The Lost Art Of The DJ
DJ Relentless on being a DJ: "The relationship between a DJ and his dancefloor is like a conversation."
Almost every week I end up bitching about what a DJ has to go through while working.
There are all kinds of disc jockeys in the world. You have the Mobile DJ that handles weddings and bar mitzvahs. And then there’s the Radio DJ who is probably controlled by a set playlist. And then there is the type of DJ I consider myself to be....a Club DJ.
All DJ jobs are very difficult. You are attempting to please a room full of people with what you play. You have to make decisions on where to go with the music. Do you take the request for the song that is 15 to 20 BPM’s slower than where you are or do you continue with what has people on your floor already? What if you are asked to play a genre of music that you don’t know or understand? Or perhaps it’s a genre that you admittedly are opposed to? What are you supposed to do?
Well, the first thing I would like to say is....”The relationship between a DJ and his dancefloor is like a conversation.” You need both sides to have that conversation. You have to listen in order to have the conversation. Unfortunately, I believe that today’s audience is filled with what I call “The ME Generation”. They feel a major sense of entitlement. Each person is only concerned with what they want and no one else. Often the DJ is trying to have the conversation with the floor and these members of The ME Generation come up and try to control the conversation with their request. They think that if they request their song that they will make the DJ change the format and steer the conversation in their direction.
Now...I know some DJ’s who allow this to happen all the time. There are some who actually only play requests. I guess it keeps them from having to think about their playlist. Or maybe they do it to win some imaginary popularity contest. Anyway...these are the DJ’s I call iPods. Whatever they are told to play, they do.
My most common interaction with someone of The ME Generation is usually of two different camps here in Toronto. It’s the Popheads and the Caribean Connection. With the Popheads, they want everything played that they have listened to on the radio and their iPods all day. With the Caribean Connection, they think because I am a person of color that not only should I play Reggae and Soca, but that it is a given that those genres are a part of my playlist.
When I first moved to Toronto, I wrote a blog about why I don’t like to play Reggae. I explained that I had a friend who was Jamaican and was murdered because he was a homosexual. Out of protest of his death and the police not even attempting to find his killer, I decided to remove Reggae from my playlist. I also found that the majority of the most popular Reggae artists recorded what is known as “Murder Music” which has lyrics about killing gay people. In order to remove Reggae from my playlist, I also had to remove Soca. Mainly because if you play Soca then your audience automatically assumes that you are gong to play Reggae.
Now...as a gay man, I just think that the politics behind “Muder Music” won’t allow me to support that genre. With that being said.....have I played Reggae and Soca on my floor since being in Toronto? Well, yes I have. I had to in order to keep my job. Do I own a lot of Reggae and Soca? Absolutely not. I own some really commercial tracks that have crossed over or are remixed with that flavor. But to honestly say that I am a Reggae and Soca DJ I cannot. That would be like asking me to play Salsa and Merenge. I don’t even speak the language. Even though my heritage is of Puerto Rican, African-American and Caucasion I am an American through and through. My background in music actually ranges from R&B, Jazz, 70’s and 80’s Rock, Pop, Dance, House, Bitch Tracks and 80’s Alternative.
When I came out in Tampa, the nightlife scene was so small that you had a huge mix of gay people on one dancefloor. It was nothing to have leather men, twinks and drag queens dancing with each other. In fact, I believe it made for a better community because we all had to share the same dancefloor and watering hole. But nowadays, everything is segregated. And the history of the music and the sense of community is lost. And why shouldn’t it be? With music at your fingertips on your computer or phone, everything is disposable. We are bombarded with too much information. And that would probably explain why the art of mixing and programing your sets as a DJ is no longer required.
There was a time when the DJ made a song a hit. Now, the DJ is just the tool for playing the song. No personality is needed. No real talent is needed. I started Dj-ing in the summer of 1980 with my uncle, Herbert King at WMNF 88.5. It was a Jazz and R&B show. My uncle didn’t mix, but he taught me the importance of programing. “What are you saying with your music?” “Do you believe in the song that you are playing?” “What does this song mean to you?” “Why are you playing this song?” These were questions that he would ask to get me to think about what it really means to connect with your music. It wasn't until I took a trip to Chicago and heard mixing on the radio there that I decided to learn how to manipulate beats per minute to transition from song to song. I saved up for a pair of turntables from Radio Shack and a mixer (which I still have to this day....they don't make 'em like that anymore) and practiced in my bedroom everyday after school.
So, when I am asked to play a genre of music that does not respresent me or has nothing to do with my musical background it is like asking me to have a conversation about a subject that I don’t know. I will only look stupid if I attempt it. So, I choose not to have that conversation. If I know a liitle about that subject, I will say what I know (as in I will play what I have), but I won’t go any further than that. But when customers start demanding a genre, it makes me not want to play it at all. Let me surprise you with what I do know. You might actually learn something about mixing and programing if you listen.
Some of the best conversations I have had with my floor have been when I watched the room and figured out what it is needed to keep it going. A request is a great way to let the DJ know what you are feeling, but when it turns into 5 and 6 requests it seems like you do not respect your DJ or trust his judgement. It becomes a one-sided conversation and that never works.
And I bet that the audience doesn’t realize that their presence on the floor is a vote on where the music is going to go. I believe that everyone should get served on my floor. That’s why I change the conversation every 20 minutes. I want it to remain interesting, especially if the format for the room is an open one. Remember, the DJ is not only playing for you. He has a entire room to worry about. And patience is a virtue. Leaving the floor because your song wasn’t next just says that you were not really serious about your request. And unless the theme of the event is a strict format of one genre, I am sure the DJ will get to your request as soon as he can. Provided that your request isn’t what we like to call a “Floor Killer”. Tracks like “The Macarena” or Kiddy Pop artists can kill your floor in an adult setting. When you have the trust of your audience, you are more likely to get away with anything you feel like playing. But until then, you really have to consider what that request is going to do to your floor.
I guess the thing that strikes me funny and odd is that in New York City's top clubs where you spend almost $25 to $50 just to get in, you are not allowed to even get to the DJ. It is a given that you came to hear the musical journey that he has planned for you. And the measure of a good DJ is how his floor is doing. If he has a packed floor, then obviously he knows what he is doing. So, to come to Toronto and find that bar owners and promoters bend to customer requests seems ridiculous at times. How is the DJ supposed to show you their skills if they are bombarded with requests all evening? A good DJ can read his floor and make the decision to go in another direction with the music if needed. Which goes back to my change of conversation every 20 minutes. The rooms I have played for here in Toronto have been very open in formats. It would be different if it was a theme to the room that I was playing for. then I could concentrate on a specific genre and style.
So, a balance had to be made. I came up with a system of a request sheet. It allows the audience to communicate with the DJ without disturbing him while he is trying to mix or find his next track. Unfortunately, most of the people have been drinking and do not grasp the concept of writing it down and leaving it at that. They want to write it down and then ask you for the song verbally while trying to hand you the request sheet to make sure you see what they wrote. Or they think by writing their request really big that it will make you play their song quicker. It can be very frustrating when people are not polite enough to leave room and spaces for others to make their requests. The ME Generation just doesn't care.
So, I hope by writing this blog I have given you a different perspective about what requests are and what they mean in the big scheme of the night. Don’t forget that the DJ has a job to do that is more than just pressing “play”.