What Makes a Good DJ?

"We are trusting you to play what we like, even if we have never heard it before."
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Masha Lukashenko
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"We are trusting you to play what we like, even if we have never heard it before."

What makes a good DJ? Seems like an arbitrary question, but there are in fact some agreed upon terms to what qualifies someone as a good DJ. 

Just to make sure everyone is on the same page (in terms of my authority on the subject), I am simply an avid music attendee who also spends her days writing about the industry and interviewing various important key figures in dance music. Although I personally am not a DJ and don't try to be, I do know what to listen for when I have a night out. In case you want to refute the evidence I will be providing, I have used Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey to sort of act as my unofficial expert opinion.

Before we define what entails being a good DJ, I think it makes sense to clarify what exactly a DJ is. DJs and producers are often lumped into one category, even though they represent two different fields. DJ stands for Disc Jockey and according to Brewster and Broughton, at its most basic, a DJ is someone who presents a series of records (tracks) for an audience to enjoy. 

"What a DJ does is this: he knows music. The DJ knows music better than you, better than your friends, better than everyone on the dancefloor or in the record shop. Some DJs know their chosen genre better than anyone else on the planet."

The above is probably by far, my favorite quote to use from the book. It's simple, a DJ's knowledge of music is of the utmost importance. Going all the way back to when the profession was primarily a Radio DJ, the core foundation of being a DJ is your understanding of the vast landscape of music in general. 

Now if all of this sounds just about right, let's finally break down the fundamental characteristics of what makes a good DJ?

5. No Ego

"David Mancuso, disco's founding father, has always believed very strongly that a DJ is never greater than his audience. His ideal is that the DJ is in equal parts performer and listeners. In his view the DJ should be 'a humble person, who sheds their ego and respects music, and is there to keep the flow going - to participate.'"

I don't care if you were born right smack in the middle of the Paradise Garage with the ability to hear every single note on any track or record... drop the ego. Nothing is less appealing to a true music lover than an artist with an insatiable ego. You are not god because you are the one at the decks. You don't deserve to have the world to bow down at your feet and your fans aren't guaranteed groupies for your pleasure. 

On that note as well, your genre is not the only one. As much as I dislike listening to commercial music, that doesn't mean I have the right to knock it down, especially when it racks in $6.2 billion in a year (*smh*). So don't be Seth Troxler and film yourself trashing other genres, if you don't like it, just don't listen to it. Being a public figure means that you have the choice to be a great role model to your fans and there is nothing "whack" about that! 

4. Technique

"The best DJs can even play the sound system itself using volume and frequency controls, as well as special effects like echo and reverb, to emphasize certain moments or event certain instruments in a song." 

Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field, which means even if you are at the top of your game, you still have a lot to learn. Knowing how to use turntables, even if you're part of the CDJ/USB generation, unlocks skills you would not normally think to utilize. So it's best to do it all and be a jack of all trades rather than just pigeonhole yourself to one technique. 

It's true, the world of electronic music runs on digital components comprised of gear and software. All of this is continuously adapted, modified, updated and released faster than the new iPhone. To be at the top of your field, you have to remember that there's always room to learn something new and apply it to your craft. A good DJ knows their equipment better than anyone and can utilize a mixer in the most creative of ways.

3. Creativity

"They select a series of exceptional recordings and use them to create a unique performance, improvised to precisely suit the time, the place and the people in front of them."

Brewster and Frank Broughton wrote that a DJ's job is to channel the vast ocean of recorded sound into a single unforgettable evening. Now, with the invention of flash drives of up to 64GB, that is a feat requiring some serious innovation. The ability to turn someone else's work into something completely separate of itself is an amazing aspect of DJing. 

For example, Dixon's performance at Electric Zoo in 2013 was climactic because of the fact that during the entire time that I was there dancing, I could see him peer over at the crowd, watching us. His observation of us allowed him to select his next track based on what he believes will keep us flowing. For him, it was necessary to be as creative as possible in order to adapt. 

A DJs ability to mesmerize the crowd is due to the combination of track selection, technical skills, and the creative mind to tie it all up into an eclectic bouquet of sounds that take the listener on a journey. If I hear a DJ repeating tracks in various sets without at least a moderate amount of time in between performances, to the point that I can no longer listen to that song, I will find you and scrap your entire digital music library. 

You don't deserve to have one, booboo! 

2. Taste 

"The essence of the DJ's craft is selecting which records to play and in what order. Doing this better or worse than others is the profession's basic yardstick. The aim is to generate a cohesive musical atmosphere, in most cases, making people dance." 

This is the topic that generally gets a lot of arguments because taste is arbitrary, but in regards to being a DJ, taste is what sets you apart. What necessitates having good taste? As a DJ, your taste essentially has to be impeccable, at least to us listeners. We are trusting you to play what we like, even if we have never heard it before. Our ability to enjoy the evening rests upon your very capable turntables. 

I think it's fair to say that if you are a fan of dance music, you don't go to a venue because it's Output or Verboten. You go because they specifically brought in the DJ you love or have been dying to see since their ADE debut. 

1. Love of Music

"DJs are evangelists about music - they can make their love for their favorite records completely infectious."

Lastly, but probably the most important of all (my friend argued on its behalf) is the pure and innocent notion that all of this is to satisfy your love of music. Too many times have I heard people becoming DJs because it's "easy," that you get all these perks along with a string of able bodies throwing themselves into your bed. I want to see someone at the decks who is so immersed into the music that I'm pretty sure they forgot they were on the job. 

Energy is contagious and if the DJ is having a blast, believe me, you will too. Why was Disco and classic House so popular? Because the artists, the people, and the music brought about something that was nothing short of an incredible night filled with positive energy and vibes that gave you chills as you grooved a trail of baby powder all over the floor.  

Of course, all of this is just my opinion, but if you find that as a DJ, you check all the same boxes I've mentioned above, then congratulations! You are someone I would like to come see perform.