every so often, and as JD’s mentioned before, the crowd may not be what you expect, and any set you had planned may need to be thrown out the window.  If you’re not used to freestyling your night, you might have trouble.  Plus, if you never try just going with the flow, you’ll never find the new song combinations that may work even better than your older ones!



  1. Great article…just stumbled on this website yesterday…have been stuck going through archives day and night.

    Probably one of the most useful dj site out there. AWESOME JOB!!!

    Joe Cortez
    Maui, HI

  2. another very dope post.
    i use to have a pretty good residency where the owner would kind of want me to play a certain way, at first i didnt like it, but in the end i ended up using it to my advantage. the way i did this was that i started to go out of my realm, into songs i wouldnt normally play, or just try something i would think he liked, and if he did, bring the energy up from there, and then go on and play something he wouldnt want me too, but since the crowd was liking it he would to (sounds kinda confusing but i know yall understand). where im gettin with this is that i would have to “freestyle” it alot, like i said at first i didnt like it but it opened up my mind.

    i usually have a dated crates, “late 09” “early 2010” etc, where i select the songs that are hot at the moment and throw them in there, always end up with about 100-200 songs, and i tend to always scan thru them, just to keep it different, its not really freestyling but more like bringing something back. that always helps to kinda stay away from the same set (going back to being the boring resident) , and always flipping it up.
    personally i think ive done both, alot of times i have my sets, but when u take a chance and you see it work, you run with it and freestyle it, that’s when you feel it, and start thinking 2 songs ahead, and thats when someone brings u a shot and you’re like
    “not now chief….im in the fucking zone” lol

  3. @Killaka5 – Love the quote. I might have to use that sometime. lol

  4. I feel most DJs have that “DJ Intuition”, that allows them to get a feel for the crowds likes and dislikes, especially if your a touring DJ, in a not so familiar venue. For the most part, we all know up front when we get a gig, what it will intail as far as genre, style, etc, however, its not always set in stone what exact songs you will play within those genre confines. When I started out in small bars, I would get the “early bird” requesters babling off a million and one requests, and that was still while I was setting up. Sometimes those early “buzzed” patrons would be an asset for me back then. If the guy or girl was bending my ear a little too much, I would try to find out if they were a local regular, and if so, I would(with a grain of salt) get a feel for what some of the crowd might usually hear at that venue without actually saying to the guy or girl, “hey what do you wanna hear” we all know thats the kiss of death staement, and theyll never stop bothering you, trying to tell you what to play all night.

    Residencies were for sure a different story. Yes there is a comfort zone factor any time your in a familiar setting, however, if you get too complacent, your bound to over do or not do enough to satisfy your crowd musically. Before the days of computer DJing, playlists were at least for me, In my head and memorized, or written down, however I found I never stuck to a lot of it, because even though I had a well thought out plan of what mixes, remixes, and edits I would play, and what went well together, I always had that buffer space to quickly be able to interchange songs within my sets, if I saw a mood change within the crowd. I entered the computer DJ age in 2005, and my residency at that time was right before the switch to Computers. I handled this gig different because of the nature of the gig, and each week I spontaniously reacted to the crowd, where as other parellel gigs had me sticking more or less to sets. Every week , Acapella wise, I would have some spontaniouse acapella drop-ins cued up on my players. By the end of that gig a year later, I found that the crowd knew, when a certain song I was playing would come on, that acapella mash up was on its way, however, like Spring said, this is one job where you may not want to duplicate the same mixes each week, seeing they lose interest after heard all the time. Going against the grain, with a packed dancefloor, I hesitated to do that same mix, even though I spotted regulars in the crowd waiting and thinking it was coming up, howver I knew I had to come up with something fresh to out do the old, and “wow” the regulars with a different mix, and it more times than not, they were just as pleased with something new..

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