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What makes a great DJ? Kristan Caryl asked a group of top selectors including Dave Clarke, Mr G, Mosca and Serge.

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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.

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Mr G

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?

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Spencer Parker

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!

20th August, 2015

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  • Gordon Benson

    Dave Clarke is the only one you need to read here.
    “I never really read the room. I just come in and play music I like, but then I ride on the mood of the room.” is a pretty interesting idea- the opposite of what many other djs say, but i think he is correct: play as yourself and get the crowd to join you.

  • GnollinZ

    Great article. Dave Clarke’s comments are great.

    Kids getting into DJ-ing these days have no idea how long it takes to learn how to beat match and mix tight on an old pair of Sound Lab belt-drive decks, while you spend 5 years to saving up for a set of 1210s.

    That aspirational aspect of starting at the very bottom and teaching yourself the art and then finally affording the pro-standard tech is almost non-existent now.

    Cheap laptop, cheap controller, auto-sync, off you go…

  • Plyphon

    I remember when I hit my first beat match on some real bad belt driven Numarks. I let both whole tunes play out perfectly beat match, then pulled them up and did it from the top again. Was a great feeling.

  • Plyphon

    Obviously I was in my bedroom alone at the time, you know how it goes.

  • nostaldont

    i started and finished back in the days where vinyl was the only serious option and can only shake my head at all the noise against digital djs. A dodgy set of decks and records is great to learn on if that is the only way music should ever be presented, but 2 or 3 decks and a mixer is only useful for doing the same thing over and over again. I have a feeling that Larry Levan would be would be using a laptop these. He wasn’t so elitist or conservative, and many of his then contemporaries (francois kevorikian, david morales, etc) have switched.

  • Chucky Funk

    Props to Dave Clarke for keepin it real…..somebody had to say it. Good DJing is about taste and you can’t teach taste. You either have it or you don’t. There’s no taste button like there’s a SYNC button. Across ALL genres now it’s about name dropping and backslapping.

  • Mac

    @nostaldont

    Most people who criticize digital DJing don’t do it on the basis that the format itself is bad or unworthy, but that the barrier to entry is lowered. You can afford to be responsive toward the crowd and imaginative with your selections if your record collection is broad and deep enough, so I don’t know about doing the same thing ‘over and over again’ either

  • ALINEP

    THANKS FOR THIS ARTICLE! cheers from Manila Underground and TIME in Manila xx

  • Eoghain

    Great article.

  • GARCON

    Don’t sit on the fence Dave. Tell us what you really think…. 😉

  • Roger

    “New Bedrock signing Argy is as classically informed both in the studio and DJ booth as you would expect from someone from Greece. ”

    Umm.

    What?

  • Simon

    Great article, and agree that Dave Clarke is on point with his comments here.

    The debate about belt drive vs 1210’s vs cd vs mp3 and controller becomes moot when you get into the passionate about music argument. It is without doubt as easy as you want it to be to mix now but the excitement of playing great, and possibly, new music to a crowd is an intoxicating thing to do and if you can push that feeling out and into the crowd, how you do that is slightly irrelevant.

  • This was a brilliant article. I really enjoyed hearing the opinions of respected Djs. They are spot on with their thoughts and make me want to perfect my craft event more. Thank you Attack!

  • A Coull

    Saw Mosca in London a few weeks back and he was shite. ‘Trying’ to do his ‘thing’ and pissing everyone including the crowd, the promoters and the guy who was after him off!

  • Roland

    Dave Clarke was the best one on here and I give him credit for speaking the truth. The others I rarely heard of, not a good list of artists to take notes from.

  • Darren

    So what? You just living in the past talking bout playing music u love. That is shit talk its all about pleasing the people. So u come with your turn table and I come with my controller. You play all the music you love and i play to move the crowed and see who will get hired. Stop fighting down new age djs if you like to ride horse we like to drive cars. Its just new technolgy so get up to the time you old fowl

  • FU

    Dave Clarke and Mr. G spoke to me the most. Mosca sounds like a complete moron.

  • Eric J.

    Darren, you sound very ignorant. Please consider the idea that “getting hired” or monetary sucess, does not necessarily define the word “success” entirely.

    Especially when you’re talking about the subjectivity of things like art & music.

  • ERob

    Mr.G knows the score. It’s not about mixing or tricks or filters. It is all about selection, knowing your tunes and knowing when to play them. You can take a crowd anywhere if you play the right tunes in the right order. Read the crowd. Two different nights the same set won’t work. Play the tunes you love and create a vibe the room can ride. It’s a two way process.
    You have to play to the people who are leading the room too. Watch out for the crazies that are loving it. They create the buzz. They are the ones that lead the dance!

  • GnollinZ

    I agree to a certain extent, ERob. However it’s not just about selection, mixing technique is also important.

    Some genres of dance music are less amenable to “showing off” on the decks than others. There’s nothing quite like hearing a massive DnB double drop that’s been EQ’d perfectly – pure dancefloor destruction. Only possible because the DJ has great technique.

    House and techno, on the other hand, are less about those dynamic moments, and more focussed on creating a groove, so in that situation I would say selection is king.

  • andrew

    Darren is one of those djs that before he goes to club (if ever) he check facebook what people are posting.. Well Darren just sit back and buy todays top 100 on beatport. That must be it.

  • DeepScore

    My understanding from this article:
    Play music that you love. Coz if you feel the vibe, it spreads quickly on the dance-floor. Playing music for people, what they like, is acting like a Jukebox, not a DJ.
    Passion and love of music is of key essence, and spend alot of time digging deeper into it.
    Well, some people will miss the flying cakes, bananas and champagne, etc etc, with my music, but well, you can’t please everyone

  • kezza

    Darren, you are mistaking getting local 100 quid a night gigs with being a respected DJ.

  • Lebron Fish

    “Back then”
    “Back then”
    “Back in my day”
    “15 years ago”
    “20 years ago”
    “Before Technology”
    “Before the internet”

    so much we can learn from the previous gen of DJs and they usually just end up sounding condescending and nobody (especially punters) really care tbh

  • Andy

    lebron, if you lived in the UK (u may do) you would see a once great club scene (not just since 88 and Acid House) but through the 80’s with New Romantics then The Hip-Hop/rare groove scene, the soul scene which was massive from the Mod clubs of the 60’s to Northern Soul (which has a direct link with the Acid House/Balearic then rave explosion from 88-92/3 and it’s not bigging it up but true to say without that you wouldn’t have the global dance scene of now – apart from the German techno scene) to the Soulboy/Soulgirl movements that I grew up in during the early 80’s. I’m sorry to tell you that house/techno/dance music clubs in 89-94 here piss all over what’s left of house type clubs now. They are a million miles apart and I’m not being condescending as I still occasionally go to them and it’s just sad. A load of people huddled together like a swarm of bees all facing the DJ (I haven’t a clue what that’s all about) who is playing a seamless mix of tech House all at the same BPM, no slow build up of their sets, no dropping big tunes (are there any?) on The One when you’re least expecting it and no smiling punters.

    The club scene here is being decimated. The kids who are DJing take all their tips from Youtube tutorials and are ruled (and constrained) by the constant steam of Tech being pushed at them, the importance placed on perfect mixing has taken over from playing great tunes, being creative and original in what you play and knowing the music old and new. People here who would once have been anticipating the guaranteed excitement of the weekend (as I did) go to the pub. How can you say that some of the biggest DJs around are being condescending. Are you saying they don’t know what they are talking about as that’s just ridiculous? Most of what they say I’m afraid is fact.

  • Ryan

    Why weren’t women included in this???

  • Dan R

    People ask me all the time and playing from gut works everytime, I trust it 200%…:)

  • NOMSTA

    Lil Louis, mentioned by Mr G here, made me cry last time I heard him play a month ago. Truly house, truly techno.

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