Hang the DJ: The one about life behind the decks

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This past weekend was one of the best I have ever had during my time in college, and all it took was people dancing to music that I chose to play. That is one of the best parts about being the DJ for a party or other event: the cheer when you play someone’s favorite song, watching the ebb and flow of the crowd and playing the right music to influence and match it.

Learning how to operate the programs and equipment for DJ-ing can be fairly straightforward, and mostly just requires practice. The bigger challenge is learning how to read a crowd, to know how they will respond to a certain track or genre. Even more difficult is figuring out how to interact directly with people who come to talk to you while working the decks. Most of the time, they just want to hang out and maybe request a song or two.

However, sometimes, having others in the booth or on stage can be a distraction, or worse, affect the set in a negative way. While instances such as these are fortunately few and far between (for the most part), there were a few that happened to me over the weekend (as a disclaimer, I bear no ill will towards anyone mentioned in this post, and all names have been changed for anonymity). While I do not claim to be an expert, there are some lessons that I can pass on for those who want to get behind the decks.

Messing with a DJ’s equipment

Last Friday, I had just began what would end up being one of the best sets I ever had. The crowd was building, the bar was cranking out drinks and everyone seemed to be having a fantastic night. Naturally, I was mostly concentrated on my computer and controller, and did not notice two guys (we’ll call them Dave and Mel) standing by the club’s mixer, glancing around surreptitiously and trying to raise the overall volume without anyone noticing. Fortunately, my friend and fellow musical moron Gary was in the booth with me and noticed what they were doing, then called them out on it.

Deep down, I have no doubt that Dave and Mel had only positive intentions when trying to make the audio levels go up. Loud music is exactly what a party needs, right? What they might not have considered was that we had already set the volume at a level that worked best for the club without blowing out their speakers, as well as finding the balance between getting people to dance and allowing them to have conversations as well. While the faithful and energetic might stay on the dance floor all night, not everyone has that level of stamina; and if the music is too loud, they will not be able to hear their friends while taking a break.

There is also the risk of causing permanent damage to the equipment. Yes, we probably could have turned up the volume, but having the levels up too high can ruin the speakers. Changing audio settings without letting the DJ know can throw them off as well, since they suddenly have to adjust to their songs being considerably louder than before.

This “do not touch without permission” policy extends to the decks and headphones as well. While I have no problem letting someone try scratching or playing around with the controller’s buttons for a second, it can be frustrating for both the DJ and the crowd to suddenly have the music stop and stutter. Even worse is when someone tries to take over completely when the performer steps away for a second, as what happened to me on Saturday. While I was looking through my bag for a power cord, a random person grabbed my headphones and began messing around with my decks until I asked him to leave the stage.

What can the audience take away from this? Always ask the DJ for permission before touching his or her equipment. All of it is expensive, and if we aren’t using our own speakers, you risk interrupting the flow of the set, or worse, causing costly damage. For DJs who are trying to deal with this, the best route is to stay as calm as possible and politely ask the other person to stop. Most of the time they will be perfectly willing to leave your stuff alone.

Playing “Bangers,” And other requests

On Friday night, the atmosphere of the party was at its greatest intensity around 12:30 a.m. The crowd had been going hard for the past half-hour, enjoying the blend of throwback and current rap hits. Who doesn’t enjoy some classic 50 Cent through massive speakers?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4H3Z0wxS4gM

After a little while, I decided to play a couple more downtempo songs to give people the chance to take a short rest before hitting the dance floor again. At this point, another guy in the booth – I’ll call him Martin – informed me that I needed to stop playing “Bar Mitzvah” music and play more “bangers” to get the crowd going.

My first inclination was to acquiesce his request with this remix of the immensely popular, festival-read track, “Animals.”

I also wanted to tell him that not only was I asked to stick to Top 40 and rap for most of the night, but also that this wasn’t Ultra Music Festival or Electric Daisy Carnival, where a DJ can get away with just playing all the big room house songs they want in a row. Resisting the urge, I calmly told him I would keep his suggestion in mind.

Oddly enough, on Saturday, I had the exact opposite problem. I had been tapped to play a showcase of my favorite genres, including trance, electro and progressive house, none of which see too much play at parties around campus. Most people at the event seemed to be getting into the music, apart from one person – I’ll call him Rick. Rick came up about a minute into the set to tell me, “You need to play songs with vocals in them.” and not five minutes later, to demand I play hip-hop.

In both cases, Martin and Rick made the mistake of misidentifying the crowd they were in. When putting in a request for a DJ, you need to be aware of what kind of music is being played at the event. Sometimes, a variety of electronic, rap and pop music can make an appearance. Other times, the selection may be more limited based on the event organizers or crowd. For DJs, the best way to handle people either asking or demanding a certain song or genre be played is to remain as polite as possible. Do not just dismiss them, but instead either say that you will try and fit their request in or explain why you might not be able to use a specific song. The key is to stay as friendly as possible – which can be difficult to do, especially when the audience member is being flat-out rude and obnoxious. Again, this is usually not a huge issue, since most people will be friendly and just want to have a good time.

Despite these issues, my two gigs last weekend were hands down some of the best I have ever had as an amateur DJ. Spinning for a crowd of your peers is both a party and a learning experience. One of my friends told me the next day that he had never seen me happier than when I was DJ-ing, and he was right. There is nothing else quite like it.

Until next time: No retreat, no surrender.

JTB

Jack Butcher is a senior history major. He can be reached at butcher@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJButcher.