Here Come The Bad Boys: Why Great DJs Take Risks
Taking risks is scary. You could mess up a transition. The crowd might not get it. Someone in your DJ live stream trolls you for a song choice. For these reasons, many DJs avoid risk taking and gravitate towards playing it safe: mixing tracks from start to finish when they feel and can see that they should mix out to the next tune already, just to avoid potential “sonic clashes”. Or maybe it’s mixing just the top 20 songs in a chart so they won’t stick out like a sore thumb in a DJ line-up because their sound’s “too different”. Or maybe it’s trying hard not to play tunes that you absolutely love because you’re afraid the dancefloor and other DJs will laugh at you.
But this is exactly what a great DJ is supposed to do. Great DJs push both their and their audience’s boundaries. For me, there is no greater feeling than seeing someone’s face light up when they hear a song they thought they wouldn’t like, and then suddenly they get into it. I live for those moments when I DJ because by doing this, I’m not simply playing music: I’m opening them up to possibilities.
Think of a completely pre-programmed DJ set with lights and visuals 100% synced to the music. It’s cool the first time around, but there isn’t much room for experimentation in a perfectly planned set, and while it had its time in the sun during the EDM-era, people have become tired of it. That’s because experiences like these leave little room for improvisation, the unknown, and danger.
And people want danger – it’s why people flock to a forest clearing to dance with strangers. It’s why hundreds of people stand in long club queues just so they could enter a dimly light room to dance to dark, pumping techno.
Danger is sexy.
Let’s not forget that back when DJing was a strictly vinyl affair, every tune you bring in had a big chance of messing up your mix: the needle could skip when the bass comes in, a faulty pitch fader could ruin your beatmix, and just plain old human error could result in a trainwreck. And yet people danced, and DJ culture progressed.
Here are four tips to introduce danger in your sets:
1. Throw curveballs by playing songs you otherwise wouldn’t
You’re known for playing a certain style of music – maybe you’re a tech house DJ known for playing deep cuts, or you’re a top 40 / club party-rocking DJ known for non-stop crowd pleasers. Flip the switch by playing a track that you normally wouldn’t: a driving techno banger perhaps, or maybe a deep cut from a top 40 artist’s album that otherwise wouldn’t be heard on the dancefloor.
I call this “changing the colour temperature of the room” and it’s a great way to refocus your audience and call their attention. It’s not just about surprising your audience though: the whole art to it is injecting that tune into your set in an aurally pleasing, technically proficient, or even a cheeky way. Whatever it is, the purpose here is to disrupt the dancefloor with your “risky” song selection.
2. Get on the mic!
So many DJs are afraid of the microphone, and with good reason: what if you suddenly get a mental gap and forget what you were going to say? What if you say something and no one responds to you? What if you shout out to the room and say a different city name? All of these have happened to me (the last one was particularly painful!) but I still get on the mic. Why? Because that’s how people know I’m willing to “put myself out there”.
Messing up a spiel can be downright embarrassing, but I’ll take that risk. I’m no MC, and that’s what people actually like about it – it lends an air of playfulness to the entire evening. Of course, you wouldn’t want to do this if the club strictly prohibits you from using the microphone. Otherwise, go for it! You’re staring right at the face of a fear that haunts a huge chunk of club DJs and sticking your tongue out.
3. Explore other styles of mixing apart from smooth blends
Smoothly blending one track to another is well and good, but if all you’re doing in a set is mixing the intro of one track into the outro of another, that can get stale pretty quick, especially if you’re doing a longer set. Every once in a while I find myself doing this if I’m nervous and don’t want to mess things up (yes, been DJing for almost two decades now and I still get nervous) but again it gets old fast, and your dancefloor can smell if you aren’t feeling confident behind the desk. Check out our Mixing Power Skills course for some great ideas.
4. “Break” a song by using looping tricks, a sampler / sequencer and scratching
Finally, one of the riskiest things you can do today during a DJ set is to introduce live remixing or production elements while you’re spinning. That can mean doing something like using the third and fourth decks of your DJ controller / CDJ set-up by looping a section of a song and layering it on top of a blend that’s already occurring between two decks (check out this performance by Danny Avila), using a spare CDJ to trigger samples or even adding in a sampler or sequencer like the Toraiz SP-16 / DJS-1000 or the Roland DJ-808. Scratching and cue juggling are also awesome ways of adding a “live” feel to your sets and makes you even more singular as a performer.
All of these can be quite challenging and tricky to do in live situations, and that’s why it’s such a treat to see DJs do this during their sets – it may not be perfect, but it can make a crowd go wild if done properly – just ask Roger Sanchez who regularly does all these things with stunning precision.
There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe especially if you’re just starting out, but you also need to have courage in order to break past your own boundaries to fully realise what you are capable of as a DJ. Being fearless isn’t about not feeling fear: it’s being comfortable facing fear. It’s about being comfortable with what makes a lot of other DJs uncomfortable.
Of course, this type of performance “frontier foraging” isn’t an excuse to commit sloppy errors – people can tell if you’re just executing poorly – but if you put the work in and you are brave enough to add elements of danger in your set, you may just find that the rewards will be absolutely worth all the trouble: DJ/producers like KiNK, Bass Kleph and James Zabiela have forged entire careers on being forward-thinking, risk-driven live performance daredevils who find themselves in an uncrowded space that isn’t likely to be overpopulated any time soon, if at all.
Robots and AI are already quite adept at executing perfectly matched mixes complete with timed visuals, so increasingly it’s no longer enough to “wow” an audience with your spot-on beatmixing and long blends. But where AI still has some catching up to do is in the realm of being creative – in this case, creating moments of risk through an obscure or even a cheesy song selection at the right time in a party. Or cutting a track out just before the drop to tease a crowd that’s on the brink of going all out, kind of like how you’re “edging” your partner during sex.
The reason why humans are so good at this (and why AI isn’t yet) is because these are all distinctly human traits: imperfection, randomness, experimentation. Perhaps AI and robotics may become so advanced that they may one day mimic every aspect of humanity, but for now, it’s for these “negative” characteristics that being a real, breathing human DJ appeals to other humans during a set.
Imperfection is the glue that holds us all together in an imperfect world. To borrow a Silicon Valley maxim: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”