Last Night (Being) a DJ Saved My Life

How to play music for a party.

The author as turntablist.

Learning to DJ changed my life. It happened right when I needed an empowering kick in the ass, a reminder of what it was to be young, free, and utterly alive at 2:30 AM.

New Year’s Eve, 2001: I found myself in Houston, Texas, behind two turntables, armed with someone else’s record collection and some half-broken headphones, at the most holy-shit-this-is-bananas party I have ever been to. Like, a broken-windows, people-having-sex-on-the-microwave-stand, unexplained-footprints-on-the-ceiling-the-next-morning type of party. I had gone to Houston, on a whim, bought myself a ticket to someplace warm, far from snowy Chicago—a place where I did not know anyone, where I could get together the courage to break up with a boyfriend who was no good to me, but whom I was nevertheless really toxically attached to. I met some cool kids, who insisted I stay an extra day and come to their party, which they promised would be monumental—50 forties, plus an extra ounce, would be consumed at the stroke of midnight, ringing in the New Year with 2001 ounces of booze. An awesome band was playing. I said “Sure, why not?” and extended my ticket (insert foreshadowing-style music here), not knowing the fortuitous turn my life would take that very night.

I showed up to the party, and was one of two people there who didn’t drink. The DJ/MC who was manning the mic and the music was wearing a fake moustache and an ill-fitting polyester suit and was well on his way to wasted even though maybe 12 people had arrived. He kept trying to breakdance on the floor and would forget to put another song on. The party hosts were concerned and stepped up. “You want to DJ?” they asked. I had no idea, but I said sure, because isn’t the dream for any lifelong music nerd to be in charge of the music? YES, YES IT IS MY TURN, FINALLY.

I had some help from a very nice (and very cute, which never hurts) boy who had some DJing experience until I understood how to work everything. But even this hot assistant became invisible to me as soon as people started dancing, or screaming, “THIS IS MY JAM!” about a particular selection. I was fully hooked by the time the apartment’s floorboards were swaying under us, every single person bouncing to Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad.” I had done well, and I saw the blinking neon lights at the end of the bad-boyfriend tunnel beckoning me out and toward the dance floor of real happiness.

There is no power quite like getting a room to dance, putting on a song so perfect people are compelled to stop their inane conversations, hold their Solo cups high, and boogie. When I came home from Houston, all I wanted to do was to DJ parties and shows and backyard birthdays. And I did. Often. For years. I made some money, but most of the time I didn’t care—I did it all for the glory of being able to play Prince’s “Erotic City” at really loud volumes, among friends and strangers.

Does this sort of thing sounds like fun to you? Perhaps you aren’t looking to make the club jump-jump, but maybe just have a faultless playlist ready for your next party? Here are some tips and fundamentals I’ve learned over the years, as well as advice I got from professionals, expressly for you, the burgeoning DJ/Rookie reader.

1. Pick your playlist. Nick Catchdubs, a professional DJ who lives in Brooklyn, says, “DJing is really just two things: selection and technique. For now I’ll just focus on selection, because that’s the same whether you’re scratching on a turntable or just putting an iTunes playlist in the right order. And by selection, I don’t mean just picking songs, but picking songs for a crowd. Paying attention to exactly who your audience is, and trying to make them have as much fun as possible. What works for a bunch of teenage skateboarders might not work for a night out with the girls from the office or an art opening or your parents’ birthday. (They count too! Van Morrison is like Waka Flocka for moms and dads.) But of course, there are the rare records that everyone loves and cannot resist dancing to (e.g., Missy Elliott).”

2. Know your music. Whether you are playing CDs, vinyl, or your iPod, really know what you have—there are great songs that are a minute too long and will kill a mood. You need to have emergency backup tunes in cases like that (see point number five). Work on a practice DJ set or test out the playlist at home so you can figure out what works back to back and how to build the excitement, or the mood of the party. Says Nick: “You could have a million tracks at your fingertips, but what good is that if you’re still scrolling randomly for the next track when the first one ends? Think about what you have in your crate (virtual or otherwise) before you get to the party, so you can concentrate on reading the crowd and vibing out.”

3. “You should have about two to three times the amount of music you think you will need,” says DJ Ayres. It’s true. You have to be prepared, in case your selections fail, or it’s just not a B-52’s kind of party, or you play some old funk song and people go nuts and want more. You never know where the night will take you.

4. Don’t be afraid of crowd-pleasers. You are there to please the crowd! As tempting as it is to fill up on whatever this week’s most blogged remixes are, and have all the newest new stuff, DJing is not the time to show off how ahead of the curve your tastes are. Playing obscure stuff is great, as long as you mix it with more-popular stuff and the song suits the room, the party, the action—but you gotta give people songs they feel comfortable with. Once you hook them with songs they love or know the words to, they will trust you and follow you when you put on this.

5. Always pack a secret weapon. There are never-fail tracks, but you need to wield their power carefully—save them for when the energy of the party is starting to flag, or you picked some song that was a real misfire. This is when you break out your Prince, your vintage Michael Jackson, some Rihanna or Daft Punk. DJ Ayres says he defaults to “Crazy in Love.” Personally, I always went with Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” or Madonna’s “Into the Groove.”

6. Don’t come out of the gate with all the big guns at once. “Don’t play your best songs too early,” says DJ Ayres from the legendary Brooklyn dance party the Rub. “You want to build the energy higher and higher.” You don’t start your set with “Crazy in Love” just to get people dancing, UNLESS you are the 3 AM DJ at an Ibiza foam party, which you aren’t, unless you are David Guetta, in which case, I am surprised you are reading this far into the how-to.

7. Totally changing direction can energize people. “Don’t be afraid to jump around to different genres in your musical selection. Things can get boring fast if you stick to one thing,” says Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. While he is not a DJ, he knows more about keeping a party going than, well, anyone, ever. Suddenly switch to rock, or bust out something fun but weird. “Maybe Peter Bjorn and John’s ‘Young Folks’ if it’s more of an indie-rock-whistling kinda party,” says Nick Catchdubs. “Beware the Boyz,” some M.I.A., or Nitzer Ebb’s “Join in the Chant” also work.

8. Even though you are nervous, don’t drink too much or get loaded—you will think you are doing a better job than you are.

9. Know how to work your equipment, whatever it is. Learn how to hook up a PA, learn how to connect speakers, learn how a mixer works. These are skills that, invariably, even the most unserious party DJ needs to know. Or will be forced to figure out.

10. Don’t DJ too quiet or too loud. No one will dance. If people tell you to turn it up, don’t automatically turn up the volume; turn up the “mid” knob on the mixer about 3/5 of the way—it’ll make the low end of the music thump more and the high end ching more, and it makes people dance because they can feel it, more than just making everything LOUDERRRR.

11. You don’t have to take requests. Seriously, don’t bother. Most requests are for horrible songs. You will be playing Nicki Minaj and someone will ask, “Can you play some hip-hop?” and you will say, “THIS IS HIP-HOP!” and they will say, “But do you have ‘In Da Club’?”

12. Depeche Mode songs are always much slower than you remember them being, and dancehall only works on wasted people, after 1 AM, and only if they have been dancing to party rap for most of the night. Both can kill a floor dead. ♦


  • MissKnowItAll January 26th, 2012 7:08 PM

    I wish I could be a DJ:(

    • Anaheed January 26th, 2012 7:11 PM

      You can!!

      • MissKnowItAll January 26th, 2012 7:46 PM

        Well, I can dream of being a DJ.

  • christinachristina January 26th, 2012 7:47 PM

    • christinachristina January 26th, 2012 7:48 PM

      sorry, that seems kinda spammy ^. it’s just a hilarious portlandia sketch.

      • giov January 27th, 2012 8:26 AM

        don’t you love how there seems to be a portlandia sketch about every other thing you mention? does this only happen to me?

  • pirateliat January 26th, 2012 7:59 PM

    AAAAHHHH This was exactly what I needed! I just start DJing at my favorite pub and I’m always nervous I’m going to screw up, so this was really reassuring, especially towards my next set next month. I was wondering if you could recommend any software for mixing/DJing just to make things go more smoothly?
    Gosh, I knew I loved Rookie for a reason!

  • I.ila January 26th, 2012 8:40 PM

    Mrph no one invites me to parties, and i’m less likely to be invited to DJ at one. I’m stuck to making itunes playlists.. But actually I really want all of these songs!!!

    • I.ila January 26th, 2012 8:41 PM

      But I think I’m getting there. I played Rock Lobster in my advisory class and taught some people to do the dance and now two of my friends are a bit obsessed.

  • Isa January 26th, 2012 9:16 PM

    ♡☠ I’ve been looking for some rad DJ advice + I finally found it ♡☠

  • spatergator January 26th, 2012 9:37 PM

    That Mother Sky remix gives me all kindsa floppy mushroom cloud head feelings

  • Microbyte1 January 26th, 2012 10:17 PM

    i wanna be a Dj

  • Carneece January 27th, 2012 12:36 AM

    Oh my word. This is what I’ve been looking for. Although I’m still pretty scared officially go for it, I’m dying to try. There’s all those freaky logistics of course, like learning sound equipment and the nagging feeling that my set list is lacking or that there exists some band/song that I’m ignorant of and therefore can never DJ OMGZZZ. But still. The dream lives on…

  • Violet January 27th, 2012 2:26 AM

    One of the BEST things you can do for yourself as a person, but especially as a GIRL if you are one, Carneece, is to NOT BE SCARED OF EQUIPMENT.

    I am a girl, and became a video assistant quite randomly a couple years ago.

    - the big cliche about machines and cables is that BOYS know how to deal with them.
    - the big secret #1 is that MOST PEOPLE don’t want to make the effort to figure out how equipment works.
    - the big secret #2 is that equipment is usually designed by really clever people who try to make your life simpler (I assure you). once you understand the natures of a few cables as well as what some machines do, you’ll be like Samantha from Bewitched.
    - the big secret #3 is that whenever you’ve NEVER seen a piece of equipment: TOUCH IT, PROD FOR THE SWITCHES, TRY OUT WHAT THEY DO, DON’T BE SCARED – and most likely than not you’ll figure it out WITHOUT reading the manual.

    wow, that was almost as long as the article. But after that you’ll be the one they ask to repair anything.


    • Anaheed January 27th, 2012 2:28 AM

      I just want to say that I love this comment.

    • Carneece January 27th, 2012 2:59 AM

      THANK YOU. This is tremendously encouraging. Random question – do you have any advice as how to acquire these kinds of skills? Maybe the kinds of people I should shadow/stalk?
      Again, much love!

      • Violet January 27th, 2012 9:31 PM

        Hello Ladies,
        So cool to read your enthusiasm!

        Well I can only speak from personal experience. I hung out in the art department of our school a lot, where there was video/sound equipment, and a wonderful person in charge of it, whom I asked everything I was curious about. Then, forcing yourself to read manuals can get you really far (after you’ve exhausted the ‘prodding = understanding’ phase).

        It could be just figuring out the DVD player in your living room, front and back, what are all these ports for. Looking over a friend’s shoulder when they are fixing something, and learning the process instead of waiting for the fix to happen. Oddly enough, sometimes CLEANING a piece of equipment will start your acquaintance with it – your ‘owning’. Check out all the words you don’t know ['VGA cable', 'S-video', 'RCA'?] on the web, and make this vocabulary YOURS.

        Really, there is no stronger recipe but your STATE OF MIND. Be INTERESTED instead of being WORRIED, and take the risk to explore, try and fail, in your own personal manner.

        Making a pompous statement here: we should stop thinking that there are ‘specialists’ and us. NO.
        NOBODY fully knows, and EVERYBODY learns. So stop thinking you don’t know, and start acting: give yourself the possibility to know.

        Ever been in a classroom where the projector doesn’t work, and it becomes this lenghthy drama where everybody is waiting for the ‘tech guy’ but he is nowhere to be found? You don’t want to live through that again. NEXT TIME YOU BE THAT TECH GUY, GIRL.

        Lots of love, V

    • spatergator January 27th, 2012 8:55 AM

      That just made my day.

      • Carneece January 27th, 2012 11:36 PM

        (To Violet, above)
        You really have no idea how much this helps. Not to be all saccharine and “my dreams are now coming true thanks to you”, but this information kept nagging me today until I decided to check in on the art department here at university to see if I could shadow their guy who runs the sound booth and handles the equipment. Fortunately, everyone was completely cool about it, so I’ll soon have some training under my belt, which I’m giddy about. Funnily enough, the incident that spurred me to the art department was a meltdown in my Ideas class this morning wherein the audio didn’t want to synch with the video AND HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GLEAN THE PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPINNINGS OF THE TRUMAN SHOW WITHOUT SOUND YOU GUYS? HOW?!?!? (Yes, The Truman Show. I’ve already questioned several times today why I pay tuition.)
        Anyway. Thanks again!

      • Violet January 28th, 2012 4:59 AM

        This makes me so happy !!!
        You guys made my day.

        Have fun,

  • marthaflatley January 27th, 2012 3:35 AM

    I just took a dj workshop i got on groupon at this awesome dj school in nyc–Dubstop. It was amazing. Hearing a two song mix i created for the first time was a blissful experience. They have tons of music/sound production/djing courses and workshops…so if you are in nyc you should definitely go. i loved it so much i signed up for a 3 month dj course there.

  • juliette January 27th, 2012 3:50 AM

    great advice. i just don’t know where to start…

  • Michelle January 27th, 2012 10:09 AM

    Also for the yet to be or currently in college, check out your school’s radio station! Not quite the same as DJing to a live crowd, but still amazingly fun.

  • Tyknos93 January 27th, 2012 6:42 PM

    This is awesome my dad DJ’s with vinyl!!! It’s really cool but difficult to lug around keep from scratching but the sound is alot grittier, I prefer it. I’m not very good with blending or keeping certain moods or themes but I’m okay. I love the music articles on Rookie.
    If anyone’s serious about DJing i recommend starting with vinyl.

  • Lolita January 30th, 2012 11:45 AM

    I’m the kind of girl that loves music and is always looking for new edgy songs. In my group of friends I’m always like the music nerd or something. I really like playing music for people and enjoy choosing songs to dance with my friends but I’ve never tried DJing in a club or anything.

  • rrruthie February 1st, 2012 7:43 PM

    This is so rad. I love playing car DJ and now am seriously considering forcing a few of my DJ-ing friends to show me the ropes.