Article – What Are DJs?

Hang The DJ

(originally published 1/7/03 in Inform Magazine)

In the film 24 Hour Party People, there is a scene where Steve Coogan-as-Tony Wilson celebrates the newfound success of the Haçienda by pointing out how the crowd are applauding the DJs, a genuine novelty to him as it was to a lot of people at the time. It’s no longer a novelty, because it mysteriously hasn’t gone away.

The rise of the DJs was, and remains, one of those phenomena that in turns inspires complete bafflement and a sneaking regard for the punkish nonsense of it all. After all, what is a DJ but someone who puts records on a turntable and takes them off again? Yet they are often fêted throughout the land, can seem to earn a humungous amount of money – through remixes, ‘making’ records and personal appearances – whilst simultaneously getting completely out of their heads. Nice work if you can get it.

By a strange set of circumstances it’s work I do as well, although not quite on the same level as your Erick Morillos or Armand Van Heldens. Instead your correspondent plays for a couple of hours every week at a club in front of people who seem quite happy to dance along and pay for the privilege. Okay, I’m 32 so I’m hardly at the cutting edge of youth culture, but it turns out most professional DJs are as old as the Housemartins – why do you think they’ve all got gritty tans and curiously taut skins? That’s the thing; this is a world where artists, writers and those who struggle to create original works are often supplanted by guys who do relatively little and earn huge critical and financial rewards. So let’s do some demystifying.

For a start, DJing is easy. I mean really easy. You just won’t believe how easy it is. I mean, you may think it’s easy to collect a prescription but that’s just peanuts compared to DJing, listen… and so on. At first I thought I was a particularly quick learner and was all ready to smugly celebrate my own genius and maybe master the French language before breakfast, but since then I’ve had to show a couple of people how to DJ as well and they all learnt it quicker than I did. And these are the sort of people who are members of local rock bands so they’re hardly the brightest. So next time you see a DJ looking superior about their craft just point and laugh, as if at a Jehovah’s Witness. Or else just smirk at the grammatic incompetence of putting an apostrophe in “DJ’s”.

The amount of money the name DJs pick up for this amount of work may look absurd, but it’s simple to compare them with, say, Manchester United. If 50,000 people a week are willing to pay up to £25 or more to see them, then it’s only fair they should get a fair portion of that wodge. It’s like castigating the good people at Pot Noodle just because people seem to like their rubbery goop.

It’s as if most DJs feel guilty about how easy it all is, which is why they try to make it as complicated as possible. For example, much is made of ‘keeping the beat going’ by cleverly mixing records together and matching their beats. The sort of Happy House rubbish you get in, say, the 051 is all resolutely the exact same speed so it would be harder to mismatch the beats than to match them. Besides, the people who regularly enjoy this sort of music are way too busy checking out members of the opposite sex in a way that tends to drain their brains of much-needed blood.

The better sort of dance music, which tends to actually vary the beats once in a while, is a lot trickier to mix, but there are easy get-out clauses available – to whit the beats tend to stop every now and then. Think Born Slippy. Think Setting Sun. If you can’t take advantage of what the record is offering you, then you truly are overcomplicating things. Besides, to perfectly match every beat one after the other creates a wonderful sense of monotony. Although some people tend to dance to car alarms (I’ve seen it myself, in one particularly busy queue outside Voodoo) you may not be making a particularly memorable night. Especially as the majority of people probably won’t be on Category B drugs and just want to hear some damn fine music. Not what might as well be the same music over and over again.

In my admittedly short experience, I’ve discovered that the best way to endear yourself to a dancefloor is go the complete opposite direction. Mismatch every beat and make sure the record following the one you’re playing is completely different; keep ’em guessing but ensure records played are ‘any bloody good’. This can include something by the Rolling Stones, something by Michael Jackson or something by Hot Hot Heat. Accept that there is no skill whatsoever, other than an ability to avoid mistakes.

Ah, mistakes. Yep, over time I’ve committed every single one of them. Forgetting which deck is playing and pressing stop. Cueing up a record and forgetting to close the fader so everyone gets a cacophonous burst of two records at the same time. Playing that resolutely undanceable b-side because the inconsiderate sleeve designer is too cool to actually tell you which side is which. Hitting the CD eject button instead of the ‘time remaining’ button.

(Yes I cheat and use the odd CD – it’s necessary otherwise I’d need the physique of the Hulk, and his temperament, to cart around all the records I need).

There is one sound I’ve learned to dread in my time DJing, and that’s the Simon and Garfunkel patented Sound of Silence. Except it’s not silence. It’s the sound of the entire dancefloor cheering ironically and hilariously whooping at your incompetence, whilst you desperately try to put on something – anything – and end up cursing the inconsiderately cool sleeve designer again.

And there’s also the curse of the lousy record. It’s a crime that relatively green DJs are adept at committing but it still has a tendency to strike no matter how good you think you are. It’s that feeling of self-confidence you get when the place is rocking to Da Funk by Daft Punk and you decide to indulge yourself with a record you may love but which remains untried on a heavily partying crowd. Say, to pluck out a record not entirely at random, Isobel by Björk. Hey it’s got a nice dancey beat, and you can’t help but love those sweeping strings. Why it was even released as a single and achieved, well, a not too high chart position admittedly. But who could possibly not be charmed by everyone’s favourite weirdo Icelandic puffin-eater? Let’s cheerfully ignore the fact you’re playing one modern off-kilter dance tune after another one; one that is particularly long as well and might be causing jaded legs.

The damn record didn’t just clear the dance floor, it cleared the club. Glass collectors were trampled as people gathered coats and suddenly decided a vomit-odoured taxi was the hip place to be right about now. Similar things have happened with better records than that one as well. The only thing you can do is leave the pathetically unloved record at home next time.

The success of a night can often be measured by something that can give a lot of DJs the cold sweats and screaming nightmares: requests. It sounds simple; people come up to you asking to hear a record they like, if it’s a good record who are you to refuse them? The problem usually comes from the fact that you are dealing with people who, to be perfectly honest, aren’t in their right minds. There’s drink and perhaps other substances pumping through their veins, and on the way home it will likely cause them to buy food that will make them vomit, piss on the sort of street corners that only dogs use during the daytime, and punch sweetly innocent bus shelters.

A lot of those without a Fatboy Slim-esque crash barrier refuse requests out of hand – politely or otherwise – simply because they want to play what they want to play, although they often fail to compute that a mix CD could do the job a lot better.

Sometimes they refuse them because the records are insane: I once got asked, quite forcibly and repeatedly, to play Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused whilst the dancefloor was at its height.

I tend to play as many requests as possible, mostly because I’m too nice to refuse, even if the person making the request is an insanely babbling drunken student who wants to “look through your recordssh”. One thing a responsible DJ who likes a full dance floor must learn to live with is playing records he hates. I speak as a life-long loather of Joy Division who’s played Transmission far too often (once). And most other Pixies records are better than Debaser, yet what is it that everyone asks for without fail?

But that’s not the point of DJing. It’s simple, it’s dumb, but the punters are the pilots of the night out. The DJ is the safety cut-out that ensures the night doesn’t crash. Oops, pressed the wrong button again.


About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at) or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

One Response to Article – What Are DJs?

  1. #harrison22[DGDGKGDAGKGD] says:

    Hi – I am really glad to discover this. great job!

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