This post is particularly addressed to the DJs who DJ with me at HotJam, but I post it publicly anyway.
DJing a swing event can be fun, but it should be treated responsibly. When stated that way, it can sound like we’re taking ourselves too seriously as dancers and DJs. I don’t mean to, as we all love dancing, and the music that we choose to dance to, and overly discussing and analyzing a thing can take a way a lot of that fun. We do, however, need to treat it as a responsibility as well as a privilege. We get to provide the foundation for a lot of people to have a good time
I say all this to start a dicussion about good and bad practices that swing DJs fall into, some guidelines as they pertain to DJing at HotJam, and to hopefully share some ideas how we may all improve our DJing, and thus the good times that we provide and get to enjoy ourselves.
First the guidelines:
* Music Selection – HotJam provides a specific niche (or more likely related niches) that other venues may or may not provide. From experience I’ve found that the quickest way to kill a venues to to try to be too inclusive. What that means for our DJs is that we would like folks to stick to a foundation of Vintage and Vintage inspired music. That’s a pretty vague definition, purposefully, as everyone should feel free to play good dance music… but the foundation should stick to what people expect: Good solid Swing music. Other styles are not “banned”, so it’s OK to hear some blues, soul, and even pop at Hot Jam, but if you are doing so, you should be mindful of how you got there, and how you are getting back (more on this the “transitions” and “observation” sections). Theme nights, when they occur, are generally exempt from this of course.
* Requests – Request are great to take and attempt to handle, but if they do not fit your set, your comfort zone, or just do not work with HotJam guidelines (and you feel there is no way to make it work), then you should feel comfortable in saying “I’m sorry, I can’t”. You cannot make everyone happy. Someone not too long ago asked me for some specific Frank Sinatra, and I honestly did not have what they wanted. They were not pleased with me, thinking “what kind of swing DJ doesn’t have a lot of Frank”. I hate to disappoint, but so be it.
* Tempos and transitions – It’s always a real trick to play music that everyone can and wants to dance to. In my experience there’s a good comfort zone anywhere from the low 100 BPMs to around 180BPM for the average dancer. I myself try to keep my “baseline tempo” around 155BPM. That just means if I averaged my set, i’d probably end up in that area “overall”. That doesn’t mean play all songs in that tiny range, and never play songs outside of the average comfort zone. You should be mindful not to string too many songs together that alienate a lot of people. Transition your tempos in a comfortable and fun way. If you just played a 200BPM song, it’s probably not wise to follow it with two more faster songs, yet I think it’s jarring to suddenly go from 200BPM to 110BPM every time you play a fast song. Transitions don’t just apply to tempo, however. We do have a lot of different styles to play in our sets, and it’s equally jarring to play “Jumpin’ at the woodside” and then follow it up with “Wade in the water”. The two styles are danceable, but there isn’t an obvious connection. I like to challenge myself by thinking of ways to get from point A to point B. “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”, followed by “St. Louis Blues”, followed by “Christopher Columbus (Maxine Sullivan Version), then finally to “Wade in the Water” for example, might be one way I “get there”. Of course, I’ll need to get back too (especially since “Wade in the Water” is outside my own comfort zone). Sometimes you can make dramatic changes, and they can make sense and are even fun, but you really need to know your crowd and the mood… which brings us to the next guideline.
* Pay attention – It’s easy to become self-involved in what we are playing, and to think “This is a great song, they’ll love it”. But that’s not always the best way to DJ. Watch the crowd, see what they are enjoying, and work to keep them happy. A good DJ can challenge themselves by directing the group to enjoy music that they might not normally enjoy, if they are observant and employ good transitions. I myself like to dance a song here and there while I DJ. This allows me to get a better feel of whether the crowd is enjoying it or not. Be careful though, as it’s quite easy to ignore your surroundings, especially if you are playing one of your favorite songs, or even worse, one of your “new discoveries”. Use the “dance and dj” combination carefully, and probably sparingly.
Beyond the guidelines, I have never been afraid to share my opinion (much to the dismay of many I’m sure), and won’t hesitate to do so here. I have a lot of things that work for me, or maybe they don’t, you can let me know. I’m not saying you have to do it my way, but if any of us have some holes in our DJing skills, perhaps we can learn from each other.
* Try not to have pre-established sets. Almost all new DJs go through a period of time where they generate their music set lists prior to DJing. I totally understand this, as it can be very stressful to attempt to put together a list of music that people will like, and having plenty of time to think about this allows us to concentrate on the technical aspects of DJing (going to the next song, not accidentally cutting off a song, playing the wrong song, screwing up the volume, or any number of other things). I would encourage you to *NOT* make set lists as soon as you can get out of doing so. I can put together a list of 20 – 30 songs that I love to dance to and think are great, but there’s no telling how those songs are going to go over once you start. You *must* be flexible in your song selection. This is especially true if you get a request. If you get an odd request that doesn’t fit your current set-list, then there is no transition. If I have to play a song I didn’t account for, I immediately surround it with “transition” songs, and almost never immediately play the request.
I tend to throw a bunch of songs I want to play into my queue and then start moving them around and adding songs between them. Ultimately some of those songs get removed because I’m noticing that they won’t play well, or might not even transition well.
* Don’t go out of your way to make one person happy. Often times DJs have specialized skills or collections, and they are selected to DJ because of that. If your are one of those types and you try to fulfill a request that is outside your comfort zone, it’s going to be very obvious. Further, if someone is requesting something outside the comfort zone of the crowd, you’re just going to make a larger group unhappy, rather than that one person who isn’t going to get what they want.
* Improve your DJ setup. I am *NOT* a fan of iTunes as a DJ platform. I’m unfortunately in a growing minority here. If you must use it, then you need to learn how to preview songs while others are playing. You might remember that one song you are about to play as being great, but if you had a chance to listen to it you might find that it doesn’t transition well, or isn’t even the version you were thinking about. Get yourself a USB external sound device so that you can both listen and play at the same time, and learn how to use both. I’m not sure how you do that using iTunes, since I refuse to use it for anything other than manipulating my iPhone. I use BPM Studio, a full fledged DJ application. Regardless, the important part is being able to listen and play two different songs at the same time.
* Tempos. I’ve found that, as a dancer, the first song I hear and dance to tends to be my baseline for the rest of the night. Therefor if the first song I hear is 130BPM, then everything, for the rest of the night, is either faster or slower than that. It’s for that reason that I started playing a slightly faster song, to build a more realistic baseline, if I was the first DJ of the evening. I personally like to dance to songs in the 180 range as an average, and got annoyed whenever everyone asked me to “play something slower”. Also, realize that the style of your music can actually make the song seem faster or slower than it is. The last time I was at HotJam I asked someone to dance when I played a song in the “Boogie” style. They said “yes, but not this song, it’s too fast”. I refused to let them get away with it since the song was probably around 160bpm, but sounded faster due to the boogie rhythm. I think in the end they understood. I’ve had people ask for something “fast” but what they really meant was “neo-swing”. Again: Know your crowd.
Well, that’s it… Let me know where I’m full of crap, or where you think you can help me (and others) improve.