De La Soul had it right in 1989. As a fresh-faced Posdnous casually sang on the group’s debut album, “Everybody wants to be a DJ / Everybody wants to be an emcee.” While the queue of aspiring super-producers may outnumber prospective DJs, the allure of becoming the next Jazzy Jeff is still as strong as ever.
As legacy starlets like Paris Hilton and Kelly Osbourne now get booked to spin high-profile gigs, it’s become necessary to separate the real DJs from a growing crowd of impostors. So before you make the leap from music connoisseur to professional disc jockey, take these steps into consideration.
Looking for the beat
Being a music lover is a prerequisite for becoming a DJ, but you need something more than just an affinity for your favorite artists. DJs aren’t just enthusiastic fans, they’re esteemed selectors. Don’t let the current state of radio fool you – a DJ is inherently responsible for seeking out the most compelling records and “breaking” them to the public.
Tastemakers such as the BBC’s Gilles Peterson and KCRW’s Garth Trinidad are internationally revered for their commitment to compiling soulful tunes. As you begin the process of becoming a DJ, think about what you want to communicate to your audience and what songs or artists will help you realize this vision.
When legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier rants about the ranks of the “microwave popcorn-ass DJs,” he’s referring to DJs who (among other transgressions) lack an appreciation for vinyl. With the advent of MP3-to-vinyl technology and CD turntables, the need for building a record collection is often considered a thing of the past. But the importance of having a rich and varied collection cannot be overstated.
Becoming familiar with the nuances of your records is integral to your development as a DJ. Knowing that Earth Wind and Fire’s That’s the Way of the World contains a funk classic (“Shining Star”), a timeless ballad (“Reasons”) and a frenetic b-boy jam (“Africano”) is something best learned by spinning a copy of the LP. Regular visits to used record stores and flea markets provide an affordable way to build your collection.
In addition to your own purchases, keep your eye out for the big scores that could potentially double or triple the size of your collection. Whether it’s your uncle’s pristine jazz collection that sits untouched in his basement or a neighbor’s Prince collection on its way to the dumpster, there are always dormant stacks of vinyl bound for obscurity.
As an aspiring DJ, it’s imperative you recognize the importance of Technics 1200s. The SL-1200’s patented motor technology has made it the industry standard among DJs in need of a durable turntable. Compared to scratching and mixing on a cheap belt-driven table, using a 1200 is akin to dribbling a Spaulding after practicing with a tennis ball.
Once you have a stash of vinyl and a functional setup (two turntables, a pair of reliable needles, a mixer and a pair of headphones), the first step is to learn how to mix. To ready your ears, start listening to songs in terms of bars. Most songs you’ll mix are based on loops of two or four bars in 4/4 time. This means the kick drum generally falls on the first and third beats, and the snares on the second and fourth.
To get started, pick two songs with similar tempos. DJs often determine a song’s BPM (beats per minute) ahead of time to streamline this process. For example, you don’t want to mix “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest (102 BPM) with Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” (90 BPM.) But flip over the 12-inch single for “C.R.E.A.M.” and you’ll find the radio, street, instrumental and a capella versions of the fast-paced “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.”
With the instrumental for “Scenario” playing on one turntable, grab the kick, or “one” beat, of the “Chessboxin’ ” instrumental and release it on the “one” of “Scenario.” After some trial and error, you’ll realize “Chessboxin’ ” is faster than “Scenario.”
Using the turntable’s pitch adjustment, decrease the speed of “Chessboxin’ ” until it plays at the same tempo as “Scenario.”
If this process proves too confusing, try it with doubles of the same record.
The aptly titled “baby scratch” is the first scratch technique that a DJ should learn. It consists of isolating a specific sound on a record (pick up the infamous Super Duck Breaks battle record for a wide selection of scratchable sounds) and moving it back and forth against the needle. While it sounds simple at first, the trick to executing it well is not to put too much pressure on the record. Once your fingers develop a sensitive touch, you’ll be able to increase your hand speed and manipulate the vinyl with greater ease.
The world is yours
The key to becoming a successful DJ is to practice every day, preferably for hours at a time. A common thread in interviews with accomplished DJs is the allusion to marathon practice sessions during their formative years. As with other instruments, the turntables and mixer require a relentless dedication and a honing of one’s craft.
Once you feel confident you’ve mastered the fundamentals of DJing, there are countless ways to showcase your skills. Whether it’s spinning at a club, hosting a radio show or making your own mixtapes, DJing is the ideal vehicle for you to communicate your musical vision to a far-reaching audience.