beginning djing: preparing for the first set


This is the third post I’ve written about beginning DJing. The first one was beginning DJing: how i got into djing. The second was clarifying some early points from that post, ‘ beginning DJing: different DJing contexts’.
This post will talk about how I prepared for my first set.
This is certainly not how everyone else did/does. In fact, I suspect it’s an incredibly anal, overly careful approach to DJing. But then, that’s what I’m like – careful. Ob-con.
I certainly would never say “This is how you should prepare for a first set” to someone. But I do get a bit dictatorial in this post. Please just read it as enthusiasm. I’m fairly sure these are – as I’ve said – really just things that apply to my experience. But you can cherry pick ideas, if you like, and I’ll try to note where I found something especially useful, or something particularly ridiculous.
I want this to be a bit useful. I hope it is. But I also want it to be encouraging. So if you’re timid, perhaps you should just read the short list. :D
How did I prepare for my first set?

  • Dance
  • Dance as much as you can once you’ve started DJing
  • Listen to music. Buy music.
  • Love music
  • Play with the technology
  • Test your music before you play it
  • Buy the electronic stuffz
  • Practice transitions between songs, tempos and musical styles
  • Watch other people DJ
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Make some contacts

How did I prepare for my first set?

  • Dance.
    I danced for about 8 years before I started DJing. It took me that long to get up the guts. I was kind of thinking I could be into it for about a year or so before I took the plunge. But before that, I was just dancing. And dancing. And dancing. I got into dancing because I loved the music. I stayed with it because I loved the dancing. I also sampled a whole range of styles (of lindy hop, and of other jazz dances – from charleston to bal, blackbottom, shag, blues and into all manner of solo things) and began to understand how different music worked in different ways with different dances. And vice versa. I think this is what drove me to DJing, eventually.
    I did a lot of classes. I still do. I did a lot of workshops with visiting people. I traveled to dance.
    Dancing is where DJing should begin, middle and end. If I’ve stopped dancing, I should stop DJing. My DJing goes down hill when I stop dancing. Dance. Dance. Dance.
    I’m almost tempted to say I think you should “dance for a few years before you start DJing,” but I’m not sure that’s good advice. Sometimes DJing can kickstart a new dancing obsession or fuel your dancing love. For me, it has to be dancing first.
    Dancing teaches you how music works. Dancing teaches you what music works for dancing. The more you dance, the more you’ll learn. The longer you’ve been dancing, the better idea you’ll have about what will work for dancers and dancing. The longer you’ve been around, the more likely you’ll be to have seen passing trends – you’ll remember a neo or a groove or a novelty or a lindy hop hop phase. You’ll have seen someone try that Richard Cheese song and see it crash-and-burn, but also make people laugh/cringe/gasp.
    Not all experienced or very good dancers are good DJs (many very good dancers are totally horrid DJs). But observant dancers can make for very good DJs. Some experienced dancers are very set in their ways and have very particular ideas about what makes for ‘good dancing music.’ Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it can be an obstacle, preventing their learning and responding to what other people (ie not them) are doing on the floor. A non-dancer is never a top-notch DJ for dancers.
  • Dance as much as you can once you’ve started DJing
    I just have to add this here: dancing is the best thing you can do for your DJing. Maybe not when you’re actually DJing, but the rest of the time, yeah.
  • Listen to music. Buy music.
    The more you listen to music, the more you’ll understand the structure of swinging jazz, and the better you’ll understand what works for dancers. You’ll also figure out things like when the last chorus starts (and how it sounds), which is very useful when you’re DJing and haven’t found a follow-up song yet.
    I started buying music fairly hardcore quite a while before I started DJing. Mostly because I was addicted. I did look at pirated sources at first. I think that that can be a good entryway for new DJs. Even if ‘pirated’ just means borrowing your friend’s CD and putting it in your computer. But I found within a few months that this just wasn’t going to do it for me. I was very lucky: the Australian dollar was kicking it against the American dollar at just that moment. So I switched to buying music online. CDs. I used SwingDJs as a key source, and then bought almost exclusively through amazon until I discovered caiman.com And then I found sources like cdbaby.com, then mosaic.
    I think that buying your own music is the best option. For me, it meant that I could follow my own tastes, which weren’t like those of the people around me. I’d squeeze people like Brian for song titles and artists, I’d ravage swingdjs.com for suggestions, but basically, I was following my nose. I think this is a very good thing. It means you only get music you like (hopefully!). It also means you acquire music slowly (because it’s expensive!), so you get to know your music very well as you go. This way you’re also following some sort of natural progression between artists and eras – Ella Fitzgerald can lead you to Count Basie. Basie can lead you to Bennie Moten. And then of course there are all the usual copyright issues. But there are actually more, and very much more convincing arguments for acquiring your music legitimately.
    Listen to what you get. I listened to that stuff all the time. On headphones, but also on the home stereo. That last bit is important – it might sound good at home on your perfect expensive headphones, but will sound shithouse on that shitty nightclub sound system. Now, I find I just can’t keep up with all my music. I have so much I have to listen all the time to keep it all in mind. Let alone getting to know the new stuff. Listen. Listen. Listen.
    I can chart the decline of my hearing to the moment I started thinking I might like DJing.
  • Love music.
    I started DJing because I loved the music. Don’t get into DJing because you think it’s cool or because you want to be really popular. It’s a fairly unappreciated craft, and will drive you nuts. Do it because you love the music.
    Don’t punish yourself with music you hate. There’s no room for martyrs here. But if you don’t love swing from the swing era, swinging big bands, swinging small bands, hot jazz, groovy jazz, jazz, and more jazz, then swing DJing is not for you. If you’re really into soul and funk, then DJ for soul and funk crowds.
  • Play with the technology.
    I think this is a very important and often under emphasised part of beginning DJing. When I first got up there to DJ, I was so nervous I could barely remember my name, let alone how to work a sound application on my laptop. If you practice this stuff at home, you get better at it. The movements become natural, and you can stop thinking about the technology and concentrate on what the technology allows you to do. I think that this is partly why I’ve stuck with itunes: it’s a well designed application that becomes invisible when I’m DJing.
    I practiced ‘DJing’ at home for ages. I plugged my laptop into the stereo and learnt about the cords and connections I’d need. And bought them. I set things up just like I would if I was DJing, and this made me realise that I’d need to think about things like extension cords, where I’d sit (if I’d sit), how the laptop works in relation to the sound system, whether I’d use my laptop’s equalizer or the sound system, and so on.
    I asked a lot of questions during this stage. I asked The Squeeze. I asked my DJing friends. I went into DJing shops and asked questions and was generally really annoying. Learnz: I had it on.
    I also practiced clicking and dragging – the mechanics of DJing within my software. Was itunes useful? I did begin with a windows laptop and winamp, but our household switched to macs very soon after that. So I started playing with itunes. It has a lovely layout and a very useful library. It’s not the best tool for DJing, but it suited me. I soon learnt that I couldn’t preview music with a mac – I needed a second sound card to run a second music application out. This has been a challenge, and I eventually started using usb headphones and then a little cheap external sound card about a year after I started DJing. By then my collection was so big I really _needed_ to preview music.
    Whatever your set up, practice with it before your first set. And practice a lot.
  • Test your music before you play it.
    Dance to it in your lounge room or with your friends. It might sound great on your headphones, but be utterly shit for dancing.
  • Buy the stuffz.
    I bought the cables I’d need to DJ. Brian drummed that into me. I bought everything I’d need to DJ. I bought RCA cables, I bought adaptors for different mixing desks, I bought extension cables, I bought it all. I was also obsessive about taking my power cord to DJing.
    I’m always very surprised by new DJs who turn up to their first sets without any cords. Mostly because it’s such a simple issue, and if you’ve even pretended to DJ at home, you’ll have figured out that you need some stuffz. If you’ve ever looked at a DJ’s gear while they’ll DJ, you’ll have some questions about stuffz.
    New DJs doing this tells me that they’ve really not planned this at all. That they’ve relied on other people to sort it for them. I’m actually very impatient with this stuff, mostly as I find it’s men who fail to bring the right gear. And I resent playing mother to them. I will only very very rarely lend my gear to other DJs – they will usually forget to return it, it could get broken, it could get lost, it could get borrowed again by a third party. I just don’t do it. I also carry spares of the important stuff.
    If you’re not sure what you need, just ask another DJ. They’ll probably pull out their rig and tell you a long, boring story about soundcards. If you’re too shy, or you’re alone in your scene, get onto swingdjs STAT.
  • Practise transitions
    I’m a super nerd. But I also had an agenda. My scene was heavy on the groove, neo and hifi. I wanted to play Lionel Hampton, early Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder. I was also into newer bands and some groovier, hifi stuff, but I wanted to play both. I wanted to play favourites, but I also wanted to play stuff I loved. So I needed a plan. A way to get them all together in one set. I’d also been reading about this stuff on SwingDJs (I think), and talking about it with people. I’d also heard other DJs do nasty, nasty transitions from supergroove to scratch and back again. And it was nasty for me as a dancer. I wanted to rock.
    So I practiced. I sat and put together pretend playlists, where I’d work from one style to another and back again. But I did it ‘live’ and in ‘real time’, so I could practice working under pressure. I had til the end of the song playing to get the next one ready to go. I also listened my way through the songs, pretending I was dancing, and trying to feel the way the song would make me feel on the dance floor. I also thought about combining tempos and working a ‘wave’. I’d think about the different instruments and different routes between songs and styles. A piano at the end of this song here could link me to the intro of that song there. A big, shouting Kansas man could link me to a big, shouting Kansas man there.
    This stuff took a lot of practice, and it’s something I keep returning to. How do I best work in a new bit of hot Chicago small groups1920s instrumental action? How do I get it in the set so it’s best set up for a crowd who don’t know this stuff? How do I make them love it, despite themselves? And if they hate it, what do I play next to ‘apologise’ or win them back? This is important for me because I have a really bad memory for names and details. I really can’t retain a lot of detail. So I need to practice my skills and then lean on the previewing a bit. Hopefully leaving some brain for watching the floor.
    I talked about these things with other DJs. And I practiced. And I made The Squeeze listen while I practiced.
    This is something I still do. And I find I do a better job when I’m doing this regularly. It’s also a time when I can set aside a list of ‘maybes’ – songs I might play that night. I remember combinations of songs and perhaps pull them out, or use them as a model or a combination I make on the fly.
    Above all, I was preparing for sets where I would stand up there with a blank playlist and just make it up as I went along. Scary arse shit. But I was determined to be a ninja.
  • Watch other people DJ.
    This can mean actually staring over their shoulder (which I did a few times – that was invaluable), but it also means watching the way a DJ watches a floor, the way the floor responds to musical choices, and then the way the DJ figures out solutions to blowups, or capitalises on successes. I think this is where being a dancer helps – you learn how to read other dancers’ bodies and moods. You can tell when they feel excited or flat or tired or angry or disinterested. You can tell when a song stumps them, and they don’t know how to dance to it. You can tell when they really love something or when they really hate it.
    Most of the time learning to see this stuff also means being able to stand aside and not actually get caught up in it. You might be on the dance floor having a ball, but that feeling might mask other people around you and how they feel. To a certain extent, DJing requires being able to stand outside a little to observe the room. You’ve still got to be able to feel it, but you can’t confuse your own feelings with what’s happening in the rest of the room. That can be tricky. It’s very tiring to be at once feeling all that excitement and also ‘working’, manipulating what you see and feel.
    I think that learning this stuff takes ages. It took me a long time. And I still have trouble – I really struggle if I can’t see the dance floor properly. But just watching how a good DJ really works a floor is a good start. And exchanges – which bring experienced DJs to your town – can be a really good place for this. If you can bear to stop dancing.
  • Ask lots of questions.
    Be brave enough to stalk other DJs. Stalk them online, in person, and … wait. Don’t stalk them. But do ask them lots of questions and be brave enough to show how interested you are. It’s ok to not be cool. It’s ok to be a big old fannish geeky music nerd. Say nice things to the DJ. Ask them: “Who was that band?” “What was that album?” “Where do you get your music?” “When did you start DJing?” “How did you get into DJing?” Ask them lots and lots of questions.
    Try not to do it while they’re actually DJing, even though they’re a particularly, temptingly stable target, trapped at the mixing desk. But they mightn’t be able to give you their full attention, and mightn’t want to. I can’t really talk and DJ well, so I much prefer to be talked to after sets. Or before. In fact, if you want to chat to me, please do it after or before a set. I can’t talk properly and DJ properly at the same time.
    But be brave. Most DJs want to nerd it up. Some are arsehats, but then some dancers are arsehats. That’s cool. But most want to talk. I’ve found that the DJs who do the best job with the floor, who have the best networks of contacts, are also quite empathic, observant, approachable people. Not exclusively so, but often.
    Be prepared to get evasive answers about a DJ’s latest ‘gem.’ A winner song can be currency in a competitive DJ scene, so they mightn’t want to spill all the details. But that doesn’t mean you can’t figure it out yourself – learn about musical styles and you’ll be part way there.
  • Make some contacts.
    This was important for me dealing with a dance school who ran all the major social dancing nights, but where I wasn’t a teacher or student. I really had to start finding out who ran what, how DJ sets were allocated and so on. I also had to actually ask DJs about stuff. This wasn’t too hard because most of them were my friends. But I had to actually _do_ some asking. And hassling.
    Networking happens naturally when you start hassling DJs and asking questions. It’s also a very good reason to know when to back off and when not to hassle someone. Or to know who you should avoid (because you clash). Or it can be a good motivation for just getting over it and becoming a sociable person with some basic social skills to get you through professional situations.
    I’m still surprised by the number of DJs I see do stupid things which will fuck up their networks for future gig opportunities. You might feel justified in snubbing that person, badmouthing their buddy at a party or knocking back their Squeeze on the dance floor, but someone will have noticed. And then you will find it difficult to get gigs.
    Really, it seems insane to have to say this so clearly – surely people just know how to be in groups? How to get along with other people? But dancers can be particularly socially challenged, and this stuff just keeps happening.
    Showing an interest in DJing – to other DJs and to event organisers – is a good thing. DJs with half a brain will figure out your questions about cables or songs are the beginning of an interest in DJing. And they’ll mention you to event organisers. Maybe. If they do have that half brain.
    It’s also useful to get to know event organisers and other DJs to develop a support network (people who’ll give you encouragement, help you out in a pickle, offer advice, give you your first set). This support network should – as with all networks – be natural, not faked. Personally, I see it as just being nice. I like working with nice people and I find being nice to other people makes them nice. It’s a win-win. Fake sociability is scumbaggy. And people will smell it.
    Later on, when you’re getting into DJing in a more hardcore way, it can be useful to develop networks of contacts interstate. Even if that just means finding out who organises the DJs for each event you think you might like to DJ at. I find that I know most of these people anyway, simply because I’ve been dancing in Australia for so long. But I have few contacts in Brisbane, for example, because they don’t come to other events in other states. So I’d need to work on something if I wanted to DJ up there. When I moved to Sydney I also sent out emails to event organisers at local events, letting them know who I was, what I’d done in the past, and that I was keen to DJ. And then I made contact in person when I got there. Sydney was a delight, actually, as I was contacted by locals who just wanted to make friends!
    At any rate, these skills are useful in other parts of your life, and are invaluable in DJing for dancers, where so much of the community is based on a system of exchange and favour rather than conventional economics.
    This stuff might seem scary, but by golly, you’re going to find DJing TERRIFYING if you can’t strike up a conversation with an acquaintance. Best to start practicing now.

Other posts on beginning DJing:

2 thoughts on “beginning djing: preparing for the first set”

  1. This is a great post, and echoes my feelings about getting started as swing DJ. A few thoughts:
    Buying music:
    I was thinking about this the other day when a newbie dancer suggested to me that they should probably start listening to swing music (YES YOU SHOULD) and that it would probably help their dancing (UM, YES) and they wished they brought their external hard disk with them so they could copy my music collection (ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS!?). I was thinking about why this was a bad idea, and aside from a) It being illegal, and b) The years and $s I’ve spent collecting and organising this stuff just to give it away.. c) I actually think it’s REALLY important that you get to know your collection gradually, and make the kind of connections and discoveries yourself. For me a big part of the thrill of DJing happens not at the venue but at home where I’m exploring new artists and new tracks and really listening and thinking about how they might perform at a dance. I think DJs cheat themselves out of an enjoyable part of the process by being given massive collections. I’ve said this before but I’d much rather burn a CD or 2 for them and give them some great starting points for their own journeys. It would also mean that the DJs in a scene are not so homogenised .
    Newbie DJs:
    Big posts about getting started swing DJing might sem intimidating, but I’ve found there are big plusses to being a newbie DJ. I’ve noticed that they are more likely to take risks, either with tempos or genres or artists… and sometimes this can make their sets unexpectedly great. We recently had a newbie DJ play a killer set just because she wasn’t afraid to play old fast scratchies that she loved and the dancers responded favourably. The flipside of course is that there’s an equal chance of bombing out bacause the song you thought was awesome was either not that awesome of just played at the wrong moment. But I think experience tends to edge us towards the safer choices, and this is not always a god thing for growth. Consequently, I’ve been inspired to take more risks lately and I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

  2. I’d like to echo the point about buying/collecting your own music. Personally, I still really enjoy buying actual cd’s for the packaging and tracklists etc, but, as you’ve both said, it greatly helps the journey!

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