As a Cre8ive I learnt a huge amount from being a DJ. It is the most direct form of market research, more so than performing live, as you’re taking the recording of the music and asking the audience directly what they think.
A Live performance is prone to the performance itself varying, bands and artists have off nights, etc, whereas the recording stays the same. So you are literally judging the exact same music from one crowd to another. Not only that but you're able to judge specific parts of the arrangement.
I would study fastidiously why an audience would scream for a track one night, only for that same track to fall flat the next, or why certain sections of a track, the euphoric middle 8, the la la chorus tag, always got a positive reaction.
As a musician there is nothing better then being a DJ for understanding music and it's appeal and I would recommend getting out there and playing some tunes to a crowd (back when we can of course!)
I started back in the mid 80's, when the job of a DJ meant mostly telling people to move their cars, or to wish Deidre from accounts a happy birthday. Musically, you played one record after another, regardless of matching tempos, or feels. It was about the right track for that moment.
Beat mixing sets was still very much the exclusive remit of a handful of specialist DJ’s, so wasn't really on my radar but what really grabbed me was hiphop culture and specifically scratching by the likes of Grandmaster Flash.
Scratching is a performance, no different from a YoYo Ma Cello, to a Sinatra at the Sands. Scratching meant dropping loops on top of loops, turning tracks into small chunks of noise and giving them a whole new lease of life.
As a guitarist I completely got scratching. With guitar, combining your picking hand and your fingering hand with the myriad of effects pedals to create noises is a joy to behold. I was first introduced to this insanity through the playing of Hendrix. Listen to his version of Star Spangled Banner to see how he contorted his guitar to recreate the horrific sounds of machine gun fire and bombs exploding, his covert protest to the USA involvement in the pointless Vietnam war and a cry of support for all his brothers.
For a while I scratched but never really got the hang of it. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in playing guitar! But scratching drew me into hiphop and specifically sampling and BEATS! I love rhythm. I'm a crap drummer but a solid crap drummer. I'm blessed with feel and I was reminded recently when interviewing the brilliant producer Chris Loco how important playing the drums is to programming feel. Learn drums kids!
So scratching loops and layering samples over samples became my thing. I adored albums like De L Souls '3 Feet High and Rising' The Beasties 'Pauls Boutique' Tribe records and the productions of The Bomb Squad for P.E. They didn't give a shit about samples being in the right key or even in the right tempo. If it felt good, it felt good.
As I said, back when I started the DJ's job was to play all the hits of the day. In between Luther, Madonna, Prince and Micheal, I would sneak in a little Tribe or De La, especially when their tracks started blowing up.
Only later did I realise the power of a DJ ‘set’ Taking the crowd on the proverbial journey, a 5 hour plus voyage within the hallowed walls in clubs like the legendary Ministry of Sound I was the resident DJ between 1992 and 1996, playing almost every week in the bar or in the main room, fortunate enough to play on that incredible bowel moving sound system, that frankly would make anything sound amazing!
But I believe those early years, mixing Come On Eileen into Eric B for President and the like, were invaluable to understanding the dance floor and the tricks that were available to keep the people happy.
I say happy, as opposed to dancing because I don’t believe the job of the DJ is to just make people dance. You are providing a soundtrack to their evening and that soundtrack needs to be sufficiently broad to cover everyones needs. An escape from a hard day at work, a fleeting attraction, a mates night out, or a final lovers hurrah before the inevitable bust up, it’s all there on the dance floor and trust me some people just want to sit, chat or people watch.
Whatever they're doing, you're cre8ing the sound of their experience.
Of course playing some tunes to a couple of mates in your front room is very different to playing Fabrics main room at 3am but actually there’s a lot of similarities, more of that later.
People often ask me how I became a DJ and how things have changed from when I started. Is there any connection to the Internet heavy world of synced mixes and air punching we have today?
Well yes there is...
This question is invariably linked to the actually questioner having a kid that wants to be a pro DJ, or they themselves are a secret bedroom mixer and would love to experience the perceived velvet rope adulation of the modern superstar button pusher.
Nowadays everyone is a DJ. Social media and digital platforms like Shazam, Soundcloud, YouTube and Beatport have made it super easy to find music and programs like Traktor (see above) and DJ basically beat mix for you.
Couple this with the rock solid digital groove that modern electronic music is built on, which makes tempo drifting (yes drum machines drifted!) a total thing of the past and now really everyone can DJ.
Or can they?
Warhol should have actually said “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes and have a ton of playlist mixes that no one listens too!”
So the question really means how can I make a living as a DJ and like any trade, regardless of platforms, or changes in the music itself, there are certain rules and tips that to me are timeless.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting up what I learned and what I experienced from being a DJ in some of the greatest clubs in the world.
You on point Tip? All the time Phife...