Saturday, January 7, 2007: DJ’ing Manifesto

(Migrated from Myspace.)

So I wrote up this gigantic essay on what I think makes a good DJ for one of the discussions on the ASEDA forum. I figured I should post it here because it’s like 3 pages long in Word and it seems like a waste just to have it up in one obscure corner of the interweb. It also includes a section on how I think DJ’s can develop each skill I mention.

A balanced sense of the history of the dance with the variety of dancers’ tastes.
I am a firm believer that the best music to do the Lindy Hop to is music that was made to do the Lindy Hop to. And that means generally songs that were recorded in the 30’s and 40’s by popular swing musicians of the day. There’s an extension of this in the history in both directions. Music from the 20’s was the root that the music of the 30’s grew from, just as the Charleston of the 20’s was the root that the Lindy Hop of the 30’s grew from. So it’s absolutely appropriate to play songs from the eariler Jazz Era, since we still do Charleston, right? There are definitely some practical issues that come up with playing earlier recordings in terms of sound quality & making sure dancers can hear the beat, but I don’t think that in principle that should stand in the way of playing earlier songs. I’ve got some stuff that has a pronounced hiss over the top, but which I like to play anyways because the song is so freakin’ sweet, and it’s not difficult to make out the beat.

And although the history of the dance doesn’t match up quite as well with the music in the opposite direction, this applies also to the later decades. Jazz musicians of the 30’s and 40’s most certainly influenced music in the later decades–particularly African-American music–and you can notice that even after the Jazz Age was well and gone there were still songs being made that seriously swing. One of my new-old favorites in this respect is Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” (which I played during my last set, if you were there). That song frickin’ swings man, and you could tell because the whole floor was packed and people were getting into their groove, myself included. I think this is why Peter Strom’s soul sets are so popular, because he plays music from the later decades that still has some serious swing to it.

There’s a parallel to be noted here, but which I won’t comment on, that the same historical trajectory in the music applies to other forms of dance than Lindy. (I’m thinking specifically here of Blues dancing.)

On the other hand, as most of us learned in our early days of dancing, there are a ton of songs out there where you say to yourself, “hey–I could Lindy to that!” (or Bal or Charleston or whatever). And some of those songs don’t fall neatly into the historical trajectory of music I’ve described. But that’s not to say they’re not great and shouldn’t be played. Like I have this ‘guilty’ penchant for that “Work Out/Shout All Night Long” song, or whatever it’s really called… Moose plays it sometimes. And I actually really like to dance to Outkast’s “Idlewild Blues.” There’s a great variety of music out there that we can do our dance(s) to, and there are many DJ’s who emphasize this variety over the historical track I mentioned above. Whichever a DJ chooses I think is a marker of that individual’s style as a DJ. But the danger, as in most things, is to stick too closely to one or the other when your crowd is probably composed of people who like both. (For myself, I’m trying to be more experimental and do some more searching around for non-traditional songs that I’d still love to dance to, such as those I mentioned. In this respect I think Jim’s comments about the DJ Playlist thread are important & very helpful.)

Development
To become a great DJ, one needs to develop a sense of this balance, and to acquire the sort of music collection that can support it. I think this means that we need to spend some considered time (& money) expanding our collections with this balance in mind. It also means doing the “research” to understand the difference, even if said research is just going to the dance where DJ’s of different leanings will be playing. And finally, as most things, it requires the chance to mess up. We have to learn to pay attention to the floor, to who’s sitting out and who’s dancing, to what kind of music the crowd seems to be digging and what seems too out there, or too “boring,” or too over-played. Developing a balance means being off-balance for at least a little while. And having the chance to DJ more than once in a blue moon helps to give you a sense of the difference between the different sets you’ve played, in terms of this balance of variety vs. history.

Tempo Range & Transitions
In my opinion, you can generally dance Lindy Hop to anything from about 90 BPM to 320 BPM (if you’re a freakin’ badazz–Hellzapoppin clocks in at 313 BPM). Drop that top-end to about 280 BPM for the majority of social dancers. The tempos that you play, and the order in which you play them, matter a lot. If you’re DJ’ing the start of a dance right after the beginner lesson, you’re doing those people a huge disservice if you’re playing stuff that’s 190 BPM. Relaxed but not-too-slow tempos in the 120-145 BPM range are generally better to help coax the beginners onto the floor. It’s also a solid range to let the more experienced dancers have some nice chill dances.

I also think it’s important to hit the extremes if you’ve got a reasonably long set (1.5 hrs or so). I think there’s something dynamic that a dance is missing if you only hear songs from 120-190 BPM. Playing a couple numbers in the lower and the higher ranges gives the chance for those who like to dance in those outer edges to get out there, even if it clears the floor out a bit. The important point is not to stay there for too long.

This leads to the very important question of how to create that progression. As Bobby mentioned, playing tempos all over the place really screws things up. It means there’s no flow to your set. There are a number of ways to accomplish nice flow. For example, you often hear DJ’s talk about the Ladder vs. the Wave. The ladder is building tempos up (120, 140, 160, 180, 200) and then dropping them back down. (But not down to the bottom of the well. I wouldn’t follow up “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” with “I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl.”) The wave is making a pattern of tempos move gently up and down like a wave (120, 140, 160, 150, 130, 100, etc.) The exception here is that there’s always an exception. If the room isn’t digging what you’ve been doing, sometimes you can jump-start the whole thing by playing something completely different. Throw a speedy Charleston number on there to upset the balance and it can wake a room right up, sometimes. This connects to my next point, which is about the style of music played, but first…

Development
Again, I think that play-time is a huge issue here. You can’t hit the extremes of tempos if you’ve only got a 30 min. set during the band break. And it’s probably even difficult to do it during an hour set, since I think it can feel forced or rushed. (If your average song is 3 min. long, an hour set is actually only 20 songs. If you move between songs at a rate of 10 BPM, it’ll take you 13 songs to get from 90 to 220 BPM, which is practically your whole set.) Again it means you need a broad collection that draws from the full range of tempos, and within a tempo range you should also include a variety of styles of songs (see below). Finally, I think that paying attention to the floor is really important when it comes to tempos. If a lot of people are sitting out every time you play above 160 BPM, you’re just going to have to adjust to accomodate that. Otherwise you’re forcing a crowd to listen to something they’re clearly not interested in dancing to. Which ain’t cool.

“Style”
This is the term I’ve used in my music/media software program to designate a category where I distinguish what kind of dance I would do to a particular song. So: Lindy vs. Balboa vs. Blues vs. Charleston. There are some songs that clearly feel a certain way and make you want to dance a certain way. Most people can identify this with songs that are super-solo-Charleston-y. Experienced Balboa dancers identify this for great Bal songs (as Bobby mentioned). And then there are those songs that just make you want to SWING OUT. (I love those.)

Particularly since Atlanta has such a diverse scene, I think it’s very important to play a set that includes a variety of styles, not just a variety of tempos. So, if a room doesn’t seem to be digging the chunky old-school numbers, try playing a more jazzy tune, or something jump-blues, or one with that moving Balboa beat. I also think the intersection of tempo & style is a critical one. For example, you can keep the energy of a room up and still let people rest by playing a song that’s a lower tempo (say, 120 BPM) that still has an energetic and chunky, moving feel to it. Or there are those weird songs where by the numbers they’re pretty fast, but for whatever reason the arrangement makes it feel like it’s not quite so killer–it helps you dance to it more easily. Also being strategic about these combos can help. If you want to play 220 BPM without forcing a jam since only 2 couples can Lindy to it, it’s nice if you can pick something that gives people both a swing out feeling and a Charleston feeling, or both a swing out feeling and a Balboa feeling. I think the same thing about the lower tempos. There are songs at 80-90 BPM that have a feeling that allows you a chill swing out, or you could dance Blues to it. I think that it’s always a positive thing when you can play songs that give people options.

Development
Here I actually think is where being an experienced dancer and a DJ really comes in handy. If you know how to dance to a wide range of tempos in a wide range of styles, you’ll clearly have a better sense of what sort of music is particularly suited to a given style of dance. Now, this is definitely a matter of personal opinion in many cases, but there are still some obvious commonalities that are hard to miss. Like I said, most folks could probably tell you which song is supposed to be the solo Charleston number. And clearly having a huge range of dance ability isn’t a prerequisite to being able to understand and make distinctions in terms of style of music, but I think it sure helps.

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One Response to Saturday, January 7, 2007: DJ’ing Manifesto

  1. Jesse says:

    I just wanted to say what an excellent “manifesto” this is. Very well thought out.

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