One of the reasons that it's so hard to get consensus on… well, anything, amongst DJs in the music community is the fact that many of us don't like to look outside of our own box to realize that there are many different kinds of DJs (and various reasons for those DJs to exist).
Of course, a world-class turntablist has different needs than a professional wedding DJ, and their thoughts on what makes a “good DJ” will probably differ.
Today, I'd like to talk about what I'm loosely referring to as an underground club DJ.
“What does that even mean??”
I'm using the term underground loosely, and even the word club. But, I can't think of a better way to refer to it. For the sake of this article, let's throw away the baggage that comes along with the word underground.
What I'm referring to is the kind of DJ who typically plays in a bar, club, or music venue… and does not necessarily play popular music. The DJ that is serving a specific niche instead of the more broad top-40 type of market.
It drives me crazy to see people go out of their way to insult a DJ for what he or she is. Hip-hop DJs bash house DJs for “not touching their records”. Digital DJs bash vinyl DJs for being stuck in the past. Mobile DJ entrepreneurs bash the hobbyist for playing a free show. Old-schoolers bash newcomers for their use of the sync button.
It never ends. So many divas, so little time.
It boggles my mind that people can't see how a DJ's role can vary. What makes someone a good wedding DJ is not how seamlessly he can transition between tracks, but his personality, public speaking ability, business sense, and adeptness at crowd-reading. What makes someone a good turntablist is not necessarily building a long, slow progression over the span of two hours, but her ability to perform, exhibit extreme precision, and use her turntable as an instrument.
“So what about underground club DJs?”
The difference between a pop/top-40/requests DJ and an underground DJ is not that one plays better music than the other, or that one is a sellout, or that one is a “musical masturbator”. The difference is in the crowd that they are intended for: searchers vs. discoverers.
Searching is the word we use when referring to the action of finding what you already know you want. Think Google.
Discovering is what happens when some entity helps you to encounter something that you didn't even realize you were looking for. Think StumbleUpon.
Of course, you could argue that it's not so black-and-white. Some things fit somewhere in the middle. Think Pandora.
The “underground” “club” DJ is the kind that wants to educate his crowd… yet another term I'll use with hesitation. He wants to find a correlation between what he likes and what his crowd responds to, by way of introducing them to music they may not have otherwise heard. He wants to teach and encourage them to find something they didn't know they needed. (Note: this also describes the original role of the radio DJ.)
In other words, don't try to help a top-40 crowd discover new music. That's not what they are there for. Conversely, don't play radio tunes at an event that's promoted as a liquid drum-n-bass night. That's not what they are there for.
Some people want to go out and hear their favorite tunes. Some want to be introduced to new favorites. And that's okay.
The key to happiness in your DJ role is to be very honest with yourself about what it is you want to accomplish… and to position yourself to play gigs appropriate to that desire. Regardless of what type of DJ you are.
Bonus points if you can quit judging how good a DJ is based on your own preferred DJ style or role. There's room for all of us.