10 Lessons Every DJ Should Know

UK DJ/producer and author Harold Heath hits us with some essential DJ lessons from his latest book, 'Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Small-time DJ.'

16 min
10 Lessons Beatportal Header
Aug 12, 2021
Harold Heath

I’ve dedicated much of my life to DJing, and played parties big and small But like so many others, I never really “made it,” becoming a famous DJ flown round the world to play their tunes to adoring crowds.

However, as described in my book, Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Smalltime DJ, my journey bought me boundless joy and some truly unforgettable memories.

I played some fantastic DJ gigs in my time, but I also spent many years playing warm-up sets, half-empty rooms, bars, birthday parties, the occasional wedding, lots of room 2s and room 3s, early-in-the-day festivals, and generally having all sorts of DJ experiences.

All those years spent planning for, playing, and then reflecting on gigs added up to lots of lessons — little pieces of information and feedback — which over time coalesced into a hearty DJ skillset.

So this list isn’t exactly a set of general rules for DJing, we are all individuals after all, but they are observations that might be useful for anyone considering taking up this noblest of crafts.

Harold Heath’s “Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Smalltime DJ” is available from Velocity Press.

Harold Heath 4 1536x1024

A Great Track Beats a Great Mix

In my book I note that “…it might be a little lumpy getting there, but it was always better to scruffily mix in a great track than to perfectly mix in the wrong track. Always; still is.” I strongly believe this to be the absolute essence of good DJing. A great DJ can execute a smooth transition no doubt, but that’s not what makes them great. A true DJ knows that the most important part of the job is selecting the perfect piece of music to follow the last tune. And further, a truly great DJ knows that this might mean putting up with the occasional ropey transition to ensure the purity of selection. A truly great DJ is happy to allow their ego to take the hit once in a while, mixing badly as long as it means they get to drop the perfect record. Because it should always be about the music, never about the DJ.

It’s OK To Make The Occasional Mistake

It’s good for DJs to have high standards. DJing is, after all, at least a craft if not an art. But through years of painstaking practice, I put myself through proverbial hell for any perceived mistake, no matter how slight. And whilst striving for perfection might get you technically sound results, it’s good to strive while remembering that you’ll never actually achieve that perfection, and from time to time, everyone makes mistakes.

Making mistakes is how you learn. If a tune falls flat, there’s probably a reason. Maybe the drums don’t punch through on a big system, or maybe it was too much of a change of mood, or perhaps too little. Working out the answers to questions like these is literally how you become a better DJ: by making little mistakes, riding them out and then learning from them. Also, are you even a DJ if you don’t have at least one decent ‘I-really-messed-up’ anecdote for the after-party?

Remember, It’s Your Job

DJing might seem glamorous, and on some level it no doubt is. But when you’re starting out, the hours will likely be variable — anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days, but often with very late nights. The working conditions can be hazardous, you’ll be expected to be part entertainer, part technician, part curator, part presenter, part sound engineer, part group-psychologist, you’ll probably have to travel substantially, the wages can vary wildly, the perks are pretty niche and often nothing more than some drinks tokens and brief moments of joy behind the decks when it all comes together. However, I’ll let you in on an industry secret: despite these challenges, DJing is easily one of the most fun jobs in the world.

B2Bs Will Test Your Skills Like Nothing Else

True story: I once DJed back-to-back with another DJ, mixed in what seemed to be the perfect selection as it fitted so well with the other tune, only to realise as I finished the transition that I was actually mixing in the exact same track that was already playing. As painful as that was, I still loved back-to-back sets, which are like the off-road driving of DJing: you have to throw away your map and deal with the situation immediately in front of you.

You never know what the other DJ is going to play, so your usual style of DJing, where you might think a couple of tunes ahead and have a few ‘definitely-will-play’s lined up for later, all goes out the window. Instead, it’s a real test of certain DJ skills: your ability to listen, hear, watch and respond, and the process can really stretch you as a DJ. It makes you play better and try harder, and there’s nothing like the thrill of live mixing out of a tune you’ve never heard before.

I’d tell all younger DJs to play back-to-back as often as possible, as long as the context makes sense, of course. You’ll only improve your skills.

Harold Heath 3 1746x2048

Becoming a DJ Isn’t All About Music

Early on in your DJ career, you might be faced with some less-than-desirable gigs — and the audiences who inevitably come to those gigs. How you deal with your audience, many of whom may be under the influence, will therefore become a crucial part of the DJ skill set. Charm and politeness will get you far in life, and in most cases will get you through most of the inebriated interactions with your inebriated patrons. However, you’ll also need to develop at least a basic level of negotiation skills, for when you find your DJ booth invaded by someone who “just wants to have a go at DJing” or who really wants you to play something off their phone. It’s not fun, and DJ gods like Frankie Knuckles probably never had to guard against “cheeky” rewinds or people attempting to MC over their set, but keeping your job and staying happy while you perform just might depend on playing it cool.

DJ Handovers: not always as easy as they should be

The DJ handover should be a straightforward affair, with one professional calmly taking over from another. It sometimes is, but also, it sometimes isn’t. Sometimes the DJ following you will have a huge entourage that descends on the booth en masse, turning your workspace into a very crowded, very small party room. Other times, DJs turn up with a bunch of controllers, a drum box or two and a Mac that they need to plug in around you while you carry on playing, and they might need to knock through that dividing wall and install a Wi-Fi router before starting their set. The DJ handover is another part of the DJ role that may require you to develop UN Peacekeeper levels of mediation and conflict resolution. You may have to negotiate your way through that difficult moment when they appear to be putting on another tune when they’re already over their allotted slot time. Or that slightly annoying moment when they hand you over to you and their last track has ten seconds left to play. It’s all part of the fun!

Never Pre-program Your Set

There are some “DJs” who have to pre-programme their sets so that the pyrotechnics and glitter cannons are all synced up to the music. One wonders if, when they were starting out, they used to take their glitter cannons and visuals with them to their first pub-backroom gigs. Generally though, a DJ’s greatest skill is using their encyclopedic musical knowledge in tandem with their rapport with their audience to predict what their dancefloors want. Obviously, you can’t do this if you’ve preprepared what you’re going to play. There’s nothing wrong with doing lots of practice and planning, nothing wrong with knowing that certain tunes go well together, but working out an entire set and then sticking to it no matter what is literally the opposite of what DJing is. That’s not DJing, that’s just miming.

Know Your Value

DJing for “exposure” rather than actual payment has become more common in the last few years. There may be a rare occasion where this is a good idea, but generally, DJing for free is problematic for two reasons: First, it makes it harder for other DJs to get a decent wage if there are people who are prepared to do it for free. And second, if a DJ has put all that time, effort and money into becoming able to competently rock a party for a few hours, then they should be compensated fairly. As I write in the book: “Never play for free; you’re worth more than that. And if you’re not, then you really shouldn’t be out DJing. DJs should be experts, specialists, the kind of people worth paying.”

Harold Heath 1 1536x1024

Make Sure You Know How To Get Paid

But if you want to get paid in something more than exposure, you’ll need to learn how to ask for — and successfully get — your fee. My preferred method of payment was always cash in an envelope, handed over with a smile mid-gig, and often this was how payment arrived. However, there were plenty of occasions where I had to search the back rooms of the club looking for the promoter in order to get paid, and a fair few occasions where further discussion was then required about how much of the fee was now available. A promoter once had me thrown out of the club I had just DJed at because I’d kicked up a fuss about not being paid. I had to go back around the front of the club and pay to get in just so I could go and retrieve my records I’d left in the booth. Let no one tell you DJing isn’t glamourous!

It’s Supposed To Be Fun

Sure, they’ll be technical hitches from time to time, there might be a punter here or there who’s a bit rude, and maybe you’ll get knocked for your money occasionally. But all that stuff just gives you loads of great after-parties stories. If the sound is only coming out of one channel and the track playing is going to run out in 30 seconds, if a guy keeps shining his phone right in your face to make requests or if you’ve got on the decks only to realise you bought the wrong USB with you and are trying to get the CDJs to read your Excel spreadsheets, then try to remember that generally, DJing is a terribly fun way to spend your time.

“Despite never reaching the upper levels of the DJ pyramid, me and countless low-level DJs like me, kept going long after it was sensible, because nothing else was ever really going to measure up to what it was like to be at the helm of a brilliant party where the entire room is locked in. What other job can compare to when your hands are shaking with sublime anticipation because you know that the next tune you’re about to drop, the one you spent three months tracking down, is going to make an entire room of people throw their hands in the air with a collective shriek of joy? Where else are you going to get that sense of community, transcendence and sheer freedom that you get when a good party truly goes off? It’s irresistible.”

Harold Heath is an author/freelance journalist and DJ living in Brighton. Follow him on Twitter.