In my experience, only one thing truly sets a DJ apart: programming! The way a set is put together is crucial to a great night. Many times, new DJs are so concerned with the technical aspect of the art that they totally neglect that most important and basic element. Having heard the right track at the right time is usually what the audience remembers the next day. Memories are made from those magic moments when the DJ suddenly sneaks in your favorite tune at just the right time; sometimes, it is a well-placed classic that takes the audience up a notch. The truth is, beat mixing is a skill that you must learn, but programming is a talent that you must possess.
Often, when I play at different clubs or events, they have an opening DJ — a very important job that is often overlooked. I would recommend to any DJs who are trying to make names for themselves to take every opportunity to do opening slots. The opener sets the tone for the entire night. As the resident at Space in Miami for five years, there were many times when I would play 10-hour sets. But the first two hours of those nights were the most important because they would let people know what to expect in terms of vibe and energy on that given night. Patience is a huge part of this process. You are setting a groove and getting people in the mood. Anyone can come in and bang out all the latest floor-movers for a couple of hours, but only those who know the craft can tell a story.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Before a gig, regardless of where it is, I always try to be prepared for any type of situation. On any given night, I may feel it's right to go into a classic set, or maybe a more laid-back set is in order. Regardless of what the vibe may be, I always want to be prepared. Years ago, my friend Danny Tenaglia, whom I admire, told me something that was extremely helpful. At the time, he was the resident at Twilo in New York City. I was there listening to him one night, and in the middle of his set, he dropped a remix of Toni Braxton's “Unbreak My Heart.” At first, I was surprised, but when I saw the audience's reaction, it made total sense. The whole club went nuts because he snuck it in there at the perfect time. The next day, we were talking about the night, and I asked him about playing that tune, which was very unlike his usual style. He said, “I am a professional, and I'm always prepared for whatever it takes to make the party happen. We are entertainers, and that is always most important.”
Usually, you have a couple of tunes in your bag that you know are going to rock the floor. I like to spread these tunes out strategically throughout a set. A common mistake that young jocks make is shooting their load too soon and running out of ammunition. I like to use samples and loops that hint at these bigger tunes throughout the set to create anticipation. This teasing technique is effective for keeping the audience's interest and making the big tunes all the more dramatic when you finally play them.
PEAKS AND VALLEYS
A good set must have ups and downs, but you must be careful not to go too drastically one way or the other. The most important thing is programming the valleys in your set: These are the tracks that define you as a DJ. Knowing how to get a groove going and energy bubbling before you drop the bombs is essential. The way you set up the big tunes and when you drop them is also crucial to the dancefloor. I was lucky to get the opportunity years ago to tour with Tony Humphries in Italy. Humphries is a legend in house music and was a huge inspiration to me early on. I got to know him a little bit and picked his brain on long car rides through Italy. He told me something after one of our gigs that I will never forget. He said, “You always have to play for the girls in the room. Guys like girls, and girls like songs, so you have to give them the songs. If the girls are happy, the party is happening!”
There are a lot of DJs out there these days, and it is harder than ever to stand out among them. I always try to keep a very open mind when it comes to the music I select. I try to stay away from being stuck on a particular sound or genre, because I think it is important to mix it up and try new things. I receive countless promos every week from all over the world and go record shopping, as well, so I spend several hours a week just listening to new music. This is probably the most important part of what I do as a DJ — this is the work you put in that pays off when you are rocking the party. I try to stay away from charts and reviews because, in the end, you must stand apart from the other jocks, and the only way to do that is to be original and true to your own unique sound.
In an age in which digital downloading is commonplace and every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to have access to every new tune the day after it is recorded, it is harder and harder for jocks to stand out. Now more than ever, programming and music selection are what define you as a DJ. Beat mixing and technical skills are a requirement — and if they're stellar, that's a bonus — but programming is first and foremost.