Avoid Mediocre DJs

There’s no doubt that the DJ industry has become more saturated in the last five years, with more aspiring DJs eager to share their passion for music discovery, mixing, and cu-ration with dance-floors around the world. It’s all too easy to become stagnant with so many DJs everywhere, so tonight I’m taking a look at some of the more common traps of mediocrity that DJs fall into – and how to avoid them!

Everyone loves success stories, especially when it comes to DJs that you personally know. I have friends who actually “made it”. Sometimes I do brag about them and at times envy them. When I was starting out 4 years ago I used to ask myself questions like “How did they make it?, how did they attract raging fans, why are they getting high profile remixes, what am I doing wrong?”
While statistics on DJ success rates are non-existent, I took the liberty and counted every DJ that I know personally in my hometown (Isebania “KEN-TZ Border!”). The total amount was 76 or more, and only 2 of them achieved success – which I define here as incremental growth in music knowledge, fan-base and DJ-technique in a 5 year period.
That puts the rate of success for DJs I’ve known at 1.2% –  pretty low. Either way, the “hurdles” to become a successful and “scale-able” DJ are high, and they get higher every day as challenges continue to increase.
One of the major obstacles to a DJ’s growth is mediocrity – failing to use your abilities to do and be more.
Most of us have found ourselves in that awkward-yet-comfortable position of settling. Mediocrity is self inflicted and so is excellence. If DJs have the ability to chose mediocrity or excellence (good or great), why do people choose the former more often than not? Here are some traits that defines mediocrity in most DJs – and how to avoid them!

STUCK ON REPEAT: Playing the same set from previous gigs

This happens all too often – a resident DJ who plays the same set over and over again every week. Unknown to them, people do notice and comment about the lack creativity and effort on their limited track selection. These DJs developed a habit of knowing what works and fail to innovate when they play to a new/more selective crowd.
Yes, the set they played last month really rocked the crowd and received numerous compliments. That doesn’t mean the same set will replicate to next week’s gig. This habit is a silent killer to your creativity and plunges you to the pits of mediocrity. It can be challenging for weekly residents to come up with new sets every week. You constantly have to be looking for new music and rare remixes.

Here are some tips to get out of this routine:

  • Follow your favorite producers and labels and ask to be in their music promo pool. Most producers are constantly looking for gigging DJs to play their unreleased tracks.
  • Go through your library and listen intimately to tracks you haven’t played in a while. You’d be surprised to find some gems you forgot about.
  • Take a break from the booth for a week or two and listen to different styles of music

Breaking away from old routine will make you a more versatile DJ and an experienced music programmer – something that being an expert at mixing doesn’t teach you. You want your audiences to come back expecting something new, even if it’s still the same genre or theme.

Read More: How To Stay Productive In DJ Sessions or In The Studio

2. IDENTITY JACKING: Portraying a fake persona

It’s a new possession or something… I really don’t get it, especially in the entertainment industry. 

 Identity-jacking isn’t limited to fictional characters (hey, i don’t have anything against Willy Paul! This is supposed to be a forum for DJs only I just couldn’t find any better example, He’s a cool guy & I’m a big time fan). Anyway, when your name is also your brand, this can potentially be very damaging. It doesn’t make sense to replicate the image of other high-profile DJs to your own. It makes you look unauthentic.

More DJs do this than you might expect – promoters and club managers are constantly making fun of DJs with over-glorified personas. Most importantly, it alienates you from your fans. It’s even worse when you show up and not do a great job in the booth. This quality really hinders your chances of landing gigs with promoters.
In 2015 I opened/curtain raised for a very popular DJ in Nairobi. His image was on posters and videos were bigger than life but he was not fake. I was initially intimidated to meet him. As my set came to an end, he walked into the booth with a great smile saying “You were amazing, I really enjoyed your set. If you are ever in town, please call me to hang”. He was authentic and real and also managed to make me a bigger fan.
Moral of the story: humility and being real  are tremendous weapons you can use to sell yourself. It does take time to genuinely find yourself as a performer, but if you stick with it and remain consistently humble and let your actions/music do the talking, you will discern yourself from the rest.

3. FLANGE-CITY: Using too many effects while playing

We love effects; they’re  a creative way to manipulate and add drama to our sets. Over use can be buzzkill, especially from a listener’s perspective. This happens when a DJ loses him/her to the music and plays for their own enjoyment of manipulating the audio as opposed to letting the tracks speak for themselves. You’ve seen that before!
Discipline is the name of the game here, watching Dubfire Live using an Allen & Heath DB4 mixer and two Traktor X1 controllers, he would play five minimal house tracks back-to-back, all dry without any effects. On the fifth track he would slowly add some delay to the track from the mixer. While transitioning to the sixth track, in a subtle way, he decreases the delay timing creating his own unique buildup. He then begins adding reverb to the delay effects taking the crowd to a huge elation followed by a drop. 

(He’s one among the few DJs i really look up to)
Keeping the energy constant for 40 minutes or so, followed by an artificial build up created a unique style for Dubfire. The disciplined use of effects really separates him from the rest.

Watch some videos by Dubfire here Dubfire 60 min Boiler Room Amsterdam DJ set

4. TRASH TALK: Talking down about other DJs

Talking behind anyone’s back is a terrible thing to do… period. Although a lot of DJs do it. Does this sound familiar – “Why is he playing up there? I can do a better job than that” or “Oh did you hear that? Amegonganisha!”.
As DJs, we say those things to feel good about ourselves and perhaps to critique the performance of others, but there lies danger in loudly saying them in the venue – or if we don’t know who we are talking to. One time a DJ friend of mine walked into a new club and met a beautiful young girl next to the DJ booth. He didn’t like the music, but the crowd was great. His opening line was “Hey, I like this place but the DJ really sucks”-Girl responded saying “Well that’s just too bad, because he’s my cousin”. Imagine the humiliation and embarrassment. He promised not to put down any DJ from then on.
Talking unpleasantly of other DJs could affect your chances of getting booked, especially if you don’t know who you are talking to. Imagine if that person knows the promoter or the manager of the club, it automatically puts you in a bad spot. I recommend saying pleasant things about DJs to people you don’t know, otherwise it’s best to remain quiet, instead internally noting your criticisms of the DJ and analyzing them later if necessary.

5. RAMPANT INEBRIATION: Excessive substance intake

When I first started DJing, I would get tanked up a bit to dampen down the adrenaline, and I’m sure that’s how many beginners feel. I think I was able to play OK, so it must have worked. As my DJ career progressed I could take it or leave it, but usually took it, as I liked having a couple of drinks while playing tunes – end of story! It can loosen up your playing – I have no doubt about that.
Having a rider that includes 10 drink tickets is a lovely perk. However, a drunk or high DJ can quickly become a sloppy DJ. It’s easy get caught up with the crowd and music, but there are small things that alcohol and drugs can do to affect your sets like: Your levels become loud, your track selection is clouded, reading the crowd is short-sighted and eventually your sets evolve to an aggressive and perplexed performance.
Drinking some might be okay to bring composure and calmness to your nerves, but most professional DJs choose not to drink during their sets. Perhaps they might have a beer or two before playing and stick with water throughout. I’ve experimented with myself numerous times by recording my live sets during gigs, and the majority of my exceptional mixes were the ones I consumed zero drinks!

Thanks for reading.


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