so i just noticed this thread...
thanks for the "nods" from drew, kevin c, and any others...a few years back, ray and myself gave every friday night to java jive for a couple years...it wasn't always easy, but it was always fun.
now seeing some of the discussion here, i thought i might add a little something for all of the aspiring swing djs out there to think about...
as some of you already know (and for those of you who don't) in the last couple years, i've really gotten into DJing...but not swing. i've gotten into DJing electronic music... vinyl... turntables... mixer.... i think all the work i did at java jive helped me have a kind of 'head start' when i started learning about this style of DJing, but i'm still learning everyday. let me see if i can explain a key concept that i think is missing from most swing places when i go out (i know that's rare)...
at its most basic, DJing electronic music uses two distinct but overlapping skills: technical mixing, and song selection
. since the electronic DJ usually is keeping the party pumping and keeping the music flowing...ever evolving one song into the next..there is usually not a gap between the songs. that's where the technical mixing comes in.
when i mix two songs together, i have to match the tempo and the beats and even the pitch and harmonics and then blend the two together by overlapping them creating a kind of impromptu "third" song while they are overlapping.
this is closely tied to song selection. in theory, i can take any 2 songs and mix them together...but sometimes it just doesn't sound right. that is song selection. depending on the song playing now and the mood of the room and what i'm trying to accomplish as the dj taking these people somewhere...maintaing the current vibe...or steering the vibe
of the room into a whole new direction...this is song selection.
now, the 'technical mixing' i talked about is not really done in swing DJing.
but that leaves us with what i think is the most important thing for all of you aspiring DJs to think about: your song selection
now let me explain that... having good song selection doesn't necessarily mean having something that nobody else has ever played. it also doesn't mean only and always playing the "top ten of swing" so to speak. it means playing songs that make sense together.
i've been at clubs where i've seen djs just utterly controlling a room. the energy and mood of everyone in there is completely dictated by what the dj is doing...this is a truly amazing thing to witness...i mean it is awe-inspiring (ask kitty sometime about Sander at Redno5)...and then when i'm totally caught up in this moment, the dj will put on THE ABSOLUTE PERFECT TRACK, and i'll think to myself 'man...there is no other song that he could have played right at that second that would have sounded better.' sure, he could have played a million other songs, but they just would not be the right
do you see where i'm going here?
each song is in and of itself a beautiful thing...we all have our favorite songs. for some people it is a very popular song like carmen mcrae's "exactly like you"...for others it may be a more obscure song such as duke ellington's "suburban beauty"...what you need to do as a dj is find these songs and play them in the right order.
sounds simple, huh? it isn't. not by a longshot.
it takes constant listening and learning the music you have, in addition to finding more and more over time. but in my opinion, what seperates the "ok" dj from the "amazing" dj is the ability to not picture the songs that he or she plays as "songs"...but rather as smaller parts of a larger whole. a song takes only a few minutes of the time that you're DJing...your SET
fills the entire time that you're up there DJing.
in my opinion, not a lot of swing djs think about building a SET. now i'm not saying all, but in my opinion, most are guilty of this. it seemed to be the trend for a while for each dj to try to 'one up' the other djs by having something more obscure than anyone else. i think drew said above 'if its obscure its obscure for a reason'. those are pretty wise words. not to say you'll never find some song that people don't really know, but maybe don't make that the crux of your DJing.
DJing is about taking songs and making something larger and greater than each of the songs could ever be on their own. a song has logical movements and progressions...think about a song like 'flying home'...there's a little intro, the melody, solo, maybe another solo (depends on the version) and eventually by the end, it picks up in intensity and you have the big climactic ending.
think about it. shouldn't your set have the same kind of logical movements and progressions?
you're dancers. you've all learned about connection
. you've all learned about tension
...tension...think about it... compress, relax. compress, relax. compress, relax. in every beginning class on up through the advance classes you learn not to lead or follow 'herky-jerky'...if you're going to lead something, begin it gently then increase the tension til the follow moves the way you want. picture a simple rock-step. it's not a "shove-yank". its a smooth transition from no motion to the rock...when you reach the tension point, the rock ends and the step gently begins until you hit the compression point...you know what i'm saying???
now take this concept into your DJing. compress, relax. build tension, release tension. peaks and valleys, my friends. it's a gradual thing. examine the songs you have in your collection. now examine the mood of the room and think what you want to accomplish when you dj. create your own 'style'...using your songs, how can you move the room from where it is right now, to where you want it to be when you're done? imagine it... picture it...
now step back and look at your songs as part of your larger SET. if you get to play 10 songs, how can you get from your starting song to your climactic knock-their-shoes-off finishing song? in order to be memorable, your set is going to have to MAKE SENSE.
when i would get requests at java jive (and even now w/ the electronic stuff) i used to always say "i'll play it if i can fit it in". i didn't mean time-wise...i meant that if that song fits in the mood of the set, then i'll play it. if it MAKES SENSE. in a way, the dj really doesn't pick the songs...they present themselves to him. one song plays and another song just is the right song to play after that. so you play it. they this other song just simply NEEDS to be played after that one. and now the only song that would make sense after this one, is that one..and so on.
sometimes no matter how cool the song is, you just can't play it...or at least you shouldn't. i hope you know what i mean. it just wouldn't make sense to play 'happy go lucky local' and then play 'bugle call rag' and then play 'my baby just cares for me'. you have to 'ride the tide' as i used to say. gradual transitions make your set flow. go from 120bpm to 130bpm to 145bpm to 190bpm to 175bpm to 210bpm to 195bpm to 215bpm to 240bpm to 200bpm to 190bpm to 180bpm to 195bpm to 170 bpm....up and up and up and down and up and down and up and up and down and so on....
picture the tempo of your songs like a wave:
ride the tide, boys and girls. ride the tide.
my friend ray, for those of you who remember him, coined the term "the musical bends" while we were DJing at java jive one time...he was playing some faster stuff and someone asked him if he could play a really slow song next. he said he'd play it, but he'd have to 'get around to it in a while'. the requestor asked why he couldn't just play it next. ray said "you can't just go from 300bpm to 80bpm....you'll get the musical bends, man!"
words of wisdom from ray.
so i guess i've talked long enough...maybe even too long. but i hope that some of what i'm trying to get across in this inane babbling will make sense enough to seem almost obvious to you aspiring djs. "of course!!" they all say...
it's not about having the world's biggest collection.
it's not about having the most obscure songs.
it's not about playing 'all the hits all the time.'
it's about taking what you have...some hidden gems, some staples...and making them yours.
everybody else has most of the same songs that you do...but nobody else will probably ever think to arrange them in the way that you will. nobody else will create the kind of mood that you will going from 'in a mellow tone' to 'sassys blues' then picking up the pace a bit and going out of small combos to faster big band power...now you have 'celery stalks at midnight' rocking out...now 'jeep jockey jump'...now what? well, you're not going to play 'my baby just cares for me'...that wouldn't make a lick of sense...how about a fast stompin 'flying home'? oh yeah, that works! now maybe back off slightly...but still keep the floor moving...now over the next 2 or 3 songs, you'll get back down to something like yoko's version of 'cherry' or something like that...laid back, but not slow blues...
take the songs and make them yours.
the songs are just parts of a greater whole.
mold these songs into your own set.
think about what the room feels like now, and where you want to take it.
think about your music and how you can over time get from here to there.
you have the tools...now you just need to do it.