Posts Tagged ‘ getting good as a DJ ’

Hi! We need this instead


There will be a time where you will face the unexpected “Hi! We need this instead”. If you’ve already encountered this, great you muscled through! Or did you? Without knowing how you handled it I can venture a guess of what it caused. But let me back up and define what I mean by HWNTI. It’s the day before or of your gig and a last minute change in the lineup, or the party, has caused a situation where you need to adjust your set to fit said change in situation. Any DJ worth their salt looks at it like a challenge, but deep down inside rest assured there’s a bit of concern <panic>. Never fear, you can handle this. All it takes is a count to 10 and get to work attitude! You don’t have time to resist it or complain about it. If you happen to be a DJ in the position of pushing back then I say do it, but carefully. Most really good DJ’s have already sussed out whether a gig is right for them or have an arsenal that can accommodate but, shit happens (too much in my opinion). If you’re dealing with a major shift in genre, figure out the common thread musically that can transition into what you want and you’ll be fine. Believe it or not, things never play out the way your anxiety thinks it will.  How many times have you dealt with an unknown and it all ended up ok. So keep in mind that it’s a party, you want to make people happy, and they’re usually amenable to deviations in musical expectations. Your job is finding the fine line of connecting between what is expected and what they don’t know they desire. There can be a big enough difference in the two for you to play with. Be comfortable with the unknown and the challenge, that’s usually where the magic lies.

What Does It Take To Be An Amazing DJ?

Take a look at this photograph.

Thousands of adoring fans worshiping every move you make and you don’t have to share that moment with anyone other than the crowd.  It’s pretty powerful.  These images get served to DJs and non DJs alike all the time.  If you are a DJ, and you play out enough for long enough, this is what you get to experience.   What no one really tells you is that in order to be like this guy, you have to be amazing.  I know I’m stating the obvious but it’s really important to remind ourselves that to get to this level of achievement requires exceptional qualities. There are DJs whom I don’t particularly care for their genre of choice, however I would never discredit what they did in order to get to where they are.  I respect any DJ that achieves the moment the DJ in this picture does because I bet that it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and soul searching.  That’s not all though . . .

What does it take to be amazing?  Believe it or not it takes three things to be truly amazing.  I’m going to use the word amazing a lot because it’s not good, or great, it’s nothing short of amazing or beyond that – mindblowing.  So now that we have our spectrum of greatness down let’s talk about being amazing and how to do that.  We actually can take a note from the master painters on this one.  Picasso, Braque and the art of Cubism.  “Creativity happens when someone does something new that is also useful or generative or influential.  Useful means that the new thing solves a problem.  Generative means that the new thing leads to other ideas or things.  Influential means that the new thing changes the way people look at, or listen to, or think about, or do, things like it.” (Stokes, 2006, 1) Picasso and Braque changed the entire landscape of painting by introducing a new way of looking at the world and interpreting it through Cubism.   “Their new thing, called Cubism, changed how some people (critics, dealers, collectors) looked at and thought about representational painting, and it changed how some other people (artists) painted.” (Stokes, 2006, 1)

In other words if you are useful and serve a purpose, lead DJs to other ideas, and change how people look at their life or listen to music – you are on your way to being amazing.  Now there are plenty of other things that make a DJ amazing but in my opinion these are the three essential things that contribute to a DJ’s amazingness. Let’s break it down a little further.

Being Useful

Most people, if not all, have issues in their lives.   The need to let go is central to the whole point of going out and having an experience.   The DJ is the maestro, the architect – of escape and meditation.   Based on your purpose, being useful, you are there to help people work through their problems.  You are the therapist and music is your mode of therapy.   Your purpose is to help someone deal with the fact they got fired, a lover left them, and to celebrate the beauty in their lives.  That is your job.   Once you understand this purpose you are on your way to being amazing.

Being Generative

Amazing DJs bring something new to the table.   A different way of interpreting music, engaging with it, and participating in the expression of it.  Amazing DJs generate new ways of looking at the craft.  It’s not necessarily just technique or exploiting the latest technology though.  It’s also about voice.  Picasso and Braque presented a new voice in painting.  They abandoned all notions of literal representation of the real world and truly experimented with a different way of looking at things.  Amazing DJs push the boundaries of the craft, and of themselves, and take the art to the next level.

Being Influential

There’s such a thing as a bridge DJ.  A bridge DJ is someone who is able to reach out and induct the uninitiated into their world.  The interesting thing about bridge DJs is that they don’t necessarily cater to mainstream or certainly that is not their aim.  Whatever it is they are doing enables others to truly see their point of view and create a bridge between themselves and their audience.  To the extent that it is futile to resist that DJs effect on you.   An influential DJ refuses to give up on the fact that they are trying to teach and educate as well as facilitate an experience.  Influential means breaking boundaries AND being able communicate them in a way that hits people right in the gut.  I’ll admit, for a long time I did not get techno.  I had heard enough techno ( probably bad techno ) from my early raving days and if I never heard it again I was fine with it.  Then through the insistence of a friend, I listened to a Carl Cox live set and then I got it.  I got techno.  From there I branched out to other related artists and realized there was a whole world of techno that I had never been exposed to.  Carl Cox was my bridge DJ for really good techno.  Now I don’t spin techno predominantly but Carl Cox did affect my discography in some way as I settled on mininal techno as an important supplement to my deep house, electro and breaks genre choices.  That’s influence.

I can’t tell you how to be useful, or generative, or influential – I can only tell you that I truly believe these are the qualities you must possess to be amazing.  It’s up to you to define those things for yourself and work hard to get to the level you set for yourself.   I encourage you to ask yourself these questions as your go through your creative process: is what I’m doing purposeful, is what I’m doing unique, is what I’m doing changing mindsets?  Once you can confidently say yes to all of those questions – you have tapped into amazingness.

Now go with your amazing self – you can do it!

Recap: Amazingness is not just about hard work.  Be useful – help people work through their stuff.  Be generative – bring new thoughts and ideas to the craft.  Be influential – create a bridge to your world, inspire to look at music in a whole new way.

Source: Stokes, Patricia D, Creativity From Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough, Springer Publishing Company, Inc. 2006.

The Next Level


There’s a high level concept called The Liminality that I think is very interesting and relevant for DJs.  I will try to explain the concept and then talk about how it relates to your creative work.

The limen is actually the sliver of light that peeks through when a door has been opened.   So in essence when you open a door you are hit with a light, a break in the threshold between the door and a wall.  The concept of The Liminality is the point you reach when you have mastered established rules and then cross over, experience a liminality, and you begin to operate within a new rule set.  “During a liminal experience, you are moving from a time when you know the rules and the expectations, to a time when you must create new rules for yourself and expect the unexpected.” ( Moote, 2005, 91 )

There are times when a DJ crosses over – some of those times can be thrilling and some of those times can be frightening.  You don’t know what’s on the other side of that door yet you are excited by this new light ahead of you.

Here are some exciting liminalities:

1) You’ve had a breakthrough on a new genre

2) You’ve had a happy accident and are challenged to recreate it and run with it

3) You’ve reached another level or a new set of emotions during your “zone” moment

4) You’ve garnered a response from the dancefloor with something you put on that you never expected would resonate

Here’s what can be frightening:

1) You don’t know what to do with this new information

2) You’re afraid it might change you completely or affect all the hard work you’ve been doing in one set of rules

3) While the new set of rules have presented themselves, you have anxiety on mastering another threshold

Don’t be afraid!  This is growth! DJs wish they can get to the next level whatever it takes.  You have to embrace your liminality, you have to walk through that door.   Believe it or not you can usher in the liminality by doing some things that can help you see the light.

The first thing you need to understand is you need to be open to risk.   Following the established rules of DJing only helps you get a foundation for creating.  You  must let go at some point and explore.  “Everyone creates with the same tools, the same supplies.  There is no need for risk.  Just do it like the teacher (or DJ guide) says.  Read the product guide or pick up any number of magazines that have been created for artists.  And then you wake up one day and think, ‘I’d like to try . . .’ You create something new, just for you.  Is it safe? Will it fit in? Do you care? You are on the threshold of new territory.  If you keep exploring, you might find yourself in the middle of a liminal experience.” ( Moote, 2005, 92)

So now we have established what kind of mindset you need to have in order to embrace a liminal experience.

Here are some ideas on how to recognize and facilitate it.

1) Get Rid of Dead Weight

In my post on Why Do You DJ? ( here ) I talk about having passion for your discography and questioning what it contains.  Now,  I’m not suggesting any DJ gets rid of their music EVER  ( don’t EVER do that ), but it may be time for a little housecleaning and storage.   This is getting rid of some of your dead weight.  Other dead weight could be some of the people you hang around with, people that don’t believe in you, don’t understand or will never understand your passion.  This is not to say dump these people ( some of them may be your own family and I don’t condone dropping relationships with family and loved ones over DJing ).  What I mean is being mindful of who you share your passion with.  You want a supportive and understanding DJ circle.  Seek out those who salute you, not rebuke you.  Finally, dead weight could mean a residency or gig that is just not working for you.  I know it’s hard, but think about the time you could be spending working on you instead of a soul and creative sucking gig that gets you nowhere.

2) Set Aside the Time

You need to block out time to be creative.  That’s a fact.  Whether it’s listening to tracks, exposing yourself to other art, practicing, or going through your DJ ritual ( I talk about ritual in my paper here ) – that time must be free of distractions and not rushed.  In order to do that you need to work that time into your life somehow.  You need to close the door on the outside world if your liminal door is going to open.   Removing the intrusive nature of daily life and stress allows you to meditate more closely during your creative process.  Call it your “DJ Time” and own it!

3) Record Yourself

A lot of DJs swear by recording their practice and live sessions.  I know a lot of you don’t do that.  I know why.  You’re afraid of hearing the mistakes, of the potentiality of how awful you may be.  I’m going to tell you that in every practice/live session there is a liminal moment.  When you listen back to your session you will discover something new, something positive, something that will draw you to crossing over a threshold.   It may take the form of one mix that is perfect, or an effect you place that works – you will draw at least one thing that you can build on.  Who cares if the rest is crap – all it takes is just one moment in the whole thing that can inspire you to embrace a new rule set.

4) Reflect

Reflect on everything you do as a DJ.  That means after a gig, thinking about what you did RIGHT.  A lot of times, DJs beat themselves up about what they did WRONG.  Try and change your mindset.  While it’s important to think about what you did that contributed to the bad situations that happened during a gig ( or a practice session ) – reframe to what you did RIGHT, what worked, what zone moment you had, and try to trace back what you did to get there.  There may be times when nothing went right in your opinion.  Ok, then think about how you can learn from that experience.  This is important: reflecting inserts new thoughts and ideas into your mind.  Those thoughts and ideas get processed and recalled for later moments.  This is about constantly refreshing your mind with new thoughts so that you can recognize in the future a liminal moment.

I know it’s a lot to consider and for every DJ their thresholds and the moments they occur are different.   Recognizing that these thresholds exists, when they happen, why they happen and what you can do about them will help you greatly in your creative process.  You can’t force a liminal moment, but you can recognize it for what it is – an open door to the next level.

Recap: Liminality is a threshold.  Don’t be afraid of it.  Drop the dead weight, make the time, record and reflect.

If you found this interesting and want to share your thoughts – drop me a line!

Source: “Seeking Liminality: Making the Most of Threshold Experiences”, Cheryl Moote, Inspiring Creativity, 2005.