Harold Heath looks at a crucial skill every DJ needs to learn
The move from DJing at parties round your mate's house, or on the internet, to playing in clubs, bars, raves and festivals in front of actual real, live people can be a nerve-wracking one for the newcomer DJ.
You're going to need to check what equipment they’ve got and ensure they’ve got room for your controller and the rack of analogue effects that you’ve decided you’ll need to bring. You’ll need to negotiate your fee and perhaps your accommodation and travel, you're going to need to pack a warm jumper in case it gets cold, but most importantly, you're going to need to learn to DJ live. That is, you will need to bring a large quantity of music and then programme it coherently together on the fly, unscripted, based on your own ideas of what will work but also very much following the reaction of your audience.
This is such a different experience to mixing for an internet show or at a house party that the first time can be something of a shock. The tunes you thought would "kill it" have in fact left "it" very much alive and kicking, and that really clever thing you planned with the acapella and the flanger went entirely unnoticed by anyone in the club. You may even find yourself coming down a serious dose of disco-fear: that specific anxiety that DJs sometimes get, the symptoms of which are generally a belief that every tune you’ve ever bought is useless and inappropriate, and a rising fear that the crowd are about to run you out of the club, if not the town.
Reading a crowd is a skill that you never really stop developing as, even if you're a resident, every crowd that you play for will be different. Want a straightforward, easy approach that works? Eye-contact. If you're close enough - and the chances are if it's your first gig, it's not going to be in an arena - then look up from what you're doing, stop concentrating on the technical side of things and start interacting with the humans on the dancefloor. They'll appreciate it.
Different DJs adopt different approaches to this. Some will pick out one person and play to them all night. Others say that they play for the girls - it's common knowledge among all types of DJs, from Gary at Flamingos on the high street to the elite that grace the decks at Pacha, Berghain or fabric that if you get the ladies dancing, the gentlemen will follow. I also knew one DJ who told me that he would read the crowd by 'tuning into the psychic Orgone waves' of his punters. Whatever works for you.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't think about what to play before gigs, or that you shouldn't construct playlists, or group certain tracks together, or practice certain transitions. In fact, I'm saying the exact opposite of that - you should definitely do all of those things! It's the preparation that you do before you play out - mixing all your tunes together, working out what goes well together and what doesn't, and how you can use them to build atmosphere and manipulate mood - that enables you to DJ really well. Learning your tunes will enable you to head out into the night with your USB packed full of music that you know inside out - and be able to lead and respond to the mood of your audience all night.
Learning to take a step back, looking out into the dark of the club to try to really feel what it is the dancers might like to hear next, what will take the room to the next level - this is perhaps most important aspect of moving to real gigs. It's easily the most fun part of the job, and also perhaps the most intimidating - but being able to read and react to your crowd is absolutely fundamental if you want to DJ well. But don’t forget that warm jumper, too.
Words: Harold Heath Pic: Paulo Guereta/Wiki Commons