Things That Don't Actually Make You a Better DJ

One of the more frustrating things about DJs: our incessant ability to redefine what real DJing is.

It seems like we'd have a lot of better DJs in the world if we spent more time focusing on things that matter. Things like observation, intuition, crowd-reading, programming, moods, empathy, music theory, marketability, and so on.

Instead, people seem to get held up about things that are, frankly, irrelevant. Here are some things which, contrary to popular belief, don't make you a better DJ.

1. Using “Pro” Gear

Don't get me wrong, I love playing on a Pioneer Nexus setup. But the notion that this is a real requirement… that this is what separates the “big boys” from the bedroom DJs, is kinda silly.

I watched Kevin Saunderson destroy a crowd with a Kontrol S4. I've seen Richie Hawtin enamor massive audiences using little more than a pair of X1's. I've seen Ean Golden use budget controllers to wow onlooking spectators. Not to mention the things I've heard local DJs do to crowds, using little more than a MIDI controller…

I'm not saying there isn't merit to the idea of an “industry standard” DJ setup. However, it’s a much different climate than 10 or 15 years ago, when Techs and a Pioneer mixer were what you mixed on. Period.

There is certainly a place for pro gear. Alas, if you had put Mario Andretti behind the wheel of a Geo Metro, he'd still have done something impressive.

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2. Playing Records

Mixing vinyl is fun, sexy, and satisfying. But two flat, black circles do not a professional make.

Seriously… what year is this? Haven't we gotten over this whole format bias thing yet? Are you still controller-shaming DJs?

It's important to not get obsessed over this issue, and to not let anyone make your purchasing decisions for you. Everyone has their own line to draw, in regards to what they think real DJing is. For some, it's CDJs over controllers. For some, it's vinyl over digital. For some, controllers are fine as long as you manually beatmatch on them.

You won't ever be able to keep up with the demands of diva DJs.

On The Passionate DJ Podcast, we try to encourage listeners to be open-minded about hardware, and to appreciate the diversity that exists within the realm of DJing. Bad DJs are just as proficient at being bad DJs on your preferred music format vs. their own. By blaming it on digital, you end up giving them too much credit.

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 3. Having Millions of Songs

Diversity! I've preached about it more than once. But at a certain point, you're just hoarding.

One of the best things you can do to improve your sets (especially the impromptu ones) is to do the opposite: whittle down the number of tracks that are in your collection.

The problem with having 10 terabytes of music with you at every gig, is that it's highly unlikely you'll ever want to play them all. Now, you're at a signal-to-noise problem.

It's highly unlikely that you have 10TB worth of “gems”. Why not start hacking and slashing down that collection until you are left with only music that's ideal for your style?

4. Using Sync

Just because technology has taken over the tedious job of matching your beats, it doesn't mean that we're left with nothing to improve.

A DJ's skill level does not stop at their ability to align beats. Most of us know that. However, because sync makes things so easy, it's common to use this as an excuse to stop improving.

That is the real tragedy of the sync button, if there is one.

5. NOT Using Sync

Conversely, one's lack of desire to use the sync function doesn't give them any particular benefit either. Let's not be too quick to jump on that high horse!

This argument typically comes from a place of ego… especially from people who learned how to DJ before things like sync, snap, and quantize were standard functionality.

Just like the “records” argument above, a bad DJ is still a bad DJ whether or not he or she uses the sync function. One just might trainwreck more than the other.

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6. Playing Popular Music

New DJs often jump straight into whatever sound is popular, because they feel this is what they need to do to succeed.

It's funny, because there is actually a lot of value in specializing. It's actually easier to be noticed when you niche down, to become the leader of a small group rather than a participant in a sea of thousands.

It makes me sad to see DJs basing their sets off of the Beatport top 100 or Billboard charts, rather than trying to build their own sound.

7. NOT Playing Popular Music

Beware… nobody is safe! 😉

You might play the most underground and eclectic music possible, but it doesn't automatically give you supreme DJ status. Yes, it's great to build your own sound. Yes, it's great to be a “crate digger”. But what are you doing with those sounds? Who is resonating with those gems?

The passionate DJ finds what he/she needs, when the audience finds what they need. It's the infinite self-reference loop of DJing.

Find your people, and play to them.

8. FX and Button-Mashing

Playing with tricks and effects while DJing can be a lot of fun. But does it sound good? Does it add to the experience for your listeners?

Many people feel the need to replace the time they used to spend on beatmatching and record-flipping, so they fill it in by playing with FX knobs or finger drumming.

These things have their place, and some are good at it.  But, I'd postulate that it's not most of us.

The way I like to think of FX are as a utility. I always think, “what am I trying to accomplish by applying this effect?” If there's no actual point to it, I'll just let the track ride.

9. Dancing

Shuffling your feet and getting your groove on behind the decks. I'm not gonna knock it… I do it myself!

But let's bring things down to earth, here. Dancing while mixing doesn't magically make your set better. Anybody who thinks otherwise should attend a John Digweed show.

It is fair to say that crowds like seeing DJs enjoying themselves. But using it as criteria to determine the abilities of that person as a DJ?

“Never trust a DJ who doesn't dance” is a fun little quote, but let's not put stock where it doesn't belong.

10. Having Lots of  “Likes”

A DJ with lots of likes on Facebook or plays on Soundcloud does not automatically indicate amazing DJ skills. It could simply mean they are good at marketing, or got lucky.

I love being surprised by the DJ underdog. This is the old “don't judge a book by its cover” argument, and it rings true here.

As a promoter, I try to talk to my potential bookings and get to know them. I learn much more about their skills as a DJ by talking to them, learning their attitude and approach, observing their musical style, and seeing how they talk about these things to other people.

Let's stop giving people free passes because of some meaningless metric, or writing them off because of what they use or how popular they are. Looking beyond the common arguments, and staying true to what you feel is important, is how you find those diamond-in-the-rough DJs.

What is a “Good DJ”?

We should keep in mind that there are different types of DJs, and different reasons to have them. Remember, a DJ is simply anyone who plays pre-recorded music to an audience.

This can cover any number of subsets of the term “DJ”… the radio DJ, the club DJ, the wedding DJ, the guy who is in charge of playing tunes at your house party… whatever. All “DJs” in the modern sense.

And yet, constantly, I see people judging other DJs by inappropriate criteria… such as a techno DJ who can't scratch, or a wedding DJ that doesn't beatmix.

Let’s put this into perspective and consider a different example: the web developer. There are many different kinds of people with many different skill sets that could fall under that umbrella. I’ve seen people who can barely code their way out of a cardboard box that are amazing at making web front-ends and are excellent at their job because of their competence with other development tools.

On the other hand, I’ve known some extreme code-crunchers that can do some incredible behind-the-scenes stuff, yet have absolutely no good concept of how a well-designed website should “flow”.

Both of these people have marketable skills and undeniable talent… they just do different things. It’s not fair for us to judge the artsy web designer based on his ability to crank out hundreds of database queries and present it with the utmost efficiency, just as it’s not fair for us to judge the clever web programmer based on her ability to “guide the eye” of the end user to subtly direct them to useful parts of the site.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. If someone is operating an Internet radio station out of their home using iTunes to play one song after another, and there are people out there listening to it… they are a real DJ. Check your ego at the door.

Thinking what they are doing is easy or “cheating” is irrelevant when it comes to terminology. An author is still an author, regardless of whether they chisel their work into stone tablets, write them with pen and paper, type it on a typewriter or dictate it to a computer using speech-to-text software.

A DJ is still a DJ, whether he emcees and plays music for weddings, scratches and juggles hip-hop tracks, long-mixes tracks seamlessly in a nightclub or festival atmosphere, decides which track should come next on the iPod at a sports bar, or runs an independent radio station.

Of course, it is completely possible to be fantastic at any combination of those things, just as it’s completely possible to suck at any or all of them. We’re strictly talking semantics, here.

I suppose you could argue that I’m nitpicking, but I truly feel that this is an important point to make. It’s not exactly fair to invalidate something as a concept simply because it doesn’t match up with your preference.

Actually, it’s downright dishonest.

We are all entitled to our opinions and personal taste, of course. But we can do ourselves a favor by judging people’s end product instead of the means they use to get there, or the reasons they choose to do it.

Probably the best example that comes to mind is an often observed divide between hip-hop and electronic DJs. I’ve heard many a turntablist scoff at the techno DJ who is “afraid to touch his records”.

Now, maybe that techno DJ sucks or maybe he doesn’t… but why are you judging what he does with an irrelevant set of credentials?

He’s not (necessarily) there to do tricks and physically manipulate tracks on the fly… he’s there to make a seamless and hypnotic mix to a bunch of sweaty dancers that want to get lost in the music.

Bear in mind that what other DJs do or say has no bearing on your own value as a DJ. Cater to your own needs, audience, venue, and talents… and let them cater to theirs.

And we'll be there beside you for the journey!