I feel it is appropriate at this time that I should let you know my standards for DJs. I have much higher standards than normal and I’ll explain in detail.
It seems to me that most people judge beatmixing DJs (non-turntablists) on two main categories and then rate them either good or bad. Those categories being the quality of music and the ability to mix.
When it comes to quality of music, I’m sure we can all agree that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However, I’m sure we can also agree that those with more experience will have much higher standards. You can always tell who the new ravers are because they have the worst taste in music. They enjoy the cheesiest DJs and the cheesiest music. For the average raver a song is considered cheesy if it is over played, generic, and/or tries too hard to be cool. A DJ that plays cheesy music would be considered a bad DJ. A DJ that plays enjoyable music that isn’t cheesy would then be considered good.
As for mixing, if a DJ can beatmatch then they are a good DJ. If a DJ can’t beatmatch then they are a bad DJ.
My problem is that the scene is flooded with good DJs. Bad DJs are actually quite rare. The problem, though, is that they are good but not great. They are nothing to get excited about. Even though many of them have enjoyable music and can beatmatch flawlessly their sets are still boring. They’re not bad DJs but they aren’t great either. Good is just a nice way of saying they are mediocre.
So what separates a mediocre good DJ from a great DJ? I’ve broken this down into 3 main categories. The first two being music and mixing, of course with much higher standards, and the third category being the art of programming.
I get mix CDs handed to me all the time. On average the CDs aren’t bad but they aren’t great either. The selection of music is enjoyable but nothing to get excited about. For many CDs I’m lucky if maybe 1 or 2 songs really interest me. Sometime there isn’t a single song that excites me. If the music doesn’t excite me, how many times do you think I’ll listen to that CD? In stark contrast, I’ve gotten CDs by artists such as Groove Armada, Yousef, Tom Middleton, Krafty Kuts, DB, Marco V, John B, Paul Van Dyk, and Carl Cox where every freakin’ track blows me away. It is that quality of music that makes a DJ great. There are very few DJs I hear when I go out that fit those standards.
My standards for mixing are also much higher. I don’t judge a DJ simply on whether they can beatmatch. I discovered when I started DJing that just EQing is an art form in itself. The book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life goes on to describe that 2 DJs can do the same exact set and 1 DJ can sound phenomenally better just because of how they work the EQ. There is also the matter of layering tracks on top of one another. Beginner DJs will play a whole song through and then beatmatch the next one in. More advanced DJs will focus on layering multiple tracks. They’ll even throw in EQ tricks such as swapping basslines. Ultimately, what I think makes for great mixing is when a DJ has their timing down. When songs melt into each other at just the right moment. When a DJ can match build ups and breakdowns together. When the theme of one song ends and immediately the theme from the next kicks in. Timing is what gives a set its energy. There is a proper balance to timing also. You don’t want a repetitive song to play on for so long the audience grows bored, nor do you want to mix a song out while the audience is still enjoying it or mix it out before the good part. I also love the technique of dropping surprises. When a DJ slowly mixes in the next song without you even knowing it and then slamming it in when the main riff kicks in. When a DJ combines beatmatching, EQing, layering, timing and surprises then that makes for some great mixing. Great DJs are the ones that can give you goose bumps. When I go out I study other DJs mixing styles and it amazes me how many of them just beatmatch one song into the next with no sense of timing or layering.
DJs should never take beatmatching too seriously. You should never sacrifice a great song for a flawless mix. The music should always come first. Not all songs are DJ friendly. Some songs have little to no intro; they simple start from the main riff. Other songs fade in from silence or from a break down. There are also songs that don’t keep steady beats. Sometimes it isn’t the song but perhaps a warped record that is impossible to beat match. I think audiences judge DJs too much on beat matching and need to learn there are others things involved. I was at a bar and heard a girl beatmatch for a while and then killed the song and dropped Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. I loved it. Turntablists will often mix songs for a while and then drop some kung fu or sci-fi sample before going into something totally different. I’ve listened to house sets where the song ends and an acappella or some other voice-over kicks in before changing moods. I like to call this style of mixing “theatrics”. This is where the set is viewed as a performance.
Finally, we come to the art of programming. I feel the art of programming is the most overlooked part of DJing and as such I feel that it is what really separates a good DJ from a great DJ. A DJ set should be like a rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs, twists and turns. There is a proper balance of crafting a set that both evolves yet stays coherent. If a set constantly evolves the audience will not grow bored with it. However, a DJ must strive not to evolve too quickly. People enjoy being locked in a groove. If you disrupt that groove you’ll lose the crowd. So your set must also be coherent. A great DJ also understands both the mental and physical state of their audience. When you buy a movie soundtrack there are different songs for different moods. There are happy songs, sad songs, joyous uplifting songs, triumphant songs, dark and brooding songs, spooky songs, frantic songs, and high energy songs. A DJ that spins emotional music such as Progressive and Trance should try to take their audience on an emotional journey. I prefer to call this style of DJing “storytelling”. All DJs should also pay close attention to the physical state of their crowds. If they are getting tired then chill them out. Slowly by slowly work them back up and if you see them getting tired again, repeat the process. This is why I hate DJ purists. Too many DJs stick to one genre, one mood. Their sets go nowhere. They might be able to rock the crowd for awhile, but in time the crowd grows bored. I’ve seen DJs spin for an hour and people are glad to hear the next DJ. In contrast, I’ve seen DJs spin for 6 hours and the crowds are begging for one more track. You can program a computer to beatmatch songs and then fill it with music, but you can’t program it to play with soul and to read the audience. The art of programming a set is what can turn a simple mix into a performance.
Those are the 3 main categories for being a great DJ; phenomenal music, masterful mixing, and a set that has a sense of direction. Sadly, very few meet those standards. There are of course bonus categories. Turntablism is an added bonus, so is crowd interaction. I’ve always felt that if the DJ isn’t feeling it, how can the audience? Ultimately, it rests on the music first. If the music is good enough I’m always willing to overlook the rest. However, the rest will make the music so much better.
There is great skill involved in Beat Mixing properly and I hate the egotistical turntablists that think “if you can’t scratch, you can’t DJ”. Turntablism is extremely flashy, while Beat Mixing involves subtlety. Turntablism will always get more attention because most people don’t have a clue what all is involved in Beat Mixing.
As high as my standards are, I’m extremely forgiving of mistakes. Accidents happen. We are all human, everyone makes mistakes. Nothing annoys me more than hearing a DJ perform a rough mix and hearing a raver bad-mouth them for it. Now if that DJ is wasted and they keep messing up, that’s another story. I’d also like to stress that I never judge a DJ based on one set. Sometimes you have to take into account nervousness or not being acquainted with the equipment or both. I have heard DJs train wreck horribly during one set and then later hear them rip it up for another. The only exception to not judging a DJ based on one set is if they are being a total egotistical jerk and acting like they are the best DJ in the world while performing a horrible set.
Here are a few simple statements to drive home the point of Good versus Great even further:
- A good DJs wants you to hear the music. A great DJ wants you to feel it.
- A good DJ can rock the crowd but a great DJ can captivate them.
- A good DJ mixes but a great DJ performs.