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Three steps to heaven

Harold Heath's holy trinity of DJ skills

2016 Aug 17     
2 Bit Thugs

Our man in the booth shares some thoughts on the age-old 'mixing vs programming' debate

"What’s better: a technically brilliant/musically poor selection, or a technically poor/musically brilliant selection?" This question pops up regularly on social media, usually following a gig where a DJ played really good music but didn’t do a very good job of it. Other DJs then say stuff like "The music is more important than the delivery" or "David Mancuso didn’t mix blah blah blah" or "I had this on promo last summer mate".

Well, the commenters are wrong. The binary question itself is wrong. Clearly, the most important thing that a DJ has to do is own, and then play, very good music, hopefully the very best in their particular chosen genres. But the old "I’d rather hear good tunes mixed badly than poor tunes mixed well" is outdated. Unless you’re John Peel or DJ Derek (and they’re both sadly dead, so you’re clearly not), there really is no excuse for not learning to transition between tunes in a way that facilitates the dancefloor flow and supports your tune selection.

Being the kind of man that I am, I've conceptualised this idea as a taxonomy of DJ responsibilities, which we can call... ooh, I don’t know, picking a name just randomly out of the air... Harold’s Hierarchy™. In descending order of importance, the three most important things to think about are:

1. What you play
2. When you play it
3. How you play it

Let's look at those three 'steps' in a little detail...

What you play
What you play is by far the most important. Doesn’t matter if you can scratch like a flea-infested labrador, or if you can hold down vinyl mixes for several hours à la early-90s Sasha - it’s all irrelevant if the music is no good.

When you play it
But the second step is nearly as important - context. When you play something is vital. You like chocolate, right? Who doesn’t? But you don’t want a jumbo family-sized Dairy Milk when you first wake up - you want a swimming pool-sized mug of coffee, like a normal person. Timing, see?

DJing is like that: how a tune is received by a dancefloor is directly affected by what has been played before, and a good DJ is painfully aware of the importance of juxtaposition. Get it wrong, and you will stand, mystified, watching your dancefloor slowly ebb away to the sound of one of your best tunes which you dropped at the wrong moment.

How you play it
After what you play and when you play it, comes how you play it. Mr C famously said that the best parties are the ones where the punters don’t cheer the breakdowns, they cheer the mix. When a DJ is firing up a steaming basement at 4am and drops a perfectly timed single hi-hat into the mix and the crowd go cray-cray - that’s when you know he’s got his step-three game wired tight.

Once you’ve definitely got a collection of decent tunes, and you’ve started to work out the whole when thing, your job doesn’t stop there. Decent DJs used to make an effort - even if they were playing tunes with widely disparate BPMs, they would still try to bring the tune in on the beat, in time, to attempt to preserve the flow. Good DJs know their music well enough to know when the best moments to transition are, and how to use weird intros and outs in their mixing.

Before the 'digital revolution', all this kind of stuff - beat-matching, clever transitions between different BPMs, extending certain parts of tunes and so on - used to be quite tricky, requiring laser-sharp concentration, years of practice and at least one more limb than most people possessed. But now of course, the technology has caught up and indeed overtaken the process, and the latest Pioneer CDJs have essentially achieved sentience and are applying for national citizenship. They can do all the tricky technical stuff for you.

So you’d better do a good job of it, or before we know it, a pair of CDJs will become self-aware, hook themselves up a live stream and be guesting on Boiler Room. Nobody will even notice. And this is how the war against the machines begins...

Words: Harold Heath





Tags: Harold Heath, DJing, track selection, programming, mixing, beatmatching