The Definitive Guide to Hiring a DJ

How many parties and weddings have you been to that sucked?

Sure there were food and drinks, but the night dragged on and the only buzz people caught was from drinking too much.

Now have you ever been to a party that felt epic — one where every song that came on was perfect, bodies were bumping and grinding on the dance floor and you didn’t want the night to end?

Thank the DJ. 

There are a lot of wannabes who call themselves DJs when they’re nothing more than glorified iPods. Whether you’re planning a wedding, celebrating a birthday, hosting an office party or organizing a soiree, I’m going to teach you how to find a DJ that’ll rock the party.

Mixing vs Blending

It was the summer of 1992 when my best friend Marcus and I wandered into a record store called Funkytown. The whole vibe was so damn cool — not the Z. Cavaracci with polka dot rayon silk kind of cool — the kind where a DJ spun next to the cash register and in between mixes, would ring up the customers.

Chika, chika… that’ll be fifteen dollars, hollah.

At 13 years old, the convergence of music, popularity, and something to do for the summer only meant one thing: we had to become DJs.

The garage transformed into our studio. We rented turntables and a mixer for $50 a day, borrowed pieces of sound equipment and sustained ourselves on a teenager’s diet of Nilla Wafers, Cool Whip and Orange Crush. The closed garage door gave us a somewhat soundproof room and with a weekend ahead of us, we practiced for 24 hours straight, learning how to work the mixer and turntables with a few records.

With no training guides or manuals, we tried everything we could to get two songs to mix although we had no concept of measures, breakbeats, crossfading, cutting, pitch adjusting or tweaking. Twenty-fours later, we had labeled every record with a number based on counting the beats per minute (BPM) and forced a few songs to go together based on the simple fact that they were relatively close in number. We sounded like a train wreck (the choppy sound of two songs poorly mixed).

Feeling good about decoding the system, we headed back to Funkytown (the picture is my first slip mat) and showed in-house DJ Caesar what we learned. He invited us into the DJ booth, one never just walked in, and started our blender version of mixing. Caesar shook his head and the look on his face said it all, “Man, you kids have a lot to learn.”

Fortunately he started working with us in the store, and by that I mean we hung out there all day so that he’d have to show us something at some point, and eventually he took us on gigs for live practice. We spent thousands of hours practicing our mixes, experimenting with breakbeats, acapellas, remixes, B-sides and mashups to keep the music fresh.

Ultimately, we learned the art of mixing was a combination of two things:

  1. Practicing for so many hours that your hands would habitually perform the moves needed to bring songs together and
  2. Knowing your music so intimately that every mix added to the song as it transitioned to the next, sending it home to the crate with an honorable discharge. This is what separates the wannabes from the pros.

Do you beat-mix your songs or fade them in and out?

Beat-mixing to keep the music and bodies in sync so that the excitement is gradually built up to a crescendo and then brought down to cool off, but to never let people leave that dance floor. This is what a DJ does, any idiot can wait for a song to fade out and press play for the next one to come on. Only a good DJ knows how to mix and has spent the time perfecting his art.

Music Selection

Being typical 13 year olds, we had no money so earning enough to buy records became our top priority. We had all kinds of schemes; Marcus’ parents gave him $5 a day for lunch so we’d pocket that and I’d make us PB&J sandwiches, we painted my Uncle’s house, I worked in a golf store and Marcus worked for his dad.

I remember the first time we walked into Funkytown with about fifty bucks and rushed to pick up top 40 hits like Insane in the Membrane, Baby Got Back and Rump Shaker.

Caesar didn’t pass up an opportunity to school us. “What’s up boys? You wanna start DJ’ing, huh? Well let me tell you something. You can’t be buying this shit yet. In a few months, they’ll be played out and you won’t have any music to spin. Start with the classics. Here, let me show you.”

He led us around each aisle, snatching up records like Atomic Dog, Genius of Love, White Horse and Rapper’s Delight. Records we’d spin to this day, songs that have influenced so much of today’s popular tunes, beats that can drop behind a top 40 hit and make the crowd say “HO!!”. We built our foundation using the classics so that we could understand what moved people. DJ’ing is about understanding your music, not so that you can listen to what you’d like to hear, but so that you know exactly what your crowd needs and where you can lead them.

Do you have pre-recorded playlists or do you select music on the fly?

Playlists are for iPods, not for parties. That’s like a quarterback picking all the plays before the game. A good DJ will have practiced so much, that they’ll know what songs work together, what works for different moods and how to work a crowd.

Do you take requests?

Only from the host. People are there to party, not to make everyone else listen to their favorite Grateful Dead song. The minute a good DJ gives up control of the music to the people being entertained, is the minute the circle of people on the dance floor turns into a line at the DJ booth.

Lighting

There came a point when we knew we wanted to DJ for real. For money. And we knew we couldn’t always rent equipment or else we’d never make enough to buy more music. Our only option was to put together a business plan and pitch it to a financier. It sounded something like this:

Andy and Marcus (A&B): “Pop, we got a proposition for you.”

Marcus’ Dad (Pop): “Oh you do, do you? Well what is it?”

A&B: “We want to start a DJ business. We’re going to do house parties and night clubs and we’d like you to loan us some money. We’ll pay it all back, with interest.”

Pop: “You boys serious about this?”

A&B: “We are. Real serious. We can blow this up and make it big, Pop. Just think of the opportunity.”

Pop: “How much do you need?”

A&B: “We need like a thousand dollars so that we can buy two Technic 1200 turntables, a mixer and some speakers.”

Pop: “You boys sound excited about this. Ok, I’ll invest in you.”

And just like that, we were in business and High Profile Entertainment was born.

We knew we hadn’t asked for enough to buy lights yet so we rented them until we could afford to buy our own.

We started off with a truss that could hold a row of 6 or 8 colored spotlights and added an Avenger light that danced to beat of the music.

A fog machine came next along with a strobe. Our light show became an integral part of our performance and allowed us to create different moods where people escaped into the music without feeling like they were dancing in a living room.

What lighting do you have for this type of an event?

The DJ should first of all have a lighting system. If their approach is to turn off the overheads and string along Christmas lights, you’ve got the wrong guy. The lights should be appropriate for the size of the dance floor and should be able to cover it with ease. Also, disco balls and blacklights are ok as long as they are part of the light show but by no means should be the only lights they have. Secondly, the lights should have beat sensors built-in so that they move along with the music. Anything that just goes on or off isn’t going to create much of a mood and the DJ should be too busy with mixing and picking the next song to sit over the switches to keep changing the lights.

DJ’s may look a lot different now than when we were doing it — turntables became laptops, milk crates became hard drives and the mixer became software — but this just means that DJ’s can do a lot more than before. Software programs can automatically mix songs, music libraries are easily over 10,000 songs deep and lights can even be controlled through the laptop. While I still prefer to watch old school DJs cuttin’ it up on the wheels-of-steel, I appreciate the evolution that gives DJs more creative options to rock a party.

So go out and throw a party everyone will remember… and hire a DJ worthy of your reputation.

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