No DJ Just Pushes Buttons, Right?

“Today, the term includes all forms of music playback, no matter the medium.” That’s the definition of ‘DJ’ according to Wikipedia.

I’ve been DJing properly since 1999 and I’ve had three long term residencies and played quite a few private function gigs as well as having three stints on a community radio station.

I find the whole psychological world attached to being a DJ fascinating. Based on one of the boldest statements ever fired at me during my years of Live DJing, ‘You’re not really a DJ, you’re just pushing buttons’ let me show you what goes on before you ‘just push buttons.’

During my 2 years at now defunct ‘Xtra’ in Kettering, I used CDJ decks, starting with some basic Stantons before rocking out with Pioneers.

I’d used vinyl in my youth and it’s not practical for me. Being up to date with vinyl adds weight to your luggage. I was already onto my 5th CD case where my ‘record’ collection was thousands, neatly zipped up in bulging wallets.

I enjoyed a good run, breaking records for bar takings, forcing surrounding pubs to rethink their strategies and all because, I played stuff to the majority whilst trying to throw curve balls every so often. ‘Xtra’ suffered when I left, I know this because when I went back to do a one off, I contributed to making bar takings considerably higher than they had been and the DJ who was told to take a holiday the weekend I went back was told to make that holiday permanent afterwards (sorry, dude).

Despite all this, I still drew the attention of ‘haters.’

A lot of this stemmed from my equipment. Their reckoning of only being a DJ if you’re playing vinyl is like saying you’re not a real driver if your car is automatic.

Vinyl and CDs play the same record. Where a vinyl DJ reads grooves the CDJ will use the digital countdown timer. Good vinyl and CDJs will know a songs structure, as, in the case of Dance music, it’s pretty much the same:

· 2 minute build up (allowing you to mix the last 2 minutes out of the previous track)

· 3 to 4 minutes of main track (this is the bit of the track your crowd has heard of)

· 2 minutes ‘outro’ where strains of the main track can be clung on to whilst the first 2 minutes of the next track respectfully takes the baton in perfect unison with its predecessor.

What I’ve described there is skeletal structure of a 7 minute track. Next time you see a ‘12”’ or ‘Extended Club Mix’ version of a song… they’re all, on average, about 7 minutes long.

The main upper-hand a CDJ had over vinyl was mixing the radio edits of these dance tunes. Which gives you 2-3 minutes of track in total to top and tail in a set, because as we all know, Dance music is repetitive and on radio, you can only really bear 2 minutes of what is essentially, looped music.
Loading a CD which cues straight to the first sound, in a DJ scenario, is infinitely faster than putting a record on the turntable, grabbing the needle, placing it on the vinyl and listening for the first sound.

These dance mini-sets would require my full concentration as getting everything cued up and ready to mix for at least a minute was precision stuff and often I wasn’t afforded the comfort of a 2 minute mixing intro, I had to live loop a few bars of the next track, which meant, not only did I have to beat match (guessing before the introduction of BPM (Beats Per Minute) monitors) I’d have to execute a loop which, if was too short or too long by a fraction, would throw your next mix.

In short, I’d have to work very hard to be able to just press play and let my record run, bringing it’s volume up to challenge the track already playing and giving my crowd a seamless mix.

If you’re a DJ and you’ve moved with the times on how to play music to your masses, you’re still a DJ.

The other great thing about being a resident DJ is the amount of other DJs you meet, who will introduce themselves as DJs. Most of these DJs are out of work or at least, used to have your residency.

Then there’s the wannabe DJs and I’ll admit, I admire hunger and I gave at least 3 some sets when I was resident at Xtra. Most claim to be better than you, I’ve found that they realise they are not, especially if they truly appreciate that they are not the ones with the residency but are the ones running around looking to gatecrash working DJ’s sets.

I’ve always been astonished at being asked ‘Can I have a go?’ Sure, it’s only my job, here, take over…

A young aspiring DJ kept bugging me so much during one of my sets that I had 30 seconds to select and mix my next track, which I did, effortlessly whilst still talking to him. He stepped back and finally admitted…’I have a lot to learn.’

He’s now a resident in the same area and I’m happy that I was one person that encouraged his hunger by chucking him the odd gig where I could. That’s exactly how I got my breaks, I told everyone I was a DJ.

A nice touch to this story is that he invited me to play a couple of his sets at his residency in the summer of 2016. I was rusty and he was nervous about DJing with me. We both played good though and his dedication to the craft was audibly clear.

The morning after, I suddenly remembered I was a lot older and that I was virtually rigid with fatigue from my late night out as a DJ.

I always had some kind of ‘real’ DJ in my ear, telling me I should be doing this, I should be doing that and what if ‘someone important comes in and hears you’re playing music people want to hear.’ I always thought, ‘I wouldn’t swap my mere headlining bar residency to appear at the bottom of a line up on a flyer for a gig in Ibiza.’

When DMC DJ Champion and Kettering’s own, DJ Skully came in, marching up to my booth, shaking my hand and saying ‘I’m DJ Skully.’ The only real thing he said to me afterwards was ‘keep doing what you’re doing, it’s great.’ I had great respect for his humbleness, I had by coincidence, heard a snippet of Jay-Z freestyling and name checking Skully on a recording. You don’t get much bigger endorsements than that, I thought.
Skully appreciated that whilst I wasn’t playing ‘wedding disco music’ and I did lean heavier on the side of Radio 1/MTV heavy rotation tracks with an appreciation of club classics in whatever genre I was very aware of my surroundings. I’d frequently play extended Hip-Hop sets on a Friday to go with the laid back, people sitting around nodding heads in time to the music crowds. On Thursdays I’d trial out new stuff or ‘risk takers’ to gauge reactions. On Saturday nights, the main night for bar takings, I’d play a standard ‘safe set’ sprinkled with new songs that gauged the best reactions on a Thursday, an old school dance set and some Hip-Hop/RnB classics.

After midnight, if I’d have a successful night, I’d revert back to my early career music policy of just playing some cool-ass tracks, maybe some break beats, some underground hip-hop, some jazz/funk infused stuff. I’d earned the right to by that time of night. Sometimes I’d play a load of 70s stuff, I’d already done the hard part for hours previously, why not let my pretend Afro down?

Those Thursdays proved crucial as not everyone in my crowd was as ‘ear to the ground’ for new music as me. I could at any time, name five songs being released in the next week (identifying the one that would be most popular) and could pretty much recite the Top 20 main charts positions every week as well as having the ability to flush the ‘slightly left of field’ track into my sets.

Having gained a copy on a Saturday morning, I played a song that Radio 1’s Zane Lowe had been championing, on a Saturday night, neglecting my ‘Try it out on Thursday first’ approach to three night a week resident DJing. It cleared my dance floor. I was sure it was going to be a hit.

A week later, it was the most requested song I’d ever had at the time and people were asking me if I had that new Gnarls Barkley song, ‘Crazy.’

‘Yes, I’ve got it’ even though you all treated me like a leper when I played it last week.

Over the course of a night, I’d often have to play a song 3 times, 4 times depending on the song.


Some bar staff would make digs at me, claiming I ‘just repeated myself’ all night. That’s nearly true. If you’re working a bar shift which is the length of the DJs shift, you’re going to hear the whole set, get familiar with rituals, ‘go to’ tracks and the dreaded ‘most popular track right now.’
These were the same bar staff, where on their break, requested the same song, without fail, for about a year, with no sense of irony.

Over the course of that shift, the crowd will change a minimum, four or five times, especially if you’re part of the ‘on the way to the club’ circuit. It means that once an hour, someone will ask you to play a song which you’ve already played, because they weren’t there in the last hour. It also suggested the crowd personnel had changed.

It was up to me to judge when it was safe to repeat a track. I called them A List tracks. Heard that terminology before? Radio playlists use the same structure to decide the rotation or amount of times a track is played in a day for each track.

Ever listened to the radio and wonder why you’ve heard certain songs all day through the day. It’s because you listened all day! Had you have just listened to Breakfast and Drive-time; you probably wouldn’t have noticed it as much.

Have you ever… Listened… To your favourite song… More than once… In an hour..?

Quit moaning then.

Requests and DJs is an essay all by itself, it provides one of my buddies on Facebook with reams of material for his post updates, I’ll leave the intricate stories to him.
I’ve never really understood the wild reaction of saying ‘That was… playing that for… Happy Birthday!’ I’m guessing it allies you with the centre of attention in the room.

During the Justin Timberlake ‘Sexy Back’ release, I’d literally get asked to play it every 15 minutes, making it impossible to at most play it once an hour. I had a group of girls threaten to walk out if I didn’t play it. I counted 13 of them, subtracted it from the number of people in my full bar in my head and waved them goodbye.

After being hassled to play ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child (a song which I’m not enamoured with) I said, ‘I’ll play it just not yet as I’ve just played it.’ The requester, before storming off, threatened to go everywhere and tell everyone that I’m a s**t DJ.

Are requests that important to people? What does it say about you, if, you walk into a crowded bar or club and demand to be entertained personally and if your request for ‘Mama’ by The Spice Girls, ‘Stan’ by Eminem or ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ isn’t played because it’ll throw the whole momentum of the whole building if played you throw a child like strop?

Why do guys insist on telling you to ‘out’ one of their mates on the microphone as it will entertain one percent of your crowd who don’t realise that their in-joke of trying to embarrass one of their pack by wrongly identifying his sexuality to mock him is potentially offensive?
I had one guy ask me to profess his true love to his ex-girlfriend with deep words of true emotion…but not until after he’d left the building. I said I would but I didn’t.

If you’re using me as a romantic gesture, it’s probably best you stay single.

You see, all of this is going on, before you get the luxury of just ‘pushing buttons.’

The idea of being that aloof DJ, playing songs that no one has ever really heard, not using your microphone, having vinyl with white labels on to prove your exclusivity whilst you’re fuelling (in most cases) drugged up, ravers in outrageous bright clothes has never really appealed to me. With a drunk crowd there’s still that intimacy of ‘I’m entertaining you and I’m one of you’ as opposed to ‘I’m really just entertaining myself by playing only stuff that I like, I’m more important than you so dance for me and wave your hands in the air, bitches.’

Nowadays, I’m in semi-retirement, I like to put my hand into a live DJ experience at least once a year but that’s about it. I had the esteem of playing at Boom Bap Festival after a three year sabattical which reminded me why I don’t enjoy DJing live so much because three weeks beforehand, I had to switch on all the little gizmos and gadgets in my head that focuses me to do one performance.

I’m quite happy recording and editing my DJ set and putting them online. I edit the things I can’t do live like, chopping out verses, splicing in film snippets (mainly as I hadn’t thought of them at the time) and re-tweaking levels.
I use my iPad and a Numark hardwear plug in to create my DJ console and I use the primary skills and instincts I’ve always used to mix and select to the best of my abilities.

The last two ‘gigs’ I’ve done, I wasn’t even there. I recorded my sets sticking to estimated time landmarks and provided the MP3 recordings to be put onto whatever device to be plugged into the sound system and at a specific time of the night, you press play and you get a whole night’s party or disco without the expense of a live DJ but with the quality and skill of a live DJ; requests are pre-loaded.

Imagine that? Your DJ has already made you’re set, and all you have to do is press play and turn the volume up loud.

In that instance, you’re the one pressing buttons.

I’m the DJ.

Update – October 2016:

And after doing on average a gig a month in 2016, sometimes ever three, I’d say I’m not done with it yet.


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