Thursday, August 13, 2009

Working Class DJ: Part 1

Welcome to the first installment of Stories From a Working Class DJ. True tales from the not-so-glamorous life of the average mixer: The ones rocking your local bars, lounges, small weekly events and house parties.

Paul Oakenfold on stage before 40, 000 gurning punters this is not.

No, this occasional column is dedicated, or in Rasta-speak livicated, to all those deck technicians who lug their record bags and Serato cases from bar to bar, only to get paid $75 for 4 hours work standing on their feet all night.

I've seen some good times in my 20 years behind the decks, such as playing Eggsalad at that mysterious downtown LA Chinese restaurant-turned afterhours dance club for Bruce Purdue (creator goth club Scream, which broke Janes Addiction) back in the early '90s.

There have been some sublime times, such as "opening" for David Bowie at the Warfield (during his brief drum & bass phase) and getting stuck in a disused balcony that had no monitor speaker. Beat matching using a cavernous, echoing theater as your guide is not enjoyable, especially since I received no extra backstage perks.

Then then there's been rougher times: Empty rooms on Sunday nights with $200 down the drain on fliers and promotion; the two hour sets that became five hours when the next DJ didn't show; and my utterly daft idea of taking a full-size flight case to London and having to lug it up and down tube steps (to Wood Green no less).

In between I've played all-ages after-hours nights in cafes on Fairfax Blvd. in LA (Goa Dub) and Divisadero Street in SF (Texture), raves in parking lots and mountain tops, dance events by rivers, sweaty basement rooms and even a massive (mostly empty) tent at Burning Man during a hellish dust storm.

That's part of my story as a DJ. These next several installments on ForwardEver will tell other stories, both cautionary and humorous hopefully, but never bitter. It's an honor to be able to share a bit of your musical soul as a DJ, and one compliment or smile more than makes up for a hundred bad nights.

First, props to my DJ crew Umoja Hi-Fi, who've been on this journey with me since 1993. Props to all the record stores and counter clerks who told me about cool music or hired me to work. Thanks to the club owners who care more about decent selections than music as merely a means to sell drinks. And to all my fellow working class DJs in SF, LA, NY, London, and everywhere in between. Your stories matter too. Lets keep rocking the world!

A good DJ always preps a set of music before their gig. Most people don't know it, but a DJ typically spends two-to-three hours organizing, tracking down and learning specific music for every one-hour of gig that they play. Play three hours? You'll prep for four or five hours on average. Why? You want to play a unique set, not the same records as the person before you (despite how many times an audience requests M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes").

Also, you'll usually play any given record or song an average of 3-4 minutes, which adds up to about 18-20 total tracks in a one hour period. (NOTE: the mark of a truly great DJ is one who plays the fewest songs and still keeps a crowd intrigued and interested. Do you have six songs that can rock the house for an hour? You are a star. Marvin Gaye's 11 minute epic "Got To Give It Up" is one such record...) Point is, you'll need at least twice or three-times as many songs as you can possibly play, in order to have all the right ones.

I have a "BPM 10" rule: BPM 10 dope records I haven't played recently and then work them into the set. BPM is "beats per minute," one of the measurements a DJ uses to mix records, along with tone, genre and tempo.

Grab 10 songs, vinyl records, digital tracks, -- whatever your format -- and measure them with a BPM counter to determine the tempo. Counters are available as free wiget downloads for Macs, website archives, or even physical gadgets. As you listen, you'll pick up on the melodic compatibility of certain songs and create a working order that flows and sounds nice.

Some DJs are strongly anti-BPM, preferring to use only ears and instincts to match songs. I've found that learning to identify BPMs with a counter enhances my instincts on the fly. With a little time and practice you can teach yourself to recognize tempos within plus-or-minus 4 beats.

But knowing tempo is useless if you're a bad song selector. And having good taste is not something that can be necessarily taught. "It's in the ear of the beholder" I guess. But good taste will take you a lot farther than a perfectly beat-matched set. That's the illogic of DJing.

More stories and advice soon in this column space. Until then, tip your local DJ -- they probably need it for cab fare.