Although this is the “Digital DJ” column, and there are loads of things to cover about the digital realm, it's time to get back to basics. Regardless of what you happen to play with — CD, vinyl, computer or even an iPod — DJing is about the art and science of playing music. There are many musical DJ principles that everyone can use, and frequently I hear sets that would really benefit from incorporating a few of them in particular. So, to change it up a little, this will be the first of a few columns that are not strictly digital focused. And if you're been reading Remix, you've likely been through “DJing 101” a few times already, so this time we're going to go beyond basic beat-matching tips.
MORE THAN A RHYTHM
As DJs, we are driven by the beat. Charged with setting the pulse for large groups of people, we often get a little too focused on the rhythm section of a song. It's easy to choose tracks and mix combinations based on how well they might blend together rhythmically, often forgetting about a crucial part of the picture: the musical structure. By that, I mean the key of each song; the key changes between songs; and most importantly, the song structure of a track.
Consider this: While you are searching for that next track based on what might fit with it rhythmically, ask yourself, “What is really keeping the audience moving?” The beat certainly plays a big part of it, but it's the subtle or dramatic changes within the song itself that keep the track and the audience moving forward. A major song-structure misstep will have much more dire consequences for your dancefloor than a temporary rhythmic hiccup. If you start to incorporate the following concepts into your mix, the results are sure to please.
VERSE, CHORUS, VERSE
The tried-and-true pop formula of intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus is a formula for a reason: It works. People connect to that structure, and it keeps a song moving. Like it or not, almost all modern songs follow this traditional pop arrangement structure in some form. Even an underground electronic song with no words can be broken down into a similar pattern of tension and release.
So how can you use this basic music principle to your advantage? For starters, get to know the different parts of a song. Radio tunes are the easiest to break into verse, chorus and bridge, but you should start to look for those concepts in all forms of music. They will often show up as musical themes. The theme might not be a defined chorus but rather a distinct part that shows up every 16 bars.
Herein lies the first rule of thumb: For a perfect musical transition, always try to mix out of a chorus. That is applicable to everyone, but especially hip-hop DJs and folks who play tunes with a distinct musical structure. Often, these songs will have 8- or 16-count intros and then solid words for the entire song. That can be very frustrating for DJs accustomed to a long instrumental intro and outro. So where do you mix? The answer lies in the chorus of the song playing and the intro of the new track. Almost all choruses are eight bars long, or 32 counts. Almost all intros are one, four or eight bars (four, 16 or 32 counts). So if the next track you want to play has a 16-count intro, you should start mixing it in when the chorus is halfway done. Then exactly when the chorus ends, the verse on your new song starts, and you should be completely faded over to the new track. You might be thinking, “No way, that's slamming a track in!” But with a little practice, that can be an incredibly effective and smooth transition. The audience will love it as you seamlessly bounce between the musical structure of different songs without missing a beat. That is particularly effective with songs that are hits. You can quickly bounce between verses and choruses, letting only the best parts play for greater sing-along impact. That is a technique used by many of the nation's top hip-hop and mash-up DJs to keep their dancefloors at full energy all night long.
This technique is subtler and more effective in the gradually building sets of electronic dancefloors. Not only should you pay attention to song movements within the songs themselves, but you should also think of the set as one long song. I am sure you are already using songs of different energies to build rhythmic crescendos, but add melodic builds into that mix, and you have the recipe for a really powerful set. In the same way that the verse/chorus builds tension and release, so can each song.
To do that effectively, you need to figure out the key of each song and learn some basic music theory. For instance, if a song is in the key of A, playing another song in G and then returning again to A will create a wonderful tension and resolve. That musical drama — highlighting that final song in A — will create the feeling of a peak moment.
Another simple technique that does not require any musical knowledge is to play around with minor and major keys. Minor songs tend to feel darker or sadder, and major songs are more upbeat and happy. Notice these characteristics in your own tracks, and build a sequence that plays off of those features. For instance, play four songs in a major key, except the third, which should be in minor. Then make that fourth song a floor filler in a major key, and you will have created another peak moment.
And remember, in your spare time, try to pay attention to the songs that you hear everyday, and listen for the changes, counting out the verses and choruses. That practice will help make those transitions second nature onstage, so you can truly rock out on the dancefloor.