ASK THE DJ: Becoming a Circuit DJ

Dear DJ Ron,

I am a DJ in a medium-sized city and have a great local following. The club I spin at brings in guest DJs from time to time, and I often wonder how they get on the circuit. Recently, the club brought in a circuit dj and the whole time I thought to myself, I can mix a lot better than he can. What am I doing wrong?

Ready to break out

Dear RTBO,

Sorry for the delay in responding to your inquiry; I had never had the honor of hearing this circuit dj spin live before, so I wanted to wait until I had the pleasure before I responded.

Let’s start with an analogy. To have a hit record, you need a well-written song with a memorable hook, great production, a solid vocal performance, and good promotion. If you’ve got 3 of the 4 covered, the record has a great shot at being a hit. Granted there are the occasional records that make it with none of these (remember Cassie’s “Me and You”?), but this is a good starting point.

To be a successful DJ on a national level, some things to strive for are excellent programming (playing to the crowd), solid technical skills, a unique style/look, original production/remixes, and great promotion. Watching this circuit dj spin at Play Dance Bar in Nashville made me realize that I was witnessing a white elephant (or a Cassie record).

While I could spend many paragraphs (and pages) critiquing the tragedies of that set and performance, I will just focus on a few things that you can learn from the experience.

1. Open format DJing is a big trend in Las Vegas and Los Angeles — and when executed well, it’s a beautiful thing. The natural evolution of the mash-up culture and a reaction to the overly specific genres of dance music, open format DJs play what seems like random songs of different genres and blend them together in a cohesive way. Rather than take the crowd on a journey with BPM and key changes, the genre changes act as the storyline. Throwing loops of Robin S’s “Show Me
Love” randomly behind radio edits of top 40 pop hits doesn’t fit this bill.

2. Laptop DJs have to work twice as hard to prove themselves. Although superstars like Paul van Dyk, BT, and Sasha have given laptop spinning credibility, if you are going to use a laptop instead of CDs or vinyl, you have to use a controller or some piece of gear that makes it look like you are doing something. I’ve said it so much that it’s become a cliche of mine — but it’s boring to watch a DJ check their email for two hours.

3. The term microwave DJ has become part of a lexicon describing someone who jumped into DJing relying on software to do the mixing for them. When you hear a “microwave DJ,” you will notice that they don’t yet understand song structure, intros and outros, not to play vocals over vocals, etc. To use Traktor DJ software and still not be able to beatmix and blend, now that takes a special talent. Listening to a DJ, the occasional miss or off-count measure might be excusable,
but when 8 out of 10 segues are noticeable to the crowd, you really shouldn’t be traveling as a DJ.

4. This might be just a personal preference but if you are a white DJ spinning, use the version of the song which doesn’t drop the N-word. They are really are easy to find.

5. In the dance world (as well as the pop world), there have been successful performers who got their start because they were already a celebrity (Paris Hilton) or absolutely gorgeous/model-looking (have you noticed that circuit party rosters are often filled with buff, shirtless musclemen) rather than skills, talent, or experience. So if you are drop-dead beautiful or a celebrity, you can ignore the previous rules.

Keep that in mind as you spin to your appreciative crowd that supports you each week. You probably aren’t doing anything wrong. In this world where everyone with two iPods can call themselves a DJ, it’s harder for real talent to rise to the top.