Harold Heath on why 'reading the crowd' is a key skill every DJ needs
You may have seen recent posts from Berlin techno DJ DVS1 about his ‘wall of sound', an approach to DJing which intends to put the focus back on the dancefloor by tucking the DJ away out of sight of the audience. It's a reaction to what he calls 'the festival effect', and is all about putting the ego of the DJ aside and instead attempting to engulf his audience in sound.
As is ever the case in dance music, everyone on social media carefully weighed up the pros and cons of this approach, and thoughtfully reflected on the nuances and subtleties of the argument. Then we all rushed to adopt a polarised position and set about defending it with our very lives.
Personally, I'm in full agreement with DVS1: the DJ shouldn't be the focus of a club night. It's the music and the dancers that are the stars, always. But I also don't want the DJ to be locked in an actual cupboard (not unless the DJ is , amirite?). Although DJing is obviously all about listening and hearing, visual contact between a DJ and their audience shouldn't be neglected.
This doesn't mean the DJ needs to be put up on a pedestal, on a riser, on a stage, framed by pyrotechnics, caged tigers and armageddon-level lighting. It just means that aside from having impeccable taste, near-perfect technical skills and a supply of some of the finest music ever recorded, every working DJ also needs something else in order to reach the true heights. They need rapport - to somehow build an emphatic relationship. And the very first step in rapport is the simple act of looking into people's faces, and them looking back into yours.
As a DJ, when you drop a tune, you're always trying to gauge the dancefloor's reaction. The whole gig is essentially like a surreal conversation where you speak by playing tunes, and a whole room of people reply through body language and facial expressions (and occasionally by throwing things and booing).
This conversation - the to-and-fro between DJ and audience - is vital. It doesn't tell the DJ what to play, exactly - it's more nuanced than that. You rarely get a unanimous "No, we don't like this" from an entire dancefloor. It's more like you can just tell from their faces and how they're moving whether this midtempo cosmic disco groove is doing it for them or if they want something a bit more contemporary.
A huge proportion of human communication is non-verbal, so it doesn't matter that the DJ can't actually hear what anyone is saying - a good DJ can make selection judgments based merely on what their audience looks like, how they're dancing, how they walk across the dancefloor and other non-verbal cues. A DJ needs to be able to see at least some of the audience, and to be at least attempting to read their body language, to try to assess how the tunes are going down. The process is like a dialogue but it's also like a journey, and you need to keep your eyes open or you're liable to stray from the path. Otherwise, you may as well play your tunes at home and stream them into the club.
As DJs, we often have at least some idea of what we're going to play - we'll have some new stuff we're excited about that we're definitely going to road-test, and we usually have a few current favourites that are really doing it for us. But linking it all together are the people on the dancefloor in front of you. Learn to read them, give them a bit of what they want, then a bit of what you want, observe how they respond and then respond back to them.
Never forget: they're paying your wages. So get your head out of your controller, stop showing off, look up and engage. Whether your booth is hidden away at the side of the room or balanced precariously on a flaming plinth surrounded by writhing leather joyboy dancers in cages - use your eyes as well as your ears.
Words: Harold Heath