OP-ED: What Makes A Great DJ Is Still The Same As It Ever Was

In this time of great isolation, there has been a revelation and a reboot of what it takes to craft a great DJ set.
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The world of DJing changes almost yearly with the advent of new hardware and software to bring tools and technical performance to new heights. What's exciting (finally) is that we are seeing the days of the lazy "EDM" DJ starting to whither and the demand to be technically proficient and innovative is on a meteoric rise, it's almost too much.

The tools on today's mixers, players, and software have enabled DJs to move into more of a hybrid of live artistry than your traditional track to track DJs of yore, and that is exciting on many levels both as a performer and a fan.

With the slick sync features and ease of beat matching on today's digital gear, the once-great feat of an extended 32 bar mix is considered basic in today's DJing wheelhouse. So what happened? DJs started to get bored, and then that collided with the short attention span of the EDM newbies, all ravenously chewing on their faces waiting for "the drop" as if they were on an hour-long roller coaster ride. DJs used cue points to get to all the builds and drops in the tracks; songs became shorter, and so did DJ sets.

A DJ used to be offended if you offered anything less than a two-hour set, now they want to be paid 5x-10x as much and play half as long or less. It's become a DJ bizarro world, and we as fans have all paid for it as have promoters. With this ruthless pandemic of Covid-19, we are all locked away in our homes experiencing DJs in a whole new raw format and seeing them at their most vulnerable. No light show, no fancy production, nothing but music and selection matter on the Shelter In Place stage.

You as a listener are forced to be patient, and the DJs who are live streaming are going back to more extended sets and fundamentals that have been abandoned for short flashy festival sets. Yes, there is a silver lining to this isolation we are all dealing with, we are starting to enjoy the music like we haven't in years. We are listening carefully for the subtle transitions and looking for that old school "journey" that was considered essential back in the rave days. Even if we are dancing alone at home in our underwear, it's all kind of brilliant and cathartic in a weird way.

DJs are going back to being true selectors again, carefully crafting sets, and thinking more deeply about what comes next. The skill of a great DJ has always been a straightforward thing; it's playing the right music at the right time for the dance floor that is in front of them. No matter how well you beat juggle, tweak the efx, or mix multiple tracks, if it isn't the right music, then nobody gives a shit.

You could put a guy on a basic turntable setup against a DJ with all the technical firepower in the world, the person who plays the best music, programmed correctly will always rock it harder.

The hard truth is that this skill is not easy to attain, and some people will just never have it. DJing is not math, it is poetry, and not everyone can write poetry or read it for that matter. The ability to know great music comes with an inherent talent and a lot of time digging, crafting, and putting in time on the decks. Every great DJ has cleared the floor, train wrecked a mix, or had a terrible night - it is part of becoming great.

The notion that has circulated for the last decade that anyone can be a DJ is a steaming pile of "EDM" and an insult to the people who have put in the time and can make us dance effortlessly. Now more than ever, we need to forget about life for a while, even if we get it from a stream in isolation, it still matters. So to all the great DJs and artists keeping our virtual dance floors going, I can only say thank you, and we love you even more for it.

"A good DJ is always looking at the crowd, seeing what they're like, seeing whether it's working, communicating with them. Smiling at them. And a bad DJ is always looking down at what they're doing all the time and just doing their thing that they practiced in their bedroom." - Fatboy Slim

"Watching people reach a higher level of consciousness. A fixation. For a few moments in their lives, they transcend and become lost in the fantasy of it all. As a DJ, I'm trying to create the opportunity for this to happen." - Jeff Mills

"It's about music! Not one music style is better than the other, not one music style is more truly than the other. The whole thing is based on respect. It's all about respect, respect to the music, respect to the DJ's, respect to the crowd, and respect to each other. It's all music, music never separates people!" - Carl Cox

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