What makes a great DJ? Kristan Caryl asked a group of top selectors including Dave Clarke, Mr G, Mosca and Serge.
If you want to ruin a nice afterparty or spoil a friendly drink in the pub, ask your mates what makes a great DJ. Responses will inevitably be hugely heated and vastly varied, and a definitive answer will evade you all until well after you’ve fallen out.
In order to inform your arguments, we quizzed a range of learned and widely loved selectors about their views on the matter. There are some truly forthright opinions, key counter views and strong theories banded about that will surely keep the discussion going long into the future.
One of the most selective DJs out there when it comes to the gigs he plays, it all stems from Colin McBean’s huge passion for what he does and how he does it.
For me, DJs have gotten worse. I think there’s way too much attention on tech and fucking around with others’ beats instead of focusing on the crowd and system. Let the music play!
I long to hear the DJ take a left turn because he believes in a track and wants to share it with you and struggles to get it into the mix. Then, when they finally gets there, what will it be? Will the crowd get it, was it worth the effort? It’s not about perfect, seamless, soulless mixing for me. If you can’t feel it, it may as well be a computer.
Even if your mixing ain’t tight, I'm still getting down and loving it if the tune’s bad. A bad tune’s a baaad tune, no?
Hey, if a set works, why not play it often? Work the records that need attention: how else do we get familiar and grow to love tunes? For me, music selection is king all day long. Even if your mixing ain’t tight, I’m still getting down and loving it if the tune’s bad. A bad tune’s a baaad tune, no?
For me, Jeff Mills is my master. Simply sublime. Although Lil Louis is a dangerous DJ when on point – trus mi, he takes risks.
Great technique means nothing if your selection ain’t on point, or at least personal. I see this a lot. I only wanna hear great music. For me it’s best when DJs play personal. Only ever play music you love or feel, or it will be a tough, short journey. If you love it they will feel that love in the mix. You should be booked on what you play, not on what the crowd want to hear. It’s like being given chicken cause you love it and never tasting lobster to compare.
DJing is harder on loadsa levels these days. Way too much music competition and choice. Are the decks set properly, rotary or not? Are the monitors placed right? Valve or digi system? Is it tuned to your sound? Bass or no bass? Enough plug sockets? Has the person before maximised their digital sound so your wax now sounds poor? Have you got the right agent, who gets you and is maybe a fan? Are you just a cash cow? How can we talk about standards and sync in the same breath?
As for me, I love the music what I play. It touches me each time I play. I want to show you that so you understand or feel where I’m at and where I want to take you. What makes me me is I love to find the tunes folk missed, be open minded and not waste time hating on others.
There will always be those who do their thing a little way different and be ahead of the pack, always beavering away at their art, as there will be those who come and go. I see a good few famous folk who get away with a lot more than someone learning their art. There should be a noticeable difference between the ‘famous’ and ‘other’ DJs, otherwise why would you be famous?
A DJ first and foremost, Work Them Records boss Spencer Parker’s skills in the booth speak for themselves.
Put very simply, great records make a great DJ. The passion to find them, the knowledge to know how to program them and showcase them in the best way possible, and the technical skills to put them together imaginatively, for the greatest end result.
There are myriad different ways to do it. Personally, speaking for myself and the DJs I like to listen to, the true art of the DJ should be a combination of education and amazement. These two combine to please people. If you can’t educate and amaze, while at the same time pleasing people, you’re doing it wrong. All the best DJs do this, from Larry Levan to Joe Claussell to Mr Ties to Harvey to Anthony Parasole to Ryan Elliott. They amaze me and educate me, and that combination is what pleases me, personally, the most.
the cost of being able to become a DJ - and amount of skills needed - are now so low that pretty much anyone can do it
If you want to just hear the hits knocked out by some guy with a laptop, who you’d never heard of last year but has been booked because he had a big record on a hype label, there are a plethora of them you can choose from, but that’s not my personal preference.
I don’t think things were better in the old days and I don’t think things are perfect now. There are upsides and downsides to both. I do think that there is one huge factor that has affected DJing and that is the cost of being able to become a DJ. That cost – and amount of skills needed – are now so low that pretty much anyone can do it. Which is a good and a bad thing. And when I say the cost, I mean in terms of time invested as well as money. A few years back, to DJ, you would have to save your money and buy two decks, an amp, speakers, a mixer and so on. This alone could maybe cost you €1,500 or so, often more. You had to have these things at home – or have access to them at least – because you had to practise your mixing so you wouldn’t get laughed out of the club, if someone ever let you play. You also had to invest time and money into travelling to wherever you local record shop was and buying records (€10 per record!) – no free downloads in the pre-internet age, so that could be a huge expense as well. You also had to invest time into learning how to mix two records together – no sync, no laptop, just endless trial and error and eventually, after a lot of practice, hopefully getting the hang of it.
What this pretty damn large expense of time and money would do was weed out a lot of the people who weren’t truly committed or didn’t have a real passion for it. The kids who just wanted to do it to seem cool would soon bow out when they realised the time they’d have to invest or understand that instead of buying a new car, they’d be taking the bus because they spent all their money on their decks and weekly record bill.
DJs should play what the fuck they love, or give the fuck up!
I think what we have now is a lot of people approaching DJing, but maybe not so many with the same amount of passion and drive. Or rather, the ones with passion and drive are harder to hear above the noise of the pretenders, and I think this is a shame because there are definitely new, younger DJs out there that have taste and style and passion, and it’s very hard for them to be heard, precisely because there is so much ‘noise’ made by the thousands that just buy a laptop, torrent some tracks, pop on some Beats By Dre headphones and want to be ‘a DJ’ for a couple of summers…
Within reason, the only people that really care about technique are other DJs. I would much rather hear two hours of amazing music and some slightly off beat0matching than two hours of generic tech-house perfectly blended. And I think most people that go out to dance in clubs feel the same. I can remember going to see people like the Body and Soul guys DJ in NYC and I would have no idea if they were playing a record, an acetate, a CD or a reel-to-reel, because you couldn’t even see the booth, and I don’t think myself or anyone else on the dancefloor really cared either.
DJs should play what the fuck they love, or give the fuck up! I know for a solid gold fact that there are records out there, at this very time, which I hate, that are the biggest hype tracks of the moment and that would definitely get a big reaction if I were to play them. But I never play them. The next DJ can play those records and he or she can get all the glory. And thats’s fine by me. I’m there to play the records I adore, otherwise what’s the point?
I believe the technical standard of DJing is lower and that this has happened due to advances in technology. It’s always gonna be more difficult to mix two records on a rotary mixer and floating turntables than it is to guide the mouse across two synced tracks in Traktor. That’s not a judgement, that’s just a fact. I’m not sure if it’s easier or harder to be a good DJ now, but I think that a lot of people who go to hear DJs maybe have less knowledge of what makes a good DJ than people 20 years ago did, so maybe it’s easier to impress now than it was in the past?
What turns me off DJs is a lack of passion (which I find unforgivable) and a lack of awareness of what a fortunate position they’re in. Personally, I just try to make sure I’m totally prepared to do everything I can to give people a great night out. Whether that’s obsessively record shopping all week or doing special edits of certain records or producing my own records especially for my sets or making sure I have two USBs in case one fails, the list goes on. It’s an all-consuming passion to play the very best I can, on any given night. I basically do give a fuck!